'(1) Regulations shall provide for the circumstances in which any individual seeking advice with regard to the state pension credit may receive that advice.
(2) Such regulations shall provide that such advice shall be—
(a) available on a face-to-face basis;
(b) provided by a suitably qualified person;
(c) available either at home in specified circumstances or else within a reasonable travelling distance of home;
(d) provided within a reasonable period of time.'.—[Mr. Webb.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
We tabled the new clause to give the Committee an opportunity to probe the Government about their intentions with regard to the Pension Service. Our central tenet is that the pension credit is a complicated benefit, so pensioners will need a lot of easily accessible and good advice. The new clause sets out some of the criteria by which we might judge whether the service provided to pensioners is good enough.
We suggest that there should be regulations, setting out the quality and type of service that people who want to know about pension credit can expect to receive. Subsection (2) lists some of the features of what we would consider to be decent standards of advice. Paragraph (a) suggests that advice should be available ''face-to-face''. It is not meant to undermine the Minister's assertion that pensioners want the option of contacting the Department by telephone or that many would find it more convenient. We do not have a problem with that. We want to ensure choice. The telephone is great, if that is what pensioners want to use, as is the internet. However, we believe that there should be a statement of their entitlement to ask for advice face to face. It has been suggested that face-to-face advice will be available, but it would help if we had a little more clarity about that.
We have listed further qualifications under paragraphs (b), (c) and (d). Paragraph (b) provides that the advice should be given by a ''suitably qualified person''. At the moment, pensioners who are unsure about pension entitlements and income support can go to the Benefits Agency office because, somewhere in the building, there will be someone who understands pensions. The division between Jobcentre Plus, which is for people of working age, and the Pension Service, which is for people of pensionable age, will result in the number of people in the Benefits Agency who
know about pensions diminishing to nil. For the first year or two, pensioners will be told, ''Fred in the back office, who used to work in pensions, will know something about it. Go and see him.'' My worry is that in five years' time, once that segmentation has taken place, and because those who want an immediate face-to-face interview will have to go to a Benefits Agency or Jobcentre Plus office, such expert advice will no longer be available.
Paragraph (c) is about home visits. We have been given assurances by the Minister that people will be able to have a home visit if appropriate. On the face of it, that is excellent news. Some of the people involved are very frail and elderly, and may be disabled, and a home visit would be the best and only way to help them. However, it is not clear—again, it would help if the Minister could place it on the record—how absolute is the right to a home visit. We cannot have 5 million of 10 million home visits; it would not be practical. Will all those who say, ''I'd like you to come to me,'' get a home visit? Will they have to satisfy a disability test or a test of competence? Will discretion be allowed?
One can imagine a constituent telephoning the constituency office and saying, ''I want someone from the Department for Work and Pensions to come and see me about pension credit.'' However, the answer may be, ''I am sorry, but we don't have enough people to make all those house calls. You will have to come to us because you are obviously fit enough and well enough to do so.'' What will be the nature of the entitlement? Will people be entitled to a home visit, or will it be done at the service's discretion? How pushy can pensioners be if they are told that the office is fully booked for the next few weeks and that they need to visit the office?
Paragraph (c) mentions also a ''reasonable travelling distance''. The danger is that although the Department might say that pensioners could be given advice face to face, it might be available only at major regional centres. For those living in rural areas, a requirement to go to a city centre might not be good enough. The Minister has said that face-to-face advice will be available, but how far will people have to travel to get it?
We have not yet reached paragraph (d), which provides for a ''reasonable period of time''. I get the impression that the travelling surgeries that the Department is talking about—the Age Concern session at the local library or sessions at the citizens advice bureau or the council office—may be held less often than weekly. I hope to clarify those matters. If we were dealing with the successor to income support, the poverty line safety-net benefit where people are not intended to go even a week without the bare minimum income, a delay of more than a week would be unreasonable.
I do not want the new clause to be too prescriptive. I want to probe and to see what is offered. However, I wish to raise two other issues about the Pension Service. Listening with care to both Ministers, one starts to capture their vision. It sounds really good, and I am sure that all members of the Committee welcome the idea of a proactive service. We have tabled amendments to other Bills saying that the onus should be on the Department to seek people out and to ensure that they get all that they are entitled to, and they have always been rejected. In the past, the argument has been that the onus is on the individual; it is not the Government's job to get benefits to people, but the people's job to claim benefits. I hope that I shall not be misunderstood if I welcome the reversal of that ethos to the extent that the Pension Service has reversed it.
However, my worry is how we are to get from the present culture of not always being proactive or clear to the promised land that the Minister has described. I reflected on that last night when I came across a letter that I had received from the Pension Service. It was on plain paper—I assume that the new letterhead has not been printed yet—and included this fragment of a sentence, from a decision maker at Bristol East Pension Service:
''We should not chase up capital details if the capital is under £5,500''.
Fair enough, but it continues:
''user case controls should be set to box on annual reviews that do not need to be carried out until the system has been upgraded.''
User case controls should be set to box? I have read that half a dozen times and I do not have a clue what the letter means. I will not name the individual who wrote it; that would be unfair. My point is that there is an existing culture, a bureaucracy—
May I clarify? That is not a letter to a member of the public. I assume that it is an internal staff note between people who are developing the IT technology for the training and retraining of staff, relating to the work of implementation. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the letter was sent to him, as a Member of Parliament?
Does the hon. Gentleman not feel that the plain English interpretation of that message is that because of the deficiency of the existing IT system, it will be impossible to operate the system properly until after the new IT is introduced—that is to say that some assessments, although they might favour the pensioner, will be inappropriate within the terms of the legislation that we are in the process of introducing?
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting question. I do not know, because I do not understand the sentence. It is a huge organisation and the odd letter that is gibberish slips through. I do not want to make a cheap point; I am trying to say that, if it is to match the tremendous goals that we have heard from both Ministers, the whole culture of the organisation must change fundamentally.
My question—which is reflected in the new clause—is: how confident can Ministers be that that sort of
transformation will take place? Will every decision maker, like the person who wrote that letter, be trained in what the hon. Gentleman has mentioned—plain English? I assume that some of them already have been, yet we still receive letters like that. What is the training programme? The new clause mentions suitably qualified people. That means not only people who understand the nitty-gritty of pensions but people who can communicate such things in plain English to pensioners and to their representatives, be they councillors, MPs, advisers or welfare rights workers. The person who wrote that letter might have assumed that I had some understanding of such matters—
—rather more than I do, and such letters do not encourage me; so there is the question of culture.
There is also the matter of targets. We have not, so far, had any sense of entitlements. It would be great if people could be seen face to face—but when? What percentage of people need to be seen by when? The hon. Gentleman asked what I meant by a reasonable length of time. What does the Department think? If the Bill says that people can have face-to-face meetings, not necessarily in their homes, what does the Department mean by a reasonable length of time? Does the Department yet have precise performance targets for the Pension Service in terms of such matters? Perhaps I have missed them. I should like some indication of the performance targets and people's entitlements.
Age Concern has read the new clause and asked the Minister to respond to a couple of specific questions. Our proposal refers to home visits, and Age Concern asks the Minister to confirm how many staff will be available for such visits and whether there will be a target of a certain number of days in which to grant them. Again, the theory is all very well, but how much of an entitlement do people have and how will they be able to exercise it?
Age Concern raises another issue. When pensioners receive advice and benefits, there can be knock-on effects. Will the Pension Service take a—for want of a better word—holistic approach and consider not only the narrow individual benefit, but its knock-on effects? Age Concern gives the practical example of local authority social services charges. The Pension Service may tell pensioners to claim pension credit because they will be £3 a week better off, but the council may say that those who get pension credit above the level of the minimum income guarantee must pay £3 a week social service charges. Local decision makers will need to be aware of such issues, and although it is not within the compass of the Department for Work and Pensions, pensioners will want to be told of them, too. Those who get meals on wheels and home care for free will ask the Pension Service, ''Will I need to pay for my care if I claim your benefit?'' I hope that the Minister can assure us that the service will look at the big picture, consider the whole person and know about such issues.
The key issue is rights. Are we talking about entitlements to home visits? Will someone have to wait a long time if the service is overloaded or will they have a right to be seen in a certain time? Have targets been set, and will we know if the service fails to meet them? More specifically, when the system is up and running, will people have an entitlement to meet face to face and in a reasonable length of time someone who knows understands them, who is not miles away and who is suitably qualified?
We have occasionally tried to obtain some of that information through written parliamentary questions. I asked eight different questions about the Pension Service, and the reply was substantially shorter than the combined length of the questions. If we were being charitable, we might say that the answers were concise; we might also say that they were opaque. Ministers' comments about pension schemes have been made in the right spirit and are encouraging. We have been invited to visit those involved to hear how things are going, which contrasts with what has sometimes happened when we have tried to probe the issue through written questions. Will the Minister therefore give an assurance that if we probe the performance of the service and the roll-out of the pension credit over the coming months, the spirit of the Committee's debates on those issues and the spirit of openness that we have been promised will be reflected—
I am about to finish. Will that spirit be reflected in the style of the answers that we receive? I hope that we shall get the openness that we have been promised, rather than the defensive tenor that we have heard so far.
The hon. Gentleman has set entirely the right tone in presenting the issue. Often in Committee, I feel like the person who confessed to his friend that he was confused, and who was advised to go to a conference to inform himself. He returned to debrief his friend, saying that he was still confused, but at a somewhat higher level. The hon. Gentleman raised the issue in a perfectly reasonable way, but—I say this half in jest—if a professor finds this subject difficult and a Minister of State has problems with some of the detailed definitions, pensioners will have great difficulties. Before the Minister says anything—
If I may, I shall finish the point. If the Minister then needs to respond, that is fine. I anticipate that the Minister will say that pensioners do not have to sit an exam to get the pension credit, and thank goodness for that. However, they will require intermediaries from the Pension Service, who will need to function to the highest possible degree. In moving the new clause, the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) has pretty precisely set the parameters as regards what will be required and what we would reasonably expect.
To be slightly critical of the Minister, I question some of his comments about questions that have arisen on the matter. We who are outside Government are in a position to spot difficulties, which is easy to
do, although solving them is more difficult. We have some concerns, however.
We have received replies from the Government that say that the Pension Service will be a high-quality customer-focused modern service—I do not think that I am caricaturing them when I say that. I hope that it will be, the hon. Member for Northavon hopes that it will be and pensioners and pensioner organisations hope that it will be. We shall do our best not to rubbish the service or those who deliver it.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) rose—
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) rose—
The hon. Member for Northavon referred to the letter that he received on the Pension Service. Has my hon. Friend's mailbag, like mine, begun to fill up with letters from pensioners who are concerned about the frequency and availability of the face-to-face service?
Well, I have received four letters from pensioners so far. That is not a huge amount, I know, but it is early days. I have received letters from pensioner groups that represent pensioners in my constituency. I hope that no members of the Committee would suggest that four letters on a subject are to be treated lightly. Has my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry had the same experience?
The short answer is yes, I have had the same experience, and in roughly the same numbers. We are not talking about a large number of letters—
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is answering the debate, but I want the Committee to get the tone right. Will the hon. Gentleman stop using a printer's error to make a political point? He is using the fact that Hansard printed something wrong to make out that the system is a shambles and that pensioners will not understand it.
I am happy to accept that assurance. With no disrespect to the Secretary of State or to Hansard, the matter is so complex that it is easy for such errors to creep in. I pass over that, however.
I shall refer to the substantive point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire before I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). My concern is not only that we may receive letters from concerned pensioners who, prompted by a piece in the newspaper, are worried about whether they will be able to talk to someone, but that pensioner organisations may start off on the wrong foot with the assumption that the service will not be properly delivered. If it is to be properly delivered, as we all hope, we need to lay those concerns
to rest before they create a culture in which people expect the service not to work.
I give a loose example, but it is germane to the matter. We have all had huge experience of the Child Support Agency, which is a very different organisation that deals with different client groups.
The right hon. Gentleman tries to distance himself from it, but it was created with the assent of all parties. We have ended up with a situation in which it is still difficult to obtain a satisfactory service from that agency. That situation may be compounded by the actions of some of the service users, but that is not the point. People do not feel happy or comfortable with it.
I do not want to speak for too long on that subject, however. What I really want to do—and I hope that Labour Back Benchers will approve of my reference—is quote the Prime Minister's remark that what counts is what works. That is a good and congenial principle. I am not getting at the Minister or the Under-Secretary in saying this, but over the years Ministers of all parties have given too much attention to the big scheme and the press release and not enough to the details of delivery. One can go to the opposite extreme and have micromanagement, constant fiddling with the system and telling managers how to do their jobs. However, it is important for Ministers during the run-in process to keep in touch with what is happening and take a lively interest in the delivery.
We may debate endlessly about who was responsible for what, but if we want to find an example from the Department we need not refer to the Child Support Agency. We could consider the example of NIRS2, which did not work as well as Ministers of either party hoped or intended that it would. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary is seeking to barrack, but I am trying to be as bipartisan as I can on this matter.
Delivering to pensioners and honouring undertakings or understandings is what is important. Only this week, we heard the disturbing news that service pensions will no longer be available by order or warrant but will have to be paid through bank accounts. That decision was not taken by the Minister's Department, but it will mean that some service veterans may feel that they have been badly treated. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury may want to comment on that matter.
I understand that, Mr. Griffiths, but it is particularly bad timing for the Government to announce that decision, given that we have just heard about a long-running tax problem associated with pensioners.
You were genteelly implying, Mr. Griffiths, that that matter was on the periphery of our concerns, but the example is relevant.
Let me praise the Department, not only to defuse any implied criticism but because it deserves praise for the little leaflet that it published, entitled ''Changes to our service from April 2002.'' That leaflet is clear, in that any member of Committee might understand it and most pensioners would, if they chose to read it. It explains that the Department is being split and that those of working age will deal with Jobcentre Plus and that the Pension Agency will be in contact with those nearing state pension age. It continues:
''The Pension Service is setting up local services to support a network of 26 pension centres which will handle your enquiries.''
It advises pensioners not to panic if they do not hear from the service for a considerable time, because the process will take some while and the service will be able to get in touch with them. The leaflet also says that if people want help from the social fund they will have to go through Jobcentre Plus anyway, even if they are pensioners. That is an implicit contradiction, and an example of what happens when services are divided. Are the different functions actually joined up?
The matters to which I refer attracted considerable attention from the Select Committee, whose report most members of this Committee will have studied. Those who participated in writing the report may want to comment on it. The report makes seven recommendations. It emphasises the need to ensure proper delivery and appropriate levels of training and support for the Pension Service and to test the cost and practicability of providing a freefone number for clients. It also refers to the need for a significant number of local staff able to deal with pensioners on a face-to-face basis. It makes a particular point about pensioners from ethnic minorities, which is interesting when one bears in mind the revelation that there will be no call centre in the south-east because of cost. The call centre will be located in Blackpool, which certainly is remote. Finally, the report emphasises the need for an adequate level of expertise and expresses concerns about initial take-up.
That is a legitimate block of concerns from the Select Committee, which has after all a Government majority.
In relation to proposed subsection (2)(b), does my hon. Friend agree that ''suitably qualified'' should include the ability to speak the pensioner's first language? Will the Minister enlighten us on the number of Urdu and Bengali speakers that will have to be employed in Blackpool to deal with pensioners from ethnic minority backgrounds in the south-east?
That is a perfectly fair consideration.
There is a wider issue here, and my interests in disability drive me to comment on it. We shall be dealing with those who are frail or vulnerable, do not understand the rules or are diffident about making a claim because they are concerned about means-testing. They may not want to admit to their relative poverty or need for benefit, so it is extremely important that the right kind of training is given to employees, and that they are aware of the sensitivity of the matter. They need to show sensitivity, not just in the cold sense of being able to respond to a query without upsetting
the client; they must show active sensitivity, in the sense of being able to flag up a particular case if they have concerns about the safety of an individual who seems to be suicidal or disturbed—especially if he or she has been given advice that they did not want to hear—or if they have concerns about the urgency of a case, where a domiciliary visit is necessary and someone needs to get on and handle the case.
Most of us would probably be able to resolve the problem if, for example, our pension payment was delayed by a week or two, because people may show us understanding, and we may have bank accounts or reserves of capital, but that is not the case for everyone. We must ensure that those who deliver the service at the coal face can respond to those concerns. I am sure that the Minister would wish that to be the case and I do not want to lecture him further. I just wanted to reinforce the sensitivities that the Select Committee set out in its report.
I want to flag up two specific points. The first—it is not a cheap trick, although it requires the continuing attention of Ministers and senior managers in the Department—is that there are always demarcation lines. It is an old military maxim that one attacks where the two commands of the enemy join. Social fund claimants, who are, by definition, those with extreme and immediate problems, must go through Jobcentre Plus, even if they are pensioners. I emphasise that point to the Minister because he mentioned earlier that many pensioners do not like going through a conventional employment office—[Interruption.] They would find Jobcentre Plus better. I am not seeking to dispute that, but some people would find even that unpleasant because it smacks of going down the social.
My second point relates to the interface with the disability and carers service. I received a helpful response from the Minister on that subject the other day, although it was not entirely convincing, because we shall not know how well the services interrelate until we see the legislation working in practice. However, it is intended that the recipient authority should pass on concerns to other parts of the service, and that will be an important part of the training process. Even if the individual does not know the answer to a problem, he or she will need to know someone who does if they are to pass the case on, and ensure that it is managed properly and does not die off. We all understand why work has to be done in silos and people must be trained in a specific benefit, but they also need to have knowledge on the periphery, as Members of Parliament often have to demonstrate in dealing with casework, to enable them to deal with other difficulties that need to be sorted out.
I want to mention two or three other issues, starting with call centres and telephones. In my constituency experience, when people explain about the benefit that they do not receive or the service that they have received—I do not want to overstate the numbers because they are not huge, but they are a cause for concern in some cases—they often say, ''I rang up and someone told me this, so I did this, and then I was told
that I had over-claimed or shouldn't have received the benefit and there was an overpayment,'' or they say, ''I found out later that I could have claimed, but I haven't got the benefit.''
One of the difficulties with a call centre system is that all the documentary evidence disappears. For years we laughed about people pushing pens, in the Whitehall tradition, and I have some sympathy with that. I have been a Minister, and I know that a private secretary may write lovely notes saying that the Minister has agreed to something when the Minister only put a vague tick on the page, but at least we knew where we were. I remember one interesting exchange with a senior official, when I said, ''I don't think I agreed to that.'' He said, ''Well, here it is, Minister.'' I said, ''Fine—gotcha! I accept it.''
That is what he said—we had a good relationship. The point is that if something is in writing it is incontestable, unless there has been some duress. A telephone conversation is much less definite. We anticipate that officials would give the correct advice in most cases. Sometimes—our constituency work echoes this—we may not understand what the client is trying to communicate to us. It does get confusing. There is also the error—
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. However, the technology exists in modern call centres to record conversations. Perhaps that would be a route forward. I had a disastrous experience involving a call to Barclays bank in which I was given very bad advice that had catastrophic consequences in terms of my credit rating. However, the matter was resolved because a recording of the call existed and the bank was able to go back to it. I would like the Minister to tell the Committee whether the technology exists to enable recordings to be kept for a certain period so that calls could be monitored and mistakes such as those that the hon. Gentleman is rightly flagging up could be avoided.
I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point. My next note dealt with the issue of recording. However, there is a converse and we should be honest about it. Some pensioners will not want to feel that Big Brother is snooping on them. They will not want their personal details to be recorded. We need to think about that sensitivity. I am attracted to the option of recording for what the financial institutions describe in their advertisements as ''training purposes''. There should be an opportunity for some calls to be recorded and for some officers to be trained using recorded calls.
I have one other concern. There is the danger of confused messages from a pensioner claimant. There is also the danger that when data are being transcribed a cup of coffee could get spilt or there could be some other interruption, such as a power failure, leading to the message's not getting through. I happen to use the same bank as the hon. Gentleman. I have had experiences in which a message has only partly got
through and I have had to start again, although the consequences have not been disastrous or difficult.
All that is of concern. It is a question of customer service and, as the hon. Gentleman was properly implying, trying to replicate the best of modern private sector standards in the public sector. If that replication is not achieved and there is increasing concern about call centres, we need some safeguards to ensure that things are done properly. That applies particularly to situations in which people are taking details and using them to complete a form. There are ethnic minority issues as well—people's English may be imperfect. It may be—the Minister of State may want to respond to this—that pensioners will be able to get an early response from the Pension Service that sets up the schema of their benefit so that if the data do not correspond to what was said, they will be able to point that out. The area is one of continuing concern and it is right to debate it.
The other area about which I am much concerned is that of distance. I must be careful not to make too much of my own case. I live at the very edge of my constituency and have done so for more than 30 years. My constituency is divided into four regional postcodes—it used to have five—and my postcode belongs to a different region. That means that I am fairly used to the problems caused by people sending things to me with the wrong postcode. I shall give an example, which is not intended to imply criticism of the officials involved. I recently dealt with a case involving the disability and carers service and an adjacent village that has an Oxfordshire postcode, despite being in Northamptonshire. I was sent a letter from Wembley. We responded by saying, ''I am very sorry, the place has an Oxfordshire postcode, but it is in Northamptonshire,'' but it turned out that the files had miscarried between Wembley and Birmingham. I do not make a cheap point; it is an example of the sort of situation that could arise. However, the point was not specifically about administrative boundaries but about distance.
Leaving aside the special problems in the south-east, given that the Pension Service is located in Leicester, I understand that my own case will be dealt with in Leicester, as will those of many of my constituents. When I first moved to the area, we tended to use a local social security office in Banbury—I am sure that there was a knock-for-knock arrangement. That office is in a different county, and about seven miles from my home. Things were tidied up later, and everything was transferred to Northampton, my county town, which is 30 miles from my home. Leicester, good as it may be for the Pension Service—I have had a favourable contact with the new director—is 50 miles from my home.
It is nearly even stevens for time as to whether I go to Westminster or to Leicester. It will probably not matter to me, as I am used to using the telephone, and I can even make modest use of the internet. However, for anyone who does not have those advantages, it is a long way to have to hack up to Leicester. The Minister of State has given us lots of assurances about the flexibility that he wants to see, and has spoken of using
drop-in centres and other ways of dealing with the problem. That should suffice, but there is a sort of iron logic in distance. It is therefore all the more incumbent on the Department to offer a local service.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Members of Parliament have a responsibility? If we are proactive in seeking to encourage people to apply for pensioner tax credit, and if we have information that we can circulate, we should not depend on the service's being provided automatically. It would be better for us to contact our pensioners. I have listened to the debate over the past few days, and recognise that it is everyone's intention that we get this right. However, I am still concerned. Labour Back Benchers have referred to the means-testing element—the complexity element—but if we keep talking about it I fear that we might be putting people off and preventing them from applying for it. If we work together to try to achieve what is necessary, we can make some real progress.
The hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) made a good point. We may have doubts about the arrangement, but it is conceivable that the Bill will become law. It is therefore incumbent on us not to sit back and hope that it fails but to ensure that it succeeds. If we can, we should play an active and proactive role with local organisations such as Age Concern, and encourage them to make use of the opportunities to reach out to people. I am entirely with the hon. Gentleman on that, and I think that we should signal the fact here and now. That, I believe, is entirely the spirit of the new clause moved by the hon. Member for Northavon.
On distance, close attention needs to be paid to local delivery points; and interaction between the call service and local deliveries is necessary so that people can be transferred relatively quickly if needed.
The only other point that I wish to make is about the Pension Service's annual revisiting of entitlement. That is important if people might be entitled to more if their income has declined. In turn, that will require the use of some smart systems to enable people to notice that they have suffered a downrating of income. We are talking about national savings and investments, not a complex foreign security operation. Such changes in income may affect the overall calculation. We shall return later to the question of capital income.
There is a huge amount to do in the Pension Service. I agree with the hon. Member for Northavon and, in fairness, with the general tone of the debate. It will need a lot of attention along the lines that he has set out. If it has that attention, I am sure that it will get off on the right foot, and we can refine it later. There should be no doubt about the magnitude of the undertaking and the potential downside if it does not work because it is under-resourced or hurried or
suffers from inadequate training later. I am sure that it can be got right; it certainly needs to be.
This is a fascinating debate, especially for its talk of out-of-town call centres. The more Government Departments move away from London, the better. Should there be, because of demand, a requirement for more land, I can assure the Minister and civil servants that the best voice for call centres has been defined as the north Nottinghamshire or South Yorkshire—
May I say as a crowning point on that particular issue that I am delighted to inform colleagues that the Labour party's national executive elections telephone voting contact has been awarded in the past week to a large call centre in my constituency. That is a major step forward. It is a non-partisan facility; business is business.
The point is relevant. I have become an expert in trying to win business for call centres in my constituency. This is about data imaging, and I declare an interest in translation, as I established a large translation company some 10 years ago. Data imaging is a key factor in the potential development of equal opportunities for Government services, and one that could be cost effective, and the company that I mentioned in my constituency is at the leading edge of it. It is a technology well beyond most of its competitors in this country and in western Europe, and well above the current capacity of any Government Department. I urge the Government to consider the matter in detail during the next year or two. The ability to use data imaging to complete and process forms in as wide a range of languages as is required will be a significant step forward in terms of the accessibility of Government services.
I would add a caveat to the comments of the hon. Member for Daventry and others about translation. In a sense it reflects that business opportunity. It would be absurd with the range of languages now spoken in this country—I believe that there are 860—to try to pretend that call centres or face-to-face interviews can be made effective by the provision of a translator. Essentially, we must apply the principle operated by Departments such as the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions—assistance is sought in an emergency, rather than there being de facto aid provision. Such a service does not exist and would be expensive to provide. I urge caution in relation to any suggestion that accessibility is attainable in that way. It is something of a myth.
I should like to raise two more points. I never cease to be amazed by the number of grey surfers in the mining villages of my constituency.
We call them grey surfers; we have our own language in the coalfields. They are pensioners who regularly use e-mail and other electronic communication. We have not properly explored linking Government services with further education providers who train pensioners to use electronic services and who could therefore promote accessibility in terms of form-filling, and so on. The development of electronic communication offers a tremendous possibility, and we should make use of the good work being done by further education providers—some schools, although not enough, are slowly beginning to do the same—in acting as community facilities. That work has particularly attracted the older age range.
The hon. Gentleman is making characteristically constructive comments, and I agree, in particular, with his point on further education. Does he not think, however—the hon. Member for Northavon touched on this—that there should be no element of compulsion? We want no suggestion that pensioner claimants must go to further education colleges to learn how to fill in the forms. Some people of my age have not had the privilege of learning IT as a native language, but have had to acquire it later on. Quite a lot of people are still put off by it, however seductive the hon. Gentleman's presentation.
We are flexible people in the coalfields, and there is a high density of IT usage among pensioners. However, there clearly should be no compulsion.
To ensure cheapness and effectiveness, those involved could connect the FE training curriculum directly to the provision of Government services, rather than using abstract examples to teach people. That tremendous possibility has not yet been exploited, and now would be a good time to do so, before home-shopping supermarket providers such as Tesco corner the market in providing free training advice to FE and other training providers. I hope that the issue will be examined in the not-too-distant future, because we are witnessing exponential growth in that area.
My final point relates to home visits, and I shall be interested in the Minister's response. Sections of the population in many parts of the country include ex-miners with chest infections and respiratory diseases, and asbestos victims—not least those with mesothelioma. Therefore, health and medical experts already have clear criteria for assessing illnesses on home visits, and I hope that such criteria will be transferred cross-departmentally to the Minister's Department, should the opportunity of home visits arise.
I am sure that the Committee will be pleased to hear that I do not want to rehash everything that has been said. The hon. Members for Northavon and for Daventry expressed concerns about face-to-face meetings, which are shared by pensioners in my constituency to whom I have spoken and by me. I do not want to play the numbers game, because this is not an issue of how many letters hon. Members receive. One job of Members of Parliament is proactively to explore
possible concerns on behalf of constituents, as the hon. Member for Hamilton, South rightly said. The issue has been properly raised, and I look forward to the Minister's reply.
Does the hon. Lady agree that it is also the task of Members of Parliament to allay fears and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South said, not to go around stoking up misconceptions? Does she agree that Members should be proactive in communicating the benefits of this new system to their constituents?
I agree that it is not the job of a Member of Parliament to go around stoking up fear and alarm in their constituency or anywhere else, but it is an MP's job to scrutinise draft legislation and to find out whether it will work. Various concerns about the Bill have already been expressed in Committee. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that MPs should not be allowed to make any comment at all. We should consider the Bill and judge in what ways it can be improved. That is what Opposition Members are trying to do.
To return to the new clause, I share the concerns that have been raised about the face-to-face meetings. I also share those about distance, as I represent an urban-rural constituency. That is a key issue for my constituents.
It is all very well to say that the call centre system will be substituted for face-to-face meetings. I note with interest paragraph 50 on page 22 of the Select Committee's report. It states:
''The DWP, in its memorandum, told us that: 'Many pensioners have said that they prefer using the telephone.'''.
I do not know what the percentage is, or how big the sample was—
That is how they choose to do it. We do not prescribe whether they should go into an office to fill in a form or pick up the phone. They choose to pick up the phone.
With respect to the Minister, the fact that they do so is not indicative of their motivation in doing so or of a preference. It may be that for whatever reason they could not get in to the local office. Travelling can be very difficult for those in rural communities and there may be many reasons why pensioners use the telephone rather than going into an office.
Does the hon. Lady accept that the preferences of newly-retired pensioners may be very different from those of pensioners in their 80s or 90s? Familiarity with the practice of doing financial business over the phone may vary a great deal among the very large pensioner population.
Yes, that is exactly the point. It is also true of technology. Many new pensioners will be much more au fait with computers than those in older age brackets. Those older pensioners may have completed computer courses at further education colleges, but that, I think we would all accept, is unlikely. There should be no element of compulsion forcing pensioners to deal with the service via a particular communication channel.
We need to be satisfied that the arrangements for the call centres will be adequate. We have all experienced problems with call centres—that is not an attack on the staff of call centres, who do an extremely good job, frequently in very difficult conditions. Whether a call centre is successful depends on how it is set up, resourced and managed. We do not have very much detail of the plans for the service's new call centres. It seems that there are to be 26 of them. Does the Minister know how many staff will be allocated to each one? Is it envisaged that each member of staff will be trained to the same level, or will there be more junior front-line staff in a pyramid structure, with a few managers at the top? That is an important point because it can be frustrating and may increase the length of calls if the first point of contact in a call centre is someone who is not trained to a particular level.
Has any estimation been made of the necessary resources based on the estimated average length of the call to a freefone number? When pensioners ask a series of questions so that the relevant form can be set out, how long is the call likely to take? Calls could be lengthy, so there is a strong argument for a freefone number.
Lastly, on another point that frustrates those who use call centres, if the person who makes the call does not have all the information to hand and has to phone back, will he or she have to start at the beginning again or will it be possible to slot in somewhere in the middle? The Minister is looking exasperated. Perhaps the Minister does not have to use call centres in his position.
It is hard to disagree with the sentiments behind the new clause, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Northavon for enabling us to discuss the Pension Service in more detail than we would otherwise. However, I am willing to accept the reassurances of the Secretary of State on Second Reading and, presumably, the Under-Secretary in this Committee, that the issues are being considered seriously and dealt with in the construction of the Pension Service. We are not dealing with that matter in our considerations, but the new clause gives us an opportunity to raise questions about it.
The Minister will know that the question of take-up is vital and central for all hon. Members. There is no
point making an extra £2 billion available in devising a system that rewards those with modest savings and small pensions if people do not receive the money to which they are entitled. He will share with me the desire to ensure that people get their hands on that money, and in that respect the operation of the Pension Service is crucial.
The hon. Member for Northavon rightly spoke of the need for a change of culture in the service. I am encouraged by precedents that show a change of culture in the Department over the past few years, much of the credit for which must go to the Secretary of State, who has been responsible for steering that change. One of the Jobcentre Plus pilot schemes ran in my constituency at a cost of £2 million, which was the largest single investment in helping the long-term unemployed back into work made by any Government. I am grateful for that investment, which is already beginning to show results.
Even allowing for the industrial action that severely hampered the operation of that scheme and which is now over, we can see in the operation of Jobcentre Plus encouraging signs that the change of culture for which we argued eight or nine months ago, when it was evolving from trials, has actually taken. The questions that constituency Members were asking eight or nine months ago are similar to those that the hon. Member for Northavon asked, such as ''When the initial calculation is made, will all benefits be taken into consideration?'' We can see that that has happened in the Jobcentre Plus scheme. When someone is shown a job opportunity, an immediate calculation can be made on how the working families tax credit and all other benefits will be affected—with the unfortunate exception of housing benefit, which is still clogging up the system. Reform of housing benefit lies well beyond the scope of the new clause, but I mention it again because we simply must grapple with it, as its complexity is mind-boggling.
The staff in the old Benefits Agency and the Employment Service have shown a willingness to embrace the change of culture and are making it work. Those who were out on strike, with whom I had many meetings, were striking because they were concerned about the change of culture and the greater degree of proactivity. They had specific concerns about safety. The change of culture is permeating the whole Department, and beyond. The Inland Revenue, which will clearly have a part to play in the calculations, are embracing a proactive culture in their Department.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the questions and ask whether the change of culture that is necessary for delivering the service will take place, but recent precedents are encouraging. I have been speaking for a while, so I shall curtail my remarks.
We have had a long and interesting debate about the new clause. I shall deal with the specific points raised before commenting on the new clause.
First, I wish my right hon. Friend a very happy birthday. He must be having a great time.
We might have another Bill next year, apparently. Same time, same place—who knows?
Our intention in respect of the Pension Service is to have a better service that is more tailored to the needs of pensioners instead of being mixed up with a service more aimed at working-age people. That is the reason for the separation between Jobcentre Plus and the Pension Service. It is not being done simply for the sake of change and to give civil servants something to do, but because when it is completed we shall be able to provide a better, more tailored service for our pensioners and enable those who deal with working-age clients to respond better to their needs. I hope that hon. Members accept that we are not simply dabbling for the sake of it, but undertaking a major change in culture and organisation within the Department with the aim of improving the service.
The Pension Service, formally launched on 1 April, will be responsible for ensuring that pensioners receive their pension credit entitlement, their other retirement pension provision and anything that they need in respect of that entitlement. It will provide a more modern, efficient, customer-focused service that is dedicated to combating poverty, encouraging saving for tomorrow's pensioners and trying to ensure that current pensioners receive their entitlement.
Many have questioned whether the telephone is an appropriate way for customers to contact us, but many pensioners already use that medium. It is more convenient, because most pensioners have telephones. As I said to the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing), approximately 64 per cent. of retirement pension claims are made over the telephone. It is easier, more convenient and does the job.
Will the Under-Secretary tell us what the dispute or complaint rate is? In other words, how many calls generate further correspondence because of alleged errors made by officials?
I shall try to reply at some point to the hon. Gentleman's question. I do not know the figure off the top of my head, but I shall do my best to answer him in time.
We are centralising those telephone services in a sensible way in the 26 pension centres. They will be our customers' daily contact point, probably for longer than normal office hours. We are changing the way in which we work.
In addition to the 26 pension centres, the Pension Service will operate an improved local service nationwide. Committee members' remarks have followed two trends. The hon. Member for Northavon was concerned that tight standards, set centrally, should be imposed locally in order to ensure that a level of service of which we would approve is definitely available. However, the hon. Member for Daventry and others suggested that needs would vary enormously from one area to another due to distance and other factors, such as whether they are urban or rural. Some of us, as the hon. Member for Perth said, have a mixture of urban and rural areas in our constituencies. It is not sensible to prescribe down to
the last dot and comma exactly how things should be done—as the hon. Member for Daventry will agree, given his comments about micromanagement.
We are developing partnerships with many organisations, including local government agencies and the voluntary sector dealing with elderly people, to provide an extra level of service locally, in addition to the national call centre-based services. The local service will allow us to meet customers face to face in places where they feel most comfortable, such as libraries or local community centres, which will vary from place to place. It will also offer a home visiting service and regular surgeries where pensioners know that can contact the Pension Service.
In this respect it is useful that the Under-Secretary is a lawyer. Will she reflect on the need to tie up very carefully, in cases where an agent is involved, the nature of the advice and the responsibility for that advice? We do not want to add a further level of potential recrimination if people are given advice through a third party, which is later repudiated by the Department. It is important that service level agreements are tied up closely. In principle, it must be clear that it is the Department's advice that is being given.
Yes. The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next remarks. It is important that we do not simply give people a blue badge and let them loose to say whatever they like. Fully trained Pension Service staff will provide the information, and their focus will be entirely on the needs of pensioners. We should be able to ensure that we have a responsible, dedicated service, suitable for each local area, in addition to the call centre and the telephone-based service that will be offered.
Before I deal with the new clause, I shall answer some of the points made during the debate. The hon. Member for Northavon asked how we shall get from where we are now to where we should like to be. That is a question that Liberal Democrats do not always have to answer. We shall do it over a period of time. The call centres are being established and we shall develop the local service over the next year or 18 months. Until that happens, pensioners will not notice a change. They will still be able to go into their local social security office in order to receive the advice and help that they need.
This is something that I have tried unsuccessfully to pin down through written questions. There will be a period until the local service is established and then there will be one once it is established. I have asked whether people will have face-to-face contact as soon as they need it. The answer has been that they will still be able to go into a benefits office because the local service is still being introduced. I understand that that will be the case until it comes in. What I am trying to clarify is, once the whole shooting match is up and running, will I, as a pensioner, be able to say, ''I want to come in tomorrow and get some advice about income support, which I desperately need''? Where would I go? Would it be to a Jobcentre Plus office, because there will be nowhere else?
The hon. Gentleman essentially asks about the local service, which, as I have tried to explain, will meet the needs of people in the local area. We do not intend to prescribe that there will be a Pension Service office in towns of a certain size. There will be partnership agreements between ourselves, other Government agencies, local government agencies and voluntary sector agencies about what is appropriate in any particular area. Therefore, provision in the constituency of the hon. Member for Northavon may be different from that in the constituency of the hon. Member for Perth or that in the constituency of the hon. Member for Daventry, but the idea is to make provision suitable for the local area and to supplement the national pension call centre, through which pensioners and customers will be able to keep in daily touch, if they wish. The arrangements will enable pensioners to access services and advice in whichever way suits them.
The Minister is genuinely trying to help the Committee, but does she not also agree that it is important, both in terms of staff development and the management of her Department, that people are aware of other activities in which they are not involved from day to day? I am not suggesting that people at Jobcentre Plus should give authoritative advice on pensions, but when an old lady comes in, because she knows that the building used to be a benefits office, someone should be able at least to scope what she is worried about and pass it on quickly, preferably without the old lady having to make a second visit, to someone who can deal with her query and get her the service that she needs.
We are making those arrangements. To reiterate for the benefit of the Committee, during the coming year, pensioners will continue to be able to access local services through the existing network of local offices while we build the new local service network of the Pension Service. The Pension Service has been discussing partnership arrangements, and has received very positive responses from a range of key stakeholder organisations, not only from Government and local government organisations, but from organisations that represent elderly people, to which the hon. Member for Northavon referred. Help the Aged, Age Concern and the National Pensioners Convention have all been involved in devising the arrangements for local partnerships to deliver a local service.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of targets, and asked whether we would publish performance targets. I hope that he received a copy of the Pension Service business plan, accompanied by a letter of 5 April. It might be waiting for him in his constituency office. That document includes some of the existing targets that the Pension Service is working towards, as well as details of the work programme for the next year or two.
I am just having a look at some of the
targets to which we are already committed. For example, there is one for accuracy, which relates to quality of advice. Claims will not be accurate if people are not properly advised. We aim to achieve an accuracy rate of 94 per cent. on minimum income guarantee by March 2003. The document contains a whole set of targets, which I recommend the hon. Gentleman takes a look at. I will not read them all, but they are available in highly readable form, and the hon. Gentleman should have received a copy. If he has not, I shall provide him with one.
By the time the service is up and running, pensioners will be able to contact us by telephone, post, interactive digital television—we are just starting a pilot using interactive digital television; one does not need to be a silver surfer to have that—the internet and local and home visits. It is probably a better range of services than pensioners have ever had when dealing with central Government. That is certainly what we aimed for, and we believe that it will be a great improvement.
The hon. Member for Perth asked a number of questions about the staffing levels of the call centres. There will probably be between 250 and 350 staff per call centre. They will be skilled; we shall not put extremely junior and untrained staff on duty and leave them to it. That is not the way to achieve an efficient service. Our aim is that 80 per cent. of queries should be dealt with on the first call, without staff having to go away and check things. The efficiency and speed of call centres are undermined if the staff are not properly trained. The targets are important. We need to ensure that the staff who deal with pensioners are properly equipped for the job. We shall publish public service agreement and performance targets for the service following the current spending round. The hon. Member for Northavon will then be able to see how the business plan is translated into those targets.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) assiduously seeks new jobs for his constituents. We should praise him for that, and for representing his constituents and doing his best for them. He had some interesting things to say about the technology used in call centres. One call centre in my constituency has no telephones. That is something to behold, but I have seen it and it is very interesting. Call centres without telephones do exist, and one of them is to be found in Liverpool, Garston. I am aware that some fast-moving technology is involved, and we want to take advantage of it as soon as it is available because it will enable us to do a much more efficient job.
Various questions were asked about postcodes going wrong, about what would happen if the wrong information was given and whether people would have to go back to the beginning of their claims. If the wrong information is given or if there is a lack of information on the form, our IT and software will not allow staff to proceed beyond a certain point. Staff in the telephone call centres will not be writing messages on bits of paper and sending them to each other; they will be working directly on PCs. Although people may sometimes spill coffee on their PCs, they will not be spilling coffee on notes, and I can reassure the hon.
Member for Daventry that notes will not be able to go missing. Staff will put information directly on to the PC and post it immediately to the customer, who will then check it, sign it and return it.
The hon. Gentleman asked about complaints about the telephone service. I am told that since June 2001 we have received 52 written or telephoned complaints about the service. Given that we contact about 1 million of our customers each day, that is not bad. We have high hopes of providing a good service.
The Under-Secretary may be about to answer this point, but I and other hon. Members asked about the possibility of having a freefone number, at least during the transition period.
Yes, indeed. The telephone calls will all be at the local rate. We shall be perfectly willing to call back those who wish it, so that people will not necessarily have to spend a lot of money making long calls. It should not be a problem. I hope that I have allayed the hon. Lady's fears in that regard.
The new clause appears to require us to deal with pensioners on a face-to-face basis, even if they want to deal with us on the telephone. That is my reading of it, although the word ''may'' appears in subsection (1), which casts some doubt on its meaning. In any event, it is far too prescriptive in its intent. We have every intention of providing an excellent service without having to use such a clause to prescribe the details of the information service and the regulations. We fully intend, and I hope that I have been able to convince the Committee of this, to provide an excellent service to pensioners. That is what we are setting out to do.
The Under-Secretary has just told the Committee that pensioners calling the service will be charged at the local rate. Given the falling cost of telephone calls in Britain, will she undertake to the Committee to follow up the Select Committee's recommendation 52? Will the Department consider the cost of providing a freefone number? If the figure were very low, there might be grounds for setting up such a number in the near future.
I can certainly promise the hon. Gentleman that the Department will respond in full to the Select Committee's report in the usual way. No doubt we will consider his point carefully. I hope that I have satisfied the hon. Gentleman that his new clause adds nothing to the Bill except perhaps some confusion about whether it forces us to see people face to face. I hope that, in view of my assurances, he feels able to withdraw it.
We have had a full debate on the new clause and I am grateful to all those who have contributed their different insights, often from their constituency experience. The constructive comments about the culture change in Jobcentre Plus are worth reflecting on.
The principal issue that we have discussed is that of standards, entitlements and targets. Is it a question of a Government and a Department with good will trying to do their best? Should we all be reassured of that and
go away happy, or do pensioners have entitlements and rights? The new clause implies that it is not enough for Ministers to assure us that the service will be much better and have bells and whistles. If the new clause is added to the Bill and the Government are true to their word, it would not do any harm because the quality of service will meet its criteria. It is designed to ensure that face-to-face services are available, not mandatory, and that they will be provided by suitably qualified people.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the new clause is very much in the spirit of the citizen's charter, which was introduced by the then right hon. Member for Huntingdon, John Major? Even if it did not always work, it was materially useful in raising standards in the public service generally.
The idea of minimum standards is good. The Under-Secretary has a lot of time for the idea of local discretion, and the way in which the services are delivered will need to vary from area to area. At the same time, people should be able to expect certain minimum standards in the quality of outcome nationwide. To draw a brief analogy, we have minimum standards in response times for ambulances. They are different in rural and urban areas, but we still have minimum standards. Although the mechanism for delivery needs to tailored to the local area, there is no need for a degree of discretion that would allow one area and its pensioners to have a poorer standard of service than another.
If the new clause is added to the Bill, it would not require the Government to do anything that they are not telling us they will do. If they do what they say they will, it will have no binding effect, but if they do not, the measure will be a stopgap and a safety net for pensioners to ensure that wherever they live they get the accessible service that we all want for them. For that reason, I wish to test the Committee's opinion on whether the clause should be added to the Bill.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.