HC Deb 23 October 1984 vol 65 cc540-2
8. Mr. Janner

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services whether he will take steps to improve the service available to those claimants who do not receive their supplementary benefit Girocheques on time.

The Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)

In general, the system of payment of supplementary benefit by Girocheque works well. We recognise, however, that there are problems from time to time, as occurred recently following the derailment of a train carrying mail to the hon. and learned Member's constituency. As he knows, steps have been taken locally to improve arrangements for dealing with such contingencies.

Mr. Janner

Is the Minister not aware that the only arrangement that could do any good in the long run would be to make good the cuts in staffing at DHSS offices in my constituency and elsewhere? Is he aware that there will inevitably be even greater delays after 26 November when there is to be an increase in supplementary benefit which cannot conceivably be implemented in Leicester because of the mammoth task that awaits a thoroughly depleted staff?

Mr. Newton

I shall answer the hon. and learned Gentleman's second point first. Our understanding is that in general the uprating will be carried out on time, thanks to the loyal work of staff throughout the system who are working despite the problems at Newcastle. If the hon. and learned Gentleman is worried about what will happen in Leicester, he should talk to the strikers in Newcastle and ask them what they propose to do about the situation.

Mr. Janner

The Minister should talk to them.

Mr. Newton

It is no use Labour Members running away from the fact that one of the objectives of the strikers in Newcastle is to prevent the uprating being paid on time.

In reply to the hon. Gentleman's first point, the problem of emergency services has little, if anything, to do with staffing, but we accept that there are problems and we are seeking to make improvements.

Mr. Couchman

Is my hon. Friend aware that his Department is paying out large sums of money to meet mortgage interest payments that are due from striking miners, that that money is being suborned to pay other bills, and that mortgage interest is not being paid? Is he satisfied with that?

Mr. Newton

We are aware of my hon. Friend's point and are not satisfied with it. We are considering what our stance should be in the light of the evidence that is emerging.

Mr. Meadowcroft

Is the Minister aware that there is evidence of claimants doing without essentials in the days before a Girocheque arrives? Is that problem not greatly exacerbated when cheques do not arrive? Is it possible to give a post office that pays out claimants the authority to make emergency payments?

Mr. Newton

I do not think that it would be practicable for the Post Office to act in that way. Post offices tend to close at mid-day on Saturday. That does not help. We hope to be able to improve our home telephone service, which we are studying. Social services departments have power to make emergency payments without reference to us.

Mr. Ottaway

As a result of the strike at Newcastle offices, delays are also being experienced at post offices and, as a result, pensioners are having to queue outside in the cold. With the onset of winter, will my hon. Friend please consider setting up some form of distribution centre so that pensioners do not have to queue outside in bad weather?

Mr. Newton

I acknowledge the problem that my hon. Friend has raised. He will know that the Post Office has already taken action to ameliorate the problem that is considering further action. We shall do anything that we can to help.

Mrs. Beckett

Does the Minister agree that although it is good for him to recommend to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) that he talks to the strikers in Newcastle, it would be much better if he and the Secretary of State talked to those strikers and recognised that, in this dispute, as in others, the Government are spending vast sums of public money to achieve a small gain that will now not be recovered for several hundred years? Does he recognise that the wholly arbitrary cuts in staff numbers in the Civil Service, the DHSS and elsewhere have led directly to the problem that my hon. and learned Friend identified? Will he assure us that, in the current review, an opportunity will be taken to improve rather than to worsen the service?

Mr. Newton

I do not accept that any policies which the Government have adopted on staffing, which have been matched by cuts in work load, have contributed to the problem to which the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) drew attention. With regard to Newcastle, Ministers and management in the Department have made it clear throughout the dispute that we are willing to talk. The problem is that we have been faced with unions which have been unwilling to talk constructively with us.