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Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one area that the Government need seriously and urgently to examine is that of the availability of bereavement help? Certain people cannot get any access to assistance with funeral expenses.
Danny Alexander: I agree that that is an important issue and I hope that it will be dealt with when the welfare reform proposals are introduced. I look forward with interest to what the Government say about that in due course.
The reform agenda is about something much greater than simply dealing with fraudit is about providing opportunities for work to millions of people who have been neglected by the system for many years. For example, we know from various pieces of research that 1 million disabled people want to work. In the broader welfare reform debate, we should focus on effective measures to help people get into work and steer away from dramatic headlines that denigrate and risk stereotyping.
That is well put. Let us have a debate in the coming weeks that does not court such headlines. Let us tackle fraud and, even more important, the causes of error in the system, including means-testing. Most important, we should provide new opportunities and remove barriers to people getting out of the benefits system.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I speak as chair of the parliamentary Public and Commercial Services Union group, which is an all-party group representing the PCS trade union. I want to associate myself with the statement in the report that the Department for Work and Pensions published on reducing fraud in the benefits system. It states that the Government have developed a comprehensive strategy since 1997. For those of us who have wrestled with the problem for several years in different guises, either in the House or in a professional capacity, it is clear that, objectively speaking, the Government are the first Administration to try to establish some form of longer-term strategy rather than a knee-jerk approach year by year.
Members of the PCS who work in the Department have shown great commitment and dedication to ensuring that our strategy is effective. Some of the results that we have produced are not as successful as perhaps many of us would like. Nevertheless, there have been improvements in bearing down on fraud, error and even non-distribution of resources that did not occur in previous Administrations. I therefore congratulate the Government on their achievement through the commitment and dedication of the staff.
The Government have, however, undertaken a contradictory target-setting exercise, which was highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee when it interrogated Sir Richard Mottram. It is clear that, in establishing our anti-fraud and anti-error strategy, we need to invest in the staffing and new technology resources that enable us to be effective. If the target to tackle fraud conflicts with other targets in the Department, especially the target to shed 30,000 staff, we should acknowledge that and ascertain whether we need to review some of the Department's policies.
The Public Accounts Committee sitting at which Sir Richard Mottram was present highlighted the problem. A simple question was asked about how much the Department would save through the Gershon exercise. In total, the saving is £1 billion. Members of the Committee then asked for the total cost of fraud and benefit error and the reply was £3 billion. Sir Richard Mottram was then asked why the staff who were being cut could not be transferred to tackle benefit fraud and error. Clearly, if the £1 billion in staffing cuts were invested in doing that, the Department might well be able to save £3 billion overall. Sir Richard Mottram's reply was interesting. It was not a yes or a no, but phrased in delicate "civil service-ese". The response was:
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If any permanent secretary were given the task of tackling benefit fraud and error and was asked how many staff were needed, I do not believe that the first response would be a cut of 30,000 in overall staffing resources.
Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): Is the hon. Gentleman reflecting a concern that the figure of 30,000 may simply be designed to meet a general political target rather than to fulfil the Department's needs and ensure the efficient deployment of resources?
John McDonnell: As ever, the hon. Gentleman is there before me. The figure of 30,000 that came out of the Gershon review was part of the bidding exercise before the last general election, in which Conservative and new Labour Front Benchers seemed to try to outbid each other in regard to how brutal they could be in reducing civil service numbers. Even now, having considered all the reports and detailed discussions that took place, I cannot assess the rationale behind the figure of 30,000.
The Public Accounts Committee has hit the nail on the head. It warned that these proposals could lead to a loss of morale. The churning that is going on in the Department for Work and Pensions means that the processes on which we rely to bear down on fraud and overcome error, while not being broken down, are certainly being undermined. We are losing skills from the Department as a result of the scale of the reduction in staff numbers. Those skills have been built up over time and have been proved, as a result of good political direction and strategy development, to be effective. In the past, even the recent past, the management style in the Departmentthe management's relationship with their staff, their consultation with the trade unions or their involvement of all stakeholders in the development of the overall strategyhas not been that good.
On the basis of the Public Accounts Committee's report, and perhaps on the basis of some of the issues raised in this debate, I believe that it is now time for the Secretary of State to stand back and re-examine the target of a staff reduction of 30,000. Perhaps we should also do a short, simple exerciseattracting independent advice to help usto determine whether that scale of reduction is appropriate, given the contents of today's PAC report and those of the report produced this week by the Department for Work and Pensions, which demonstrates that the staff were working well and effectively to implement the strategy but are now being impeded by the scale of the job cuts.
I would welcome the opportunity of a further meeting of the PCS parliamentary group with the Secretary of State to discuss these issues. I would also welcome the continuation of dialogue between management and unions as we go through this process. I hope that the management of the Department and the political team that determines the Department's policies will have the strength to stand back and re-examine the issue, to admit that the figure of 30,000 might not be appropriate, and to consider whether the organisation that was suggested as a result of the 30,000 job cuts would be fit for the purpose of maintaining the strategy that these
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reports show to be working so successfully. I hope that we can arrive at a common-sense solution that will achieve the Government's overall objectives and perhaps reduce the conflict regarding the targets that we have set for the Department for Work and Pensions.
Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I do not intend to detain the House for long, but I want to raise one specific point. Before I do so, however, I want to pay tribute to the speech of the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), and to congratulate him on his meteoric rise to the Front Bench of his party, as well as on his apparently representing four constituencies, which is an achievement in itself. I also want to echo the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) about proposed job cuts. I was alarmed recently to see an internal e-mail from my local Jobcentre Plus, which was passed to me by one of the people who work there, and which stated that the job cuts and reorganisation within that organisation would not be made public until after the general election. The fact that that very date was specified was a matter of great concern to me.
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