State Pension Credit Bill [Lords]

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Maria Eagle: Silver surfers.

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John Mann: 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.

Mr. Boswell: 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.

John Mann: 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.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth): 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

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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.

David Cairns: 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?

Annabelle Ewing: 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—

Maria Eagle: Some 64 per cent. of pensioners now make their retirement pension claim on the telephone.

Annabelle Ewing: I thank the Minister for that helpful intervention. However, the fact that they make their claim by telephone does not necessarily mean that they prefer to do so. What is their motivation? How does the Minister know that that figure reflects a preference?

Maria Eagle: 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.

Annabelle Ewing: 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.

Mr. Webb: 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.

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Annabelle Ewing: 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.

Mr. McCartney: All the time.

Annabelle Ewing: It is tremendously frustrating to have to phone back and start right from the beginning. My questions are specific, factual questions, and I look forward to a response.

10.30 pm

David Cairns: 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

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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.

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