HC Deb 14 June 1988 vol 135 cc152-3
2. Mr. Barry Field

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Services how many computers have been installed in benefit offices in the period for which complete records are available.

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

We have installed more than 3,000 micro-computers in the Department's local offices so far, and at least one computer in each of the Department of Employment's unemployment benefit offices. Within the next 12 months we will start linking all local offices to mainframe computers, providing a fully-computerised service for pensions and income support.

Mr. Field

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extraordinary that the Opposition continually claim a monopoly for caring and sharing, but that they totally failed to modernise the system? Will my hon. Friend confirm that it is the largest computerisation programme in Europe?

Mr. Portillo

In common with my hon. Friend I certainly wish that we had made an earlier start, but progress is now extremely good. I believe that the result will be a great success in the quality of service to claimants. I confirm that it is the largest civil programme outside the United States.

Mr. Madden

Will the programme also gain the reputation as an even bigger administrative shambles than that over which the Home Office presides at Lunar house? Is it not a fact that £8 million has been spent on this computer system, but that, even today, the DHSS is unable to place in the Library information for the first month or, indeed, the second month of the operation of the social fund? When will the DHSS get its act together, answer questions on these matters, and get the information to the Library, which it has been promising for the past three months?

Mr. Portillo

The hon. Gentleman and I have corresponded about this matter. Within the next day or so I hope to place in the Library the social fund data for May. Today is 14 June. I do not believe that a two-week delay in producing the data for May is untoward.

Mr. Patnick

Will the computerisation programme benefit my constituents who receive benefit?

Mr. Portillo

I am convinced that it will provide a quicker and more accurate service. It will mean that in due course claimants will be able to go to a local office and discuss all their benefits. They will be able to call at any office in the country and obtain information about their claiming position. Those are all great advances.

Mr. Kennedy

When installing the new system, has the Department taken account of the warning expressed several years ago in evidence to a Special Committee of the House that if the configuration involved in the computer system was not of a certain type any subsequent Administration would be unable to adapt the system—for example, for the purpose of merging or integrating tax and benefits? Can the Minister assure us that this computer system will leave open that practical possibility, in case a subsequent Administration wish to pursue such a policy?

Mr. Portillo

We have certainly pursued the issue of equipment with a view to making it highly compatible. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured about those points.