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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 9 April 2014

[Albert Owen in the Chair]

Personal Independence Payments (Wales)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(John Penrose.)

9.30 am

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): Diolch yn fawr, Mr Owen. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am pleased to have secured this debate on personal independence payments in Wales. It is an important debate for many of our constituents, including many of the most vulnerable, who are being failed by the system. I hope that hon. Members here today will share cases from their constituencies and that we will get some action from the Government.

I could, like other hon. Members, share with the House many accounts given to me by constituents of their experiences. I will begin with one told to me by a lady from Gwynfryn in my constituency, who was diagnosed with breast cancer on 22 August. After fighting through two rounds of surgery, and showing continued strength through chemotherapy, she approached me in January to see if there was any help that my staff and I could offer her. My constituent had applied for personal independence payments soon after her diagnosis. She knew she would be unfit to work and that she would need financial support through a difficult time. She received a response from Capita and waited her turn, hoping that the backlog would clear. My constituent is still not receiving PIP—or any financial support; and she is still undergoing chemotherapy.

Capita’s own information pack, given to applicants, states that assessments should be made within “approximately 28 days.” I think we can all agree that my constituent—like many other people in a similar position—has waited long enough. The Government have instituted a system in Wales that is meant to offer advice and assessment, and to provide support, but it is failing woefully. The absurd situation in my constituency is that Department for Work and Pensions staff are advising local people to get in touch with me to see whether I can help the process along with Capita. Government employees are advising my constituents to contact me, as their elected official, to put pressure on a body that was instituted by the Government and is paid for by taxpayers the length and breadth of the country.

Capita, of course, is an external body—a registered company that is independent in how it chooses to run itself. However, it is clearly failing to adhere to guidelines on processing dates and fulfilling contractual duties, and it is letting down those who desperately need support. That is not good enough. Dim digon da. The Tory-led Government decided to place Capita in charge of PIP assessments in Wales and allowed that system to be put in place without any serious pilot scheme. That cannot be right.

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Last week, at our request, a senior representative of Capita met some Welsh Labour MPs. To our horror, in answer to our questions we were told that the company originally thought that assessments would take “around an hour”; in reality they take between two and two and a half hours. In the same meeting, again in answer to our questions, Members were told that Capita estimated it would need to assess 70% of applicants face to face. We were told that that figure is closer to 99%. How could those figures be so wrong? Where was that clarification from the Department for Work and Pensions before the contract—paid for by public money, I remind the House—was granted?

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Like many other hon. Members I could cite cases to reinforce the point about MPs being used by the company to solve issues. Does my hon. Friend hope that the Minister will tear up the parts of his speech that may have been provided by officials about the general background to personal independence payments policy, and that he will focus instead on the failure of the past year, and the suffering that constituents have gone through because of that incompetence? He should explain what has happened and what will be done in future, and apologise to those constituents—who are often the most vulnerable—for the suffering inflicted on them.

Susan Elan Jones: I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend.

The Minister may be heartened to hear me mention a previous Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher, who used to say she believed we should run the national budget like a household budget. Leaving aside our views on the politics of the late Baroness, perhaps we can use that analogy here, to look at the scandal of the joint DWP and Capita mess that has been made with our money. We might imagine Capita as a firm of builders hired for a two-week job at an agreed daily rate, but which has already taken a month and is still nowhere near finishing. If I or many of my constituents had hired those builders, they would be out on their ear. What if Capita were a local charity, such as the type I used to manage before I became an MP: the local organisation that has to negotiate with a local authority or other body for a service level agreement? We can imagine the conversation: “We are not seeing the agreed number of clients; we are not getting things done on time,” and so on. If a small or medium-sized voluntary or community group, dealing with the council or another external body, was in that position, the agreement would be terminated.

Yet we are not talking about one household and an incompetent builder, or a small or medium-sized charity working with a council. We are talking about a failure, paid for by the tax-paying public and being subsidised massively on a multi-million pound basis. It is time that someone, somehow, somewhere—preferably the Government—carried the can for what has happened as the result of a deal between a private company and the Government, which is not working. Capita has not delivered on its contract with the Department for Work and Pensions. It has time and again displayed the fact that it is letting people down. At what point will the Government stand up, take notice of the constituents who are asking for help, and take action on an issue that is becoming more serious with every passing day?

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In Penycae, another village in my constituency, a constituent suffers from terrible arthritis throughout her body, and is on lifelong medication as a result. Until last year, my constituent held a responsible, white-collar job. In June, her contract was terminated for reasons of medical capability. One would think that at that point she would receive support, but since she left her job in June she has been waiting on PIP. She has been waiting for Capita. She is completely unable to work and that has been confirmed by her GP and by hospital consultants. My constituent can provide personal reports, X-rays and supporting documents that make it crystal clear that she is entitled, in need and completely genuine; there is no doubt about it.

Why, then, is the system failing my constituent and so many others like her across Wales? The Government’s fact sheet on personal independence payments says:

“PIP is to help towards some of the extra costs arising from a health condition or disability.”

PIP, the replacement for disability living allowance put in place by the current Government, can be anything from £21 to £134 a week. It can be used to cover transport, care and all sorts of other costs that can be vital to those who are disabled or sick. By the Government’s own admission, PIP is support for people when they are unable to work because of a health condition or disability and need financial help. That is what the Government say PIP is, and that is what they claim Capita is providing.

The constituent I mentioned is still waiting for any kind of financial help. She is receiving no level of care from Capita or any other Government body. Since being forced to leave her job in June, she has been completely outside the system and is without any financial support. As a result, my constituent has lost her bank account and is experiencing the attention of debt recovery services. For Capita to tell someone like my constituent from Penycae that her case is in the queue, that a backlog is being experienced and that someone will “get to her when they can”—I believe those were the exact words—is absolutely not good enough. My constituent cannot wait another few months for money to come in. She needs it now. In fact, she has needed it since June, when she first applied. How many people can seriously be expected to live for nine or 10 months without any income? Yet that is what is happening in her case.

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mike Penning): It is right and proper that this debate is taking place, but PIP is not the only form of benefit; it is a benefit on top of other benefits. No income at all, which is what the hon. Lady said, is ever so slightly—I respectfully say—misleading. I accept that there is an issue, which I will come on to in my response, but the lady to whom she referred would have been able to get other benefits.

Susan Elan Jones: I would be delighted to put the Minister in contact with my constituent or, indeed, with all the current cases I have, and they could rightfully have that debate. PIP is a huge issue. I am sure that he is rather sorry that there are absolutely no Government Members here to defend him, so he has to do a little of his own work on that score this morning.

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Mike Penning: I really hope that the debate this morning does not deteriorate. I am not that sort of Minister. I genuinely want to help. I do not really mind who is in the Chamber; it is a question of whether we can get PIP right. Of course I will take up any cases that are raised here today, as I do on a regular basis when constituents write to me; the hon. Lady has also written to me many times.

Susan Elan Jones: I assure the Minister that I want this issue sorted, and I am only sorry that it has not been sorted sooner.

I am of course aware that assessments are complicated. I am under no illusions that such systems are easy to run, and they are not simple to understand. I am clear, however, that Capita is being given public money to provide a service. I called for the debate today because my constituents are being left without any information about their cases; they are waiting on calls that are not returned; and they have no way of highlighting their situation, complaining or seeking help. That is why they are coming to me and to other Members of Parliament.

I was also shocked to learn that Capita has not even set up an official hotline for MPs. When constituents come to me about problems with other public bodies, I am able to contact someone quickly. That is part of our job as Members of Parliament, and the hotlines provided to MPs are an important part of the contact system. Capita, the company providing PIP assessments for the entirety of Wales, does not provide such a service. When it was pushed, I was given a number, but it was made clear to me that it was not an official hotline. I am loth to bring up Atos in this debate. The Government recently scrapped the contract with Atos because it was not delivering, but even Atos had an official hotline set up and working.

The debate is not simply about backlogged services and Capita not estimating correctly or preparing adequately. It is clear from Capita’s entire handling of PIP assessments that it was not the right company for the job. How much public money is being spent every single day by the Government on the service? How much public money is being spent on this company that is not returning calls? How much public money is being spent on this company that is forcing cancer sufferers to cross their fingers through massive delays? How much public money is being spent on this company while it forces those too sick to work into debt?

To return to our analogy with household economics, Capita is not the slow or dodgy builder, or the little charity worrying how it will see all the people it needs to see because it has two people off sick one month; Capita is supplying all the contracts for PIP assessment in Wales, which is a multi-million pound contract. Capita is the middleman, the company between the doctor and financial support—in many ways, it is the company between the hospital and the debt collector. At the moment, we are not seeing it provide such a bridge or, in many cases, any bridge at all.

Over and over again, the Government have said that they need to save money, and yet they are spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on a company that is not delivering on its contract. At what point do the Government step in to ensure that the service is being provided?

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Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): One of my disabled constituents was given a two-week assessment slot that had already elapsed. According to the media, civil servants are now helping Capita to deal with the backlog. Does my hon. Friend agree that this botched benefit is causing nothing but distress throughout the country, and that the implementation of PIP has been a total shambles?

Susan Elan Jones: I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. Indeed, when the Prime Minister announced that the system would change to migrate those on disability living allowance to a personal independence payment, surely that was not part of the promises he made. When PIP was first introduced last year, surely the waiting times, the missed calls and the assessments for which staff have failed even to turn up were not part of the deal. In the debate today and whenever we discuss PIP in Wales, we are talking about real people—people with serious health conditions and real individuals with real families, who are desperately struggling.

I am certain that it is hard enough to fight cancer without having to fight Capita and, by extension, the Department for Work and Pensions. Capita is letting down people in real need. The Government are letting struggling people down by not stepping in and getting the mess sorted out. Waiting times for assessment have been so long that, in some cases, people with terminal conditions have died before receiving a penny—and yet Capita remains in place and the Department for Work and Pensions has not even imposed a fine. This is a scandal of national proportions.

Some of the most vulnerable people in Wales are being let down—and yet every single taxpayer throughout our land is being asked to foot the bill for a totally inadequate service. For the sake of my constituents in Gwynfryn and Penycae, and people everywhere in Wales, I urge the Government to take action now. It is time that the Department for Work and Pensions did its job. And it is time that the relationship with Capita was sorted out, or for that company to be given the boot.

9.45 am

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Thank you for calling me so early in the debate, Mr Owen. I apologise, but I will have to leave early because at 10 o’clock I have to chair a meeting on congenital heart disease in children.

There is no doubt that the Capita scheme for the personal independence payment is in total disarray and that the Government must shoulder the blame. They drew up the service level agreements and they need to fix the PIP—and quickly. When the Government were drawing up those agreements, did they estimate the correct average time that would be spent assessing each case? They said it would take one hour, but Capita—we spoke to the company last week—is taking two or three hours. Was the estimate realistic?

The travelling times experienced by our constituents in getting to the assessment centres and the number of face-to-face assessments set by the Government are all totally unrealistic. Did the Government show due diligence? Did they correctly assess Capita’s ability to deal with high volumes of cases? Were the service level agreements strict enough? Also, if my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) is correct, why have

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penalties not been imposed? The company has the carrot of profits, but it also needs the stick of enforcement. It has not had that so far.

The number of staff required was totally underestimated. Capita told us last week that it initially put in place 140, but it now needs to take that to 450—a tripling of staff. In fact, it cannot find the staff. I have an advert in my hand, placed in the Llandudno press: Capita is looking for

“qualified Nurses, Occupational Therapists, Paramedics, Physiotherapists …Disability Assessors”

to work in Llandudno. There is not one mention of staff who can deal with mental health issues. Fifty per cent. of the cases are musculo-skeletal, but 50% are mental health cases.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend share my surprise that those staff were not in place when Capita was awarded the contract?

Chris Ruane: Again, things come down to due diligence and to the assessment of the problem by the Government when awarding the contract. In addition, in the north Wales situation, there was no mention of staff who can deal with mental health issues.

We talk about the vast numbers of people affected, so let us consider who they are. One of my constituents who had mental health problems was told that she could not have an assessment in her own home. She lives in north Wales, but she was told to go to the nearest assessment centre—in Cardiff. It takes me two hours and 36 minutes to get from Rhyl to London, but I could almost have gone from Rhyl to London and back again in the time that it would take that lady simply to get down to Cardiff. Would the Minister send someone from London up to Cumbria for an assessment test, because those are the time scales that we are talking about? That shows total disregard for the individuals involved.

Another individual in my constituency, who is wheelchair-bound, waited for six months, but her case had still not been sorted out. In that time, there were knock-on effects to other benefits and funding was taken off her; she lost her mobility allowance and so she lost her car. There she was, with mental health issues, in a wheelchair and stuck in a house. Things that help people with mental health issues include visiting relatives, joining voluntary organisations, going to a place of worship and getting out in nature, none of which she could do because her car was taken away. All the things that could have helped her were taken away from her by Government action, or inaction.

The rules for the terminally ill suggest that if they have seven months left to live, they are pestered and hounded, but if they have six months left, they will be left alone. That should not be the case. We should prioritise the people—

Mike Penning: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Ruane: No, I will not give way.

Mike Penning: The hon. Gentleman is being misleading.

Albert Owen(in the Chair): Order. No one is misleading anyone.

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Mike Penning: I am sorry, Mr Owen; I am sure that was unintentional. This is rightly a passionate debate. I have referred in previous discussions to 28 days for terminal illness. That was completely unacceptable, and it was 10 days under disability living allowance. I told the Select Committee that the period would be below 10 days. That is where we are now, and that will continue.

Chris Ruane: The Minister talks about how things should happen; we are talking about how things are happening. Capita, which took the Government’s instructions, visited us last week and told us what I have just said. Perhaps the company got it wrong, but if it did the Minister should ask why the Government awarded a contract to a company that does not understand the basic rules of dealing with the dying.

I will move on. It is not just Labour Back Benchers from Wales who are raising the matter. The National Audit Office has said that

“the Department did not allow enough time to test whether the assessment process could handle large numbers of claims. As a result of this poor early operational performance, claimants face long and uncertain delays and the Department has had to delay the wider roll-out of the programme. Because it may take…time to resolve the delays, the Department has increased the risk that the programme will not deliver value for money in the longer term.”

The programme was introduced to cut costs by £2.6 billion. The National Audit Office is now saying that because of the terms and conditions and the fact that the rules were not set properly in the first place, value for money in the longer term—the whole raison d’être for the initiative—will be undermined. The NAO continued:

“A far higher proportion of new claims than was expected contained information that conflicted with existing data on the claimant held by DWP, leading to delays in processing new claims…Claimants were taking longer than expected to return claim forms”.

That should have been predicted and there should have been research before the contract was issued. The failings are the failings of this Government, and the Minister may have to fess up and say that he got it wrong. I ask him to be open, truthful and to sort out this terrible problem.

9.52 am

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I apologise at the outset for having to leave immediately after I finish speaking, to undertake an official appointment relating to my duties as a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I will not hear the Minister’s reply, but I will of course read it.

In the short time since personal independence payments have come into force, it has quickly become evident that the system is miserably failing people and leaving some of the most vulnerable in our communities in absolute desperation. My Neath constituency has one of the highest rates of take-up of the old disability living allowance, a legacy of the industrial heritage that once provided livelihoods for many of my constituents, but has now resulted in serious health problems—a heavy price to pay.

New applicants face a system of delay and despair. Many constituents have been waiting six months or longer, having had their face-to-face assessments and been told, frustratingly, that

“the report is in the final stages with a senior healthcare professional.”

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For those six months they have been living off savings to help them to adapt to their conditions. The prospect of a backdated payment is of no comfort to them as they struggle with day-to-day tasks that many of us take for granted, while their families suffer under the stress and strain of caring for them.

In some of the cases processed by Capita, health care reports have not been up to standard and further information has been required. That involved going back to the assessor and requesting further information. In one case, a second face-to-face assessment was required, and in one astonishing instance it came to light in March 2014 that despite the assessment being carried out in November 2013, no assessment report had been prepared by the assessor. Those constituents’ misery and distress seems to have no end.

The protracted ordeal is just to get the assessment report from Capita to the Department for Work and Pensions. As the assessment reports start to trickle through to the Department, the emerging trend is of further delays in the final decision after the report has reached the Department. So after months of waiting with Capita, applicants face further delays, and that only adds to their misery.

I raised with Capita and the Department a case that encapsulates the ordeal. A constituent made his original application on 5 July 2013 after suffering a serious brain seizure, a stroke and several other seizures. He returned to work initially, but because of his mobility problems he could not continue. He underwent a home assessment on 15 October 2013, and made numerous calls to the Department for Work and Pensions to chase up the progress of his application. Every time, he was referred to Capita because the report had not been sent, but he was told that

“the report is in the final stages with a senior healthcare professional”.

One event epitomises his situation. He woke up one morning and asked his wife to leave him in bed as he was feeling unwell. Shortly after she left for work at 8 o’clock in the morning, he suffered a series of convulsions that lasted approximately 30 minutes. He had difficulty breathing and removing his continuous positive airway pressure mask, which he has to wear because of obstructive sleep apnoea and the danger of a stroke or heart attack. He was unable to get out of bed for the rest of the day until his wife came home at 4.30. He did not eat or drink all day and had to urinate into a bottle.

My constituent’s wife is caring for him but because he has no income from PIP she is at the point of utter exhaustion. The decision to award the benefit is vital to enable his wife to give him the proper care and supervision he needs. Until a decision is made, the couple cannot arrange that care, and their life is in limbo. In March, my constituent finally received his decision notice, only to be informed at the end of the month that a stop had been put on his payment—a decision that could not be explained when he phoned DWP. It has now been nine months and he has not received a payment. DWP’s decision notice states that he is owed a back payment of more than £5,000. He has been let down by Capita and the Department for Work and Pensions as his anguish goes on.

In another case, the application was made in June 2013. The report from Capita was eventually received by DWP on 13 February, but a decision has still not been made. The claimant told me:

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“I have no confidence that the process will ever end, there is always one more stage, one more delay.”

That sentiment is felt by many who have lost faith, which is a dreadful stain on the Department for Work and Pensions, where I served as Secretary of State.

The excruciating stress and anxiety is hitting people seriously, including cancer sufferers and ex-servicemen with post traumatic stress disorder. Ministers should be ashamed of the system, which is punitive, nasty and causes abject despair to far too many people.

Kevin Brennan: To emphasise the dilemma facing our constituents, I should say that in a similar case in my constituency a women who suffered a stroke made an application in June 2013, and has just received the benefit. Her husband elected to reduce his hours at work as a result of which they lost the tax credits that they were entitled to, so they went into even deeper problems as a result of the unacceptable delays.

Mr Hain: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am not going to make personal attacks on Ministers because they probably believe they are doing a professional job, but I sometimes wonder whether they have any idea of what is happening on the ground as a result of their policies.

If the Atos debacle taught us anything, it is the importance of getting the decision right in the first place—in my constituency, the local welfare rights unit had an 80% success rate with its appeals against Atos’s decisions—but that should not mean waiting unacceptably long times such as six, seven or eight months for a decision that could dramatically affect somebody’s life and income. Action must be taken immediately to address this inexplicably lengthy and prolonged system that is causing misery and despair for applicants. The turnaround of applications must be drastically accelerated by both the assessment provider and the Department.

Several hon. Members rose

Albert Owen (in the Chair): Order. Five Members are indicating that they wish to speak, three of whom have done so in writing. I need to call the Front-Bench Members at 10.40 am, so I ask Members to be disciplined with their time.

10 am

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I will be brief, Mr Owen, because I think it is very important that the Minister hears from as many Members as possible. I have a list in front of me of cases involving my constituents who have come to me. I raised the issue initially with the Minister through written questions back in January, and I have raised it in the Chamber, too. This is a massive problem for those individuals. We have heard about a number of individual cases already, and rather than recounting individual cases in Wrexham, I will make a brief point about competence and responsibility.

The personal independence payment system was introduced by this Government—by the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat allies—and the system has failed. Individuals come to our constituency offices in great personal distress. They are the type of individuals whom we want to see supported by our tax system, and

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I know that that feeling goes across the House. The reason that we pay our taxes is to support vulnerable people.

The Government chose to change the system and they must take responsibility for that choice. They chose the company that would deliver the system, and they must take responsibility for that choice. The system does not work. We, as Members of Parliament, are representing constituents and making telephone calls to the Department for Work and Pensions and to Capita, and dealing with cases to give people their entitlement. It is not something that they do not deserve—it is their entitlement. We want a system, and they deserve a system, that is satisfactory and that works.

I have respect for the Minister. He has responded to the issues and individual cases that I have raised with him, but the Department has introduced a number of different systems that are causing enormous distress to vulnerable people in our constituencies. It must start taking responsibility, because the people whom we represent deserve to be supported. To date, there is no indication whatever that the situation is going to change. The strength of feeling expressed in this debate is clear and sets out to the Government and to the Minister the depth of anger that there is in our constituency offices.

Will the Minister please take on board the individual cases? We are working on behalf of those constituents and we hope he will, too. However, will he also look at the system? If the system continues to fail, and if it continues to fail those individuals, we will begin to doubt the Government’s motivation in supplying the system. We will begin to ask whether they actually want to support vulnerable people, or whether this is all about saving money in order to ensure that those individuals do not have support, and will wait and wait and eventually go away. They deserve our support, and I hope that the Government will change their approach and give it to them.

10.4 am

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on securing this very important debate and on an excellent contribution that clearly laid out the difficulties that people in Wales are experiencing with PIPs.

The difficulties with the PIP process are all the more excruciating to witness—let alone go through—because in all the debates we had over the work capability assessments in the past, Ministers were repeatedly asked how they would ensure that the PIP process was fit for purpose. I certainly asked, and the reply from the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), was that we should not worry. She said that the Department was working with more than 50 disability organisations and that

“we will ensure that it is very much fit for purpose.”—[Official Report, 24 October 2011; Vol. 534, c. 22.]

Clearly, that is not the case.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) I want to say to the Minister, please do not underestimate the very real, palpable fear out there about the change from the disability living allowance to PIPs. That was brought home to me by a constituent called Richard, who has cerebral palsy. He has a range

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of care needs and has been fretting about this process for about a year. I know that he will get PIPs almost automatically, but although I have repeatedly tried to reassure him through my office and through the agencies that work with him, he is still extremely stressed about it. I say to the Minister that that is the backdrop we are working with. There have been repeated changes to the welfare system that are hitting people in multiple ways, and it is terrifying for people.

I am not alone in seeing constituents who are experiencing lengthy delays at every stage of the PIP process. They are waiting for the forms from the DWP following the part 1 process on the telephone. A lot of constituents are having difficulties with the part 2 forms. If those are not returned, it seems that people fall out of the system, which seems to be a particular problem for people with mental health issues. If they just cannot cope with the part 2 form, what happens to them? I know that they are supposed to be followed up by Capita, but that does not seem to be the case.

People are then waiting months for an assessment. When they finally have one, it takes an inordinate amount of time for Capita to process the assessment, generate a report and hand it over to the DWP for the decision. That was confirmed by Newport citizens advice bureau, which has had more than 30 cases waiting for about five months for a decision and two cases waiting for seven months. It also puts an extreme strain on advice workers, who are already struggling with cuts and struggling to be able to support people. They are finding that doing so is a great difficulty.

I saw a woman who had to wait seven months for her decision. We only got the decision after an intervention from my office, and I dread to think how long it might have taken otherwise. That was seven months of stress and anxiety—Capita apologises for the delays, but it is not good enough. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South, I saw another lady who applied in July and was not assessed until November, and in one phone call to Capita she was told that if she wanted to speed things up or wanted any progress to be made she should contact her MP, which is clearly ridiculous.

In addition to the delays, a lot of paperwork, including important reports, seems to be lost between Capita and the DWP. There are call centres with no named contact, so people are repeatedly calling back and are not able to get to anyone who understands their case, and there is poor communication. All in all, it is an infuriating experience for the constituent.

I know that the Government will say that there are teething problems, but as today’s debate shows, it is important that the Minister realises some of the consequences that the situation has on people’s lives. A constituent of mine had to rack up debt on credit cards and sell his car while waiting for his wife’s claim to be processed. He happened to be a taxi driver, so you can imagine the financial strain that has put the family under, Mr Owen. Another constituent was left in debt as she waited for her claim to be processed. She had direct debits and no money in her account, and she now has bank charges to cope with. We are not helping people to lead independent lives; they are often having to rely on other people to bail them out during the process.

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As my hon. Friend said, a representative from Capita met Welsh MPs last week and admitted that the key assumptions in its business case had been wrong. They said that the face-to-face assessments took two and a half hours, not one hour. It took longer to train assessors than they thought, and to the Minister’s credit, he and other Ministers have admitted delays at their end, too. This week, we heard in Wales that DWP civil servants will be drafted in to help process the applications. I welcome both the fact that the Department will help out and the recommendations from the Select Committee on Work and Pensions that the Department closely examine its systems. I particularly urge the Minister to look for Wales to delay the roll-out until the backlog has been cleared. That is crucial, particularly in Wales, where we have so many DLA recipients.

I know that the Minister has admitted that all is not well, but it would be helpful if he could say in his winding-up speech how much of what has happened is the DWP and how much is Capita, because there are delays at both ends. What is the backlog in Wales currently? If we are moving to paper-based decisions in Wales in future, which perhaps might be piloted in Wales, can we at least understand that there will not be further difficulties with that process and get assurances from the Minister on that point?

10.9 am

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Owen. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) made a powerful case about some of the problems that people are facing. I am sure that all of us in this Chamber want to see people getting back to work if they are able to do so, but none of us wants to see whatever ill or disabled people suffer from being made worse because of all the stress and anguish of the process that we are discussing.

We have all heard of vital paperwork not being sent out, delays of up to six months and longer, medical assessments being cancelled at the drop of a hat and even people not being told that their assessment will not take place. Then, when the process has been gone through, some people are being told that they should never have gone through the process in the first place, because of what they suffer from.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who unfortunately has had to leave the Chamber, touched on mental health. That is a particular area of concern. We are talking about people whose lives are already difficult enough without some of the problems that the Government are now forcing on them. We see people who are literally in tears. They do not understand what is happening to them and are worried at every stage of the process. People are even saying to me, “Mr Tami, if I attend the interview, will that be held against me?” I say no, but they are worried; they are scared. They do not understand why their money is being stopped, why this is happening to them. We are making people ill by doing this; there is no point in pretending otherwise. I have been seeing people who were not great the first time I saw them, but each time I see them they are in a worse state. They are in more debt. They are worried; they are scared, because of what is happening to them.

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I saw one guy who was in a wheelchair most of the time. He had had two strokes recently. Clearly, that person will not enter the realm of work very easily. Why do we have to put through this process people who are suffering? Equally, another man, who was 64 years of age, had a long history of heart illness. With the best will in the world, how will he enter the realm of work? Who will employ him? [Interruption.] I know, but that is how people view it; they feel that they are being forced out to work.

This is a very difficult situation. I accept that. Colleagues have mentioned the meeting with Capita. It has helpfully sent us a note about that and some of the questions that were asked. I notice that it is entitled “Health and wellbeing”, which is a somewhat strange situation, but there we are. Let me go through some of the points that it raises in the note. The first question is:

“Why are claimants facing delays in the assessment process?”

The Minister will not be surprised to hear that it is probably the Minister’s fault:

“Referral volumes from the Department are higher than forecast.”

One of my hon. Friends mentioned this:

“More health professionals are needed. The planning assumption was 141. We have now trained over 250 and will have nearly 450 by July 2014.”

Why was the original figure so wrong? It was not just slightly out. There is a massive difference between those figures.

This is one of my favourites:

“Why was the reality of delivery different to the original assumptions?”

Capita states:

“The complexity of producing the new and detailed reports means that there are a number of interrelated factors that add to the assessment timescales. Critically, the assumptions we originally built our operating plan to have not proved to be accurate in live running.”

I presume that in English that means that they have cocked it up.

Nia Griffith: Would my hon. Friend, like me, like the Minister to explain exactly what specifications there were in the service level agreement between the DWP and Capita for time scales after the PIP2 form and the medical assessments have been received for Capita to produce its assessment? What were those specifications?

Mark Tami: My hon. Friend makes a good point, because something has gone very badly wrong. As I said, some of these things are not just slightly out; there is a massive problem.

I will quote just one more paragraph from Capita’s note:

“What are the current timescales from applying for PIP to a decision being made?

The Department for Work and Pensions estimate that in total it may take around 21-26 weeks from the time a claimant first calls to initiate a claim to when they write to them with their decision. For most people this will include a face-to-face appointment which could take…12-16 weeks to arrange.”

I find that staggering. Then there is this very helpful comment:

“It may take less time than this or longer”.

There we are; there is our answer. Now we know that things are going very well!

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As my hon. Friends have made clear, we have all dealt with such cases. I have details of one here. The person applied for PIP last November. They were chasing and chasing and finally got an assessment date for April, but they are still waiting to go through that process. Someone else applied for PIP in June. They had the assessment. However, they got an answer from the DWP only in March, and again that was after they had chased it. Someone else applied in September 2013. Three medical assessments were cancelled by Capita. Some were cancelled without the person being told. They chased for an appointment and finally got one in January. Again, they were having to chase all the time. My favourite is this one. Someone received a letter on 4 February this year informing them that a consultation would take place at their home sometime between 20 January and 25 January. They go back in time to have the assessment, back to the future, or perhaps it involves the use of a Tardis or there is some other new thing that the Department can use.

Kevin Brennan: I do not think that this has been mentioned so far in the debate, but Capita did not only meet us last week; it met many of us before the introduction of PIPs and it made certain commitments and promises, based on the assumptions that it had been given by the DWP that none of these things would happen. We were given assurances that there would not be these kinds of delays, that it had the right plans in place, that it knew what it was doing and that there would be no repetition of the mistakes made by other private contractors such as Atos. It failed miserably on that, and ultimate responsibility does come to the Minister. I am sure he accepts that, and we respect his willingness to take it on board, so as the Minister responding to the debate today, he does not need to go through the history of the benefit. We know that.

Mike Penning: I am not going to do that; give me a chance.

Kevin Brennan: Good, but I am just giving the Minister that warning not to go through the history of the benefit but, yes, to deal with his responsibility, who is responsible—

Albert Owen (in the Chair): Order. Mark Tami.

Mark Tami: My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) makes a powerful point. The situation is a mess. Whatever promises are given, it just seems to get worse, even to the point, as hon. Friends have said, that the Department is now having to send in civil servants to try to stem the tide of chaos that is overwhelming the whole system.

On the day on which the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has decided to go, I am not calling for this Minister to go, but his Department needs to look at this situation. It is affecting, and destroying, real people’s lives. It is causing great suffering out there. I ask the Minister just to look at the Government Benches. There is not a single Tory or Liberal Democrat MP from Wales here today. Why is that? It is because they also know what a mess it is and they have run for the hills.

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10.18 am

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on a fine, eloquent and valuable speech.

Well, here we are again. Some hon. Members will recall our PIP debate with the now former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport when she was the Minister responsible for disability issues. We discussed the mobility needs of people in residential care, and eventually she performed a U-turn—eventually.

I like this Minister and think that he is sincere and conscientious. We can trust that he will take full account of the debate and make timely changes. We are here because of delays in dealing with our constituents’ cases, and we know about the concerns of the National Audit Office and the Work and Pensions Committee. Our particular concern is Wales, where there are higher levels of disability and long-term illness. I have had cases, but I will not go into them, because we have heard sufficient detail about how bad the situation is. I will, however, ask a number of questions. I have had a response from Capita, although it is not completely satisfactory. I worry about our constituents who do not think of going to see their MP, because there must be many of those—proportionately more than actually come through our doors.

As has been mentioned, there are delays. People are told that they will be paid from the date of their claim, but the problem is that people have current needs, and jam tomorrow, even if it is delivered, is no use. Where there are delays, are claimants given timely information about how long their cases will take? Knowing how long the case will take would at least be some comfort. It is a grim question, but I have also been looking for figures on how many claimants in Wales have died waiting for their claim. It would be useful to have the data sets as soon as possible, although I know that we are in the early stages, and I have had access to some of the management information. Too often, we have data sets for the UK in general, but we are concerned with Wales and it would be useful to have those data sets broken down as far as our country is concerned.

Another issue for Wales is rurality, which makes PIP particularly important for people’s mobility needs. There is a practical question of the travel time for people who are assessed in centres, or the extra travel time taken by Capita staff who have to go to remote locations in rural areas. Atos has chosen a slightly different emphasis from Capita, by doing more assessments in centres rather than home visits. Will the Department eventually conduct a compare and contrast exercise on Atos’s and Capita’s handling of the matter?

I had an interesting discussion with Dr Duckworth, the managing director for PIP at Capita, on the radio this morning. He reported, as we have heard, that Capita now thinks that face-to-face interviews take two hours rather than one. Will the Minister tell us, perhaps in writing, how the planning process worked and how such an alarming underestimate was reached? Any planning process must be somewhat speculative, but if one hour was planned for and the outturn is two hours, it seems to me to be a gross underestimate.

I understand that Capita is recruiting more staff, and I heard the other day that staff from the Department for Work and Pensions are helping out. That is good; in

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such a situation, it is all hands to the pump. However, are there additional costs, and who pays them? Given that the contract is with a private organisation, what penalties are being imposed on Capita? Has the Minister made any assessment of its willingness, or otherwise, to continue with the work? We saw what happened with Atos, which pulled out of a different sort of assessment because of the difficulties that it faced.

Furthermore, I understand that Capita is conducting more paper-based assessments. Initially, Capita planned to do 70% of assessments face to face, and then we heard that the figure was 99%, but I understand now that, to hurry matters along, some paper-based assessments are being made. That is where we came in when we discussed PIP in the first place. One of the unsatisfactory aspects of disability living allowance was that it was too often a paper-based exercise, which produced variable outcomes, to say the least. PIP was sold on the basis that it would involve a quality, individual, face-to-face assessment, that there would be reviews and that the system would be better all around, but I worry that we may be going back to where we started.

I referred earlier to the need for data sets. It would be useful if the Minister gave us a snapshot of claimant numbers in Wales—perhaps not now, because he may not have the figures to hand—and the number of claims outstanding. Usefully, the Department produced a document entitled “Personal Independence Payment: Management Information” in February 2014, which some hon. Members may have seen. The results for the UK are interesting and rather startling. I do not know whether the figures are still current, because they were published in February and we are now in April. I see from one of the tables that in December 2013, there were 229,700 new PIP claims, and 43,800 new claim decisions were made in respect of all new PIP claims. That is, as far as I can see, a rate of about 20%.

Mike Penning: Perhaps I can help the Chamber. We estimate that 233,000 claims have been made, of which 50% have now been decided. Of the terminally ill, 99% have been concluded, which is still not high enough.

Hywel Williams: I am glad to hear that that is the rate. Of course, with people who are terminally ill, we want to see a rate of 100%. I also had a look at the figures from the PIP reassessment and impact report from December 2012, which gives a forecast for March 2014 of 87,000 reassessments, with 180,000 reassessments in the March 2012 strategy. Perhaps the Minister can give us further information.

A particular issue in Wales is assessment through the medium of Welsh. I put a question to the Department some time ago, and was told that the assessments would follow the Department’s Welsh language scheme.

Susan Elan Jones: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Does he agree that one of the ways in which Government and officialdom get it a bit wrong on the Welsh language is by assuming that the only people who need any sort of Welsh language provision are those who complete the forms in Welsh? As many of us know, there are people who are vastly more comfortable speaking Welsh but not necessarily writing it.

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Hywel Williams: The hon. Lady makes a telling point. Many people would much prefer to speak in Welsh but write in English, even in my own constituency, where some 80% of people speak Welsh. We have to draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that it is not only those who fill in the forms in Welsh who want the service. Departments in general, and perhaps the DWP in particular, assume a certain passivity in respect of the language issue. If people ask—if they bang the table—they might get it, but as with so many equality issues, Departments should take a more proactive stance. Does the Department keep a record of the number of claims made through the medium of Welsh on paper? I imagine that that number is vanishingly small, but I do not think that it corresponds to the number of people who would like to talk in Welsh. Even in my constituency, I am sure that very few send in the forms in Welsh, but the majority want to speak in Welsh.

It is incumbent on us to think of the Capita staff who are struggling to deal with all those matters, and the staff of the Department who are out there working with them. The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents some of those people, has concerns. I draw that to the Minister’s attention, because we must support the staff, who do a difficult job under very trying circumstances. As a final flourish—I do not know whether the Minister will give me an answer—is he confident that the system is now fit for purpose?

10.30 am

Mrs Siân C. James (Swansea East) (Lab): I will be brief. We have heard much today about the replacement of the disability living allowance with the personal independence payment. I am not going to cite any personal examples from Swansea East, but I will be talking on behalf of a Swansea-wide organisation, the Maggie’s centre, which serves the south and south-west Wales area, providing very important cancer support services for anyone suffering with cancer. We have heard about the various problems and dissatisfaction, and how we all feel about the introduction of PIP and how Capita is proceeding. If I may say so to the Minister, through the Chair, it is not going very well.

Since January, I have written to Capita on 20 occasions. Last Friday was a red letter day, because I received my first answer. We got quite excited in the office that we had received a letter and rang the constituent concerned to inform her, only to find that she had received a telephone call from Capita with information that was diametrically opposed to everything we had been told in the letter. Capita totally contradicted itself. It was a case of the right hand definitely not knowing what the left hand was doing. There are a lot of examples like that, and we have heard about how the lack of a dedicated telephone line adds to people’s problems.

I want to turn to the stress and strain placed on people who are very unwell. It was sad that, when a group of local MPs were invited to Maggie’s centre last Friday to speak to its disability benefits adviser, who has huge experience working across the sector, I saw despair. In the briefing and facts and figures we were given, we saw despair. It was not the frustration that I feel as an MP, which we have heard expressed in this debate and is shared by my office staff; it was despair. It was a person who is working really hard on behalf of

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people going through the most dreadful experiences of their lives, and basically hitting their head against a rock. It was very sad.

There are many reports of hold-ups with PIP, but I have heard of and experienced cases in which people have been waiting for responses for several months. I have come across one case of someone waiting for more than a year for a decision on payments. Earlier, the Minister mentioned other benefits, but in many cases, the people we are discussing have had to give up really well-paid jobs. They have been managing to keep their heads above water, but suddenly, because decisions are taking so long, they are tumbling into debt and need. I have been told about people going through chemotherapy who are dependent on the local food bank. Can we imagine coping under such circumstances? It is very sad indeed.

The staff at Maggie’s are doing excellent work, as are my staff and those of the other MPs here, under really difficult circumstances. We are becoming more and more frustrated by the system. Capita must surely have internal systems to monitor and evaluate the length of time that assessments are taking—surely there must be internal safeguards. We are coming across staff who, although they are working under difficult circumstances, really do not seem to care that they are not meeting deadlines. They are not rushing things, and that is sad.

People were keen to tell me on Friday that—we all know this as constituency MPs—we are not talking about people trying to swing the lead. This is not a case of people trying to buck the system and get money to which they are not entitled; these are people in genuine need who have enough stresses and strains without additional problems with PIP. Many organisations, such as Hardest Hit, We Are Spartacus and the Disability Benefits Consortium, are expressing serious concerns about the Government’s introduction of PIP. We are even hearing noises of disquiet from health professions about the Government’s having failed to reform the work capability assessment. As I have said, there is little, if any, evidence of performance monitoring in organisations such as Atos and Capita. They are responsible for the assessments; how are we monitoring and assessing how they are achieving things?

I have many stories and examples that I could pass on to the Minister, just like those mentioned by many of my colleagues. I am confident that the fundamental problem with PIP is that it was introduced to save money. How mean. I understand that these are difficult times for the country and that finances are challenging for us all, but we are talking about the least able people. Many of them tell me, “If I could work, Mrs James, I would be there.”

The staff at Maggie’s asked me to ask the Minister one particular question: why does Capita not accept implied consent from a third party? They are ringing up and working on behalf of cancer sufferers, but they are hitting a brick wall. We do not mind as MPs—PIP is the biggest issue in my postbag and I have an increasing responsibility and work commitment to it—but accepting implied consent from a third party would save time for people who are having tremendous difficulties.

I am sure that the Minister and others have heard our dissatisfaction. PIP assessments must be reformed urgently, because people are suffering unnecessarily on top of all their other problems.

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10.37 am

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Owen, and it has been a pleasure to listen to the debate. I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on securing a debate on a subject that is clearly of concern to many of her Welsh colleagues. Indeed, I am sure that those concerns would be replicated among colleagues throughout the UK. I am sure that the Minister will accept that what we have heard today is not just a matter of isolated cases that can be sorted out by the often very helpful interventions he makes when individual MPs take up issues with him and his Department; we are looking at a process of systemic failure and flaws.

The disability living allowance and the new personal independence payment are important benefits for the people who claim and need them, both in and out of work. Whether someone is working or not, if they are hit with a sudden, potentially catastrophic event—perhaps a stroke or a serious accident—they will start to face additional, often substantial, costs whatever their income situation. In some cases, their income will reduce or dry up. There will also be significant knock-on effects on that person’s family, who may also suffer a loss of income if they have to take time off to care for them. The importance of the personal independence payment in financially supporting the family in the round cannot therefore be exaggerated.

It is also worth noting that disabled people are particularly vulnerable to poverty. They face twice the risk that non-disabled people face, and research by Scope has shown that around half go into debt, using credit cards, overdrafts and so on simply to pay for essentials.

The personal independence payment is also an important benefit for those who suffer less catastrophically, as it enables them to continue to participate in, and often to take on and continue in, paid work. If people are unable to sustain the flow of personal independence payments, particularly those transferring from disability living allowance who previously qualified for mobility payments and find that those payments are not continued, they might lose their Motability vehicle and in many cases fall out of work.

In all cases, it is important that we get the assessment right, and that where people are entitled to the personal independence payment we get the money flowing fast. Yet what we have heard today is a catalogue of delays. While that is terrible for individuals and families, I want to ask the Minister first about the effect of such delays on the Government’s finances.

As colleagues have pointed out, the underlying policy intent of PIP was to make substantial savings in the benefits bill. Yet already the savings have been revised downwards for the current year from £750 million to £640 million. While I understand that the Government expect to get those savings back on track in due course, what will happen if they do not, or if the savings are further delayed? Will disabled people have to pay the price of the newly introduced annually managed expenditure cap?

There are also significant concerns about delivery, as we have heard this morning. Those concerns began to arise soon after the introduction of the benefit in late spring 2013—even as soon as early summer. My colleagues and I were picking up reports of delays and problems.

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As the National Audit Office pointed out in its report, once backlogs start to build up in the system, it is difficult to recover.

I understand, from a written answer from the Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) just yesterday, that the Minister has set an expectation—not a requirement—that assessments would be carried out within 30 days. Frankly, that is already much longer than what we were used to with the disability living allowance. The total end-to-end expectation for DLA was 37 days. We understand that, for PIP, we have reached 74 days, or 107 days if we exclude the terminally ill cases, which have been sped up. Typically that is a long period for people to go without financial support.

As colleagues have pointed out, the delays are attributable to problems with the forms—people not understanding them and having trouble returning them quickly—and with security questions that people cannot get through. Another problem is that every assessment is subject to audit, which may be desirable to improve quality, but builds in further delays. There are bottlenecks in getting assessments through to decision makers because assessors are getting cases back and cannot cope with the work load.

I understand from the most recent figures I have seen—from the end of October—that Capita is managing to carry out 67% of assessments within the time frame. What is the position today?

The discussion about home visits and people having to travel to assessment centres was interesting. One advantage of having two contractors—Atos in some parts of the country and Capita elsewhere, including Wales—is that we have been able to compare and contrast their different approaches.

First, unlike Atos, Capita employs its own health care professionals; it does not subcontract to others to carry out the assessments. Also, as I understand it, Capita is committed to a model predominantly built around assessing people in their own home. Home visits amount to around 60% of the assessments carried out by Capita. Yet we heard today from my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that his constituent has been required to make journeys of more than two and a half hours in each direction to attend an assessment centre. Will the Minister say a little more about exactly how the balance between having to travel to a centre and being able to have a home visit is working out in practice?

We heard many examples this morning of problems with dealing with Capita as an organisation, whether someone is an individual, a member of the individual’s family or, for that matter, the individual’s Member of Parliament, trying to sort out a particular case. There have been complaints about difficulties in booking appointments; appointments being cancelled at short notice; and problems booking another appointment. There has been confusion when people have tried to find out the status of their appointment or assessment. People have been told to ask the Department for Work and Pensions, only for the Department to refer them back to Capita. As a result there is uncertainty for claimants about where their claims stand.

As was also mentioned this morning, there is concern that there are simply not enough experienced and qualified health care professionals in the market to carry out the

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assessments. What is the Minister doing to stimulate the profession and to encourage more people to enter it? What discussions has he had with Capita about how it intends to ensure that it has an adequate staff base to carry out the assessments? Will he explain why, as my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) pointed out, Capita was not required to provide evidence that it had that staff team in place before the contract commenced?

We have also heard that the length of time to carry out an individual assessment is much longer than was envisaged. While the working assumption was that assessments would typically take one hour, two to two and a half hours is becoming the norm.

When PIP was first introduced by the Government and was being discussed during the passage of what became the Welfare Reform Act 2012, we were told that there would be no time limit on how long the assessments would last; if it took a long time to extract the information needed in a face-to-face interview with a claimant, all that time would be given. Capita seems to have honoured that and said, “We will take as long as it takes to get the information we need.” The difficulty is that that simply is not a financially or operationally sustainable model. It is building in delay and cost, and it would be interesting to hear how the Minister intends to resolve that policy conundrum, as it seems to be working with the best of intentions to very adverse effect.

We heard that plans were agreed in January 2014 for civil servants to be drafted in to help clear the backlog that has arisen in Capita, which has been welcomed by colleagues this morning. Will the Minister say a bit more about what those civil servants are doing? Presumably, they are not health care professionals carrying out the assessments themselves. Will he also tell us where they have come from? Will there now be a scarcity of civil servants in another part of the DWP’s operation? Who is bearing any additional cost of deploying the civil servants?

Can we also have clarity about the balance between paper-based and face-to-face assessments? I understand that Wales is now piloting increased used of paper-based assessments. Will the Minister say in what circumstances that is taking place? What percentage of assessments does he now expect to be paper-based or face-to-face? What is the situation now?

As the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) pointed out, the Secretary of State himself seems a little confused about the Government’s intentions here, even as recently as last Sunday. On the “Marr” programme, he said:

“What we are introducing here is regular checks, face-to-face...This is much fairer for everybody, those face-to-face checks...Because of the face-to-face checks it’s much more likely that you will get a more accurate reading.”

I must tell the Secretary of State that people are not cars with speedometers; they are human beings with a set of conditions. The issue is not about accurate readings, but about understanding a condition in the round. None the less, there appears to be a discrepancy between the Secretary of State’s strong assertion on Sunday that face-to-face assessments were the direction of the travel, and my understanding that a considerable emphasis is now being given to piloting paper-based assessments in Wales.

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I am pleased about the progress on terminal cases, and actually I have to offer my congratulations to the Minister for the speed with which he picked up that concern. I would like to ask the Minister about mental health, which was mentioned by a number of colleagues, and what he is doing to improve the expertise of assessors. I want to repeat the question asked by, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) about whether Capita will have the opportunity to bid for the work capability assessment. Many in the Chamber would be rather horrified if it were. I also want to repeat the question asked by the hon. Member for Arfon about when we can expect to see proper audited statistics. The management information is useful, but it gives us only part of the story. Will the Minister also answer the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South about the lack of an MP hotline and the confusion about where complaints should be directed?

I have a few final questions for the Minister. We heard about the poor data matching between information already held on the benefits system about claimants and what was being uncovered when they went for a PIP assessment. Will the Minister say which he thinks is more reliable, and to what extent DLA information can be used as a possible means of clearing the backlog that we face? We would have expected many more cases where there is a dispute to be reaching the stage of appeals in tribunal, but the courts are sitting around with nothing to do. Who is bearing the cost in the court service of that lack of activity? Finally, can the Minister give us a little more information on his intentions for the independent review of PIP that has been promised for later this year?

10.49 am

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mike Penning): Thank you very much indeed for calling me to speak, Mr Owen. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this very important debate.

Let me say at the outset that it is very important that this type of debate takes place, not least because we can get better information on the record. I know that some hon. Members have not raised individual constituency cases during this debate; some have, but some have not. If they have not done so, please would they give us that information? We will be in contact with Members during the course of today and tomorrow, so that we can pick up on those cases.

I will start today by touching on the point that was raised in the debate about colleagues coming to me and getting responses. I think that it was raised by the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and I thank her for her kind comments about how we have responded to colleagues, not only in Westminster Hall today but at other times. Actually, it is very useful for me as the Minister to see what goes through, because if individual MPs write to me then I—as Members probably know—write them an individual reply, and while I cannot deal with every individual case, it does give me a better feel for what is going on.

With that in mind, I will go back from Westminster Hall today and act; my officials have heard what hon. Members have said and they will now hear what I am

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about to say. The hotline will happen. It is not acceptable that there is not a hotline in place. We will get on and do that.

I will touch, quite rightly, on what was probably the most sensitive issue raised in the debate, which is that of the cases concerning the terminally ill. I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), for her kind comments about the actions that I have taken on such cases in the short time that I have been the Minister. I was appalled—I have said that before publicly as well as privately—at the length of time that it was taking for cases concerning the terminally ill to be assessed and for payments to be made. I think that when I arrived in this post, the period was around 28 days. Under the previous disability living allowance system, which was not strictly comparable, the period would have been about 10 days. I want it to come down; I have anecdotal evidence that it is around three to eight days now. As I said to the Work and Pensions Committee, an average of five days is perhaps where we need to be. We need to ensure that these people who so desperately need help get it quickly.

I have worked particularly closely with Macmillan Cancer Support to develop some new methodologies. For instance, it is very difficult for someone visiting a terminally ill person to be on the phone to someone else while they are talking to the person they are looking after; that is particularly difficult with Macmillan cases. So we are going to set up a pilot whereby we give Macmillan the forms there and then, so that they have them on file and we can get them back and through the system more quickly. Macmillan said that it did not like the call system; it kept their nurses and other health professionals waiting for too long. So we are going to work with Macmillan and pilot that new scheme. And we will move from that scheme to secure portable document format, or PDF. That is what most of our GPs use when they deal with insurance companies or anybody else. Hopefully we will continue to review matters and we can continue to reduce the time that it takes to deal with these cases.

In an intervention, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) said that he hoped I would not just read out the speech that had been prepared for me. He knows me better than that; I have never read a speech in this House that has been prepared for me. I will continue to respond to Members as best I can and, of course, if I am unable to answer the questions in the time that I am allowed, we will write to individual colleagues and ensure that they have the information they need for their constituents.

Do I, as the Minister of State responsible for this portfolio, take responsibility for it? Yes, I do. That is the way that Ministers should act. There was a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in Westminster Hall earlier, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain). He is not in Westminster Hall at the moment, but I went to him when I was a Back-Bench MP and said to him, “You are the Secretary of State. You’ve got to take responsibility.” That is exactly what he did.

Whether I make the right decision or the wrong decision will be for others to decide. However, one of the reasons that I wanted this portfolio was to make a difference. The old DLA system was broken; that was

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alluded to by the hon. Member for Cardiff West. Under that system, less than 6% of claimants had face-to-face interviews; most people were given a paper-based assessment for life. In the case of some people, that was absolutely right and proper, but for an awful lot of people it was not. For instance, it was particularly bad for people with mental health issues, because they could not get the upper rate on the old DLA, really. With PIP, they will be able to.

The hon. Member for Newport East asked me about the roll-out of this system. It has been rolled out in Wales; it is out, in its entirety, for reconsiderations as well as for new claims. So, the one area that I can see the new system in its entirety is Wales. We will break down the data and ensure that it is available to Welsh MPs, so that we can provide feedback. It is too early to give the full basis of the data, and the Audit Commission has also said that.

Mark Tami: Will the Minister give way?

Mike Penning: I will just finish this point on the Audit Commission, because the Audit Commission was quoted several times. As I was saying, the commission also said that it was too early to see whether the new system would be value for money, because the information is not here yet. I just wanted to balance that argument a bit.

Mark Tami: Before the Minister moves off the subject of mental health, one of the other important issues is that, depending on what is wrong with them, people have good days and bad days. It is important to get an all-round picture of their issues, rather than just an on-the-spot assessment—“Yes, they’re OK. Fine.”

Mike Penning: I completely taken on board what the hon. Gentleman says. Indeed, what is just as important is that people with mental disabilities often have other disabilities as well and they need to be treated as an individual case, with all their disabilities considered in their entirety.

We are working very closely with Capita. The Capita model is different from the Atos model. As was alluded to by the shadow Minister, Capita is doing 60% of its work within the home and 40% in other assessments. It is completely unacceptable if someone is being asked to travel the distances that we have heard about today. The maximum time someone should travel is 90 minutes. In rural communities, which were referred to in the debate, even that length of time is really difficult, because travelling for 90 minutes in a big capital city is completely different from travelling for the same time in a rural community. I have asked my officials to begin a review today about the access issues that people are having. They will review not only the time that it takes for people to go to an assessment centre but the time it takes for Capita to come to a person’s home, because travelling time is not considered as part of the time for the assessment. I will come on to that in a moment.

Susan Elan Jones: Can the Minister tell us how bad Capita has to get before, in his estimation, any fine would be imposed upon it by the Government?

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Mike Penning: If the hon. Lady will be patient, I have another four minutes to speak and I will certainly address that issue.

With the contracts that were issued, there is not a change to a paper-based system. From day one, the perception was that the split should be 75:25 between face-to-face interviews and paper-based assessments. I have said that to the Work and Pensions Committee before. With the DLA, only 6% of claimants were interviewed face to face and nationally we are around about 97% for face-to-face interviews. So there is not a movement away from face-to-face interviews; actually, where we are trying to get to is where we were supposed to be in the first place, which is around 75% of interviews being conducted face to face and 25% of claimants being dealt with by paper-based assessments.

The contract with Capita allows for penalties and we are imposing financial penalties on it where it is not meeting its targets. That process is taking place now and we will continue with it. However, the best thing to do is for us to work with Capita to get accurate assessments.

The point about accuracy is the one that I will touch on for the remaining few minutes. One type of issue that we have is quality issues. We have been really tough, and previous Ministers were very tough, on both Capita and Atos about PIP regarding quality. Because of that, those companies have been very concerned—I have used the word “frightened” before, but they are certainly concerned—about ensuring they get things right, which is one of the reasons why we have nowhere near the number of appeals that we may have expected or that were made under previous benefit systems.

One reason for that is that we have put our staff into the offices of companies, particularly those of Capita, and we will probably do that elsewhere. It gives staff the

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confidence to make the decisions on the paper-based assessments. Very often, although staff feel they have the information in front of them, they are not sure about making a decision because they fear they will be hit on quality—“The audit will come down and say we should have done this”—so they have pushed the case through to a face-to-face interview. That is actually increasing the delays. We want to give people confidence; that is why our officials are there.

The question was asked, “Where do these officials come from?” Many of them are actually officials waiting for these decisions to come back, so I have a capacity of people sitting there and waiting for decisions to come back. That is why we are putting people at the right grade into the offices of Capita to ensure that we can get better movement and that we get the split down to a manageable one; I hope it will be a 75:25 split.

We will probably announce the review later on today, if not tomorrow, outlining who will do the review and how we move on from it.

The truth of the matter is that there will be people who benefit from PIP and there will be people who do not benefit from it. However, what they need is decisions and we need to communicate with them much better. We are introducing a text system so that people will be better informed as to where they are within the queue system. That is slightly more complicated in certain parts of the country than others. We can text—

Albert Owen (in the Chair): Order. I am very grateful to the Minister, and to Members, for what was a full debate. The Minister has indicated that he will write to Members.

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Shared Services Connected Ltd

11 am

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to open this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Owen.

I sought this debate on behalf of 239 Department for Work and Pensions staff at the Kings Court offices in the heart of my constituency, although the issue affects civil service staff more broadly.

I begin by citing the Prime Minister. Back in January, speaking at the World Economic Forum at Davos, he said that Britain had the potential to become the “reshore nation”. Talking about UK jobs lost abroad, through offshoring, he said,

“there is now an opportunity for the reverse…an opportunity for some of those jobs to come back.”

Should not the Government be taking a lead on this, setting the example through its own employment policies? Last week I received a letter from the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General all but confirming that the work lost in my constituency was to be offshored to India, as I understand it.

Let me explain the background. Shared services are those parts of individual civil service departments, arm’s length bodies and agencies that provide corporate services for IT, human resources management, pay and payroll, procurement and finance to deliver their business outputs. In December 2012, the Cabinet Office set out its next generation shared services strategic plan to create five shared service centres. Two independent shared services centres, ISSC1 and ISSC2, would be formed for a number of departments and arm’s length bodies. The three remaining were to be stand-alone centres, based on the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

The first of these independent shared service centres, ISSC1, based on the Department for Transport in Swansea, was outsourced to German multinational Arvato in June 2013. The Public and Commercial Services Union, representing the majority of staff, engaged positively in the transfer process to secure the best possible outcome. The consultation led to agreements, including one on no compulsory redundancy for at least a year and an agreement that staff would retain their civil service status.

ISSC2, which affects Sheffield, was to consist initially of the shared services functions of the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency. This was turned into a joint venture company called Shared Services Connected Ltd, in which the Government retained 25% of the shares, with the French multinational Steria’s UK subsidiary owning and controlling 75%. The creation of SSCL involved civil service shared services sites in York, Alnwick, Cardiff, Blackpool and Newcastle, as well as the one in my constituency in Sheffield. SSCL became live in November 2013 and 1,000 civil servants were privatised and TUPE-ed over.

The PCS secured agreements with the Government on this process, including a six-month no compulsory redundancy agreement and a one-year guarantee of no site closures. However, on 4 March 2014, SSCL announced 500 job cuts, office closures and the offshoring of work, quite cynically timed to the minute the one-year guarantee against site closures ran out.

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As well as the closure in Sheffield, by October 2014, the DWP office in Cardiff will close, with a loss of 105 staff, and the Environment Agency office in Leeds will close, with a loss of 68 staff.

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): Can my hon. Friend understand the anxiety felt by staff at the Newport MOJ shared services centre—the situation is similar to the one in Sheffield that he is explaining—who understood that that was to be a stand-alone site, although it is now being considered for outsourcing to Arvato or Steria?

Paul Blomfield: I can indeed, and I will come to that issue. Closer to Newport than Sheffield, I met some staff from Cardiff last week. Like the staff in Sheffield, these are loyal civil servants who have contributed years of public service and, frankly, they feel betrayed by the decision and by the way that the decisions are being executed.

As well as job losses in Sheffield and Cardiff, 122 staff will go in SSCL offices in Blackpool, Newcastle, Peterborough and York. The DEFRA site in Alnwick has a temporary reprieve, but only until June 2015. The Government have not conducted economic impact assessments of the closure of these offices, although the loss of jobs will have a significant impact on local communities and economies. Indeed, in June 2013, Lynn Phillips, head of service improvement for DEFRA, wrote to the then Minister, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), highlighting the plan’s

“incompatibility with UK growth objectives”

because of the

“loss of jobs in regional locations”.

Will the Minister assure us and say that the Government will conduct an economic impact assessment and, if so, when that is likely to happen?

Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): Specifically, on the DEFRA issue, does not my hon. Friend think that the fact that the Secretary of State raised concerns and asked for a standstill period shows how serious this offshoring is and that it will lead to dire consequences?

Paul Blomfield: My hon. Friend is right. I am coming to that point. Clearly, this issue has led to concerns being raised, even at Cabinet level. Yet, extraordinarily, the offshoring is being rushed through.

The speed at which SSCL intends to cut the 500 jobs is unprecedented. It aims to have all redundancies dealt with by the end of October. This does not allow enough time for staff to be re-employed or reinstated back into the civil service and means that compulsory redundancies are likely. Indeed, staff in Sheffield and in Cardiff, whom I met last week, told me that the redeployment opportunities have been limited, because there is no joined-up approach across Government. I find it extraordinary that most other Departments are not offering vacancies to those loyal civil servants who are losing their jobs. Do the Government think that this is the right way to treat any staff, particularly those who have given decades of public service? It sets a bad standard for employers throughout the country. I should like the Minister to reassure us on this issue. Will the Government commit to providing redeployment opportunities across all Departments? That would provide a lifeline for at least some staff. The limited opportunities that have been made available to date are inaccessible to many of those in Sheffield, and those at other sites, too.

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SSCL is not acting in accordance with the special commitments given to staff before transfer, which stated that transformation would take place over two years and that everything would be done to avoid compulsory redundancies. The Government have a 25% stake in SSCL. At the very least, should they not use that position to challenge the speed of job cuts, to allow a thorough, ongoing programme of redeployment of staff? I should like the Minister to respond to that question.

There is also the issue of the data being handled. These sites handle the personal data of tens of thousands of civil servants. They also deal with commercially sensitive information relating to Government contracts and tendering. Despite the sensitivity of the data, when the Cabinet Office advertised for bidders to become majority partners in SSCL in April 2013, the selected bidders all had a significant element of offshoring functions as part of their bid.

Concerns about offshoring are not restricted to Opposition Members or their staff; they have, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) pointed out, been expressed at Cabinet level. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wrote to the Minister for the Cabinet Office last July, expressing concerns about DEFRA joining ISSC2 and a “possible staff exodus”. The Secretary of State asked specifically for a standstill period on “estates and off-shoring” and expressed concerns about data security. The head of service improvement for DEFRA wrote in her letter to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that the DEFRA executive committee considered

“significant (or any) element of off-shoring”

to be unacceptable and that there was a

“significantly increased risk to service continuity from loss of current expertise”

on transfer. She also raised concerns about

“employee and detailed financial data transmitted, stored and processed outside the UK”.

Why are the Government sanctioning the offshoring of sensitive personal data and commercially sensitive information, on which objections have been raised at the highest level of the civil service and by members of the Cabinet?

Jessica Morden: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is breathtaking hypocrisy for the Prime Minister to have been talking just weeks ago about Britain becoming the reshoring nation while the Cabinet Office pursues contracts that are explicitly relaxed about offshoring jobs, such as those at the shared services centre in Newport?

Paul Blomfield: My hon. Friend is absolutely right and again anticipates a point I will make. Before I do, I make one point about the remaining three shared service centres. Originally, they were to stand alone, but I understand that the strategic plan has been fundamentally revised. Peter Swann, who heads the Crown oversight function of the shared services agenda, has confirmed that the Ministry of Justice is considering transferring its shared services to one of the outsourced ISSCs instead.

I understand the concerns of the staff involved. If the MOJ was to join one of the already outsourced ISSC contracts, the sensitive data the staff handle, including

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criminal records and details of the police, the judiciary and security service personnel, could also be privatised and offshored. Why has the strategic plan been changed?

Finally, taking on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), I return to my opening point. What makes the cuts so much harder for the staff to swallow is that so much of the work for the three sites under threat of closure has been earmarked for offshoring. Indeed, the PCS told me that SSCL has explicitly said that a determining factor in deciding which sites are to close is the potential for the work to be offshored. Offshoring is the driver for decisions on closure and job losses.

As my hon. Friend said, how does that fit in with the Prime Minister’s assertion at the World Economic Forum that he wants the UK to become “the reshoring nation”? At Davos, he underlined that ambition by announcing the establishment of a new body, Reshore UK, which will sit within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The Prime Minister clearly places great weight on that body in developing his reshoring strategy. Will the Minister commit to arranging for Reshore UK to meet with SSCL and the Cabinet Office with the aim of considering how the jobs they plan to offshore can stay in the UK? If not, does he accept that the Prime Minister’s statement at Davos will be seen as nothing more than empty words?

11.14 am

The Minister for Civil Society (Mr Nick Hurd): It is a great pleasure, Mr Owen, to serve under your chairmanship, I think for the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing the debate and on the sincerity with which he has presented his arguments on behalf of concerned constituents. I totally understand where that comes from; if I were in his shoes, I would probably utter similar sentiments.

The hon. Gentleman endeared himself to me by opening with a quote from the Prime Minister. Of course, the Prime Minister was right in saying that jobs are coming back. I do not have the statistics for Sheffield, Newport or other constituencies represented on the Opposition Benches, but it is undeniable that since the 2010 election, more than 1 million private sector jobs have been created in this country. We have record numbers of people in work.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hurd: I will not, because the hon. Gentleman was not here for the start of the debate. There are a record number of women in work and this country is creating jobs again.

Paul Flynn: Some 650 jobs have been lost in Newport.

Albert Owen (in the Chair): Order.

Mr Hurd: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I will not give way, because he was not here at the start of the debate.

Paul Flynn: Deliberate ignorance!

Mr Hurd: It is not deliberate ignorance at all.

Paul Flynn rose—

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Albert Owen (in the Chair): Order. The Minister is not giving way.

Mr Hurd: I was putting the debate into a wider context, which I hope the hon. Member for Sheffield Central would welcome, of vibrant job generation in this country. It does not just matter for statistics; it offers hope and security for people across the country. When the Prime Minister talks about jobs coming back, he means it. The issue is about restoring the means by which this country can secure its long-term future and competitiveness. The fact that that was entirely absent from the debate is regrettable.

Paul Blomfield: On that specific point, will the Minister note the regional imbalance in the creation of private sector jobs? He might have seen the report two or three weeks ago from the Centre for Cities, which pointed out that so many of the jobs being created are in London and the south-east, sucked away from the rest of the country. I think it said that there have been 217,000 new private sector jobs in London, with a net decline in private sector jobs of 7,500 in my city of Sheffield. The Government have a particular responsibility to address that regional imbalance and not take more jobs away.

Mr Hurd: That is a fair point, which the Chancellor has addressed directly by saying, “Yes, there is some very good news on job creation, but we still face a stubborn underlying challenge on the imbalance in the economy.” That is a fact, reality and challenge that the Government are addressing.

It would nice if we heard some voices from the Opposition Benches that recognised that these problems have been entrenched for a long time and were substantially not addressed by the previous Administration. I am trying to make the point that the broader context is one where the country is beginning to generate jobs again after some difficult years. Part of the reason why we have been able to create jobs is that at the core of the long-term economic plan is a plan to pay down the deficit. It would be nice to have a reality check on the Opposition Benches: that is the environment in which this Government have to work and in which the next Government will have to work, whatever their political colour.

Mrs Glindon: Will the Minister not acknowledge that sustaining jobs is as important as creating jobs in a successful economy? Offshoring these jobs is not about sustaining work in this country. If there is to be job creation, offshoring jobs negates some of that.

Mr Hurd: I will come to the specific point about offshoring, because it was at the core of the speech made by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central.

Paul Flynn: On a point of order, Mr Owen. Is it in order for a Minister to cast a slur over a Member by claiming that he was not present at the beginning of a debate without giving that Member an opportunity to explain that he was at a Select Committee meeting and that, had he left, it would not have been quorate?

Albert Owen (in the Chair): The hon. Gentleman has been in Parliament an awfully long time and he knows that that is not a point of order for the Chair. It is up to

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the Minister whether he gives way to any Member in the Chamber. The Minister indicated that he would not give way to the hon. Gentleman, but he has since done so to other Members.

Mr Hurd: I am trying to stress to the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) that the bigger context is job creation throughout the country, which I hope she welcomes and is evidenced in her constituency as well. She makes a valid point about offshoring, to which I will return, because it was at the core of the speech of the hon. Member for Sheffield Central.

My point was that we are in the place where we are in terms of vibrant job creation around the country partly because of the confidence in the business community that there is a plan for economic recovery and that, at the heart of the plan, is a determination to get on top of the public finances. Simply put, that will be the reality for whoever is in power after the next general election, which is acknowledged by the people at the top of the Labour party. The Government therefore have to get serious about where they find savings and efficiencies. For a long time now, including under the previous Government, as highlighted in 2004 by the Gershon review, there has been consistent advocacy for the need and opportunity to consolidate back-office functions throughout government. The belief is that we can deliver between £400 million and £600 million per annum in savings for the taxpayer in such a process, while freeing the civil service to concentrate on its core role of delivering exceptional public services.

Significant public gain is to be had through the pursuit of efficiency, which the previous Administration did not pursue rigorously, despite the words. If any evidence were needed, the Efficiency and Reform Group in the Cabinet Office last year was able to realise £10 billion in savings to the taxpayer through our process. That is £10 billion that does not have to come in cuts to front-line services. It tells us a lot about the attitude of the previous Government to efficiency in the public finances.

Paul Blomfield: Does the Minister acknowledge that that is stretching the definition of efficiency a little? We are simply talking about taking jobs done in proper working conditions by loyal civil servants in the UK and putting them into a cheap labour market in India. That is not efficiency; that is exploiting the labour force.

Mr Hurd: I would like to see some recognition that it is not in the interests of the British taxpayer for there to be duplication or inefficiency in how services are delivered. For some time, and under the previous Administration, there has been widespread acceptance of the opportunity to share services such as HR, procurement, finance and payroll functions, and of the need to consolidate where those services are shared, given the number of centres that were in place. Obviously, in that process there is an ability to deliver efficiency, cost-effectiveness and, I hope, a better service.

There is no dispute about the opportunity—as I said, the debate has been going on for a long time—but the question is whether anyone is prepared to do something about it, and we are. We are delighted that the National Audit Office recognises our progress and, in a report of 31 March, considers that the programme is

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“on track with the first shared service centre being outsourced by its target date of March 2013 and the second having a joint venture partner in place before its target date of March 2014.”

It also found

“no major issues with the services offered by”

either of the two independent shared service centres.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the second of the two centres was created in November 2013, when the Government signed an agreement with a private sector partner, Steria Ltd, to create a joint venture to deliver back-office services to 13 Government customers. The resulting company, known as Shared Services Connected Ltd, was formed from a consolidation of some existing shared service centres including the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency. In addition, in-scope services delivered by UK Shared Business Services Ltd are expected to move across by 2015.

It is important to keep in mind that the model is not a conventional outsourcing one. As the contracts are constructed, the bigger the volume, the lower the unit price goes, so it is in everyone’s interest, whether Government, private sector partners or employees, for the centres to win additional business from other Departments and from the private sector in the UK and overseas. If business grows, and there is an opportunity to grow the business and to recruit more jobs into it, public services can be delivered at lower cost. The taxpayer will share in the upside.

In order to develop SSCL as a world-class services organisation, it formally entered a transformation phase on 31 March 2014, which involves IT harmonisation, offshoring and the adoption of a centre of excellence model, which is considered good practice across the shared services sector. We believe that that will reduce costs, increase efficiency and deliver a consistent performance and an improved customer experience.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the centre of excellence consultation process commenced during March, and following discussions with employees, clients and trade unions, four of the existing eight core sites were selected as centres of excellence. Those are York, Peterborough, Blackpool and Newcastle. Initial proposals were to close the other five sites. However, after consultation and due diligence with clients and employees that was reduced to three—Sheffield, Cardiff and Leeds. Alnwick will remain open, although not as a centre of excellence. The sites selected as centres of excellence were the ones considered most likely to be able to serve existing customers, while also ensuring the sustainable future growth necessary to provide value for money to the taxpayer.

The core of the hon. Gentleman’s concern was exit and re-employment. I listened with concern to some of the points he made, and I undertake to write to those involved to make his concerns clear and seek assurances about the way in which some tough decisions on redundancy are being implemented. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman with my view on the quality of the information I get back.

We believe that SSCL has approached the centre of excellence strategy with some sensitivity to the impact that it will have across the business, sharing plans with employees at the earliest opportunity, undertaking roadshows to explain the implications directly, and briefing employees on the proposals for site closures and the

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associated consultation process. At the same time, SSCL launched a voluntary exit programme for affected employees. The window for expressions of interest closed on 24 March.

As part of the negotiations associated with the ISSC2 deal, the Cabinet Office and Steria agreed a re-employment protocol with the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, for those staff members who transferred to SSCL under TUPE arrangements from DWP and DEFRA. That was put in place to try to mitigate the impact of key redundancies associated with the move to the new target operating model. Although that was not mandatory, both parties felt it was important to try to support the staff with continued employment.

The Cabinet is also proactively negotiating re- employment protocols with further Departments and agencies, including the Department for Education and the Office for National Statistics, where there are suitable roles locally. We are confident that we are doing all that we can to support SSCL staff with re-employment, within the confines of TUPE law and Government policy. If I may, I should like to send the hon. Gentleman a follow-up letter with more detail about those processes, to put some assurances behind those words.

The next stage of the SSCL transformation programme is to establish the four centres of excellence. The Alnwick office, previously a DEFRA site, will not be a centre of excellence, but will remain open until June 2015. SSCL hopes to move some NHS shared business services actively to Alnwick, to retain it beyond 2015.

Paul Blomfield: I thank the Minister for his assurances about letters and initiatives. Will the Cabinet Office extend the intentions he outlined across all Departments, and move quickly? There is a limited window, before people lose their jobs, to ensure that there are proper redeployment opportunities across government.

Mr Hurd: We are certainly negotiating re-employment protocols with other Departments and agencies, including DFE and ONS, but perhaps I may clarify the detail in the letter I shall be sending. As the hon. Gentleman said, we all know that any job loss is a personal tragedy for the individual concerned and their family. We want to minimise insecurity connected with that. The process is clearly difficult, and we are as confident as we can be that it is being handled with appropriate sensitivity. However, if the Members of Parliament for the affected constituencies have substantial evidence that that is not the case, we want to know. We will follow up such evidence, because we understand the sensitivities and want to test the assurances we are given.

In this context there is no black and white world; offshoring has been a feature of many successful Government contracts signed during this and the previous Administration, including a joint venture involving NHS shared business services, which created jobs and expanded the number of its offices from two to 13 in the past 10 years. Offshoring is not in itself an absolutely bad thing. I shall certainly contact Reshore UK to make it aware of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended.

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Rural Crime

[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con): It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Weir, for this important debate.

My constituency has a number of important industries, including paper making, brick making and pharmaceuticals, but it is also semi-rural, with an important farming industry. I want to highlight some of the worries about rural crime that people in my constituency have—in particular, my farming community and those who live in remote areas. First, however, I pay tribute to Kent police in general and my local officers in particular, who, within the constraints of continual pressure on their budgets, do what they can to protect those of us living in rural communities.

Do not get me wrong; I understand the need for the Government to bring down the deficit and know that the police force must do its bit to help. However, I want to see a rebalancing of how the Government grant is allocated, to ensure that rural areas and semi-rural areas such as my own receive a fairer share of the cake. That is the nub of our problem. We worry that, given the increasing pressure on police budgets, rural areas will continue to take second place in the allocation of resources.

The truth is that people in rural areas often feel that they are last in line for services: they sometimes have to put up with inferior roads; they often have no local school; they almost always have a poor internet connection; and they rarely have a police station. In short, they feel isolated, and that isolation increases their fear of crime.

A recent National Farmers Union survey showed that a quarter of rural crimes go unreported. Farmers take the view that reporting a crime is a waste of their time, in particular if that crime is considered by some other people as little more than a minor misdemeanour. The survey also showed that 50% of farmers said that the police failed to devote sufficient resources to tackling rural crime, while a further third felt that insufficient action was taken when crimes were reported. Some 38% of farmers have been victims of crime, including theft, arson, criminal damage, poaching and illegal fly-grazing. If 38% of people living in a city were victims of crime, it would be considered a crime blackspot. Why is such a high level of crime among farmers deemed acceptable in some quarters?

In Kent, it has been recognised that rural crime is a problem. Our police and crime commissioner, Ann Barnes, has pledged to improve rural policing with the use of mobile police stations. We welcome any initiative that highlights the problem of rural crime, but many are sceptical about the worth of mobile police stations and would prefer the money to be spent on boosting the number of police officers dedicated to tackling rural crime.

In Kent, we have only six rural partnership police officers to cover the whole county. Two of those officers cover not only my constituency, but an area that stretches from Thanet in the east of Kent to Dartford in its extreme north-west. Special police constables have been used to support the rural partnership officers, but my

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understanding is that those specials rarely have access to a police vehicle, so they have no means of patrolling the area in which they are supposed to be helping. Perhaps it would be better to spend the money used for mobile police stations on more rural community officers and the vehicles that they need to get around Kent more quickly.

Rural crime cost the UK an estimated £42.3 million in 2012. Organised gangs are increasingly targeting high-value tractors and other farm vehicles, stealing them to order and shipping them overseas. One of the frustrations felt by farmers is that there appears to be no recognition from the Government or senior police officers that rural crime is often closely linked to serious criminal activity, much of it across international borders.

In isolation, rural crimes appear to be one-off, unrelated events; in fact, they are often interrelated and funded by the activities of criminal gangs and terrorist organisations. For example, despite the best efforts of farmers to store their supplies of ammonium nitrate-based fertilisers in secure facilities, large amounts have been stolen. As hon. Members are probably aware, ammonium nitrate fertilisers are used to make home-made explosives and have been a component of some of the most devastating terrorist bomb blasts in the world.

Criminal gangs will steal anything that they can lay their hands on—from combine harvesters to quad bikes, from animal medicines to agricultural chemicals. One farmer in my constituency, who happens to be a good friend of mine, had a gate stolen from his field. Shortly afterwards, he installed a brand-new gate, which cost him several hundred pounds. The very next day, the second gate was stolen. That is rural crime. My farmer friend was pretty sure he knew who was responsible for stealing his gates, but he did not bother to contact the police, because he has no faith that they—or, more pertinently, the Crown Prosecution Service—would do anything. That, too, is a frustration for farmers.

Last year in my constituency, the police raided a farm that was believed to be owned by criminals—not farmers, I hasten to add. The police found 35 chassis removed from stolen Land Rovers, a stolen tractor unit and a 40-foot stolen trailer containing £50,000-worth of contraband alcohol smuggled in from the continent. They also recovered several thousand pounds in cash, diggers, fork-lifts trucks, quad bikes, car parts and drugs. All the goods were seized, but there were no convictions because the CPS felt it would be too difficult to prove that the occupiers of the farm were handling stolen goods.

Earlier this year, another serious incident in my constituency involved two women driving a Range Rover into another car, which they claimed had cut them up in traffic. The two women used their mobile phones to call their boyfriends, who arrived on the scene and beat up the driver of the car, hospitalising him. The police went to the Traveller site where the attackers lived and arrested two of the three suspects. At the same time, they discovered 200 fighting cocks, nine stolen dogs, a cock-fighting training wheel, drugs, several stolen cars and £50,000 in cash. The third suspect was traced to another Traveller site and was also arrested; at the same time, another £25,000 in cash was recovered.

Where do such large amounts of money come from? They are the proceeds of rural crime, including illegal betting on cock fighting and hare coursing, both of

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which activities see huge amounts of cash change hands. Hare coursing in particular is becoming an increasing problem. At this point, I will read from a letter that I received from the wife of a farmer in my constituency. It prompted me to apply for the debate. I have amended the letter slightly to protect the identity of the people concerned:

“Dear Sir,

The Isle of Sheppey has a population of over 36,000. During the summer this number is more than doubled. We have read in the local newspaper about yet another reorganisation, but the fact remains that police presence on the Island is inadequate.

On Saturday 2nd November 2013 we had cause to phone 999 as there were four men with dogs coursing hares on our farm. Only one patrol was available. No criticism is intended or implied of the individual officer, but he had no realistic chance of apprehending four experienced criminals who were playing ‘cat and mouse’. With assistance from my husband they were caught, but yet again have got away with it.

This incident was not an isolated one. There have been six incidents here since September 2013. We have witnessed them all and found numerous gates open on all six occasions. This is done deliberately so that the dogs have an unimpeded chase after the hares.

In 2012 we had twenty four incidents of this kind, all of which were reported. Some incidents were attended by the police and some were not. Of the twenty four incidents, arrests were made on only two occasions. In the first case the culprits received £250 fines and we are still waiting for the £15 victim cost.

In the second case the CPS abandoned the case only informing us the day before the hearing. This cost us money as we had already made arrangements for someone to care for our animals during our absence. The CPS claim there was insufficient evidence for the charge that was brought. Our view is that the case was dropped to save money. (It has been reported that the CPS drop 500 cases a week).

All this unsatisfactory state of affairs causes us much distress. We are not young and resilient like we used to be and we fear reprisals. My husband is in his seventies and not in the best of health. He has worked hard for twenty years in a government backed environmental scheme to improve wildlife on the farm. Now we suffer from people coursing hares—something it is illegal for us to do as owners of the property.

We are now in despair and have reached the stage where we may as well let these people have their fun without interruption.”

Let me read that last paragraph again:

“We are now in despair and have reached the stage where we may as well let these people have their fun without interruption.”

That is shocking, and it is why we must do something about spiralling rural crime.

Hares are in serious decline, despite being a key indicator species for conservation efforts funded by the EU through agricultural subsidies. The sad truth is that currently the only beneficiaries of the noble efforts by our farmers to conserve our hares are the criminals who are killing them as part of illegal gambling gangs who view the potential fines as an acceptable occupational hazard. If those who regularly attend hare coursing events attended 10 events and were arrested and caught at just one, resulting in a £250 fine, it would amount to £25 per event. Compared with the thousands of pounds that change hands through illegal gambling, £25 is nothing. If we are to protect people such as my constituents, farmers believe the fine for hare coursing should be increased substantially and I would like the Government to take that message on board. Hare coursing is rural crime.

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Poaching is also a crime, yet there is evidence that criminals go out with dogs and snoop round farm buildings and fields in search of something to steal. If challenged, they admit to poaching because they are confident that the police regard poaching as a trivial matter and hardly a crime. We must make police officers who operate in rural locations understand that poaching is as serious as any other crime and often has links to more serious crimes.

In my constituency, three poachers recently killed 150 pheasants in one go. Those poachers ranged in age from 11 to 14 years. They were using an illegal, unregistered section 1 firearm—a .22 rifle. When it was recovered, there was a spent cartridge still in the breech and the individual carrying the rifle was found to have in his possession 200 rounds of illegally held .99 mm pistol ammunition and various other weapons. Those three boys were arrested again three weeks later after stealing a bicycle, and yet again shortly after that for breaking into a shed using tools from a robbery that had gone undetected.

The problem with poaching is that it is too often seen by the public, and sometimes the police, as being almost romantic—“one for the pot”—like boys scrumping. What they do not understand is that many poaching events are sponsored by criminal gangs operating from Traveller sites and pubs in Kent where competitions are held, again involving illegal gambling when the winner is the one with the highest number of dead animal heads.

Mike Bax, chairman of the crime rural advisory group that advises Kent police and the Kent police and crime commissioner on rural crime, gets over far better than I can the way in which poaching has wider implications than “just one for the pot”. He said that

“200 pheasants poached at the game dealers price of”

50p per head

“looks like a loss to the breeder of £100. However, it also probably means that a day’s legal shooting has to be cancelled with a gross loss of £6,000. 15 or 20 beaters lose a day’s work at £20 per head, the local pub loses the meal booking and possible accommodation booking. And other physical damage has probably been caused on the ground.

These multiplier effects on simple incidents illustrate the impact of even day to day rural crime with such events generally affecting the community at large rather than just an individual. Nevertheless, the events are so commonplace that the rural community consistently fails to report the original crime and somehow we have to change that mindset.

The police tackle the problem to the best of their ability, but they are thinly spread and intelligence is the key.”

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): I apologise for being a few minutes late for the hon. Gentleman’s debate. A problem in a rural part of my constituency has been people coming on to land pretending that they have hunting rights when in fact they are just there for criminality. What we found helpful, as the Minister will be aware, was that a group of local residents in Esclusham and Ponciau came together and worked on a digital mapping scheme so that land use was determined and put on that digital map. That is a good idea in such situations.

Gordon Henderson: I welcome the hon. Lady’s intervention. I have heard about digital mapping. All the ways of helping to solve crime are about intelligence-led policing, which is what I am talking about at the moment. Mike Bax continued:

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“With thousands of people spread across the rural areas people must learn that it is not a failure if the police do not make an arrest. The very fact that the incident has been reported to the police provides them with intelligence.

Perhaps the identity of the vehicle, a description of the clothes the offender was wearing or a boot print in the mud, might well prove vital on another occasion.

Further more regular reporting by the community provides the police with information on crime patterns. Using that they can make predictions and be in the right place at the right time more often, thereby responding more effectively.”

That is intelligence-led policing, which is what we are talking about.

Intelligence gathering and digital mapping are fine, but dedicated rural police officers must act on that intelligence. Rural dwellers are being subjected to increasing levels of intimidation and violence. The National Farmers Union is aware of gamekeepers waking up to find their dustbins and pheasant feeders stuffed with dead birds as a warning. One gamekeeper was shot at with 1.5 ounce lead balls—any shooters here will know that that is pretty hefty shot—while driving. Another narrowly escaped serious injury when bringing his daughter back from school. Two men stepped out into the road in front of him and deliberately shot his windscreen out with similar sized lead balls. The point is that poaching is rural crime.

We then have livestock rustling, which is also becoming an increasing problem. It is estimated that 60,000 sheep were stolen in 2011 alone. The broader implications of livestock theft are very serious, because once animals are stolen, they are no longer tracked by the movement databases in place, increasing the risk of another foot-and-mouth epidemic. In addition, meat entering the food chain through livestock theft cannot be traced from farm to fork and it may be subject to unhygienic slaughterhouse conditions and contamination that risks human health.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate; he is making some very good points. Where there is livestock rustling, whether it be sheep or cattle, does he agree that one of the curious factors is what is happening at the point of the slaughter of those animals, in terms of proof of identification? It is a real curiosity that the meat could find its way into the food supply chain.

Gordon Henderson: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention; that is exactly the point I am making. If sheep are removed from a database system that tracks them from farm to fork and they are let into the black market, there is no way of ever tracing that, so yes, it is a problem. It is a problem because, again, livestock rustling is a rural crime, but one of those that people forget about.

Huw Irranca-Davies: My point is a continuation of that. If 60,000 sheep are disappearing through rustling, somehow or other they are washing up somewhere and entering the food supply chain, at a point where an abattoir owner, a slaughterhouse man or a processor is asking that individual, “Where did this shipment come from?” It is an interesting point, because the abattoirs in

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my area certainly know where every single animal has come from. Something is going wrong; perhaps the Minister could answer.

Gordon Henderson: Or not—people might be taking it along to illegal, unlicensed or backstreet abattoirs. They might be cutting the animals’ throats in a back shed somewhere. That is the problem. We have the issue of not being able to trace from farm to fork, but also that of animal welfare and animals being slaughtered inhumanely.

Another rural crime that I want to touch on is fly-grazing. That is the unauthorised grazing of land by horses and ponies, whether or not the owner of the horses is in breach of a previous agreement or has simply placed the horses on the land without discussion with the owner or tenant of the land. Fly-grazing is becoming an increasing problem, with several thousand horses being grazed on land without permission. I understand that the problem has become worse in the past three years, particularly since the introduction of horse passports and microchipping, which were intended to increase the traceability of horses—particularly those likely to enter the food chain.

The NFU is calling for the following action, with which I have some sympathy. It wants fly-grazing to be made a criminal offence, so that action can be taken to bring offenders to justice swiftly. It wants the Horse Passports Regulations 2009 to be amended, so that they form a streamlined set of rules, meeting the minimum requirements of the relevant EC directive, thereby helping to improve traceability. It wants the Animals Act 1971 to be amended to bring it into line with the best of the private Acts of Parliament that enable local authorities to act when horses are left on private land; it wants it to be clear that the 1971 Act covers animals deliberately placed on land by their owners.

The NFU wants police forces to develop procedures for dealing with horses on the public highway that take account of bio-security in addition to respecting property rights. Police should be aware of the danger of spreading diseases such as African horse sickness when seizing or moving horses. The union also feels that local authorities should be prepared to offer surplus land for rental to horse owners, where appropriate and compatible with surrounding land use.

I have touched on fly-grazing because, again, it is a rural crime. However, there are many other rural crimes that cause problems for farmers, such as fuel theft, metal theft, vandalism, trespassing, arson, criminal damage, fly-tipping, illegal Traveller sites and illegal raves. There are too many and they are too varied to mention in depth today, but they are all rural crimes.

In conclusion, I want to relay to the Government the worries of those of my constituents who live in more isolated rural communities. They are worried that rural crime is increasing and that it is given a lower priority than urban crime. They are worried because they rarely see a member of the police force on duty in their community and because they feel forgotten by the Government, local authorities and the police. I very much hope that the Government will take steps to reassure my rural communities that they are just as important as urban communities, and ensure that they receive the policing to which they are entitled and they deserve.