State Pension Credit Bill [Lords]

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Maria Eagle: We have had a long and interesting debate about the new clause. I shall deal with the specific points raised before commenting on the new clause.

First, I wish my right hon. Friend a very happy birthday. He must be having a great time.

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Mr. McCartney: Same time, same place next year.

Maria Eagle: We might have another Bill next year, apparently. Same time, same place—who knows?

Our intention in respect of the Pension Service is to have a better service that is more tailored to the needs of pensioners instead of being mixed up with a service more aimed at working-age people. That is the reason for the separation between Jobcentre Plus and the Pension Service. It is not being done simply for the sake of change and to give civil servants something to do, but because when it is completed we shall be able to provide a better, more tailored service for our pensioners and enable those who deal with working-age clients to respond better to their needs. I hope that hon. Members accept that we are not simply dabbling for the sake of it, but undertaking a major change in culture and organisation within the Department with the aim of improving the service.

The Pension Service, formally launched on 1 April, will be responsible for ensuring that pensioners receive their pension credit entitlement, their other retirement pension provision and anything that they need in respect of that entitlement. It will provide a more modern, efficient, customer-focused service that is dedicated to combating poverty, encouraging saving for tomorrow's pensioners and trying to ensure that current pensioners receive their entitlement.

Many have questioned whether the telephone is an appropriate way for customers to contact us, but many pensioners already use that medium. It is more convenient, because most pensioners have telephones. As I said to the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing), approximately 64 per cent. of retirement pension claims are made over the telephone. It is easier, more convenient and does the job.

Mr. Boswell: Will the Under-Secretary tell us what the dispute or complaint rate is? In other words, how many calls generate further correspondence because of alleged errors made by officials?

Maria Eagle: I shall try to reply at some point to the hon. Gentleman's question. I do not know the figure off the top of my head, but I shall do my best to answer him in time.

We are centralising those telephone services in a sensible way in the 26 pension centres. They will be our customers' daily contact point, probably for longer than normal office hours. We are changing the way in which we work.

In addition to the 26 pension centres, the Pension Service will operate an improved local service nationwide. Committee members' remarks have followed two trends. The hon. Member for Northavon was concerned that tight standards, set centrally, should be imposed locally in order to ensure that a level of service of which we would approve is definitely available. However, the hon. Member for Daventry and others suggested that needs would vary enormously from one area to another due to distance and other factors, such as whether they are urban or rural. Some of us, as the hon. Member for Perth said, have a mixture of urban and rural areas in our constituencies. It is not sensible to prescribe down to

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the last dot and comma exactly how things should be done—as the hon. Member for Daventry will agree, given his comments about micromanagement.

We are developing partnerships with many organisations, including local government agencies and the voluntary sector dealing with elderly people, to provide an extra level of service locally, in addition to the national call centre-based services. The local service will allow us to meet customers face to face in places where they feel most comfortable, such as libraries or local community centres, which will vary from place to place. It will also offer a home visiting service and regular surgeries where pensioners know that can contact the Pension Service.

Mr. Boswell: In this respect it is useful that the Under-Secretary is a lawyer. Will she reflect on the need to tie up very carefully, in cases where an agent is involved, the nature of the advice and the responsibility for that advice? We do not want to add a further level of potential recrimination if people are given advice through a third party, which is later repudiated by the Department. It is important that service level agreements are tied up closely. In principle, it must be clear that it is the Department's advice that is being given.

Maria Eagle: Yes. The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next remarks. It is important that we do not simply give people a blue badge and let them loose to say whatever they like. Fully trained Pension Service staff will provide the information, and their focus will be entirely on the needs of pensioners. We should be able to ensure that we have a responsible, dedicated service, suitable for each local area, in addition to the call centre and the telephone-based service that will be offered.

Before I deal with the new clause, I shall answer some of the points made during the debate. The hon. Member for Northavon asked how we shall get from where we are now to where we should like to be. That is a question that Liberal Democrats do not always have to answer. We shall do it over a period of time. The call centres are being established and we shall develop the local service over the next year or 18 months. Until that happens, pensioners will not notice a change. They will still be able to go into their local social security office in order to receive the advice and help that they need.

Mr. Webb: This is something that I have tried unsuccessfully to pin down through written questions. There will be a period until the local service is established and then there will be one once it is established. I have asked whether people will have face-to-face contact as soon as they need it. The answer has been that they will still be able to go into a benefits office because the local service is still being introduced. I understand that that will be the case until it comes in. What I am trying to clarify is, once the whole shooting match is up and running, will I, as a pensioner, be able to say, ''I want to come in tomorrow and get some advice about income support, which I desperately need''? Where would I go? Would it be to a Jobcentre Plus office, because there will be nowhere else?

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10.45 am

Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman essentially asks about the local service, which, as I have tried to explain, will meet the needs of people in the local area. We do not intend to prescribe that there will be a Pension Service office in towns of a certain size. There will be partnership agreements between ourselves, other Government agencies, local government agencies and voluntary sector agencies about what is appropriate in any particular area. Therefore, provision in the constituency of the hon. Member for Northavon may be different from that in the constituency of the hon. Member for Perth or that in the constituency of the hon. Member for Daventry, but the idea is to make provision suitable for the local area and to supplement the national pension call centre, through which pensioners and customers will be able to keep in daily touch, if they wish. The arrangements will enable pensioners to access services and advice in whichever way suits them.

Mr. Boswell: The Minister is genuinely trying to help the Committee, but does she not also agree that it is important, both in terms of staff development and the management of her Department, that people are aware of other activities in which they are not involved from day to day? I am not suggesting that people at Jobcentre Plus should give authoritative advice on pensions, but when an old lady comes in, because she knows that the building used to be a benefits office, someone should be able at least to scope what she is worried about and pass it on quickly, preferably without the old lady having to make a second visit, to someone who can deal with her query and get her the service that she needs.

Maria Eagle: We are making those arrangements. To reiterate for the benefit of the Committee, during the coming year, pensioners will continue to be able to access local services through the existing network of local offices while we build the new local service network of the Pension Service. The Pension Service has been discussing partnership arrangements, and has received very positive responses from a range of key stakeholder organisations, not only from Government and local government organisations, but from organisations that represent elderly people, to which the hon. Member for Northavon referred. Help the Aged, Age Concern and the National Pensioners Convention have all been involved in devising the arrangements for local partnerships to deliver a local service.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of targets, and asked whether we would publish performance targets. I hope that he received a copy of the Pension Service business plan, accompanied by a letter of 5 April. It might be waiting for him in his constituency office. That document includes some of the existing targets that the Pension Service is working towards, as well as details of the work programme for the next year or two.

Mr. Webb: For the benefit of the Committee, will the Minister read out one or two targets that relate specifically to new clause 1 and to advice standards?

Maria Eagle: I am just having a look at some of the

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targets to which we are already committed. For example, there is one for accuracy, which relates to quality of advice. Claims will not be accurate if people are not properly advised. We aim to achieve an accuracy rate of 94 per cent. on minimum income guarantee by March 2003. The document contains a whole set of targets, which I recommend the hon. Gentleman takes a look at. I will not read them all, but they are available in highly readable form, and the hon. Gentleman should have received a copy. If he has not, I shall provide him with one.

By the time the service is up and running, pensioners will be able to contact us by telephone, post, interactive digital television—we are just starting a pilot using interactive digital television; one does not need to be a silver surfer to have that—the internet and local and home visits. It is probably a better range of services than pensioners have ever had when dealing with central Government. That is certainly what we aimed for, and we believe that it will be a great improvement.

The hon. Member for Perth asked a number of questions about the staffing levels of the call centres. There will probably be between 250 and 350 staff per call centre. They will be skilled; we shall not put extremely junior and untrained staff on duty and leave them to it. That is not the way to achieve an efficient service. Our aim is that 80 per cent. of queries should be dealt with on the first call, without staff having to go away and check things. The efficiency and speed of call centres are undermined if the staff are not properly trained. The targets are important. We need to ensure that the staff who deal with pensioners are properly equipped for the job. We shall publish public service agreement and performance targets for the service following the current spending round. The hon. Member for Northavon will then be able to see how the business plan is translated into those targets.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) assiduously seeks new jobs for his constituents. We should praise him for that, and for representing his constituents and doing his best for them. He had some interesting things to say about the technology used in call centres. One call centre in my constituency has no telephones. That is something to behold, but I have seen it and it is very interesting. Call centres without telephones do exist, and one of them is to be found in Liverpool, Garston. I am aware that some fast-moving technology is involved, and we want to take advantage of it as soon as it is available because it will enable us to do a much more efficient job.

Various questions were asked about postcodes going wrong, about what would happen if the wrong information was given and whether people would have to go back to the beginning of their claims. If the wrong information is given or if there is a lack of information on the form, our IT and software will not allow staff to proceed beyond a certain point. Staff in the telephone call centres will not be writing messages on bits of paper and sending them to each other; they will be working directly on PCs. Although people may sometimes spill coffee on their PCs, they will not be spilling coffee on notes, and I can reassure the hon.

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Member for Daventry that notes will not be able to go missing. Staff will put information directly on to the PC and post it immediately to the customer, who will then check it, sign it and return it.

The hon. Gentleman asked about complaints about the telephone service. I am told that since June 2001 we have received 52 written or telephoned complaints about the service. Given that we contact about 1 million of our customers each day, that is not bad. We have high hopes of providing a good service.

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