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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): The Government are committed to improving the service provided to all pensioners. The steps in place to improve the services available to pensioners in Norfolk are the same steps that are being taken across the whole of the pension service.
Mr. Bellingham: Until recently, pensioners in my constituency had an extremely good Pension Service office in King's Lynn, which was moved to Norwich and now to Burnley. My concern rests around how my pensioner constituents get proper home visits. I have nothing against Burnley, but it is a long way from west Norfolk.
The hon. Gentleman is over-egging his own pudding. In fact, there will be no change to home visits. The local Pension Service in the hon. Gentleman's constituency will continue to offer home
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visits. My attention was drawn to the fact that as a result of some home visits in his area, pensioners have been able to claim back almost £5,000 in backdated and unclaimed benefits. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that, although the call centre is moving to another part of the country, that will in no way affect the very personal local service that the Pension Service will continue to give to his and other constituents.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Although we have made a lot of progress in reducing fraud, we accept that the levels of error remain unacceptably high. We have a duty as a Department to ensure that we administer our benefits as correctly as possible and that our customers are aware of the need to provide necessary information to support their claims and report changes in circumstances quickly. We are also taking steps to increase the accuracy of staff and to encourage our customers to do more to keep their claims correct.
Mr. Mackay: My constituents will think that reply hopelessly complacent. A growing number of them tell me of errors in their benefits claims, which is harmful in many ways. First, it means that peopleoften the very poorestare not receiving their correct entitlements; secondly, it means that other people receive too many payments by mistake and find it difficult to pay them back; thirdly, it means that all of us as taxpayers are getting very bad value for money. When is the Minister going to get a grip?
Mrs. McGuire: First, at least this Government measure the level of fraud and error, something the previous Government did not get around to until 1995. I regret that the right hon. Gentleman said that my answer was complacent, because I admitted that error was a cause for concern. We are putting in place the support mechanisms that are necessary to ensure that our staff realise that error, such as the right hon. Gentleman identifies, is not acceptable. There are two issues to error. One is a process issue, in terms of ensuring that the information is entered and followed through properly; the other is ensuring that customers realise that they have a responsibility to keep the information up to date. If we bring those two things together, we will continue to tackle the error in the system. I leave the right hon. Gentleman with this thought; out of every pound that we pay out in benefit, less than 1p is paid out in error. That is quite a good record.
Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)
(Lab): Does not the worst error of all occur when a claimant has his benefit stopped completely because he is suspected of making a fraudulent claim, only for him subsequently to prove himself completely innocent on appeal? That happened to a constituent of mine, but before he succeeded in his appeal he was evicted, had a county court judgment imposed on him and lost access to his child. He has now
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been driven further into poverty and despair. Will my hon. Friend look into that case and at what compensation arrangement can be introduced, so that my constituent can be brought back into society?
Mrs. McGuire: In normal circumstances, we stop benefit only where there is extreme evidence that fraud has been committed. I obviously cannot comment on the specific case that my hon. Friend raises, but I would be delighted to look into it for him if he gives me the details.
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Is not the worst single error that of allowing No. 10 Downing street into the benefit payments policy area? Will the Minister confirm the reported view of the No. 10 policy unit that the best way to deal with incapacity benefit payment errors is to reform such payments by means testing them, and to pay at least part of that benefit in vouchers, rather than in cash? Will she confirm that that is Downing street's view, and is it the reason why the incapacity benefit Green Paper that the Prime Minister first promised after the election is now four months overdue?
Mrs. McGuire: First, the Green Paper is not four months overdue: we made it very clear earlier this year that we would publish it in the autumn. In spite of the obvious enticements offered to me by the right hon. Gentleman today, I shall not give him any public information on the discussions that take place in developing a Green Paper. He and his fellow Front Benchers should hang their heads in shame at what happened to incapacity benefit during the 80s and 90s. They put people on to incapacity benefit to disguise the unemployment figures, and left them languishing there for years.
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Margaret Hodge): I agree with my hon. Friend that more needs to be done to improve the time that it takes to process jobseeker's allowance claims in the south-east. That is why we have already deployed more resources to areas in the south-east where there is the greatest need, and increased the number of telephone lines available in our customer contact centres. In the coming weeks, I shall review the processes currently in place to ensure that they are working as we intended.
Gwyn Prosser: I am glad that steps are being taken to deal with the growing backlog and the huge delays, but does she agree that it would be more sensible to halt the sacking of the hard-working civil servants who serve my constituents in Dover and Deal, until the new computer systems and contact centres are up and running and proven?
No staff member in my hon. Friend's part of the country has been sacked. There has been a slight reduction in the number of staff, but that is
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through natural wastage. I hope that by the end of this year, the processing of JSA claims in his constituency will be back to the national target of 12 days that we set ourselves.
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Margaret Hodge): The latest figures show that the number of children living in relatively low-income households fell, after housing costs, by 700,000 between 1997 and 2004. Eradicating child poverty is a central and ambitious objective of this Government. Tackling poverty is only partly about low income. Action is necessary on many fronts, including health, housing, education and the quality of the environment.
Barbara Keeley: Little Hulton ward, in my constituency, is ranked among the worst 7 per cent. of wards nationally for deprivation. Given that work is the best route of out of poverty, will my right hon. Friend join me in endorsing the Little Hulton children's centre, which, when it opens next year, will combine a Sure Start nursery unit with a crèche for parents involved in training? Most importantly, staff will link up with Jobcentre Plus to help with searching for jobs and to give advice to lone parents.
Margaret Hodge: I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in welcoming that latest development to tackle disadvantage and poverty among families in her constituency. The joined-up approach of the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education and Skills in the children's centre is testimony to our wish to put families and their children at the heart of what we do, and build services that best meet their needs and lift them out of poverty.
Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): Will the Minister comment on a problem faced by my constituent, Mr. Michael May, who was awarded custody of his children for two days a week but was unable to obtain benefit to reflect the fact that he had custody? If the Government seriously wish to tackle child poverty, would it not be more equitable to divide benefits between two parents in cases where there are joint custody arrangements?
I am a bit puzzled by the hon. Lady's question, although I am willing to look at that individual case if she writes to me. I am not sure whether she is suggesting that the benefit entitlement that follows the children should be divided between the father and mother. If so, that would be unfortunate for the main carerthe mother. However, if she writes to me with the details, I would be happy to examine the particulars of the case.
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