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Payment Mechanisms

3. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): if he will make a statement on the payment mechanisms for state benefits and pensions. [209973]

The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): Direct payment into an account is now the normal way that we pay benefits and pensions, and over four out of five people are paid by this method. Indeed it is proving to be popular with customers, with nine out of 10 saying that they like being paid this way.

We have exceeded our target of 85 per cent. of benefit and pensions customers having an account by 2005. We have already hit that target ahead of 2005. I add—this is of concern to us all—that the small number of customers who cannot have their pensions or benefit paid into an account will be paid via a cheque, which can be cashed at the Post Office. I think that these customers will be a small minority.

Andrew Selous: The Government rejected Conservative demands that pensioners be allowed to keep their order books if they chose. The Select Committee on Trade and Industry has criticised the Government's plans for the exception service. Given the widespread postal delays that affect many of our constituents, will the Government consider sending out batches of four girocheques at a time as part of the exception service routine, so that if there are postal delays pensioners will not go without their weekly pension?

Malcolm Wicks: We will obviously monitor what happens to the cheque-based system, but the hon. Gentleman should not be in any doubt that the most effective means of payment is transferring money electronically into a bank or post office card account. We should not look back to the days of the pension book as a golden age, as that was not the case. There was £80 million of fraud, and it was an expensive system for the taxpayer. We are being sensitive, and listening to the needs of pensioners, particularly the frail elderly, people with disabilities and their carers, and we are doing our best to make sure that the system meets their needs. We are very concerned that that should happen.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Perhaps the Minister would listen to my constituent, Miss Amanda James, from Trimpley in Ellesmere, who did not receive any money at all from April until December? We eventually sorted that out, so that she would be paid that sum before Christmas. However, she was on the phone again to my office this morning, saying that she has not received any money. We received a letter from the Inland Revenue, in which they said:


Malcolm Wicks: As soon as we have clarified whether this is a question for the Inland Revenue. Is it about pension credit or about child tax credit? I should be
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grateful if the hon. Gentleman wrote to me, but I also advise him to write to the relevant Department, not the irrelevant one.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park) (LD): Does the Minister recognise that a great number of people, perhaps of a particular generation, still wish to go to a post office to receive their pension or benefit? Will he put pressure on his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry to stop the closure of many post offices up and down the country?

Malcolm Wicks: Government are providing some £2 billion, including £450 million for the rural post office network, to try to safeguard the local post office system. That is a considerable amount of money. Meanwhile, in response to people who say that it is difficult to open a post office card account, about half of all pensioners will receive their money in future through such an account. In total, 4 million people will have their money paid in that way, so the post office is alive and well, and many people will still draw their pension or benefit in that way.

Public Inquiry Services

4. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): If he will make a statement on telephone response times for public inquiry services within his Department, with particular reference to Jobcentre Plus. [209974]

The Minister for Work (Jane Kennedy): Jobcentre Plus aims to answer telephone calls within 30 seconds. A recent market research survey showed that about 80 per cent. of calls were answered in that time frame.

Dr. Cable: Does the Minister recall that I wrote to her in November about the fact that 1 million people in south London have to telephone for an appointment for a national insurance number, but the telephone number they are given is uncontactable? I heard yesterday from the citizens advice bureau not only that that number is uncontactable but that alternative numbers given to those people are uncontactable too. Since thousands of people have been prevented from working legally by inefficiency in the Department, can the Minister explain precisely what they are supposed to do?

Jane Kennedy: I am not aware of the problem to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I will look into his allegations, but the aim of Jobcentre Plus contact centres, as opposed to Jobcentre Plus, is to answer 80 per cent. of calls within 20 seconds. For one typical week in November 2004—the precise month in which the hon. Gentleman says that he wrote to me—contact centres handling new and repeat claims answered on average 80 per cent. of calls within 20 seconds, which is inside the target time frame.

I will look into the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman says some his constituents have experienced, but without his drawing it specifically to my attention—[Interruption.] Well, I will look into what he said, but unless he is specific about the problem it is hard to respond.
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Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab): For all I know, the position in London may be exactly as the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) makes out, but may some of the rest of us say that never in our parliamentary lifetime have the responses been so quick and so helpful as they are at present? Anecdote suggests that huge improvements seem to have been made.

Jane Kennedy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is precisely the experience that my constituents have had, and from around the country those are the reports that I get. Jobcentre Plus is not just about new offices. It is about changing the service that we provide day in, day out to thousands of people. I will look into the specific complaint that has been made today, but by and large the service is superb and most constituents throughout the country acknowledge that fact.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): While we are on the subject of telephone helplines, did the Minister see the sad little article in her departmental newsletter, "Touch Base", last month, which stated:

As we are about to get the Department's five-year plan, is not the sad decline of its welfare reform helpline a warning of how one can go from grand aspirations to complete failure to deliver? Is it not typical of the Government that instead of ordering welfare reform, they give people the opportunity of phoning a number where they can order a consultation document on the possibility of welfare reform? When are we to have real welfare reform?

Jane Kennedy: There is a clear stretch of blue water between the Front Benches on this subject. We are committed to active labour market intervention with the unemployed. We are committed to reforming the service that is delivered to people who are in need of welfare support, and to enabling people who are looking for work to find the work that is out there. That is quite different from the hon. Gentleman's party, with its tired old ideology of privatisation and on-yer-bike advice to the workless.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): When my right hon. Friend examines the system, will she look carefully at the training of the people in the telephone centres, who are not benefits advisers and frequently ask a series of questions that have no relevance to any of the people involved? That is not a way to engender support for a very good system, and I am sure she will be able to remedy the problem speedily.

Jane Kennedy: I keep the quality and level of training and support being delivered to the staff of Jobcentre Plus under close and constant review. By and large it is of excellent quality and the service that the staff deliver is excellent. Jobcentre Plus will be changing the way it communicates with customers and delivers its services over the coming years, but the closure of 600 Jobcentre
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Plus offices, which would happen if the Conservative party ever came to power, would not improve the service to my hon. Friend's constituents or mine.

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