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Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, is the Minister aware that £220 million was lost last year through errors in the complex pension credit alone? I hope that he is, since the figure comes from a report published by his own department last Thursday. Hopelessly complicated credit like that is not reaching 1.7 million people and it is wide open to errors. How much longer will the Government continue to treat pensioners as second-class citizens by making them claim what should be theirs by right?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, we must not anticipate the conclusions of the Government's consideration of the Turner commission report on pensions. It is all very well to have a go at pension credit, but it has enabled thousands of older people to get out of poverty. I continually come across older people who benefit enormously. As for error, we are of course committed to doing everything that we can to reduce it. There are programmes for staff training and for targeting those offices where the figures are disappointing. But in taking forward the debate on the pension commission report, we must not underestimate the good that pension credit has achieved.
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, how much of the problem is due to a complete mess-up in the systems
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employed by the Department for Work and Pensionsmuch like the systems employed throughout government? When will there be joined-up government in looking at IT systems overall?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, there are mechanisms in place which enable people responsible for developing IT systems to compare and draw on good practice. The Government's gateway review ensures that departments who progress these schemes are subject to rigorous scrutiny. While problems are inevitable when introducing new systems, the fact is that my department's performance is improving enormously. The result is that through the use of contact centres, customers are able to get through to a service that can be delivered over the phone rather than having to come into Jobcentre Plus offices.
Lord O'Neill of Clackmannan: My Lords, does my noble friend appreciate that for many of us the change of attitude, particularly within the DWP, has meant that it is far easier for many people to obtain benefits than ever beforeor, certainly, before 1997? Moreover, instead of crocodile tears about fraud and incompetence, should we not worry about the larger problem of those who are deterred from claiming? It is not all down to complexity; old-fashioned social attitudes are denying these people their entitlement to the decent benefits which the Government are now providing.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, my noble friend puts it well; I find it difficult to disagree. Surely, the question is one of rights and responsibilities. We must ensure that customers who are entitled to benefits get them in as straightforward a way as possible. Much of my department's work is designed to communicate that, and the work we have put into reducing the complexity of application forms also derives from that. My noble friend is also right that this Government have done much more than the previous one to deal with fraud and error.
Baroness Noakes: My Lords, for many years the Comptroller and Auditor-General has qualified his opinion of the DWP's accounts because of unacceptable levels of fraud and error. Is it not therefore surprising that the latest PSA targets for the department have nothing whatever about tackling fraud and error?
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, PSA targets have been set for the department to reduce fraud and error. I am sorry to say that the noble Baroness is quite wrong. In terms of the department's record, I can inform your Lordships that in the spending review of 2004, the PSA 10 targets relate to reductions in fraud and error concerning income support and jobseeker's allowance.
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Lord Chan: My Lords, what proportion of these frauds and errors relate to those benefits that require NHS letters of recommendation? I should have thought that the system in place would have reduced such error and fraud.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it is difficult for me to answer that. Letters from doctors are required for many benefits. I am sure that the noble Lord is referring particularly to incapacity benefit, which is an issue. He will know that we will shortly be bringing forward a Green Paper on welfare reform, part of which will encompass the relationship with GPs and the health service because, clearly, they have an important role to play.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Government have undertaken no formal review or assessment of how the provisions of Part 8 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 concerning high hedges are working. That part of the 2003 Act came into operation only in June 2005, so it is too soon to draw firm conclusions on its effectiveness. However, informal feedback suggests that the legislation is helping to end the misery caused by overgrown hedges, and many disputes are being resolved voluntarily.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I pay tribute to him, to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, for helping to get this legislation. It means a great deal to many people. However, a major problem has arisen in the advice and guidelines given out by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister; it all hinges on the word "remove" in the legislation. Councils are naturally frightened that they will be liable if a hedge dies, because they have been told that if it dies that is the same as removing it. Is the Minister aware that there are no regulations that allow councils to implement an order to reduce a hedge in phases? Should new regulations be considered, because councils are frightened to do anything where they will personally carry a liability? While most people are thrilled with the legislation, some are worried about what is happening. Can the Minister give me any hope in that regard?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not sure that the problem is necessarily susceptible to
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regulation. The noble Baroness raises an understandable concern. Paragraph 624 of the ODPM guidance, High Hedges Complaints: Prevention and Cure, offers very useful advice. It says:
I believe it is saying that if it is better and more intelligent to reduce the height of the hedge in phases, according to the growing season, that is a good way to act. By taking arboricultural advice they will probably be well protected.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, apparently if a council wishes to reduce the height of a hedgeI understand the advice is that not more than one-third should be reducedthe biggest hedges are the ones most caught in this problem. Can the Minister see a way whereby councils can charge only once? People are being charged £650 to go to the council to have one-third removed and they might have to go back to the council three times, whereas if a council could impose the order at the outset, only one fee would be charged, and the council could supervise the procedure.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is up to the local authority to determine its own fees. The noble Baroness is right to say that some local authorities, such as, I think, Sevenoaks, have been reported as charging £650. That local authority has made a local judgment and it is a matter for local authorities to determine. However, it is important that, where there are such problems, they should be drawn to the attention of the ODPM because, as yet, we have not encountered any profound problems with the operation of the legislation.
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