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Sick and Disabled People (Personal Advisers)

Mr. Oaten: To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment if he will make a statement on progress made in establishing a network of personal advisers to help sick and disabled people overcome barriers to work; and what is the timetable for further plans relating to the scheme. [41062]

Mr. Alan Howarth [holding answer 6 May 1998]: The Secretaries of State for Education and Employment and for Social Security announced, on 9 March, plans to pilot the Personal Adviser service in 12 areas. The first six areas, to be run by the Employment Service, will start by October 1998. The remainder will be put out to open

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tender and start in early 1999. To help develop the shape of the Personal Adviser service we shall be holding a consultation event on 12 May. National implementation, probably from April 2000, will be considered in the light of the emerging lessons from these pilots.

Mr. Oaten: To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what (a) qualification requirements and (b) compulsory training requirements there are for personal advisers for the New Deal for the long-term sick and disabled. [41061]

Mr. Alan Howarth [holding answer 6 May 1998]: A consultation event on the development of the Personal Adviser service will take place on 12 May 1998. Organisations representing the views of a wide range of disabled people have been invited. We will be considering in the light of this what, if any, compulsory training or qualification requirements there could usefully be.

Teachers of Technology

Mrs. May: To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Employment what assessment his Department has made of the IT skills of teachers of technology. [40361]

Dr. Howells: The Department conducts every two years a survey of Information Technology (IT) in Schools. It provides information about the level of provision and use of IT in schools, including the skill levels of teachers. The latest survey was conducted in 1996 and the results were published in March 1997. The results of the 1998 survey will be published later this year.

The Teacher Training Agency is about to issue a contract for the development of materials to assess the training needs of all teachers in Information and Communications Technology (ICT). These materials will enable all teachers, regardless of the subject or age range of pupils they teach, to assess their training and development needs. The needs assessment will help teachers prepare for the proposed lottery-funded ICT training programme for serving teachers. Training will ensure that all teachers have the skills necessary to use ICT effectively in the subject they teach.


Benefit Integrity Project

Mr. Jim Cunningham: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what progress has been made towards the improvement of decision-making procedures under the Benefit Integrity Project. [40781]

Mr. Denham: We have taken steps to introduce a number of improvements to the Benefit Integrity Project. It is important that decisions taken as a result of the project are right and these steps will improve the quality of, and confidence in, those decisions. We are preparing more informative literature, to enable people to tell us at an early stage if they feel they should not be contacted by the Project; we are arranging additional training for Adjudication Officers; we are also organising a speedier process to deal with reviews and appeals against decisions.

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Also, on 9 February my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security introduced changes to the Benefit Integrity Project to ensure that no decision to reduce benefit would be taken without seeking additional evidence. We are concerned about those cases where a decision was taken without the benefit of the new procedure that was introduced on 9 February, and on which the claimant has not already sought a review of the decision.

We are considering options for reviewing those cases but there are some legal and operational issues that we need to resolve as speedily as possible before deciding exactly how to proceed.

These positive and constructive changes demonstrate our determination that the actions of the Project are fair, and seen to be fair.

Disability Benefits

Mr. Jim Cunningham: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what assessment she has made of the adequacy of present levels of disability benefits in offsetting the additional cost of disability. [40782]

Mr. Denham: Attendance Allowance and Disability Living Allowance provide a contribution towards extra costs arising from the effects of disability. The structure of these benefits reflects findings from the Office of Population, Censuses and Surveys (OPCS) surveys of disability in Great Britain in the mid-1980s. These showed that locomotor and personal care disabilities were among the types of disability most strongly associated with higher than average additional expenditure arising from disability.

The 1996-97 disability follow-up to the Family Resources Survey will update our information on the financial circumstances of disabled people. It does not replicate the questions on extra spending from the earlier surveys, but it does ask respondents whether they incur extra costs, whether they receive help towards those costs, and whether they go without items they need because they cannot afford them. A report of the survey will be published towards the end of the year.

Mr. Jim Cunningham: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what representations she has received from disability organisations calling for a guaranteed minimum level of income to ensure equality between disabled and non-disabled people; and if she will make a statement. [40783]

Mr. Denham: We have received many representations on a range of issues relating to people with disabilities, some of which will have addressed the level of benefits.


Rev. Martin Smyth: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many people have claimed incapacity benefit in each year since 1990-91 on the grounds of incontinence. [40194]

Mr. Pike: To ask the Secretary of State for Health how many people have claimed incapacity benefit in each year since 1990-91 on the grounds of incontinence. [41056]

Mr. Denham: I have been asked to reply.

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Incontinence is a symptom of a number of different medical conditions rather than a diagnosis in itself and is therefore not recorded as a separate category in the International Classification of Diseases which the Department uses to record diagnoses underlying claims for Incapacity Benefit. The all-work test includes incontinence as a specific condition which, depending on the degree of disability, might lead to a decision that a claimant is incapable of work. Information on the numbers of cases where points have been scored within the incontinence category could be obtained only at disproportionate cost.

Child Support Agency

Ms Walley: To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if she will suspend the internal restructuring of the Child Support Agency pending the outcome of the review; and if she will make a statement. [40181]

Mr. Keith Bradley: We are looking closely at all aspects of the Child Support scheme to see where improvements can be made. We aim to bring forward a consultation document on our proposals.

The administration of the Child Support Agency is a matter for the Chief Executive, Mrs. Faith Boardman. She will write to my hon. Friend.

Letter from Faith Boardman to Ms Joan Walley, dated 7 May 1998:

    These changes will result in more jobs overall, much more face-to-face contact, and much more contact being carried out by telephone in a more personalised way than at present. They will also enable backroom paper processing work which involves no direct contact with the public to be done far more cost-effectively than at present; thus releasing funds which will be reinvested in improved service delivery and in keeping up with rising workloads. The results of the on-going reorganisation are already beginning to show. In 1997/98 the backlogs of outstanding cases were more than halved, and the amount of maintenance collected and arranged rose by over one third.

    I can assure you that Ministers were made aware of the proposals for reorganisation before we embarked on changes and their wishes have been taken fully into account in the further work which we have done since. They require improvements to be made in the Agency's performance in the interval before implementation of any longer-term changes which may result from the review. Ministers have asked me to concentrate on improving the quantity and quality of direct personal contact (both by telephone and face to face); and with seeking ways in which this can be provided actively with other Agencies as a one-stop service for customers. That will be a primary outcome of the reorganisation. The objective is to find means of extending and improving the range and quality of active modern contact with customers whilst at the same time improving the efficiency of the Agency sufficiently to keep pace with the 50% increase in workloads over the next 3 years, and to improve compliance levels.

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    The Agency's plans for re-organising are fully in line with the Government strategy of modernising the delivery of public services. Many of the changes directly reflect the concerns expressed about accessibility and customer service during the recent discussion sessions which I have held with MPs and their support staff. As part of that, the Agency has looked at the whole range of ways in which it contacts its customers. Until this year that has been predominantly by paper which has been consistently criticised as too complex and impersonal.

    I am quite convinced of the need for much increased face-to-face contact, not least because of its effectiveness in reducing the incidence of fraud, improving the explanations available to customers, and improving their compliance and co-operation. The reorganisation will significantly increase the availability of local face-to-face contact in a number of ways. As part of their wider strategy to improve face-to-face contact with DSS customers, the Government announced last year that CSA would be working more closely with their colleagues in the Benefits Agency which will provide customers with a one stop service. From 1 April 1998, Benefits Agency staff are interviewing and assisting all new Income Support parents with care to complete their maintenance application form, where appropriate.

    Pilot studies have shown this to be both very cost effective and welcomed by individual customers. 75% of our parents with care will be interviewed at the time when they first come into contact with child support and most need information and help. Customers will have to provide information only once, thus reducing overlap and repetition of work. So you can see that for many customers there will be a noticeable improvement in the face-to-face contact without retaining a separate, duplicate CSA presence. Together with BA we will be looking to see how far we can extend this joint approach for parents with care.

    Restructuring will allow CSA to offer significantly more face to face contact on a peripatetic basis, in a greater range of locations which we hope in future will also include for example, CAB premises. The CSA will then be able to concentrate on improving the service to new absent parents, by telephoning them at an early stage and, where necessary, offering individuals with particular problems an interview to ensure that information is gathered more quickly and that fewer absent parents begin with significant arrears.

    As well as improving customer service there are sound resourcing reasons to support the re-organisation. Most of the current sites are very small and inflexible and impose considerable extra cost. Many offices have very few staff. For example, there are a number of offices with as few as four staff. It only takes one person to be on holiday and another to be ill and the effectiveness of the office is immediately reduced by 50%. In terms of accommodation alone, up to £8m will be released to be reinvested in better telephone services and more jobs to keep up with rising workloads and to finish clearing the backlogs.

    Conversely, the centres provide significant economies of scale for processing paper and (with the reinvestment of such efficiency savings and the introduction of flexible working patterns) will be able to accommodate in excess of 1200 staff during the working day. Telephone availability to the public at the centres has already been extended from 9am to 5pm on Monday to Friday, initially to 8am up to 9pm and in the near future to weekends. That will allow CSA to be contacted by absent parents in particular in the privacy of their own homes rather than during the day when they are at work. And it will release local resources to provide much more face-to-face contact where that is needed.

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    Overall, the changes will result in more jobs (but in different locations); and enable us to provide both a more cost-efficient and accessible service. Throughout the period the Agency will continue to report regularly to Ministers and consult customer representative groups at both national and local levels to ensure that service standards are improved.

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