HC Deb 23 July 1996 vol 282 cc128-9
2. Mr. Hinchliffe

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what measures his Department takes to monitor the impact of computer errors on claimants' benefits. [36957]

The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Alistair Burt)

All new computer systems, and changes to existing systems, are thoroughly tested before they are put into operation, and they are monitored once they are in operation. All errors are investigated and corrected, and their impact on operations is analysed. Errors affecting benefit payments are corrected as soon as possible and steps are taken to identify all customers affected by them.

Mr. Hinchliffe

Is the Minister aware of the lengthy correspondence that I have had with his Department concerning my constituent, Mr. Peter Sutton, whose benefit was affected by computer errors, to his detriment? In particular, has the Minister had an opportunity to look at the letter of 16 May, sent from the private office of his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State, saying that some 10,200 claimants' benefits had been affected as a direct consequence of computer error? As many of these people are old-age pensioners or on extremely low incomes, this is a serious situation. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that any hardship affecting them is addressed as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Burt

I am aware of the correspondence that the hon. Gentleman has had with my Department. It is important to put this matter into context: some 250 million transactions are produced by computer in the benefits system every year, and 94 per cent. of all benefits are paid right—and right first time. If errors are identified, we do a trawl to find out who else might have been affected. The hon. Gentleman might like to know that the trawl of cases similar to that of his constituent was completed last week. The preliminary figures identify some 11,500 cases that have been affected by this type of error. Benefits will be corrected, and compensation is payable in certain circumstances if there have been delays. We try to ensure that all systems are brought up to date, and there are regular audits to try to ensure that errors do not occur. However, when they happen—no system is foolproof—we take all steps possible to put matters right.

Sir David Madel

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Child Support Agency continues to make computer errors when it sends out demands? In particular, will he ask the agency to be careful not to mix up overtime and basic wages? It often makes errors in that area.

Mr. Burt

As we know, the calculation of child support is complex, and it must be done correctly. I shall draw the attention of the Minister concerned to the point raised by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Alan Howarth

What consideration has the Minister given to the consequences of computer errors if he carries through his intention to sell lists of benefit claimants to private sector organisations, as reported in The Daily Telegraph of 15 May? Would it not be a gross breach of confidence to do so? Is it not an error of judgment on the part of Ministers to expose people in poverty to the temptations and taunts of advertisers? Will the Minister give hon. Members his assurance that the Benefits Agency database of clients will not be made available to outside organisations or to individuals, except for purposes that are intrinsic to—and confined to—the administration of benefits?

Mr. Burt

We never had any intention of doing any such thing, and the hon. Gentleman might have been better advised to raise the question elsewhere so that I did not need to tell him that in such a public forum.