Benefits Agency (Tayside)

Part of Petition – in the House of Commons at 10:37 pm on 7th April 1998.

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Photo of Mr Keith Bradley Mr Keith Bradley Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of Social Security, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Social Security), Treasurer of HM Household (Deputy Chief Whip) 10:37 pm, 7th April 1998

I have answered the question, and I must make progress.

As I have said, customers will benefit from the new arrangement, and queries on any particular claim or application can be dealt with locally. There will be no need whatever for any customer to travel further than the office nearest to him. Alternatively, a telephone call to any office will be sufficient for the customer to be put through to the person dealing with his or her case, regardless of where that person is located.

Social fund application forms will continue to be available from each office. Customers can then choose whether to hand them back to the office nearest to them or send them directly to the office nominated for that particular type of application for immediate processing. All three offices will still deal with crisis loan applications and reviews. All reviews, of whatever type, will continue to be conducted by personal interview at each of the three main offices or, where necessary, by home visit.

Funeral and maternity payment claim forms are available from all offices and can be handed or sent back to any one office. Specialist adjudication and processing of those claims— which amount to a comparatively low number—will then be undertaken at Dundee and decisions notified accordingly. I can therefore reassure the hon. Member for Perth that there will be no diminution whatever of customer service as a result of the changes—in fact, quite the contrary.

The changes have not been introduced on a whim: they are consistent with a tried and tested approach to improving social fund service delivery across the country. Some 111 districts out of a total of 129 have organised their social fund operations in this, or a similar, way. However, I recognise from what I have been told about the handling of particular changes that more should have been done to consult relevant Members of Parliament—including the hon. Lady—and other interested parties. Notwithstanding the fact that none of the local welfare agencies has expressed concern about the changes, I regret that appropriate consultation was not carried out and that the hon. Lady did not have a proper opportunity to make her representations before the changes took place. I hope that she will be reassured to know that I have instructed Benefits Agency officials to undertake the fullest possible consultation before any similar organisational changes affecting service delivery take place in future.

I can also reassure the hon. Lady that, contrary to what she said, no members of staff have had to transfer from one office to another, although three people have moved offices at their own request. Staff levels in each of the importing offices were already sufficient to cope with the net changes in work load. Where the changes have resulted in fewer staff being required on social fund work, those reductions are being dealt with through redeployment to other duties or through natural wastage.

I reiterate the Government's commitment to high-quality standards of social security service delivery and confirm, once again, that the changes in Tayside have been designed with exactly that aim in mind. The changes will not, as the hon. Lady suggested, reduce standards of customer service. Instead, they will bring about real improvements in how the social fund is administered in Tayside district and in the quality of customer service that her constituents will receive.