HC Deb 16 April 1981 vol 3 cc443-51 11.16 am
Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, East)

I am very glad of the opportunity to raise the subject of the provision of DHSS services in my constituency. I am particularly glad that the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker), is to reply to the debate. Not only is her very considerable concern for social matters very well known—the kind of concern that is shared by many hon. Members—but in her case it is matched by a very well proven administrative ability in giving practical implementation to her concern. That is particularly appropriate in this debate in which I wish especially to deal is with the way in which efficient DHSS services can be provided to my constituents rather than with the nature of the services themselves. Perhaps it is also appropriate on a happy Easter Adjournment that this is not a party political issue, for behind-the-scenes moves in this matter have been going on for a number of years.

My main introduction to the problem came only a few months after I was elected the hon. Member for Fife, East, when one of the Civil Service trade unions drew attention to the possibility of the closure of the St. Andrew's DHSS office. When one inquired further into these matters, a much wider and more unsatisfactory situation was revealed.

The St. Andrew's office is a relic of the pre-1966 days, when there were two quite separate organisations—on the one hand, the National Assistance Board, handling what we would now consider to be supplementary benefit, and, on the other, the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, handling what we would now regard as contributory benefit. The St. Andrew's office handles only the latter type of activity, and, indeed, not all of that.

I understand that, as a result of the merger of those two main activities in 1966, moves were started to achieve a network of integrated local offices throughout the country. That was a commendable objective, but the wheels seem to have ground extraordinarily slowly. It seems to have taken 10 years, through a period first of a Labour Government, then a Conservative Government, and then a further Labour Government, for the plan for East Fife to begin to merge. Five years later, and with another Conservative Government in office, it has still not yet been effected.

A computer and a large—scale map would be required to work out for most constituents where their relevant DHSS office is located. It would depend on where they live and whether the matter concerns supplementary benefit or contributory benefit. Only the Forth coastal fringe of the constituency receives both services from the same office.

Places as remote from one another as Dundee, Kirkcaldy, St. Andrews, Leven and Perth all have a finger in the pie. Sometimes Auchtermuchty is referred to in debate as an example of a typical, sensible local community, but if one lived in Auchtermuchty and found it necessary to deal with the DHSS on supplementary benefit and contributory benefit matters, to go to the appropriate local office in a motor car would take approximately half a day. One would have to travel to Perth and to Kirkcaldy respectively because one place is 20 miles to the south and the other 20 miles to the north of Auchtermuchty. If, like so many clients of the Department of Health and Social Security, one did not have access to a motor car, it would take from dawn to dusk and much hard travelling to visit the relevant social security offices.

The local telephone directory for Fife and Kinross district, under the heading "Social Security", lists Cowdenbeath, Dunfermline, St. Andrews, Leven and Kirkcaldy. It repeats some of those places under a different heading, but nowhere does it refer to Dundee or Perth, yet Dundee and Perth contain the social security offices for a substantial part of my constituency. That makes it difficult for my constituents to understand where they should go for the appropriate service.

That situation having been inherited, there is a clear need for decision. I accept the undoubted desirability of integrated local offices. I can understand why the Minister wishes to see rationalisation, but that is where we must, regrettably, part company, unless I can persuade her of the merits of my solution, which is for a single integrated local office for north-east Fife.

The plans so far put forward by the Department are tidy when looked at from Edinburgh on a small-scale map, but they leave much to be desired in the way of services to the customer. The proposals are based too much on past errors and out-of-date considerations and not enough on a consideration of the homogeneous nature of north-east Fife, its communities and the general pattern of local administration that has evolved in the past five or six years.

Undoubtedly, one of the considerations originally envisaged by the Department when local government was reformed was that north-east Fife should be part of the Tayside region. However, Fife retained itself as one region, of which north-east Fife was a part. That change in the original thinking does not seem to have been reflected in the pattern of development since.

In correspondence with the Minister I have sought to show that an integrated local office for north-east Fife, based either at Cupar or St Andrews, would be a practical solution for the Department and would be preferred by every local interest. I stress that it is supported by all the local interests in the area.

The benefits of such a proposal for the clients of the Department need no further emphasis. It has been supported by the trade unions most directly involved. I quote a brief extract from the Fife branch secretary of the Civil and Public Services Association DHSS branch, Mr. Burns, who said: Thank you for the copy of your letter to Mrs Chalker. May I on behalf of the CPSA members of DHSS Fife congratulate you on your insight, understanding, and recommendations that you have made regarding the DHSS service in the east of Fife. The response from the Society of Civil and Public Servants is also favourable. Thus, the CPSA representative confirms the favourable response of the society.

The proposal is supported by north-east Fife district council in a practical way, as I shall explain when I talk about accomodation for the proposed office. The district council has supported the proposal on several occasions. As recently as 20 March the chief executive wrote to me: The need for this integrated office in Cupar has again been brought to my notice this week, when we have been discussing with the Dundee office the question of payments regarding the homeless, and also in connection with arrears of rent and rates. I find that we require to deal with some three to four DHSS offices in this matter, and again I think this re-emphasises the need for an integrated office in Cupar. The proposal is also supported by Fife regional council, which has interests much wider than just north-east Fife. It covers the whole of Fife. It is interesting to note that Fife was the only county in Scotland which, on the reorganisation of local government, retained its identity as one regional council.

In a letter dated 2 April from the chief executive of Fife regional council to the controller of the Department of Health and Social Security in Edinburgh there are a number of useful suggestions about the Department's services in Fife. Item 4 says: To recommend that the DHSS review the present and proposed administration of their services in North East Fife with the view to the establishment of a single integrated local office within the District which would administer the whole range of local services operated by the Department. Those are the views of the two local authorities directly concerned—one is Conservative controlled and one Labour controlled. We have heard the trade union view, and the proposal is supported by business men who have legitimate dealings with the DHSS offices.

My hon. Friend the Minister has replied to the arguments in favour of a single integrated local office in north-east Fife and has raised two principal objections—one concerned with viability, and one with cost and accommodation. In her letter to me on 25 November she said: the social security work load for the district is insufficient to make such an office a viable proposition. I do not accept that. By my calculation, the electorate that would be served would be equal to or greater than that for three out of the four existing offices in Fife. The basis on which I make that calculation is that regional council wards served by individual offices consist of equal numbers of electors throughout Fife. The potential staffing of an integrated local office would be about 70. That would not mean additional staff, but would be the result of a reallocation of staff among the present offices, many of which are outside the region, and I believe that that could be done without reducing the viability of any of the others.

When I protested about this to my hon. Friend the Minister, she replied with her usual care and courtesy and referred to the population of districts within Fife region. She pointed out, quite accurately, that Fife region has a population of about 340,000, which is divided among the districts—Dunfermline, 125,000; Kirkcaldy, 149,000; and north-east Fife, 66,000. The Kirkcaldy office is very large. Indeed, it covers part of north-east Fife. There are two offices in close proximity, at Cowdenbeath and Dunfermline. If one were to split the Dunfermline district population of 125,000—which is not absolutely precisely to be done, in all fairness, on this boundary allocation—curiously enough, one would get almost exactly the population of north-east Fife district, where I am looking for a single integrated local office.

Also in that letter, however, my hon. Friend went on to say: It is not possible to be precise without taking a special count of workloads over a fairly lengthy period in the offices concerned, but it is estimated that a North East Fife office would have a staffing level of no more than 50. I do not imagine that that figure, which was arrived at in that way, will be stated as being the least attractive in terms of the Minister's argument. I accept that that is the genuine assessment of the Department, but I think that, if anything, it is likely to be higher rather than lower than that figure. But, even at that figure, I think that no one has suggested that it would be an unviable office.

The second objection that my hon. Friend raised was the need to maximise the use of the existing offices surrounding the north-east Fife district and to have regard to the control of public expenditure. This is a time of year when I am very tempted to invite my hon. Friend to come and judge for herself. It is a time of year when many people are coming to East Fife. It is an attractive environment, but one part that is not very attractive is the DHSS office in Leven. I am glad to see that my hon. Friend is clearly aware of that. The office in Leven provides the only genuine integrated local office service in the area, but it is overflowing into the back yard, into temporary accommodation.

The Kirkcaldy Crown office accommodation, by contrast, is admirable, but it shares that with other Government Departments, giving particularly good opportunities for modifications to meet the needs of particular groups within that office.

There is, however, ideal accommodation available in Cupar. I was particularly grateful for the response by North-East Fife district council when I explained to it that I had this difficulty with the Minister, who was arguing about the difficulty of finding suitable accommodation and using existing accommodation to the best advantage. The council wrote to me on 17 December. The chief executive said: I am pleased to say that the District Council would be most willing to help in this matter, should a decision be reached by DHSS to locate an integrated office in Cupar. There are two possibilities"— not just one possibility, but two— of making available accommodation for approximately 70 staff, which I understand to be the number required. In a concluding paragraph in his letter, which might be of particular interest and encouragement to the Minister, the chief executive said: I think you may take it that the District Council would not be too difficult about leasing terms for either of these proposals, as the Members with whom I have spoken see this as an employment opportunity, and an opportunity for a very useful Public Service agency in Cupar. The strength of that argument about a useful public service agency in Cupar is emphasised by the fact that one of the two opportunities for accommodation in Cupar is immediately adjacent to the present area social work office of Fife regional council. One can see obvious benefits flowing from that kind of arrangement.

These factors must be considered along with the alternative additional costs that would apply if the Government's plans were carried through. Let us remember that the Government's plans will involve some additional costs. Many of the offices will be outwith the local telephone charge rate for my constituents, and presumably when the offices telephone my constituents they will pay more than they otherwise would have to pay on their substantial telephone bills. There will be much increased travel costs for constituents, who will no doubt wish to have them reimbursed, and for the Department's staff. There will be a need to maintain—dare I say it?—if not to increase, if the plans go on as they are at present, the provision of caller offices, which would seem largely to neutralise the accommodation and cost argument.

There is one further qualitative point that I should like to make. By and large, I do not get many complaints from constituents about the social security services in my constituency, and I hope that that will long continue to be the case. But there is one office serving the constituency that accounts for practically all the complaints I get—Dundee. When I have visited the manager of the Dundee office I have had the greatest assistance from him, and I believe that that is the experience of those whose cases come specifically to his attention. But he cannot handle all of the cases personally, and there have been too many occasions on which constituents have found difficulty in that large office in Dundee in getting their cases sympathetically dealt with.

I should like to read a short extract from a letter from Fife regional councillor Tony Jackson, who represents St. Andrews on the regional council. He has been very helpful in putting forward the St. Andrews viewpoint on these matters. He says: There is strong local resistance to removal of the last remaining DHSS facility in the District. There is even stronger resistance to this facility being placed in Dundee, and Dundee being categorised as the local office for St. Andrews. This resistance is made up of the fact that existing service from Dundee office has proved unacceptable in the past, and has been acknowledged as much in correspondence, and that, despite assurances to the contrary, claimants do in fact frequently have to travel to Dundee in person at their own expense at the moment, and this will only aggravate the situation. He adds in parenthesis: I have a number of cases which I should be happy to let members see"— that is, members of the regional council— to illustrate the quite unacceptable attitude of the Dundee office to local claimants, who frequently turn to Kirkcaldy in despair of getting help, and are met there with courtesy and kindly service but an inability to act. It may be nothing more difficult than the problem of city dwellers in Dundee, on the other side of the river Tay—which only in recent memory has been bridged by road transport—communicating with the people who live in north-east Fife and who come from a very different environment, but there is a problem there, and it would be wrong not to bring it to my hon. Friend's attention.

Therefore, I hope that today, or at least on conclusion of the current review, the Minister will announce the acceptance of this sensible proposal for the establishment of a single integrated local office for north-east Fife.

11.39 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson) for his kind remarks at the start of his speech. He has presented fairly and lucidly his proposed solution to the problem of providing an adequate social security local office service to the people of north-east Fife. He has dug deeply into the facts of the situation and, both in correspondence and meetings with me over the past year and in the House today, he has put forward a reasoned and solid argument which I shall ensure is carefully considered before any decision is taken.

The problems that my Department has had to face since 1966 in moving over to an integrated network of all-purpose social security offices are well known to the House. They have been debated many times in relation to individual proposals affecting various parts of the country. They have rarely been solved to the satisfaction of all concerned. Change is often painful, though experience suggests that once a change has been implemented people adjust to new arrangements far more quickly than might have been expected before the change.

We seek to satisfy a number of criteria in drawing up plans for the integration of social security offices in any particular area. My hon. Friend is familiar with them and has examined them in relation to the position in his constituency. I should like to discuss them against the background in north-east Fife.

The main criterion that we have in mind in preparing any integration plan is that the integrated office must be accessible to those whom it is to serve. The purpose of integration, which is to provide an office service on all aspects of social security to a particular community, would clearly be thwarted if claimants were unable to communicate with the office, by whatever means they chose, without undue difficulty.

I refer to the means of communication because it must not be assumed that claimants invariably conduct their business face to face across the local office counter. The bulk of the work of a local office is conducted by post—a system that is supplemented wherever necessary by visits to claimants in their homes. I note what my hon. Friend said about telephone directories. I do not know whether we can do anything about getting other numbers into the local directories in north-east Fife, but I will take up that matter on his behalf.

Saying that most of the work is conducted by post is not to set aside or belittle the problems that changed arrangements can cause for those who prefer to transact their business in the local office—problems that can be particular trying in country areas where travel is sometimes difficult, time consuming and costly. Accessibility has certainly been borne in mind in the development of the proposed arrangements for north-east Fife by the acceptance of the need to retain a part-time caller office at St. Andrews for as long as it may be justified by demand. That would mean that there would normally be no need for people from north-east Fife to travel to Dundee to make or pursue their claims, unless they found it particularly convenient to do so.

I note what my hon. Friend said about the office at Dundee and some of the problems involved there. I will return to that matter. For the public, the main change resulting from the proposed relocation of work would be that they would be dealing with offices at different addresses from those used now. I take my hon. Friend's point that all steps must be taken to let the public know of any new arrangements that are introduced and of the address to which claims should be sent.

Nor do I overlook the less tangible, but no less important, point made by my hon. Friend that the people of north-east Fife do not like having their affairs dealt with by those north of the Tay. It is certainly no part of the function of my Department to offend local pride, and I sincerely hope that whatever arrangements are finally introduced will not have that effect.

Another criterion that looms large when integration is being planned is the desirability of aligning local office boundaries with local authority boundaries. The provision of social security is so clearly bound up with the provision of social services and local authority housing that any arrangements that facilitate communications between the various agencies involved will contribute materially to the general level of service that can be provided to the individual.

The Department's present proposals do not violate that concept. Liaison with the local authority services from north-east Fife could be perfectly well maintained from Dundee. I should comment that the administration of supplementary benefits for north-east Fife is already based on the Dundee, East integrated local office.

The final and very important criterion of which account has to be taken in developing an integration plan is the need to provide services in the most economical manner possible. We should not be easily forgiven for introducing new arrangements that led to wasteful expenditure, and I always pay careful attention to the economy aspects of any plan that comes before me.

The search for economy in relation to proposals for integration involves a number of considerations. First, it is clearly incumbent upon us to make the most advantageous use of existing accommodation and to avoid under-utilisation on the one hand and unnecessary redevelopment on the other.

The proposal developed by the Department seeks to make the best possible use of the existing offices surrounding the north-east Fife district, most of which are relatively new. Present calculations indicate that the provision of an ILO in north-east Fife—my hon. Friend has suggested that it should be in Cupar—would result in serious over-provision in the surrounding areas and the possible need for the closure of at least one office.

Closely tied in with that—indeed, the basis from which all calculations have to be made—is the question of work loads and what level of work load warrants separate facilities in any area. The Department's proposals are based on the proposition that the north-east Fife district would not provide a sufficient work load to merit an office of its own without seriously affecting the staffing levels of other offices in the Fife region.

To be more precise, the provision of an ILO in northeast Fife would result in a population of 340,000 being serviced by five offices, of which only one would have a staffing level above 100 and two would have staffing levels of around 50. That would be incompatible with the Department's policy of carrying out local functions in larger units equipped to deal with the full range of social security benefits, and we believe that it would be uneconomical and confusing for the claimant. Local offices must be able to provide a full range of information wherever possible and that is the intention of our plans for the future.

I know that my hon. Friend questions whether the Department's forecasts of the workload in north-east Fife are soundly based and, beyond that, whether the provision of an ILO in the district, even on the basis of the Department's forecasts, would be uneconomical. The balancing of all those factors obviously calls for decisions based on judgment as well as on facts. That is why I am asking that those aspects of the case made by my hon. Friend should be given special attention by the Department's central office in Scotland, to which falls the task of weighing all the views expressed during consultation about the present proposals.

I note that the north-east Fife district council, the Fife regional council, the Civil and Public Services Association and the Society of Civil and Public Servants all seers to agree with the proposal outlined by my hon. Friend. That will obviously be taken into account. It is clear that everyone is agreed that there should be a single integrated local office that can cope with the needs of my hon. Friend's constituents. We are arguing not about the policy but about where the local office should be situated.

I have noted my hon. Friend's comments about Dundee, East ILO which covers some of his constituents. I am concerned about what he said about the difficulties that some of his constituents have in claiming supplementary benefit from that office. I hope that my hon. Friend will let me have the letter from the Fife regional council, because the cases in that letter might give us a clue about what is not quite right in that office.

It is important to do our best to give the service required of us and that claimants deserve. I hope that the unofficial strike that is now affecting the payment of supplementary benefit in Dundee will be called off. People who take unofficial action just before Easter can only harm people most in need of the help of the DHSS. I hope that that will be remembered by those taking action.

My hon. Friend has been assiduous in seeking the facts. I understand the case that he has made for an integrated office. He has put the facts to me in a proper and cogent manner. The best assurance that I can give him today is that I shall be no less assiduous in ensuring that the matter is examined thoroughly before any decisions are taken.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue. We shall do our best to come to a satisfactory conclusion for all concerned, so that we provide a speedy and better service for people who make claims in north-east Fife.