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Benefits Agency Change Programme

7. Mr. John Cryer: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what plans she has to reform the Benefits Agency's change programme.[4340]

Ms Harman: We are determined to modernise the social security system. Before the election, we stated our views about the Benefits Agency change programme and said that we would take a practical, non-ideological approach to the best way of delivering public services. The previous Government said, "Public bad; private good." We ask whether it works and whether it is fair--to those who use the services, to those who work in the services and to the taxpayer. Those are our criteria.

Mr. Cryer: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. Is she aware, however, that the change programme instituted by the previous Government constituted an attack on the public sector, an attempt to destroy public sector jobs and an attempt to make private greed out of poverty?

Ms Harman: Before the election, we stated what our approach would be, and said that our approach would be different from that of the previous Government. As I said, the previous Government believed that everything that was delivered by the public sector must be bad, and that everything must be privatised. We take a practical, non-ideological view. We have said that we will seek opportunities for extra investment by the private sector, that we will keep within spending totals and that we will review all projects that are in the pipeline. We have already met the trade union side. My ministerial team is examining proposals, project by project, and meeting the staff involved. My team is also discussing the proposals with the appropriate trade union side. We have stated the criteria against which we will review each project.

Mr. Collins: As part of her reforms, will the Secretary of State take steps to accelerate the payment of child benefit to parents under pressure, particularly those who are worried by the Government's policies as their children attend grammar schools?

Ms Harman: We are always concerned to ensure prompt, efficient, speedy payment of benefit, irrespective of the school choice of the mother who is entitled to receive that benefit on behalf of her children.

Mr. Kirkwood: Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that there is real concern about the reduction of the administrative budget available to the Benefits Agency over the next two years, as that may prejudice not only customer and claimant services but the security of the staff involved and the uptake of means-tested benefits? That is particularly true in rural areas.

The right hon. Lady may be aware that today in the East Edinburgh and Borders district some changes are being made involving the relocation of processing and there are local concerns that that is the thin end of the wedge. Can she give us an assurance that the Benefits

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Agency will secure particularly remote local offices so that the service to claimants continues and the uptake of benefit is not prejudiced by the change programme over the next two years?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman has rightly identified two of our objectives: first, to keep within the spending total and secondly to improve services to claimants. I am well aware of the challenge of ensuring that good services are delivered in rural areas. We need some new, innovative thinking about how we deliver services to people in rural areas.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the proposed change in the Benefits Agency offices in his constituency and we shall be looking closely at that issue. However, one of our central objectives is to provide a better service to claimants, unlike the previous Government who thought that anyone who claimed benefits was a scrounger and that however bad the treatment they received, it was too good for them. We agree with the hon. Gentleman that the services must improve.

Income-related Benefits

9. Mr. Merchant: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what plans she has to review social security income-related benefits.[4342]

Mr. Field: The Government are committed to a wide-ranging review of social security, including income-related benefits. Its aim is to reward work, savings and honesty.

Mr. Merchant: In the past, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) and other Labour Members condemned family credit as a subsidy for poor employers. Do the Government now plan to phase out family credit in the near future?

Mr. Field: The hon. Gentleman is wrong in saying that my hon. Friend made any such accusation. A review is under way, but I should be very surprised if that were its conclusion.

Dr. Iddon: Will my hon. Friend confirm that, despite predictions to the contrary, the previous Administration managed to double the number of people receiving benefit? Does he agree that in one in five households where people could work, no one is actually working and that that is one of the worst records in the industrialised world?

Mr. Field: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. In respect merely of income-related benefits, under the previous Administration the numbers claiming means-tested help rose from 10 million to 15 million. Part of the reason for that is that work is unevenly distributed. One of the aims of our review is to ensure that the benefit system does not act as a hidden hand, ensuring that some households get many jobs and others get none.

Mr. Brazier: In setting out the laudable aims of his review, will the Minister tell us what co-ordination there

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is with a similar review in the Department of the Environment on housing policy, that, on its own declared aim, seeks to revert to giving priority in two identical cases to someone who is nominally homeless--even with connivance--over those who have honestly taken their place in the queue?

Mr. Field: I can happily reassure the hon. Gentleman that there will be close co-ordination between Departments in the review.

Madam Speaker: But there should not be such close co-ordination at Question Time.

Pensioners (Income Support)

10. Mr. Ronnie Campbell: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what estimate she has made of the proportion of pensioners who do not claim the income support to which they are entitled.[4343]

Mr. Denham: One in four pensioners receive or are entitled to income support, but more than one in three of them do not receive the income support to which they are entitled. We are committed to examining ways to bring more automatic help to the poorest pensioners and are commissioning research to establish why so many pensioners do not receive the income support to which they are entitled.

Mr. Campbell: Is it not true that the reason for non-take-up of the benefit is not personal choice, as the previous Government claimed, but the stigma of claiming income support? Is it not also true that non-take-up of the benefit is greatest among women? Just under 1 million women do not claim the benefit and do not have a second pension. Will my hon. Friend give a high priority to examining second pensions for women?

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend is right. The previous Administration claimed that benefits were not taken up by choice, but they never undertook any substantial research to establish the real situation. Without prejudging the outcome of our research, I think that it is likely that we shall find that stigma is an important factor in non-take-up and that there are many older single women without additional pension rights among those who are going without the support of the benefit. In the longer term, we should enable more people to develop an adequate second pension on top of their basic state pension, so that they can enjoy security in retirement.

Mr. Baldry: Can the Under-Secretary adduce any evidence, in relation to pensioners or anyone else, for the Secretary of State's assertion a little while ago at the Dispatch Box that the previous Administration thought that anyone who claimed benefit was a scrounger? Does he not think that, if we are to have a sensible debate on welfare reform, we need a more mature approach than was demonstrated by the Secretary of State?

Mr. Denham: The message that my right hon. Friend spoke about was evident throughout the 18 long years of the previous Administration--in everything that they said, in their demonstrable lack of interest in why the poorest

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pensioners go without assistance and in their casualness about the quality of service offered by the social security system.

Mr. Wicks: Given that only pensioners in receipt of income support are eligible for cold weather payments during the severest weather, does my hon. Friend agree that it is a scandal that, in Britain, every winter--I suspect that this will be the case again during the coming winter--30,000 elderly people die from cold-related medical conditions? Will he initiate a take-up campaign for income support as soon as possible, so that people in their 80s and 90s who have served this country well do not have to make the terrible judgment this winter whether to heat their property or to eat?

Mr. Denham: It is a scandal that so many pensioners suffer in that way and that this country's record is apparently so much worse than that of other European countries, including those that suffer a more hostile winter climate. We are concerned to encourage take-up and have commissioned research to understand why pensioners do not receive income support--which is a passport to other important benefits--so that we can deal with it as effectively as possible.

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