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Post Office Card Account

13. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): If he will make a statement on the tendering process being undertaken by his Department for the new Post Office card account. [216462]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): I was under the impression that the question had been withdrawn, but I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is here.

Mr. Speaker: The Minister is right. However, because the hon. Gentleman arrived in the Chamber before his question was called, I used my discretion. My apologies to the Minister.

Mr. Plaskitt: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is here. The tendering process is that which is set down by law. It commenced in May 2007, with the publication of the official contract notice, and is proceeding in accordance with the established timetable. In accordance with the rules, the process is being led by officials. Ministers are not directly involved. An announcement on the successful bidder will be made as soon as possible.

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful for your generosity, Mr. Speaker; I did not expect to be in the Chamber at this time. I am glad that I am and that the Minister cannot get off the hook that easily. Given that the Government have basically decimated post offices in Shropshire, not least in my constituency, closing Sambrook, Church Aston and King Street, Wellington, will the Minister give an undertaking, not only to post offices in Shropshire but to those throughout the country, that the tender process will be transparent, open and fair, and will allow those postmasters who want to continue to provide this service every opportunity to do so?

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Mr. Plaskitt: The process will certainly be fair, because we are scrupulously following the strict rules laid down by the Public Contract Regulations 2006. If the hon. Gentleman cares to study those regulations, he will see that the process is led by officials and that Ministers are not involved. I cannot therefore give him any reassurances about the outcome, and it would be inappropriate for me to make any comment about any potential bidder. At this stage, I know that the Post Office is a bidder because it has publicly said so. I am unaware of who the other bidders are, however, and that is as it should be. As I have said, the process is being led by officials, and there will be an announcement as soon as we can make one.

Topical Questions

T1. [216439] Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): Employers have a key role to play in helping us to reach our aspiration of an 80 per cent. employment rate, which is why we have developed our local employment partnerships. The partnerships are flourishing and by the end of last month more than 2,800 employers had recruited through the partnerships, providing work for nearly 13,000 people. I am pleased to be able to report that the number of jobs coming through the programme is increasing week on week and that, in the last week of June, for the first time ever, more than 1,000 people found work through the partnerships in a single week.

Andrew Gwynne: I very much welcome what my right hon. Friend has just said, but does he agree that one of the best ways of tackling future pensioner poverty is to encourage today’s workers to save for their future, and that it is therefore potentially damaging for employers to pressurise their employees to opt out of existing company pension schemes?

James Purnell: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we are reforming pensions exactly so that people will be automatically enrolled into a company pension or a personal account. That is also why it will be compulsory for employers to match employees’ contributions, and why we are taking powers in the Pensions Bill to ensure that employers cannot act in the way that my hon. Friend describes. Any employer who sought to dissuade people from joining a personal account could be fined and might have to pay back the money that people have missed out on as a result.

T2. [216440] Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Does the Minister recognise the depth of concern among my constituents in Kettering and across the country about the potential loss to Post Office Ltd of the Post Office card account? Given that 4 million people a week access their benefits through their local post office branch, and that those transactions bring about £200 million a year to the post office branch network, what weight will be given to those factors when the Government make their decision on the successor account?

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): Information about the account is available in the tendering document, and if the hon. Gentleman studies it, he will see that we are explicitly calling for whoever provides the contract to be able to do so in at least 10,000 outlets and for it to have national coverage. We have also said repeatedly that if any benefit recipients or pensioners wish to access their benefits or pensions in cash at a post office, they will continue to be able to do so.

Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): The Pensions Bill will provide a welcome transformation in UK pensions, with its automatic enrolment and compulsory employer contributions. However, may I urge the Minister to make a firm commitment now to introducing index-linked pensions by the end of this Parliament?

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Mike O'Brien): The Government’s position on restoring the earnings link is that we will do so by 2012 or during the course of the next Parliament. The Government have been very explicit about that. The reason that we enshrined that commitment in law in the Pensions Act 2007 is that it is a fundamental part of our view that we need to restore full confidence in pensions as a whole. If the current operating policies were to continue, the value of the basic state pension would be about £45 a week, and more than 75 per cent. of the pensioner population would end up on pension credit by 2050. We therefore have to reform the system. Uprating the basic state pension by earnings from 2012 will more than double the basic state pension by 2050, compared with its value if current uprating policies continued. The basic state pension earnings uprating, together with other reforms, will mean that about 30 per cent. of pensioner households will be entitled to pension credit by 2050, compared with over 75 per cent. if the present policies continued. The reform is therefore fundamental.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): We on the Opposition Benches all spotted the Secretary of State carefully positioning himself ahead of a possible Labour leadership contest. How does he think that his decision to make it more difficult for people with disabilities to claim benefits will go down with the people whose support he will need?

James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman is making an imaginary claim; we have no intention of doing that at all. What we intend to do is to help more people into work—providing more support for people but expecting more of people. What we have been doing for the past 10 years is creating an active welfare state, whereby people are required to do more but they get more in return.

Chris Grayling: Well, “breathtaking” is all I can say. Let me quote for the Minister his own Department’s equality and impact assessment of the decision to cut the time that is available to make a claim:

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Why, therefore, is his Department taking decisions that will disadvantage some of the most vulnerable people in our society?

James Purnell: We want to help more people to claim the benefits, which is exactly why we are making claiming automatic, why we are going to make it possible to claim the benefit in one telephone call, why Age Concern and Help the Aged support the package that we have brought in, and exactly why for housing benefit as well we have reduced significantly—by half—the time that it takes to claim. That is why we think that a three-month backdating process is exactly right. It is exactly the right way of helping people—ensuring that they can claim their benefits quickly, and getting them more help when they need it.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): My constituent is seeking repayment of benefits that she was entitled to but did not receive as a result of an inaccurate assessment last autumn—undertaken without interviewing her. Inverness special payments team received her case in March, but the team tell me that, as of 27 June, they were processing claims received in October 2007. My constituent faces a nine to 12-month delay in having her case processed. What is the Minister doing to tackle that delay, and what assurances can he give that those who experience most hardship will not face further difficulties as a result of the Government’s maladministration?

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I am more than content to meet the hon. Lady to discuss that case. It is obviously important that we resolve those matters properly and as quickly as the administrative system reasonably can, so if she wishes to let me have the case details, I shall happily meet her to see what can be done to help resolve it.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): The Minister, the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), told us a few moments ago that the tendering documents for the Post Office card account would stipulate that it would have to be available in a network of 10,000 post office branches. Given that the shrunken number of branches under the Government’s proposals will be 11,500, why stipulate a number smaller than the post office network for which the Government are aiming?

Mr. Plaskitt: The document, which I have in front of me, actually says around 10,000 outlets, and it is of course perfectly in order for any company submitting a tender to offer the service in more than—substantially more than—10,000 outlets if it wishes to do so.

T4. [216443] Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): The Secretary of State may be aware that although Department for Work and Pensions employees in Crewe are to be re-housed in an extensive new building, staff at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in Crewe face job losses as a result of HMRC’s wish to downsize its estate and the staff’s inability to travel to Stoke-on-Trent by public transport, owing to time, distance and the adverse effect that it would have on their families and children. Is there not some potential for joined-up government, or for any extra capacity in the new DWP building in Crewe to be used to re-house the HMRC staff?

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James Purnell: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We are working closely with HMRC and conducting pilots to see how we can co-locate HMRC and DWP employees. Work is being done in a number of local authorities, and we are looking to roll it out, so I would be happy to discuss with the hon. Gentleman how it might be done. However, we have reduced by 30,000 the number of people who work in the DWP. The Office for National Statistics recently said that that represented a 20 per cent. increase in our productivity, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that, if we can provide the same or a better service for less money, the taxpayer will welcome it.

T7. [216447] Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): In an interview in The Times, the Secretary of State said that nobody had a right to benefits. He went on to say that unemployed people could have their benefits stopped for up to six months if they did not co-operate in looking for a job, that sick and disabled people would be expected to work if they were physically able to do so, and that drug addicts who refused treatment would be stripped of welfare support. Those are draconian proposals. Has the Secretary of State discussed them with the MSP Margaret Curran, and will they apply to the residents of Glasgow, East?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is totally out of order.

Mr. Bellingham: The first part was in order.

Mr. Speaker: The first part might have been, but the hon. Gentleman should have known that that was the only part that was in order.

James Purnell: We want to provide more support for people to get back into work, and that is exactly why we are making sure that everybody can have access to pathways. However, we will also expect more in return; that will mean more people getting back into work. People do not have a right to a life on benefits if they can work. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman agreed.

T8. [216448] Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): In 1997, Labour was elected on a platform of welfare reform and getting people off benefits and into work. Eleven years on, there are parts of this country, including parts of Glasgow, where 50 per cent. of people of working age are on out-of-work benefits. Is it not clear that the Government have failed in certain parts of the country to get people off benefits and into work, and that they have let down the people of Glasgow, East?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I say again that topical questions are not for questions about by-elections; those are for the candidates out there. [Hon. Members:“Labour has not got one yet. “] Well, that is another point.

James Purnell: Since 1997, the number of unemployed people has gone down by 50 per cent. In Glasgow, the number has also gone down by 50 per cent. The number of people on incapacity benefit is down by 25 per cent. I recently visited Glasgow and spoke to Steven Purcell,
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who, with the Commonwealth games coming, is bringing in a fantastic programme with an offer of apprenticeships for all young people. That is in sharp contrast to how the Tories ran down that city and abandoned people when they were in power.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Can the Secretary of State give the House a concise and precise report on the state of play with the Child Support Agency? I am not sure whether my experience is typical, but after a long lull, I am now seeing a substantial spike of new cases and new reports of incompetence in that organisation.

Mr. Plaskitt: I can give my hon. Friend the broad picture, which is one of improvement, notwithstanding what he has said. We are implementing the operational improvement plan, as a result of which the agency has collected £1 billion in maintenance for the first time since it was established. Furthermore, thanks to that improvement plan, 200,000 more children are now being supported by £200 million more of maintenance payments.

At the same time, the agency is making progress on reducing the backlog of cases. The new scheme backlog has dropped from more than 200,000 to about 100,000 and the old scheme backlog has dropped from 65,000 to 27,000. All that is progress, although it does not mean that the agency is yet performing perfectly. We all know that there are still difficult and problematic cases. If my hon. Friend has particular cases on which he wants further assistance, I shall be happy to meet him about them. However, the overall story is one of steady improvement.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): A number of my constituents on incapacity benefit have claimed that the Department for Work and Pensions has asked them to go for a medical and that their benefits have then been withdrawn. They have then gone to appeal and had them restored. How many such people have been required to go for medicals, how many of them have been taken off incapacity benefit and how many have had their benefits restored on appeal?

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): The hon. Gentleman has already raised that matter, and I have said that I will happily look at the examples to which he has referred. It is, of course, right that there should be tests once somebody is in receipt of incapacity benefit. Increasingly, we want people who are able to move back into work to do so. Medical interventions can assist with that. People can be pointed towards help and assistance—drawing on the access to work programme, for example—in order that they can move back into work. That will be a stronger feature of the new employment and support allowance than it is of the current arrangements. If there are particular difficulties in the hon. Gentleman’s area with delays once appeals have been won, I would be happy to look at them.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): A few minutes ago, the Secretary of State spoke about the co-location of Jobcentre Plus and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs staff. How innovative is he prepared to be on co-location, as other people provide services that must also be
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complementary to Jobcentre Plus? I am thinking of physiotherapists and health workers in order to get people ready for work; and of job trainers, job searchers and skills trainers, all of whom—whether in the public, private or very important voluntary sector—could work complementarily with Jobcentre Plus staff if they were co-located.

James Purnell: We are prepared to consider anything that will improve the service. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that others could be brought into job centres. In
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the pilots, for example, we already work with people from local authorities. It may also mean our Jobcentre Plus advisers, who do a fantastic job, going into other locations. I recently visited a doctor’s surgery in South Shields, where we have a Jobcentre Plus adviser who is helping people to get back into work, where I was told that inactivity is itself a cause of ill health, and where there was already good evidence that having Jobcentre Plus advisers working side by side with GPs could improve people’s health while reducing unemployment and inactivity.

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