HC Deb 03 June 1986 vol 98 cc721-3
7. Mr. Pike

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what recent representations he has received regarding staff levels at Department of Health and Social Security offices.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. John Major)

Staffing levels in local social security offices are a matter of constant concern to the Government. We take careful account of the representations which are received from various sources which include organisations representing the staff both locally and nationally. I am glad to tell the hon. Gentleman that an additional 5,000 staff have been added above complement for the current year.

Mr. Pike

Will these 5,000 additional jobs be in DHSS offices to enable them to ensure that claimants get the money to which they are entitled? Is not the situation throughout the country much as it is in Burnley, where there are now fewer staff dealing with three times the number of claimants as in 1979? Is this not disgraceful, as people are not getting the benefits to which they are entitled?

Mr. Major

We are determined to deliver a cost-effective and efficient social security system, and we shall provide the staff for that purpose.

Mr. Dobson

When will the hon. Gentleman start?

Mr. Major

As to when we shall start, that is a substantial part of the social security review, which may have bypassed the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). In Burnley there has been an increase of 12½ people over the 1985–86 natural work load complement.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

Will my hon. Friend look at staffing levels in the city of Leicester, and particularly in the three local DHSS offices, which, after doing an excellent job, are facing a crisis as to whether they should continue with overtime or bring in casual labour to do the work that has been well carried out?

Mr. Major

We are carrying out a full complement review of staffing and the effect of that will be shown in the offices next year.

Mr. Corbett

Is the Minister aware that, despite a large increase in the number of claimants at local DHSS offices, as in the Kingsbury road in my constituency, the staffing levels are below those of 1979? Can he assure us that the four extra staff allocated to the Kingsbury road DHSS offices will be sufficient to deal efficiently with the number of people claiming benefits there?

Mr. Major

I shall examine the position in the office quoted by the hon. Gentleman. With the 5,000 staff that have been approved, the national complement is now greater than it was in 1979. The hon. Gentleman might care to bear in mind that the equivalent of about 6,890 posts are no longer needed because of changes in procedures on statutory sick pay, housing benefit and postal review.

Mr. Forth

Is it not the case that the bold and excellent proposals being made to reform the social security system are designed to increase the number of people who will understand the system, raise the level of claims made and received and make the use of staff more efficient? Is this not the way to go, rather than piling more staff upon more in a system that is breaking down?

Mr. Major

My hon. Friend is right. In addition to his catalogue, the review will also ensure that we can deliver an efficient social security system. That is our intention.

Mr. Meacher

Is the Minister aware that cuts of 10,000 jobs at DHSS offices since 1979, together with a near trebling of work loads as a result of soaring unemployment, has produced a plummeting of morale to the lowest level perhaps since 1948? Is he further aware that in one north London office, for example, it takes at least four weeks even for claims for urgent needs payments to be dealt with, even for household disabled persons with no income? How long do the Government intend to allow staff to remain so grossly overworked, undertrained and underpaid?

Mr. Major

As ever, if one shows the hon. Gentleman a top, he will go well over it, and he has done so yet again. He clearly did not hear what I said a moment ago. Recently we authorised a substantial increase of 5,000 in complement. In addition, there has been a reduction in work load equivalent to nearly 7,000 jobs because of substantial changes in procedure. Further, if the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about delivering a good system, he might have given us a little more support, in the Standing Committee considering the Social Security Bill, for the reform that we are making.

Mr. Kennedy

Is the Minister satisfied that the authorisation of 5,000 extra staff will be sufficient to meet the strong reservations expressed by the private consultants' report which was commissioned by his Department one and a half years ago on the staffing, training and retraining implications of the social security review?

Mr. Major

The latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question arises on a later question today. If the 5,000 additional staff are insufficient to deliver the service required, that will be revealed by the complement review that is now going on, and we shall deal with the result of the review at the end of this year.