|State Pension Credit Bill [Lords]
Mr. McCartney: The Tories started it.
Mr. Boswell: 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.
Mr. Brazier: It is particularly crass timing for what is already an unwelcome announcement.
The Chairman: You are straying a little.
Mr. Brazier: 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.
Mr. Boswell: You were genteelly implying, Mr. Griffiths, that that matter was on the periphery of our concerns, but the example is relevant.
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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:
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.
Andrew Selous: 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?
Mr. Boswell: 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
Column Number: 234the 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
Column Number: 235that 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.''
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Gotcha!
Mr. Boswell: 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—
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