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13 July 2006 : Column 513WH—continued

If that was just a problem of the nationally published, publicly available numbers, that might be all right if the Government had at their fingertips detailed information that portrayed the local variations, particularly where there was a significant local problem, with one or two contact centres falling down on the job. However, in recommendation 23 we mentioned that there had been a national failure of the customer management system on 18 January. We were surprised about something just a week later, when both the chief executive and the Minister gave evidence to the Committee. The Government’s response acknowledged:

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They rightly provided it subsequently in answer to supplementary questions. The fact that they were not aware of the incident raises significant questions about the degree of leadership and management grip on performance in the important area of the contact centres.

Mr. Boswell: Does my hon. Friend agree that if there is to be effective management, accurate reporting of information to them, whether or not it reaches the House, is essential, because there is no chance for senior management unless they have a system that tells them what is happening in their organisation?

John Penrose: I completely agree with that point. Without effective information, any management in any organisation, be it in the public or private sector, are flying blind.

It is deeply concerning if insufficient private detail is available to Ministers. The fact that they were not aware of the situation that we raised in recommendation 23 indicates that perhaps there was insufficient private detail.

To pick up on the point made by the Chairman of the Committee, in recommendation 20 we asked for current performance measurement systems to be improved. We recommended that

At that point, as the Chairman of the Committee said, the Government said, “Well, we cannot possibly reveal this, because the principle of confidentiality applies”, and they referred us to their response to recommendation 8. It contains a sentence of such Orwellian doublespeak that it is worth reading out:

That is apparently written without any hint of irony, and I did not know whether to laugh or cry when I read it. Exactly which bit of national security is threatened by publishing this information? Exactly which part of the defence of the realm will be undermined if the information is made public? We are not even asking for all the detail; we are asking for the information every six months, not every quarter, and the Government can publish a sanitised version if they like. However, the numbers should be available. Is there is an issue of commercial confidentiality? Well, no. Is there is an issue of legal privilege? Again, no.

This is hardly a commitment to open government, and I am afraid that the suspicion may be that, because they are unwilling to publish these numbers, the situation remains poor, or is not improving as fast as it should. The Chairman of the Committee has said that, had we realised exactly how bad the situation was when we began this inquiry, we would have allocated more time to it. The fact that there is a continuing dearth of publicly available information on this leads many of us to fear that the situation is not improving as fast as it should. We are sure that if the Government were improving
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the situation as fast as they claim, they would trumpet their success promptly and proudly. I look forward to the Minister’s explaining the situation to us and giving us lots of detail on how it has been improved. Perhaps he will commit to producing that information on a regular basis in future.

The second item that I want to raise is the problem of the customer management system, which we mentioned in recommendations 26 and 27. The Chairman of the Committee alluded to severe problems with poor staff morale in the agency. That extends over a long period, and one of the frequently mentioned reasons is problems with the CMS. When we began our inquiry, the system had already been through two different versions: CMS1 and CMS2. CMS3 was being rolled out and was, in a few places, allegedly causing fewer problems, but the first two releases were absolutely dreadful and we heard a huge amount of evidence about the problems that they had created.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question mark about leadership in Jobcentre Plus and referred to CMS. The explanation in the Government’s response to the report was that the Minister and Chief Executive did not know that there had been a full CMS failure the week before the Committee sitting. Does that not show a lack of leadership that needs to be addressed?

John Penrose: The hon. Gentleman raises a point that I made earlier; I have already covered that. Clearly, it is an issue that needs to be brought forward and a grip must be taken on it, particularly because the Government in their response on that very question said that that was part of a pattern of failures in other parts of the country as well.

To return to my more general point about CMS, the system has cost more than £360 million to develop and install so far. We now discover that it is already due to be replaced. The Committee, logically and reasonably, asked why on earth, if it was due to be replaced and had not yet been completed satisfactorily, all that money was spent on it in the first place and whether anything would remain of the vast amount of taxpayers’ money that was sunk into the project.

In their answers to recommendations 26 and 27, the Government said that new proposals were being developed to deal with proposals in the Green Paper on benefits reforms, and I am sure that the Committee understands that IT changes must reflect changes in policy. However, it would be useful to know how much of the latest version of CMS was expected still to be in use and how much of that £360 million-plus of taxpayers’ money would still be deriving some benefit for the nation one year, three years and five years from now, or whether the entire investment was due to be junked in short order.

In recommendation 27 we ask whether the planned new system is worth while. I presume that it will be more efficient and is being introduced because it will create some benefits. We also asked:

That does not mean efficiency savings that are currently planned under the Gershon targets. If the new system is introduced, will there be a still more efficient Department
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as a result? If so, that would be welcome news because presumably the Government would expect some sort of return on the additional investment of who knows how many millions that the new IT system will require. If efficiency savings are made, all of us and particularly the staff in the Department for Work and Pensions deserve to know whether their jobs will be at risk and what further reorganisations are due to take place. I echo the point made by the Chairman of the Committee that the Department has already taken on four major reorganisations and that this is the fifth. The Department fell flat on its nose doing four and if it is to undertake a fifth major reorganisation we need to have more details about it. How much will it yield, how much will it cost and when will it happen? If savings are not planned, why is the Department planning to spend yet more money on yet another new IT system, given the undistinguished record of the CMS so far?

My final point is about the Government’s employment projects. We asked a series of questions, culminating in our recommendation 55. We asked the Government to publish more details about the success of building on the new deal, general new deal funding and other suggestions, including about ambition and a reduction in the use and scale of the adviser discretion fund. When it made that recommendation, the Committee was worried that the trend in funding of the various initiatives was either sideways or downwards. They are all clearly essential to this part of the Department’s work in terms of bringing people closer to the job market, preparing them for work and getting them into work. They have been much trumpeted as essential ways of intervening and supporting and helping people who are far away from the job market to prepare them for work.

If those initiatives are successful, they should pay for themselves, and we should surely increase the amount of money that is spent on them because the investment would pay off hugely over time. If they are failing, should we not cut them entirely because they have not worked, and should we not should stop wasting money and try something new? The Government have already suggested some variations and new ideas in the Green Paper of a few months ago. A general and gentle sideways to downward trend in funding begs the question whether they are failing and no one wants to admit to it, or whether they are a massive success but are being throttled and prevented from doing what good they could do. We are asking the Government to give us details about which of the two options it is and, when they have given those details, either to fund the programmes a great deal more generously so that more people have a better chance of getting back into work, or to cut them, save the taxpayer some money and redeploy the resources, if necessary, elsewhere. I am afraid that in the Government’s response to the report there is insufficient detail even to begin to answer those questions, and I urge the Minister to address the issue because both we and those who are looking for work need to know.

3.7 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I congratulate the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), on a thoughtful presentation of a report that is uninspiringly entitled
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“The Efficiency Savings Programme in Jobcentre Plus”. As he made clear, it is very much to do with people.

I am looking for some reassurance from the Minister about the protection of outreach work by Jobcentre Plus. That is crucial if Jobcentre Plus is moving from being a face-to-face service to a contact service organisation. That protection is crucial for all the reasons that my hon. Friend outlined and are stated in the report.

One area of interest to me is the Sure Start projects that are rolling out in children’s centres. As my hon. Friend knows and as the Minister is well aware, those projects encourage intervention in families’ lives at an early stage so that children grow up with equal opportunities. The underlying principle of that is support for parents, and part of that support is help for those whom the benefits system has failed over a number of years and who may never have worked to get them into a work situation. Jobcentre Plus, which brought together the benefits system and the Employment Service, was an attempt to tackle that, with the emphasis on advisers and on training staff to provide advice to groups who might find it harder to get into work.

The Sure Start project had a target for the number of families whom it would help into work. I am not totally sure, but I think that that target is being transferred to the new children’s centres. As the Minister knows, a recent report on the effectiveness of the Sure Start projects identified that even in Sure Start areas where there are universal services, the more advantaged tend to take up the services offered. There is still concern that the most vulnerable families are not being reached. Of course, those are exactly the families with parents who have probably never worked, and we are trying to get them into work. If we can get them into the children’s centres, it is important that there is an outreach worker from Jobcentre Plus who can talk to them about the jobs that are available locally. Jobs are available in Stockport. That outreach worker will also be able to talk to them about the in-work benefits that they will receive and to help them over the difficult transition from not working to having the confidence to go into work.

I would be very concerned if any of that outreach work was compromised in any way, not only because individual children’s centres would not meet their targets but because our welfare-to-work programme would be compromised. More important, those families would miss a really good opportunity, given that jobs are available, to make the transition from not working to working .

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Does the hon. Lady agree that one advantage of that face-to-face contact is that families can build up a personal relationship with the adviser? Such a relationship is not possible when people speak to a different faceless person on the phone every time they contact the Jobcentre.

Ann Coffey: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That was the underlying principle when we set up Jobcentre Plus with advisers. There was a recognition that something a bit extra was needed. That goes back to the reason why I am seeking a reassurance from the
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Minister that outreach work will not be compromised by a nationally driven policy or by management decisions taken locally by Jobcentre Plus managers.

Having said that, I should add that a Jobcentre Plus opened in my constituency a couple of months ago, and it will make a huge difference. It is in new premises and replaces a very dilapidated Benefits Agency office, and that sends a very good message to people about the help that is available. That is a good thing, as is the whole Jobcentre Plus initiative. I simply seek a reassurance that outreach work will continue to be valued in any changes and that resources will be made available so that it can continue.

3.13 pm

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): I congratulate the Select Committee Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), on his presentation. It was no mean feat, given that we were in discussions all morning about our latest report, which is on pension reform. It is amazing that he has a clear head and that he gave such an excellent presentation. It is also amazing that he has delivered the report that he has, given that it is the first to be produced by the new Work and Pensions Committee. Bar two old hands, the rest of the Committee’s members were all new to the game of work and pensions and to delivering such a report. It is an excellent report, not only because of the circumstances, but because it really gets to the difficulties. It draws attention to the serious issues not only of Jobcentre Plus, but of the impact on claimants—the vulnerable people for whom Jobcentre Plus cares.

I hope to stay for the whole debate, but I apologise if I cannot do so because I am due for tea at No. 10 with the Prime Minister’s wife. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I thought that I would get that into the debate. It is one of those occasions when she invites three needy local schoolchildren from various MPs’ constituencies to tea with her, and it is the turn of my constituents’ children. That is a great excuse, and I thought that I would put it on the record.

At my last advice surgery, I had a constituency case that is relevant to the debate. A couple came in, and the man was unemployed. He was actively looking for work and he was keen to get it. His wife did a bit of cleaning work. However, they had a two-year-old and a seven-month-old child, both of whom were very active—and great kids they were, too. The family was made homeless, and the council rehoused them in a totally unfurnished property—there was not a scrap of furniture or a bed for those two children.

The couple went to the Jobcentre Plus to ask for a community care grant, which is not unreasonable, given that they had two vulnerable children. However, they were rejected. I looked at their application, and the amount that they were claiming was not excessive, given that they wanted to buy beds and things and that they were starting from scratch. Perhaps the Jobcentre Plus staff should have said that the family could have only a bed or the basics to start with and that the amount should be reduced. However, they did not do that and they did not give the family advice—they just said no. The couple could have appealed, but an appeal takes months. As a result, they could not get the money
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when they needed it. The problem is not just that they were rejected, but that the Jobcentre Plus people did not have the time to sit down with them and say, “I don’t think this bid’s going succeed, but why don’t you try this other route to meet your need?”

That is part of the pressure that we have seen and which the report is all about. There is a staff head-count reduction and pressure on staff, and that has an impact on the service to vulnerable individuals, which is wrong.

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): The hon. Gentleman has just raised the important issue of the work load, particularly on the advisers, who do a very good job under extremely difficult circumstances. Does he share my concern, which is reflected in one of the recommendations that we made in the report, about the need for improved administration support for advisers to free up their time so that they can spend more time giving advice? Does he also share my concern that instead of giving us a response on that issue and telling us how many administrative support staff they are recruiting to overcome the problems, the Government have given us the number of mangers that they are recruiting?

Harry Cohen: That is a valid point, and I note that one of the Government’s answers says that they are turning 9,000 staff into front-line staff. Of course, we need front-line staff, too, but they need support if they are to operate efficiently. We cannot cut one group and say that we will get a full service. The hon. Lady’s point is well made.

We have had a briefing from the citizens advice bureau, which tells us:

It then lists some key messages, which I want to put on the record:

The briefing continues:

Examples are given of vulnerable people—one with, I think, a mental health problem, another who was an old lady with a disability, and another who was suffering domestic violence—who were not getting the right service, because of the restriction on how their cases could be processed, and, in particular, the telephone system that did not work properly. The briefing states:

That is the view of Citizens Advice, which works in the field with the most vulnerable people.

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