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We are again working with others. Mention has been made of our work with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and local authorities to see how we can pull together the areas of benefits, tax credits and housing benefit, which are often seen as separate. We have had success with the initial pilot in the north-east, and the scheme is now operating in seven other areas. It has reduced the amount of time taken to process those different parts of someone’s financial package. In addition, when someone is making the transition from being on benefits to being in work, their knowing that that process and its financial meaning will be worked
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out quickly is an important incentive. I agree with the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) that better-off calculations are useful at any stage, but they are most useful where there is a job for someone to go to, and where people can see joined-up thinking and what things will mean for themselves and their family.

We are working on collecting information once and sharing it more accurately and quickly to make it easier for customers to get the financial support that they need if they lose their job. That enables them to focus their attention on getting back to work. A working group across Jobcentre Plus, the Pension Service and the disability and carers service has been set up to make improvements in how we deal with customers who need access to disability services and working-age or pensions support, and customers making the transition from working-age to pensions support.

A number of contributions were made in this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North talked about error, and I acknowledge that that is an important factor to which we must attend. Initially we looked at reducing fraud, because we saw that as a priority. I think that the loss of resources through fraud is at two thirds of its 1997 level. We are now focusing on the problem of error. In January, the Department launched a comprehensive and ambitious strategy for reducing official and customer error across all benefits, entitled “Getting welfare right”. We aim to deliver estimated savings of about £1 billion over the next five years to 2012. I agree with the comments made about the fact that some of this is helped by simplification, and as has been rightly pointed out, some customers make mistakes because the system is too complex for them to navigate.

My hon. Friend talked about transitional protection, which, again, is one of those legacy issues that we inherited. We heard comments this afternoon about how everybody complains about the system, but there is no shortage of people wanting to add on to the system. We have to be more disciplined about our approach. My final comments will draw attention to the debate that we must have following on from the Select Committee report on how the benefits system of the future might operate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) made an intervention about council tax benefit. It is a rebate. People’s council tax accounts are rebated at source by the local authority. Renaming it as a rebate may encourage more people to claim, and we will consider renaming it as part of our wider consideration of future delivery.

The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) made several points. He mentioned the cost of phone calls, and that was picked up by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). Concerns have been addressed and we try to keep the cost as low as possible. We are encouraging our staff to make the point that they can ring people back. It is an area that we are keeping under close attention, but people want to be able to ring in to access the services. There has been no reduction in the numbers coming forward and, although it may not be the answer for everybody, phones are available in Jobcentre Plus offices free of charge.

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Several hon. Members mentioned data handling, including a couple who said that I had not replied to their questions. They will receive answers to those questions. The Department is conducting a rigorous review of all data handling procedures to ensure that data security is paramount. We have consistently given this issue high priority and we have been praised by the former data protection commissioner for that work. However, nobody in government should be complacent. Whatever procedures are in place, they are only as good as the people who implement them and understand them, and we all need to take responsibility for making them a success.

The issue of the Post Office card account was raised. It has been confirmed that there will be a POCA2. The tendering process is under way and the successful contractor will be announced in the summer of 2008.

Members have rightly pointed out that some disabled people undergo different assessments for different benefits. Not all disabled people claim more than one benefit and clearly we need to be careful in those circumstances not to ask unnecessary and potentially intrusive questions, but we are considering the feasibility of building into the employment and support allowance claims process a way of automatically identifying some cases with potential entitlement to DLA, for example. We are trying to deal with the issues in a more efficient and productive way.

The better-off in work guarantee, which was announced by the Prime Minister and which we are following through in our Department, offers an exciting opportunity to make the chance to move from benefits to work a reality for people. Some potential issues have been raised this afternoon, and we are considering how the scheme might be trialled next year. We will need to see how successful the new guarantee is, but it is an important step forward that will enable us to do much more than at present to convince people that they will have a higher income in work than on benefits.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood talked about the four different sets of backdating rules for different benefits. She was right to draw attention to that issue. From October next year, pension credit backdating rules will be aligned with working-age benefits to make the maximum period three months. At the same time, to maintain alignment, backdating of housing and council tax benefit for pensioners and working-age customers will be reduced to three months. That aligns with the other income-related benefits—income support, jobseeker’s allowance and tax credits. We have a lot of work in progress that will meet the concerns expressed by hon. Members.

My hon. Friend also talked about letters, and we have a review in progress of that area. Any ideas will be gratefully received.

On the question of a single system, I accept that the present system is not perfect. I am not even sure that there is a perfect system, because a single system could be a very blunt instrument under which some people could lose out in a way that none of us would want to see. As with anything, good intentions do not always produce the outcomes that would make a difference. The Committee, the IPPR and others have made several helpful suggestions as to what a better system might look like, and we are on record as saying that there may be advantages in moving to a single system of working-age benefits. I can confirm that we are very
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interested in the issue. Simplification could make the system more effective, but I warn hon. Members that it is not an end in itself.

The benefits system should be a powerful force for social justice. It should help people when they are in need, ensure that they are not condemned to poverty and recognise the contributions that they make to society, such as caring for others. It should also encourage them to build a better future for themselves and their families. For the vast majority of people, work is the way to achieve all that.

We must promote work as the best route out of poverty, provide value for money for the taxpayer and set clear obligations so that customers understand their responsibilities. We must also ensure that the rules are straightforward and provide fair and consistent treatment. That is the way ahead.

It being Seven o’clock, Mr. Speaker proceeded to put forthwith the deferred Questions relating to Estimates, pu rsuant to Standing Order No. 54 (4) and (5) (Consideration of estimates).


Cabinet Office


Department for Work and Pensions


Mr. Speaker then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions required to be put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 55 (Questions on voting of estimates, &c.)





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That a Bill be brought in on the foregoing resolutions: And that the Chairman of Ways and Means, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Andy Burnham, Jane Kennedy, Angela Eagle and Kitty Ussher do prepare and bring it in.


Jane Kennedy accordingly presented a Bill to authorise the use of resources for the service of the years ending with 31st March 2008 and 31st March 2009 and to apply certain sums out of the Consolidated Fund to the service of the years ending with 31st March 2008 and 31st March 2009: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed [Bill 14].


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees) ,

Stamp Duty Land Tax

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees) ,


Question agreed to.


Carer’s Allowance

7.2 pm

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): This petition has been organised by Gateshead carers association and has been signed by 2,850 residents of Gateshead and the surrounding area. The petitioners recognise the all- important and crucial role of millions of carers across the UK. They also recognise the improvements made to carers allowances and support services, but wish to see adjustments to the allowance system to improve the lot of carers further. The petition reads:


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Post Office Closures (Brighton)

7.3 pm

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): I wish to present a petition opposing the proposed closure of the post office at 13, Preston road, Brighton. The petition is in the name of Nancy Platts, and is signed by 644 residents and people who work in the area where the post office is situated.

The petition says:


Post Office Closures (North-West Glasgow)

7.4 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I present a petition, signed by more than 4,000 residents of my constituency and the surrounding area, about prospective post office closures and the hardships that will be felt by people both in my constituency and in the area around it.

The petition states:


5 Dec 2007 : Column 934

Scallop Dredging (Lyme Bay)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Michael Foster.]

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