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Child Support Agency

14. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): If he will make a statement on the operation of the Child Support Agency. [177324]
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): The new scheme of child support was introduced for new cases and for those connected to the new scheme in March last year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made regular progress reports to the House. Following his last report on 21 April, I can tell the House that more than 180,000 cases have now been cleared and more than 22,000 of the poorest families are already benefiting from the new child maintenance premium.

Mr. Carmichael: I thank the Minister for that answer, but the stream of complaints made in my surgeries by constituents who continue to have their liability for child support assessed according to the old rules continues unabated. Have the Government set a date for the complete migration of all cases in the CSA from the old system to the new? What is that date?

Mr. Pond: No, we have not set a date. Overall, the number of complaints is falling and those that are made are being resolved more quickly by the agency. We have been straightforward with the House in saying that we cannot and will not transfer cases to the new system until we are absolutely sure that the new system and the IT are working properly. We cannot give a date on that, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that, in his view—and, I am sure, in the view of the House as a whole—it would be irresponsible to make that transition until we are sure that the IT is working properly.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Has my hon. Friend looked at the proportion of the old case load that will be affected by the 15 per cent., 20 per cent. or 25 per cent. change and considered what the number of winners and losers might be? There is a great deal of anxiety out there and much pressure for the rollback to take place as early as possible. In particular, in the case of CSA clients in North-West Leicestershire, who are largely dealt with by staff in either Dudley or Belfast, the number of caseworkers that individual resident parents have to deal with over quite a short time is excessive. Will he look at the stability and training of staff there?

Mr. Pond: Certainly, that is an issue that we are looking at to make sure that staff have the right and adequate amount of training. We understand the anxieties that people feel in waiting for the new system to come fully into operation. Everybody will accept that it is a much better system than the one set up by the Conservative party: it is simpler, fairer and more straightforward. However, as I have said, it would be irresponsible of us to try to make that transition until we know that the IT is working smoothly to ensure that payments go to the children who need the support.

Pension Payments

16. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): How many pensioners are receiving payment of their pensions at post offices in the Bolton, South-East constituency. [177327]
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): As at 17 April 2004, 6,000 pensioners in Bolton, South-East received their payments by order book, which they cash at the Post Office. Almost 5,500 pensioners have had their money paid directly into an account. Many of those pensioners can access their payments in cash at the post office through the wider range of banking services now available at post office branches.

Dr. Iddon: All of us are being asked to remember more and more personal identification numbers and passwords, the latest example being the Fees Office, but at least it gives Members of Parliament clues to help us out. Is my hon. Friend aware that some pensioners find it extremely difficult to remember their PINs for the post office and that as a consequence some post offices are keeping lists of those PINs behind the counter? Will he discuss that problem with Post Office Counters Ltd. the next time he meets its representatives?

Mr. Pond: I certainly will. We understand that some people may have difficulty remembering their PINs, and my hon. Friend suggests that he might be one of them. I do not know whether he has taken out a Post Office card account, but I can tell him that he will not be entitled to it. It is not good banking practice for anyone, including sub-postmasters, to keep PINs behind the counter. I am not sure that that is good for the system's overall security. Of course, customers have the opportunity to change the PIN originally allocated to a number that they can more easily remember—perhaps their date of birth—and it is the job of staff and sub-postmasters to remind them of that. However, we have always recognised that a small number of people will not be able to operate the PIN system effectively, which is why we have announced a cheque-based system of payment, to begin from October this year.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I congratulate the pensioners of Bolton, South-East on getting a PIN because that means they have managed to open a Post Office card account, which is still proving very difficult and a bureaucratic nightmare. Will the Minister consider the various stages that a pensioner has to go through to open a Post Office card account to ensure that the system is much easier to use and that some of the silly rules, which act as a barrier to people opening such accounts, are removed?

Mr. Pond: Already, 3 million customers have said that they want to open a Post Office card account and 2 million have done so. We recognise that some customers may find the process difficult, but we have made it as simple as we can. We are considering ways to make the process more customer friendly and simpler to operate. We are in discussions with the Post Office on how best to do that.

Pension Credit

17. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the take-up of pension credit. [177328]

The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): As the progress report published today shows, 2.5 million
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households—including 3 million individuals—are now receiving the pension credit. This includes just short of 4,000 pensioner households in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Paul Flynn: That is a very good story, but there is one curious aspect to it, as reflected in the answer that my hon. Friend gave to me a few months ago—and that is the percentage take-up between urban and rural areas. In the prosperous rural areas, the increase in the take-up this year was 43 per cent., but in the poorer rural areas it was a mere 31 per cent. and just 19 per cent. in London. Has the Minister given some thought to that and to how he will conduct future campaigns to concentrate on the urban areas, where the need is almost certainly greater?

Malcolm Wicks: We are studying reasons for variations of the sort illustrated by my hon. Friend and I shall report back when we have some firm conclusions. However, a local pension service allows us to tailor the campaigns to local circumstances. I am happy to talk to him about how we might better do that, although the local pension service is doing an excellent job in his constituency.

Stockline Plastics Factory Explosion

18. Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the Health and Safety Executive investigation into the Stockline Plastics factory explosion in Glasgow. [177330]

The Minister for Work (Jane Kennedy): The Lord Advocate, Colin Boyd, and the chair of the Health and Safety Commission, Bill Callaghan, agreed that there should be a joint investigation into the factory explosion in Glasgow on 11 May 2004, involving the Health and Safety Executive, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, and Strathclyde police. That joint investigation is now proceeding in a co-ordinated and co-operative manner, but it is too early to speculate on the cause of the explosion.

Ann McKechin: I thank my right hon. Friend for her reply. I take this opportunity to give credit to the emergency workers, the voluntary sector and the local community in Maryhill for their marvellous response to this tragedy. Clearly, as my right hon. Friend stated, we need to wait until the full evidence is available before making any judgment as to the cause of the tragedy, but will she assure the House that if the inquiry should show evidence of a health and safety failure, there will be a full, independent investigation of the role of the Health and Safety Executive in its earlier visits to the factory?

Jane Kennedy: I, too, want to add my words of congratulation not only to the members of the emergency services, but to the staff of the Health and Safety Executive who were on site very quickly after the incident. The HSE has visited the site of a number of occasions in the past 30 years; indeed, it has done so twice in the past four years. Following standard procedure, it will be conducting a prior role inquiry to determine whether there are lessons to be learned, both for the employer and for the HSE.

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