§ 8. Mr. Lester
To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what measures the Government are implementing to improve their level of service to social security claimants.
§ The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Tony Newton)
The creation of the Benefits Agency under the "next steps" arrangements is an important development which will enhance and improve the service given to social security claimants. It will be able to build on other measures already being introduced, including, in particular, the extensive use of information technology.
§ Mr. Sims
I thank my right hon. Friend for that encouraging reply. The sheer size of the social security organisation and the number of beneficiaries make it inevitable that errors will occasionally occur. What is annoying for our constituents is that, when something goes wrong, it takes so long to be put right—phone calls receive no response, letters go unanswered and papers go astray —and constituents often turn to their Members of Parliament to get a relatively simple matter put straight. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that his proposals for the agencies will speed up the methods of dealing with the occasional mistakes that are bound to occur?
§ Mr. Newton
Like any other Member of Parliament, I am familiar with the sort of criticism made by my hon. Friend. I well recognise that there has been substantial scope for improvement. If my hon. Friend looks at what has happened to, for example, income support clearance times and the speed of reassessment, when required, he will find that there has already been substantial improvement. However, there is still scope for more and I have no doubt that the emphasis that the Benefits Agency already puts on service to the public will contribute to the further improvement that my hon. Friend and I both want.
§ Mr. Lester
It is very interesting that, following the Moodie report, my right hon. Friend has moved to the policy of having a Benefits Agency. I welcome his non-complacent attitude and awareness that matters can always continue to improve. Is he satisfied that the interface between the Benefits Agency and the Department of Employment, particularly when dealing with people who move from Department of Employment benefit to income support, is first class, because nobody wants to make it more difficult for people who are currently unemployed or are becoming long-term unemployed?
§ Mr. Newton
I should not wish to appear complacent about that aspect of the social security system, any more than any other. I am sure that there is scope in that area for further improvement. I am confident that the combination of the Employment Service Agency and the Benefits Agency will produce further improvement.
§ Mr. Grocott
Cannot the Secretary of State understand the considerable scepticism that exists about any of his planned changes since one consequence of the changes is the diminution of his accountability to the House and the accountability of him and his Ministers to individual Members of Parliament? Is not it the habit of Ministers that when they have anything good to say, they much prefer to say it to the House? Therefore, it occurs to many of us that the reason why the Secretary of State puts himself behind the front line is that he is not too proud of the changes.
§ Mr. Newton
The hon. Gentleman is unduly cynical, even by the standards of the House. The accountability, to the House and to Parliament as a whole, of the Secretary of State for Social Security for the social security system is entirely unchanged. In my view, it will be more effective, because it will operate on the basis of clearly set targets and the delegation of responsibility, in terms that make it much easier to judge whether those targets are being met.
§ Mr. Meacher
As good service is about providing adequate benefits and not less benefit more quickly, is not the Secretary of State ashamed of the EC report of a week ago which finds that while the number of poor people elsewhere in the EC remained broadly stable through the 1980s, in Britain the number of poor households has increased by a third? When will he apologise to the House for the Government having caused that by breaking the pensioner link with earnings, by failing repeatedly to uprate child benefit, by forcing families into poverty as a result of the social fund, by huge cuts in housing benefit and by making the poorest of all pay the poll tax? Is not all the razzamatazz about agency status merely a cover-up for the greatest increase in poverty and inequality since the war?
§ Mr. Newton
Obviously the hon. Gentleman has not studied with great care the statistics to which he refers. He well knows that average incomes were used as the benchmark for them, which means that at a time when average incomes have been rising quickly there is an apparent increase in the number of those in poverty measured on that basis. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is sensible to rest an analysis of that sort on the basis of figures that appear to produce an increase in poverty when average incomes rise quickly, he should do more homework.
§ Mr. Newton
Of course it is an EC report, but that does not necessarily make it sensible. I am sure that the information is good, but the analysis is wrong, as is the use which the hon. Gentleman made of it.
I take up the point which my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People made in another context last week, which revealed again the absurdity of the way in which the figures are used. It happens that 50 per cent. of average incomes was used as the benchmark. Taking Europe as a whole, that produced the result that 50 million people were poor. Had 40 per cent. been used as the benchmark—there was no specially good reason for taking 50 rather than 40 per cent.—the result would have been halved to 26 million. The figures are worth only as much as the interpretation placed on them and the interpretation is ridiculous.
One last point—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. It would be helpful if the Secretary of State answered the supplementary questions, not questions that have not been asked.
§ Mr. Newton
The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) asked about half a dozen questions. As he put 9 forward a proposal to increase child benefit that would have done nothing for the poorest families in the country, I wonder how he has the nerve to raise these matters.