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The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Margaret Hodge): The new customer management system is being introduced across the Jobcentre Plus service. Some difficult problems have been associated with its introduction and they have impacted on Jobcentre Plus's service to its clients. Improvements to the system and its associated processes are being made, and these changes are leading to much better standards in both service and performance.
I thank the Minister for that rather inadequate reply. Is she aware that customers are waiting three weeks for a call back, four further weeks for an interview and that customers who use Welsh wait twice that time, because the scriptludicrouslyis not available in Welsh. Operators have to translate the English script into Welsh, talk to the customer in Welsh, translate the replies into English for the record and send them off to be translated back into Welsh to send to the customers. That is not providing Welsh-speaking customers, or customers in general, with a proper service. Does she agree that something needs to be done now?
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Margaret Hodge: I wish I could, but that is not one of my talents. I can tell the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) that, across the whole infrastructure in Wales, we have Welsh-speaking officials who can respond to Welsh-speaking clients. Indeed, he will know that the new system is not yet in place for his constituents. I know that the truth sometimes stands in the way of a good story, but the truth about the call-backs is that, yes, the situation was bad when the system was first introduced and the service was poor. However, the latest statistics for November show that call-backs take place, on average, in 1.6 days, which is within the standard we want and is achieved across the nation, including Wales.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): Sadly, it is all too clear from the recent BBC survey, which showed that a third of calls went unanswered, that in the introduction of the system the Department has once again let down vulnerable people and, incidentally, increased staff stress. Will the Minister now give an assurance to the House that all those who call Jobcentre Plus before the end of this weekif they can get throughwill be called in for an appointment and have benefit paid to them before Christmas?
Margaret Hodge: It was an internal survey that we undertook to see how the new system was bedding down and I agree with hon. Members that problems occurred with its introduction. I assure the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) that the most recent statisticsfor performance in the second week of Novembershow that nearly 90 per cent. of calls were answered, which reaches our standard. Claims for both income support and incapacity benefit are being processed above standard, but the processing of claims for jobseekers allowance is falling a little below standard, and we will seek to make improvements. I see no problems in the future like those we have seen in the past.
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Margaret Hodge):
Our welfare reforms will help us to reach our aspiration to increase further the number of people in work, so that we enjoy an 80 per cent. employment rate in the UK. Our incapacity benefit reforms will support that aim by opening up employment opportunities to many more people. Our
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broad estimate is that the reforms will help 1 million people into work who might otherwise be claiming incapacity benefits.
Richard Ottaway: I thank the Minister for that clear answer. Will the time-limiting of incapacity be permitted? Her Department seems to be against it, the Prime Minister is for it and, when the Secretary of State was asked the other day, he was silent on the matter. Could the Minister give a hint about the way that issue is going?
Margaret Hodge: The hon. Gentleman will know that we will abide entirely by what we have said in our manifesto and in the five-year plan. I suggest that he read both documents[Interruption.] They are consistent with each other. He should then await the publication of the Green Paper, which is now promised in January.
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that reforming benefits on its own may remove disincentives from the system, but not necessarily get people off incapacity benefit and into work? Extra help is needed, perhaps using the new deal for the unemployed and the new pathways-to-work programme. Indeed, it has been shown recently that rehabilitation is the key to getting more people off benefit and into work.
Margaret Hodge: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's comments. If we simply consider the benefit, we will not provide the opportunity that we want to give to many people who have been locked into dependency on incapacity benefit for so long. We need not just to provide the support that has been demonstrated to work effectively in the pathways-to-work programme, but to consider intervening early to prevent people from even starting on that journey on incapacity benefit, by providing proper health service support in the early stages. We should also to consider the whole process through which people travel on their journey on to incapacity benefit to find out whether that cannot be more effectively administered and implemented.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): At one of my surgeries recently, a gentleman staggered into the office, walked very slowly up to my desk, sat down and said, "I have been on incapacity benefit. I have doctors' and consultants' certificates saying that I cannot possibly work, yet I have now been put on to job seeker's allowance." When he asked why, he was told, "It's because the Government want to get people off incapacity benefit." Will the Minister comment on that case?
I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman understood the processes by now. Existing claimants are regularly called in and reassessed to find out whether they remain eligible for benefit. Unless the hon. Gentleman provides me with details to the contrary, I am sure that the constituent to whom he refers was called in, probably examined by doctors who work with our system, and reassessed as being capable of work. May I make a final comment? The problem with the current system is that all we do is check people's
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eligibility for the benefit by assessing their incapacity. What we want to do is look at what people can dotheir capabilitiesso that they can contribute to the world of work and, of course, support their own families and feel the self-esteem that comes from being able to work.
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): The Minister has referred again to this 1 million figure for the number of people whom the Government want to take off incapacity benefit and get into work, but is she aware that the claimant count level of unemployment in the economy generally has been rising for the past nine months? The background is getting more difficult. Is that why the Prime Minister and his policy unit are reported as wanting to time-limit incapacity benefit and pay it by way of vouchers rather than cash, presumably to force people into work when his other policies have failed? Will the Minister now clarify that point because a great deal of confusion and concern has been caused by the row between her Department and No. 10? Otherwise, we must wait yet more months for the much-delayed discussion document or Green Paper.
Margaret Hodge: May I say two things? First, the right hon. Gentleman will know that we have been incredibly successful in growing the number of jobs in the economy, and that it is not a shortage of jobs that has led to the unfortunate and accepted slight increase in the claimant count for jobseeker's allowance in recent months. There are other factors at play and we are working to tackle them.
Secondly, our entire agenda is not driven by cutting benefits. That agenda was familiar to many Opposition Members for decade after decade. Our agenda is about ensuring that, in the same way that we have introduced a range of civil rights for people with disabilities and health problems that help them to gain access to goods and services, we now introduce the right and opportunity for individuals to enjoy the benefits of work.
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