State Pension Credit Bill [Lords]

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Mr. McCartney: 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?

Mr. Webb: I am.

Mr. Boswell: 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?

Mr. Webb: 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

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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—

Mr. McCartney: That will teach them.

Mr. Webb:—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?

9.45 am

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.

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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—

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Webb: 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.

Mr. Boswell: 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—

Mr. McCartney: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boswell: 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

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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—

Mr. Boswell: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous).

Andrew Selous: 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?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): How many letters has the hon. Gentleman received?

Andrew Selous: 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?

Mr. Boswell: 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—

Mr. McCartney: 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.

Mr. Boswell: 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

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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.

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