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13 July 2006 : Column 532WH—continued

4.13 pm

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): It is good to appear before you, Mr. Taylor; I am more comfortable when you chair proceedings than when you question me. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), who opened the debate in a way that characterises his role and the tone that he uses in his chairmanship of the Select Committee. He continues to earn great credit across the House for the exceptionally diligent manner in which he performs that role.

I say again that I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency on Monday next week to see how some of the issues and programme initiatives about which we have been speaking and which are a success in my constituency, have been working in Bradford. Despite some of the concerns raised, everybody substantially acknowledges the very high quality of service delivery and support for the majority of Jobcentre Plus customers.

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I have observations to make about the tone in which the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) started his comments, but I shall start where he left off. We all know, through personal or family experience, or our experience as Members of Parliament—although that is a little detached—how Jobcentre Plus has to work, and its predecessor agencies had to, to support the most vulnerable in our society and those who, often through no fault of their own, find themselves in a very difficult position.

A period of unemployment is unsettling in so many different ways—reduced personal confidence and self-esteem, impact on family, uncertainty about the future, material uncertainty, family breakdown, child poverty and many others. We acknowledge that across the House. Staff in the Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus know that as much, if not more, than we parliamentarians. I should like to put that on record; it should be reflected in how we conduct our debate and conversation, and how in the vast majority of cases we, as an organisation, support such folk in an effective way. However, on occasions, yes, people are let down. It is important to reflect on that when it happens and learn from it. That should be the tone of my comments today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North paid tribute to Jobcentre Plus as an organisation and the staff individually and collectively. I have a sense that Jobcentre Plus, and the way in which it has been brought together from its predecessor organisations, is now genuinely remarkable. Since its creation in 2002, Jobcentre Plus has helped more than 850,000 people into work, including 100,000 lone parents. It has supported 60,000 people with health conditions or disabilities to get the chance to get back into the workplace. Despite recent trends in the jobseeker’s allowance claimant count, about which I shall speak later, that support has contributed significantly to the observation, made by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, that the UK has a combination of the best employment level and the healthiest position in respect of economic inactivity of any of the G7 countries.

I shall fracture the consensus for a moment, because the hon. Member for Daventry was uncharacteristically harsh in his political observations about the impact of parts of the Select Committee report and the wider political ramifications. He overstated his case. I say that having known him for a number of years. I remember visiting him when he was a Minister and I was president of the National Union of Students. I had great affection for the way in which he personally carried out that job. Of course, I disagreed with some of his policies, but the way in which he carried himself personally earned him great credit. During my conversations with him when he was Minister with responsibility for higher education, I always had the sense that I was playing the ball rather than the man—I was arguing with the policy, not the individual. So I thought his comments today uncharacteristically harsh.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s encomium. Given that we are talking about jobseekers, it would be improper to follow him along that route, other than to say that we had an entirely pleasant professional relationship, which I hope will continue.

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However, I say to the Minister in all seriousness that there is a problem of dissatisfaction and disaffection, and that what is involved is slightly more than just a mistake by Ministers. Something is upsetting people and it goes wider than his Department. It will not be solved today, but I should like him to take it seriously.

Mr. Murphy: We do take such issues seriously, and I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s point. However, the situation now is a world away from the time when it was a matter of explicit Government policy to allow child poverty to become the highest in the European Union and incapacity benefit levels to treble, and when vast, grotesque unemployment rates were tolerated.

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. May I bring the Minister back to the topic of the debate, which is the Select Committee report on the efficiency savings programme?

Mr. Murphy: Of course, Mr. Taylor, but the point that I was making in response to the hon. Gentleman was that there is a world of difference between the frustrations about administrative and organisational difficulties that were identified in the report, and the public policy during some of the 1990s.

Our innovative labour market policies and the work of Jobcentre Plus have been examined by more than 750,000 official international visitors to the UK who wanted to learn from our effective, modern approach to employment support. It is in no small part because of innovations in Jobcentre Plus that other nations seek to learn from our experience. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) asked about the Australian model and experience. We are always happy to learn from international experience in the same way as others are keen to learn from us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North spoke about significant improvements, but said that there were still challenges ahead. There are many of them. Last month, we celebrated the opening of our 800th new-style Jobcentre Plus office. Of course success is not simply about the policies that we put in practice and the ground-breaking design of our offices but about our people and the quality of the support that they give to our customers in towns, cities and villages around the country. The centres support people who often are vulnerable and who have complex needs but also aspirations. We must play our part in helping to fulfil those aspirations.

I wholeheartedly support the Committee’s tribute to the staff. Since joining the Department a couple of months ago, I have been struck by their dedication and expertise in serving claimants and jobseekers and in working with our other principal customers, the employers. I am pleased that the Committee recognised the staff’s professionalism.

The vast majority of Jobcentre Plus customers receive a good service. For 2005-06, customer service satisfaction levels were above our targets, at 85 per cent. for customers and 87 per cent. for employers, but we must go further. I believe in the need to embed continued public service reform and responsiveness outside our strict target regime, in the need for
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good-quality, scientifically researched customer services and in the need increasingly to drive personalisation and improvement in public service provision. Jobcentre Plus has those challenges ahead.

A challenge was included in an announcement last Tuesday to Parliament about our Welfare Reform Bill, when I announced the national extension of our pathways to work programme. Jobcentre Plus has a vital role to play in the success of our innovative welfare reform strategy. The pathways strategy, which is internationally renowned, is a holistic approach to tackling health-related, personal and external barriers that people face in returning to work. It is already changing many thousands of lives for the better. The tailored, personalised support offered by pathways empowers individuals. It is an essential change of emphasis in respect of our incapacity benefit customers, and we wish to see the approach replicated nationwide and facilitated by the private and voluntary sectors. It will enable us substantially to capture some of the capacity, expertise and talents that exist in those sectors.

In that context, we aspire to an 80 per cent. employment rate, which would mean that 1 million people were helped off incapacity benefit, and 300,000 lone parents and 1 million older workers were helped back into work. That will mean reaching out to those whom the tide of opportunity has so far not reached, and we will have to listen to our customers to shape our services to achieve that ambition.

I shall respond to some of the comments made in the report and observations made in this debate. I apologise if I am not able to respond to every point, but if hon. Members feel that I have not fairly responded to their concerns, I am happy either to meet with them or to correspond with them on specific points.

Hon. Members rightly expect Jobcentre Plus, like all public services, to be challenged to deliver its services more efficiently and effectively. The hon. Member for Daventry expressed his continuing support in principle for the challenges of the Gershon agenda. I am pleased that Jobcentre Plus has met the cost and staffing reduction targets that we set for it last year, but I fully understand the Committee’s concerns that our efficiency drive may have impacted on customer service.

We take the Committee’s comments seriously. Action has been or is being taken to address them, but our view of the severity of some of the issues raised in the report differs in some important respects from that of the Committee. I may have a chance to reflect on them in a moment.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) is still in her place. Her presence publicly symbolises her continuing commitment to Sure Start, which supports those who remain outside the labour market. Among them are those who are the most vulnerable, particularly young mums. However, statistics show that of those who are entitled to support through family centres, one in 10 are young dads. That point is often missed in public debate.

I share my hon. Friend’s concern about the link between Sure Start, children’s centres, Jobcentre Plus, employment advisers and outreach work. In fact, I have asked that we consider in greater detail how we can strengthen Jobcentre Plus interaction with the children’s centres, which have been a remarkable
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innovation and a phenomenal investment in recent years. In time to come, we will wonder what was in their place just a few years ago.

I recently visited a children’s centre in Harpurhey, which is one of the poorest areas of Manchester. The children’s centre provides support and advice to young mums—there was one young dad there, but mostly young mums. It was built on the site of a derelict car park. The opportunities that have been created by that facility are an antidote to the sense that politics changes nothing. We know that that is not the case, but we have to go further and strengthen the links with Jobcentre Plus.

We must be live to the concerns that my hon. Friend raised about the centres being an opportunity for those with the sharpest elbows to access an important public service. We must ensure that the centres are an important way for young mums and dads to have the chance to get back into the labour market or, importantly, for people to get into the labour market for the first time. We rightly concentrate on getting people back into the labour market. The debate is not framed around getting people into the labour market for the first time.

In respect of outreach work and the general issue about contact with the public, several concerns were raised in the report and in the debate about contact centres. I do not represent a rural constituency, but I recognise that there are issues about the most effective, appropriate and convenient way to maintain contact with Jobcentre Plus customers. Many of our customers wish to interact by telephone and, increasingly, through IT and the website, but for some that is not appropriate. We must remain vigilant about ensuring that the right opportunities remain in place for those customers.

Outreach work through children’s centres is important, as are opportunities to carry out business by post and through home visits. I would like staff increasingly to go to other facilities such as council offices and public libraries to interact with our customers. If there are specific problems in hon. Members’ constituencies—if that interaction is not happening—I would be happy to correspond or meet with them to discuss those problems.

We must have greater ambitions. I have seen some genuinely inspiring projects in the past couple of weeks. I am sure that others will have seen or been involved in similar initiatives. In Vauxhall, which is one of the poorest wards in Liverpool, the streets ahead project—outreach work involving knocking on people’s doors—would have been almost unimaginable some years ago. Such interaction is not dependent on the Government. Streets ahead and voluntary organisations bring together all the agencies that are involved in this field, and interact on people’s doorsteps.

I saw a similar project in the east end of Glasgow. It, too, involved knocking on citizens’ and customers’ doors and interacting in an innovative way that has not happened previously.

Mr. Rooney: I take my hon. Friend’s point. He is right.

4.30 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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4.45 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Rooney: There is a danger of we parliamentarians grouping people together and thinking that they cannot do anything, but we should recognise the tremendous amount of internet transactions that are made. We also need to learn from the private sector, which does not deny customers access to goods because they cannot use a particular form of communication. We need to bear that in mind.

I repeat the point about those with mental illnesses, for whom telephoning is absolutely inappropriate. That is not the only problem; there are also delays after the claim has been made. Such people are not allowed just to wander into an office to check progress. The only way to check progress is on the telephone, and then they finish up in a citizens advice bureau or in our surgeries.

Mr. Jim Murphy: My hon. Friend is right. For those with mental illnesses or learning disabilities, That is the nature of the challenge that we face in trying to support 1 million people who may have mental illnesses or learning disabilities to come off incapacity benefit and get closer to the labour market. Those with mental illnesses represent the biggest inflow on to incapacity benefit.

Mr. Boswell: I strongly agree with the tenor of those comments. Does the Minister agree that it would be bizarre and unacceptable if his Department, which has lead responsibility for disability issues, was failing to implement the public disability duty that is imposed by the Equality Act 2006?

Mr. Murphy: There is no question whatever of that occurring. Our efforts to support a net reduction of 1 million in the number of people on incapacity benefit will be assisted by support from pathways-style personal advisers, who are renowned as having been a success.

To return to the point about contact centres and outreach, I acknowledge the significant problems that some contact centres experienced with the telephone service last year. However, a process is now in place for managing work flows and matching them to staff resources, and that process has been tested. Jobcentre Plus successfully managed the annual peak in call volume in January this year and has strengthened its contingency planning. I am confident that we now have effective strategies for maintaining service during the peak staff leave period over the summer, and I have asked officials and management of Jobcentre Plus to ensure that that is indeed the case.

When problems arose last summer, Jobcentre Plus put in place temporary working arrangements in a limited number of contact centres, which was the appropriate thing to do. Based on the efforts that are being made in Jobcentre Plus, I am confident that we will not see a repeat of the problems of last summer. However, those difficulties were not caused by staff cuts, as has been suggested. In fact, Jobcentre Plus is building up its contact centre network and was recruiting contact centre staff during the period in which problems arose. For a period, standards were not what they should have been, but that was the result of a
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transition to a new way of delivering our services that will ultimately enable us to support our customers more effectively.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) raised some points about value for money and IT. We will provide the Committee with the cost of future IT systems and information on the negotiations with Electronic Data Systems in a report to the Committee before the summer recess. The hon. Member for Daventry made a further point about financial issues. In answer to him, I can say that we will give the Committee the unaudited performance and resource accounts for 2005-06 before the recess as well.

John Penrose: Will the details that the Minister plans to provide also include information about any additional efficiencies that the new IT systems are supposed to create and any implications that they will have for staffing, resources and potential job cuts, in addition to those already envisaged in the agency?

Mr. Murphy: I shall reflect on whether it is possible to provide the additional information that the hon. Gentleman has requested.

In relation to official error, which was raised by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey and the hon. Member for Daventry, it is generally acknowledged that the amount of fraud has halved since 1998. As the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey said, the error taskforce, chaired by the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), is considering ways to drive down official error. My hon. Friend will be providing more detail on the strategy to tackle error and Jobcentre Plus will monitor the action plan closely. However, underpinning the establishment of that taskforce is the acknowledgement that we have to do more about official error. Simplification is one way to overcome it. We should be looking for ways to simplify a benefits system that is complicated for our customers and our staff. That is one of the issues that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is considering.

The target of completing Jobcentre Plus roll-out by July will have been met in all but about 10 or 12 cases, and in those it is a matter of making necessary alterations to buildings to enable what is generally regarded as a remarkable transformation in the culture and layout of the offices in which the unemployed receive support and advice. Next week in Wales I shall formally open the last Jobcentre Plus office, which will mark the fact that last Jobcentre Plus roll-out has been completed throughout Wales.

On the performance disparity mentioned by hon. Members, it is unacceptable that someone on jobseeker’s allowance or any other benefit in Glasgow, for example, receives a different level of support from that available in Gillingham or elsewhere. This is about strong performance management. Occasionally, there are management disparities at local and district levels and elsewhere and we have continually to drive to ensure that, while we retain some flexibility on decision making at local level, people receive a similar level of support in terms of interventions at 13 and 26 weeks. Such interventions have sometimes not been strong enough.

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