HC Deb 27 November 1996 vol 286 cc271-92

11 am

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

On 15 November, the Wales management board of the Benefits Agency published a consultation document on what it rather grandly called the agency's blueprint for the future. The document contains plans to close 14 of the agency's main offices and 39 public caller and one-stop offices and to reduce its staff by 715. As it was put to me this morning, such plans could well be a blueprint for disaster.

The document was produced in response to the "Change" programme announced by the Secretary of State for Social Security on 28 February. The proposed reforms of social security administration are intended to produce savings of 25 per cent. over three years. The Wales board is the first to respond to the Secretary of State's announcement: we are to be the test bed for change.

When the programme was first announced, dire warnings were given about the consequences of such drastic action. On 21 March, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration warned that civil service staff cuts would lead to a worse public service and more mistakes. His annual report, published on the same day, showed that he had received a 28 per cent. increase in complaints from hon. Members during the previous year. He said: There is a risk that fewer staff will lead to both a slower service to the public and to more mistakes … I doubt whether automation and technology will compensate fully for cuts in human resources. We should all take that warning seriously.

A letter that I—and, presumably, all Welsh Members—received from the agency's director for Wales, Mr. Ian Watson, sought to justify the plan in two statements. The first I regard as rather spurious and the second much closer to the truth. First, the director said that the plan is consistent with our commitment to high quality customer service and the long term interest of our staff. How can closure of offices and a 20 per cent. reduction in staff possibly be consistent with that statement?

Secondly, the director stated: The proposals also respond to the need throughout the Agency as set out in our Change Programme to drive out significant economies and efficiencies. That statement is the real reason for this outrageous plan. The Secretary of State for Social Security has told the agency to cut costs by 25 per cent. The Wales board has simply done the Government's bidding, irrespective of the damage that it will do to the service that it provides for the people of Wales.

Let us consider the unique challenges that the agency faces in delivering services in Wales. Our country's geography represents a number of challenges. There are large urban populations located primarily in the south and the south-east and in the area around Wrexham and Deeside. Then there is the very large rural hinterland, where the population is much lower but where there are high pockets of unevenly distributed unemployment, and the valleys of south Wales, where even the agency accepts that there are areas of deprivation. In addition, there are demographic and other factors which are relevant to the debate. Wales has an aging population, and the percentage of people of pensionable age in many Welsh constituencies is above the United Kingdom average.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the most essential aspects of the service that is particularly important to pensioners is the ability to call in at the office to discuss problems and receive assistance with filling in the ever more complicated forms that are coming on stream? If that facility is withdrawn, pensioners and widows in particular will find it extremely difficult to cope with the social security system, resulting in a lower take-up, which must be contrary to what we want.

Mr. Jones

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention, which clarifies a number of the issues that are worrying us in relation to pensioners. About 150,000 pensioners in Wales qualify for income support, but only 100,000 of them claim it. It is more than likely that the changes will make it even more difficult for the elderly to get the benefits to which they are entitled. In many of the areas in Wales where the proportion of elderly people is higher than the Welsh national average, there will no longer be an office to which they can go to discuss their entitlements. Pensioners are the least likely to use the telephone or gain access to a Benefits Agency office.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

To illustrate the hon. Gentleman's point, I can tell him that the Merthyr office has 150 callers a day. Presumably, that service will be abolished in one form or another. Such a service is currently being provided from a brand new office that has all the best possible facilities in order to be able to receive such callers and has only recently opened.

Mr. Jones

Yes, that is the kind of number of callers that offices throughout Wales receive, as I am sure we shall hear during the debate.

Wales suffers some of the worst health problems in western Europe, with a higher than average dependency on sickness and incapacity benefit. It is also an area of low pay, with the lowest average incomes in the UK. According to the family expenditure survey in 1994–95, household incomes in Wales are about 75 per cent. of the UK average. A key reason for that is the number of households that are dependent on social security for income. According to the Low Pay Unit, 22.5 per cent. of household income in Wales is derived from social security, which is the highest proportion of any county or region in the United Kingdom.

I must comment on the language used in the consultation document, which is full of the worst kind of late 20th century management jargon. The document has adopted the language of privatisation, referring to claimants as "customers", talking of the need to make a "success of the business", mentioning the introduction of the concept of purchaser/provider and referring to exit policies instead of redundancies. In short, it creates an organisational structure and management philosophy that is only one step removed from a completely privatised service.

The document claims that a better service can be provided by centralisation in a number of locations, the better use of technology, and by customers, as it describes them, being willing increasingly to use the telephone as a means of "doing business".

Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)

The hon. Gentleman talks about centralising. In my area, for example, the centralising of the Rhyl and Flint offices will mean that Denbighshire and Flintshire—two large counties in north Wales—will have no personal caller office. How can my constituents and those who use the two offices depend on a centralised service when there are no bus routes, many do not have telephones and two major counties will not have a service that is currently provided by the Benefits Agency?

Mr. Jones

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman.

The document says: By 1999, the primary means for customers to contact us will be using the telephone. The agency claims that 75 per cent. of its customers contact them by telephone. I dispute those figures. One must discount calls to offices where the services are currently centralised. As the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) suggested, a survey of individual offices that are currently processing a range of benefits would show, I suspect, that less than 75 per cent. of people are making contact by telephone. I know that that is true in my constituency. Obviously, many people resort to using the telephone only when there is no alternative. In any event, those figures do not tally with the figures quoted to me by the agency in June this year. I was told that there are about 5.75 million contacts with the agency annually, of which 4 million are by telephone and 1.75 million by personal call. Even on the agency's figures, the proportion of callers is much higher.

Let us examine the proposals on what the document calls "customer interface" in a little more detail. The document states that the changes will give the BA Wales greater control in determining the appropriate method of customer interface on a case by case basis. What do those words mean? The customers, including some of the most vulnerable people in our society, will have no choice about how their claims are dealt with. So the aim of delivering high-quality customer service falls at the first hurdle. When challenged on that point, one of the managers was heard to say that the agency would have to teach the customers to use the telephone. Indeed the document states: BA Wales controls the contact, and therefore the costs". Three telephone call centres are to be established in Porthmadog, Swansea and Blackwood. They will become the first point of contact for all customers. There will be no facility, at those units or at the processing units, for customers to walk in and be seen. Although the facility for appointments is built into the system, it is clear that they will be discouraged.

One section of the document states: Criteria will be set to help staff determine whether an appointment is appropriate, although customers who express a determination for a meeting will be accommodated". Later in the document, the following comment is made: The proposal is to introduce a system whereby a member of staff agrees that a customer needs to be seen, usually because their problem could not be dealt with by telephone or post, and arranges an appointment for the customer to come to a BA site for an interview or meeting. The key objective of introducing an appointment system is to give BA control of the contact. Strict criteria will he set to determine if a customer needs to be seen or not, although customers who strongly assert the need for an interview will be accommodated. The agency is institutionalising the concept that he who shouts loudest, gets. In other words, the appointments system will be run for the benefit of those who can express themselves forcefully, and not those in the greatest need. That is an utter disgrace and no public service should be allowed to get away with it. The agency states boldly that it wants to treat customers with respect, but what a way that is to show respect to their customers.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the need for customers to express themselves forcefully. Does he agree that the agency is dealing with some of the most vulnerable, sick and disabled people in the community? My community of Blaenau Gwent is not only one of the poorest communities in Wales, but 41 per cent. of all households has a member who is disabled or long-term sick. In addition, those same people have low levels of car and telephone ownership. All the problems arise in the same families, making it impossible for them to confront authority in the way that is necessary to obtain an appointment.

Mr. Jones

The hon. Gentleman makes the point for his constituency very well, and I am sure that his comments will not be lost on the Minister.

The figures given to me in June by the Benefits Agency confirm that there are 500,000 current claims for income support and incapacity benefit in Wales, and about 250,000 new claims every year for social fund payments. Those payments are for people who do not have the means to travel long distances for appointments. We have also seen the introduction of the jobseeker's allowance, which many of us believe will cause even greater problems.

The social fund receives a high proportion of emergency claims from people in desperate circumstances. They may have acute family problems, be experiencing personal hardship or have suffered a bereavement. In such cases, personal calls are more likely to be necessary, and the applicants often need immediate payment. The facility for personal calls and immediate payment is now available in our processing offices. The Civil and Public Services Association has told me that the Holyhead BA office deals with more than 1,000 callers a month. The lowest monthly total in the past 12 months was 1,057 and the highest 1,594. The annual number of private interviews is about 1,500 a year and counter payments were made in more than 3,000 cases in the past 12 months. Those facilities will be withdrawn under the proposals and there will be no Benefits Agency outlet to serve Anglesey at all. That is a scandal.

If the plans go through, the agency will effectively withdraw from regular face-to-face contact with members of the public. The agency itself will make decisions about whether claimants will be seen. The real danger is that the agency will become remote, unresponsive and unable to distinguish between genuine and bogus claims for assistance. The staff will lose virtually all their local contact and knowledge, and they will not be able to prioritise cases as between urgent and non-urgent claims. They will not be able to distinguish between genuine hardship cases and those who are simply trying it on. Worst of all, we shall not have what most people would recognise as a genuine public service.

The Benefits Agency is in business to provide a full service to the public—not the service that it thinks that the public want, but the service that the public are entitled to expect. The agency does not seem to have taken the public's feelings into account at all in its proposals. Have claimants in Wales been asked what they want? Have any surveys been undertaken of what customers want? Of course they have not.

I wish to examine the way the agency claims that it will deal with cases of hardship. The document states that crisis loan applicants will be seen by appointment. If the customer is unable to go to a BA office, travel warrants will be issued at what the plan describes as a partnership site. It is not clear who will authorise the travel warrants, or what happens if there is no partnership site close to the customer's home. Somehow I find it hard to imagine a partnership site in, say, Llanfairynghornwy or Llanddeusant.

The plan states that in extreme cases a BA member of staff will travel to a third-party location to deal with a crisis loan application. For that scheme to work, there would have to be dedicated members of staff always available to deal with such emergencies. Given the geography of Wales, that plan is unrealistic, impractical and unworkable. Frankly, it is nonsense. It takes no account of logistical or geographical difficulties, and it is bound to fail.

The plans will increase cases of real hardship with fewer people claiming the benefits to which they are entitled. Often, they will be the people who have the greatest difficulty with filling in complicated application forms. Dealing with queries over the telephone is no substitute. In many cases, elderly people simply will not use the telephone and they are easily deterred from pursuing their entitlement. There is always a proportion of the population who do not take up means-tested benefits, and that proportion will increase.

We should deplore plans to deprive staff of face-to-face contact with the public. Most members of staff value that contact and have no wish to lose it. The proposal is to close 14 processing units all over Wales. In addition, 39 caller offices are to close—10 of them in January, just after the consultation period is supposed to end. What sort of consultation is that?

We are told that the work will be centralised. There will be three telephone centres in north Wales, two in mid-Wales and 13 in south Wales. Past centralisation of services has not been spectacularly successful. We know that in those offices in which services are currently centralised, the queue of applications is the longest it has ever been, because staff numbers have been cut.

If the plans come to fruition, pressure on the voluntary organisations that give benefit advice to people will increase dramatically. I have received letters from the citizens advice bureau and the women's aid group in my constituency deploring the proposed closures at Llangefni and Holyhead. I know that the unemployed workers centre in Holyhead shares that view, and other groups—those representing disabled people in particular—are appalled by the plan. People will have to turn to someone for advice, and many of those local voluntary groups are already working at full stretch. It may be impossible for them to take on the extra work load, given their current resources.

The scale of the proposed closures and staff reductions is horrendous. We are asked to believe that the changes will save the Benefits Agency £12.8 million per annum after implementation costs, out of a current budget of £69 million—a saving of 18 per cent. But the implementation costs are staggering. Having looked at the documents, I have calculated that the cost will be £21.5 million at best, and £32 million at worst. The total package for reducing staff—the agency has recognised that there must be redundancies and early retirement—could cost as much as £16 million. Would it not be far better for those people to be working in our offices rather than being made redundant or forced to retire early? In any event, it will take some years for any cost benefits from those cuts to come through.

The message from hon. Members in all parts of Wales is that the plans clearly have not been thought through. If implemented, they will spell disaster for those who depend on state benefits, and the Benefits Agency will cease to be a public service. I ask the Minister to assure us today that the consultation document will be withdrawn, and I call on the Benefits Agency to abandon its plans for Wales. Other hon. Members will want to lend support in this respect. I can tell the Minister that the plan has already had a hostile reception in Wales, and I expect him to respond to that today.

11.21 am
Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

In deference to my colleagues, I shall be brief. I want to make four points, appertaining in particular to the proposed closure of the Port Talbot office.

In following what the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) has said, I must ask whether this is a proposal. Is this genuine consultation or a fait accompli? Has a cut-and-dried decision been made? I will not add to his comments on the document, save to say that is written in the language of brazen technocracy, and contains not a whiff of the language of care and concern.

My first point concerns the method of the announcement. If the Minister cannot deal with my few points, perhaps he will be kind enough to write to me. I was called by the South Wales Evening Post and told that the Port Talbot office was closing. I could not believe it, given the number in the area who are deprived and need assistance, and given the throughput of that fairly new office. I told the newspaper to go back and check. I thought that even though one site might be closing, another would be opening, but that was not the case at all.

My constituency contains many of the most vulnerable people in society, including the old and those who most need help. In the industrial constituencies of south Wales—and mine in particular—we have some of the highest rates of dependency in the whole of the land. The figures from the Library show that, regrettably, we rank very highly indeed. For the vulnerable, the telephone is no substitute for a face-to-face discussion, and the size and number of forms that now have to be filled in make it difficult even for the most literate and numerate of people, let alone those who badly need help at a time of crisis.

My second point is that, usually, a substantial time is given for the consultation. That is why I question whether this is genuine consultation. We are able to register our views, but only last week my county borough had no idea of this proposal. It may well be that that council and the citizens advice bureaux will carry the can, as someone will have to provide the service on the spot. My hard-pressed county borough is very concerned about what will be the bottom line in terms of additional costs.

My third point is that promises were made in the past when we had a massive run-down at Port Talbot. We were told that major services were to be centralised first at Bridgend and then at Swansea, but we were assured only a short time ago—perhaps the Minister can check this before he replies—that there would be a counter service in Port Talbot. Under the present proposals, however, that service is to go and there will be nothing left but the telephone.

My fourth point is that I am concerned about the alternative provisions. This morning we received a document from Welsh citizens advice bureaux providing illustrations and examples of what will happen, particularly in rural areas. But the bad examples are not confined to rural areas. Industrial areas will also be affected. My colleagues and I receive calls week in and week out—particularly at the weekend—from those needing access to the social fund at a time of crisis. What is the alternative? How will the fund operate? The system of warrants to which the hon. Member for Ynys Môn referred will not work.

The Government will be able to save money by closing the drop-in facility, but they will make a much larger saving from people who will not be able to take up the benefits to which they are entitled.

11.25 am
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) on his initiative, and this is an issue on which I can properly refer to him as "my hon. Friend". It is Wales on this side of the Chamber against the Minister and his parliamentary private secretary on the other. It is Wales against the Government and the outsiders who seem unconcerned about the social effects of the Government's policy.

I have read the letter in which the area director said that he was pleased to tell us the results of the exercise. I was not pleased, because it was only on 29 March this year that I opened the refurbished Morriston office in my constituency. Earlier that month—as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) will know—the previous area director opened the Port Talbot office. Both are now scheduled to close. The refurbishment cost more than £700,000. Hundreds of thousands of pounds were also spent at Carmarthen and Pembroke Dock in preparation for the new computer links. I suggest that the National Audit Office should look at these plans as a possible waste of public money.

Much has been said about jobs. Those who believe that civil servants are unproductive and that the job of Government is to reduce their number will be pleased. But those civil servants carry out tasks that humanise the system and help people to claim that which is their own. We are indebted to Wales on Sunday for showing us that more than £200 million of benefit has been left unclaimed by those entitled to it—those people being the most deprived in Wales.

An interesting contrast is that, although no civil servant will be employed on the freeline service—which is to end—many are employed in the benefit fraud hotline service. Yet more than £206 million of benefit has been unclaimed, compared with £40 million in benefit fraud in Wales last year. People are being prevented from learning about their entitlement while the Government devote their attention to fraud to gain applause from their followers. It is quite proper for them to try to prevent fraud, but they are ignoring the other side of the coin.

The key factor is the reduction in service to the public. How can the service be maintained properly if the local district information offices are to be closed? How will the same appeals service continue to be provided? South-west Wales, for example, currently has tribunals at Llanelli, Swansea and Neath, all of which are to close, and it is proposed that there be appeal tribunals only at Cardiff and Wrexham. That is discrimination against people less willing or less able to travel. Those who appear at tribunals have a far better chance of succeeding, so perhaps part of the Government's motive is to deter people so that the elderly and the disabled will not come.

When I opened the refurbished Morriston office in March, it was a public relations signal from the agency to show that it cared. The new policy gives a very different signal—of unconcern for the disadvantaged and a reduction in the service to our citizens.

11.29 am
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) on securing this debate. The strength of feeling is obvious, and hon. Members from all parts of Wales are present, although I note that there is no Conservative Member other than the Minister, and, sadly, no Liberal Democrat.

The document that was so well described by my hon. Friend represents the challenge to be met by the Benefits Agency in Wales. The document claims to be the best strategic response to the challenge and opportunities facing us over the coming years. I say frankly, and with some anger, that if this is the best response to the challenge that the Government can come up with, may heaven help us.

It is suggested that joint teams be set up with health authorities, social services and other authorities, but they are implacably opposed to the contents of the document and I wonder how they will be able to work in partnership.

Other hon. Members have forcefully made the point that an appointments system cannot work. Often, people in desperate straits cannot wait a week for an appointment to request help from the social fund, or crisis loans. They cannot telephone for an appointment; many do not have a telephone. They have no transport. The idea is abysmal and has not been thought out.

Under the heading, "Implications for Location and Staffing"— another example of clever techno-speak—there is an unfortunate admission, when reference is made to the need to ensure a presence in the significant centres of population in Wales". How dare the Government turn their back on 90 per cent. of Wales? Who are they to say which population is significant and which is not? Every pocket of population is significant and should be served.

The document also states that the changes will let down a certain number of people. On page 8, reference is made to enhancing the service for the majority of customers", the implication being that a minority will be disappointed, even in the Government's sanguine view. The document is hardly worthy of any scrutiny, but I am glad to say that we have all studied it in considerable detail.

Three of the 10 offices scheduled for closure are in my constituency: Llanrwyst, Blaenau Ffestiniog and Dolgellau. If they close, my constituents will have no office to attend, and I cannot sit down and accept that. I am totally opposed to the idea, which is like throwing mud in people's faces, and disregards the most needy. It is absolutely disgraceful.

The proposals will mean no face-to-face meetings with agency people. Some of the offices that are to close were recently refurbished, at a cost of £250,000 each. I wonder where the cost saving is in that; but I always say that cost comes second to service to the public.

As has been said, it is difficult to get points across over the telephone. The home visit system is abysmal and stupid and will not work. At present, there are 27 social fund outlets, some of which deal with the most serious and urgent cases. The closure of 23 of those outlets will create extreme difficulties throughout Wales.

Mr. Wigley

May I refer to a matter of concern in my constituency? The Caernarfon and Pwllheli offices are to close, and social fund work will be centralised in Wrexham. The detailed knowledge that people in places such as Caernarfon have of the families that apply and the crisis that has led to the application will be lost in a centralised system, and the social workers dealing with a case will be in the local authority, and not available in Wrexham.

Mr. Llwyd

I absolutely agree. That is typical of the impact that the plan will have throughout Wales.

As has been mentioned, £206 million per year of benefits go unclaimed in Wales, and the proposals will make that worse. Many Benefits Agency staff will be forced to leave and will have to move to continue in employment. I understand that there will be a substantial cut in staff. The Civil and Public Services Association believes, as do all Opposition Members, that the document is ill thought out and will not be practicable.

I and other hon. Members will fight the proposals tooth and nail. If they are implemented in my constituency, the nearest office for a meeting will be one and a quarter hours away, and there is hardly any public transport. The whole concept is ridiculous from beginning to end. Let us remind ourselves that we are dealing with the most vulnerable members of society. The matter needs to be reconsidered.

The proposals would mean the most devastating cut in service that Wales has ever seen. Common sense, common decency and common concern for people who are less fortunate dictate that the cuts must be halted, and I am sure that they will be, because when Opposition Members join together as one, we shall defeat them. This ridiculous plan must be shelved as soon as possible.

11.36 am
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I share the horror that other hon. Members feel at the problems that the changes will create for our constituents. I want to take a slightly different perspective and demonstrate that the proposals have nothing to do with improving service for our constituents and everything to do with saving money.

Earlier this year, there was a hearing at the Public Accounts Committee on the Benefits Agency. The Comptroller and Auditor General said: I have now qualified my audit opinion on each account since Income Support was introduced. That means that a benefit introduced by the Government has been wrong every single year to such an extent that the Comptroller and Auditor General was not willing to endorse the accounts.

It is not only the Department that has got it wrong: the big problem is, if it is hard for Ministers and officials, how much harder will it be for our constituents to get it right? If I used my own words, I would be accused of scaremongering, so I shall quote from an official document, "Central Government Administered Social Security Benefits and Other Payments": Income support is a particularly difficult benefit to maintain correctly. The level of entitlement can vary from week to week and depends upon a large number of factors: income, family circumstances, dependants, capital, housing costs, disability and other factors. Even with the closer contact that our constituents currently have, the Department is unable to control those variables. How much harder will they be to control on the end of a telephone, when people cannot explain their problems across a table?

The Comptroller and Auditor General estimates: 16.3 per cent. of payments over the year had errors in them". The errors involved £387.5 million of overpayments and £125.5 million of underpayments. Both are a problem for our constituents, and will be more so under the new system.

An overpayment does not at first sight seem to be a problem, but what happens when it is clawed back from people with no money? People who are on what is regarded as the minimum on which they can survive are expected to pay back money because of the Department's errors. Underpayments are even worse, because they involve people being assessed below their appropriate benefit level. That happens under the present system, which provides more contact than will the suggested new system, yet Mrs. Bowtell of the Department of Social Security told the Public Accounts Committee, referring to the changes that it plans to introduce: We want to end up with simpler processes that are more straightforward for us and the customer. That should enable us to be more accurate and less error prone. How can anyone believe that a system that will produce the situation described by hon. Members, in which it is impossible for clients to make direct personal contact with the Department, will benefit our constituents?

I shall conclude by showing what has really been going on by quoting a letter about the public expenditure survey from the Secretary of State for Social Security to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. It is a relatively minor leak compared with yesterday's. It is headed "Restricted", dated 24 October 1995 and says: Dear William Social Security Expenditure At our meeting on Thursday you handed me a proposed DSS settlement … You are aware of my views on the various measures and I have already ranked them in 'least worst' order … I must say I was surprised to see that your list included some measures which I had put right at the bottom of my list … I hope that EDX"— the relevant Cabinet Committee— will accept my advice that any change of the kind envisaged in these areas is too great a risk at this stage in the Parliament. He does not say that it is wrong or disadvantageous to the public.

To show how Ministers have approached the matter, on housing benefits the Secretary of State said: My officials have now identified a variation of this which would avoid a Bill. They might have had to be accountable to the House of Commons for their measures. They had their officials devise a method of achieving their objectives without bringing them before the House, even through secondary legislation, which have would limited debate to an hour and a half.

My final quotation needs no embellishment. We are told that the savings involve running costs. The Secretary of State's letter states: Your proposed settlement on running costs fills me with despair. The impact on operations will be devastating. Quite apart from the political fallout as service becomes more chaotic I am convinced—for reasons I've explained—that we would be cutting off our noses to spite our faces. I do not mind them doing that, but we object to the harm that they are willing to impose on some of our most vulnerable constituents.

11.44 am
Mr. Peter Hain (Neath)

I appeal directly to the Welsh director of the Benefits Agency, Ian Watson, to stop doing the Tories' bidding in hitting so callously some of the most vulnerable citizens of Wales. I remind him that there is likely to be a change of Government at the next general election and he must be careful that he does not become one of the Benefits Agency customers he is seeking to punish.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Roger Evans)


Mr. Hain

The Tories complain, but their decisions impact on some of our most vulnerable, down trodden, poverty-stricken citizens. Sometimes we need to speak bluntly in defence of our constituents.

My constituency includes important parts of the upper Swansea valley and lower Aman valley which will be punitively affected by the proposed cuts. I understand that the caller offices in the Dulais valley at Seven Sisters and at Pontardawe in the Swansea valley are to be closed. That means that for villages such as Gwaun-cae-Gurwen and Ystalyfera, the nearest place at which people will be able to get direct personal contact is Swansea. In some cases, that is a long bus journey of 20 miles away.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

Does my hon. Friend know that the closure of the Shotton caller office and of offices at Rhyl and Flint will be a great blow to my constituents?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend speaks eloquently, as always, for his constituents, and it is important that that point should be placed on the record.

We are talking about pensioners, people on benefits, people with disabilities—the people who are least able to protect themselves. The bus services up the valleys have been slashed in recent years because of Government cuts. The bus subsidies have been cut because of Welsh Office cuts in funding.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. So far, every hon. Member has kept tightly to the benefits offices. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do so, too and not cover the bus service in Wales.

Mr. Hain

I shall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the matter is relevant. To travel 10 or 20 miles instead of going to a caller office in their village means that people will have to take the bus. Such people often do not have cars or telephones. They are being hit at almost every point. It is unacceptable for this callous attack on some of our most vulnerable citizens to go ahead. I hope that the Benefits Agency will reject the Government's pressure to cut its budget and instead stand up for our constituents, who are its clients and some of the most deprived members of our communities.

11.47 am
Mr. Rod Richards (Clwyd, North-West)

I shall be brief, because I realise that time is short. There are two major benefits agency offices in my constituency.

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will be aware that the hon. Gentleman has been in the Chamber for scarcely 10 minutes. How he can make an orderly contribution to the debate when he was not here for the first part of it, and, in particular, for when the hon. Member for Ynys Môn opened it?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

In any debate, irrespective of when an hon. Member comes in, it is a matter for the judgment of the Chair at what point an hon. Member should be called. It is also a judgment of the Chair that all sides and views on a subject should be heard.

Mr. Richards

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That was a disgraceful point of order.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I do not want any further comments on points of order.

Mr. Richards

I have constituents who are affected by the proposed reorganisation. As you correctly say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am entitled to represent their interests just as Opposition Members are entitled to represent the interests of theirs.

Two Benefits Agency offices in my constituency will be affected by the proposed reorganisation, the one in Rhyl and the one in Colwyn Bay. I understand that the agency in Rhyl is to be downgraded, while that in Colwyn Bay is to be upgraded.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister assure me that those of my constituents who use the Rhyl office will have access to the same level and quality of service as they have enjoyed thus far? I have visited the Rhyl office on many occasions, and I have always been impressed by the professionalism of its staff.

The second assurance that I would like from my hon. Friend concerns those who work at the Rhyl office. In any planned reorganisation, it is reasonable for people to expect as few forced redundancies as possible. As the proposed reorganisation has been on the cards for some time, I hope that there will be no forced redundancies at Rhyl. Given the size of the Benefits Agency, I hope that my hon. Friend can reassure me and those of my constituents who work at the Rhyl office that that will be the case.

I understand that the office in Colwyn Bay will be upgraded and expanded. Again, I have visited the office frequently and it is well and professionally run. It was a great pleasure for me to open its new service area recently. It is an excellent example of a modern service area not just for the Benefits Agency, but for any other organisation that services the public.

There is an upside for the Rhyl office, which many of my constituents who do not have to use it will welcome—like other holiday resorts in Wales and many other parts of the country, Rhyl suffers from a phenomenon which has led to it being popularly known as Dole on Sea.

I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would address those two specific issues so that I can reassure my constituents.

11.52 am
Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) on securing the debate, but it is disgraceful that we have to have such a debate at all. This is yet another harebrained scheme dreamed up by the Government.

I notice that the Minister likes to turn himself into a punchbag. The other week, he turned himself into a punchbag on the subject of chronic bronchitis and emphysema compensation. We managed to punch some sense into him on that occasion and I hope that we can do the same today.

It is clear that Wales is being turned once again into a testing ground for a scheme that will eventually lead to the privatisation of the benefits system. For example, page 8 of the blueprint document refers to the involvement of the private sector in the delivery of our business. The proposed changes to the working of the Benefits Agency offices in Wales will affect people already claiming benefits and others in the future who want to know about their entitlements. If the proposals for Wales are implemented—I hope that they never will be—that will mean an end to the crucial face-to-face contact with Benefits Agency staff.

The Minister cannot be any different from other Members of Parliament. We spend a considerable amount of our time dealing with queries about social security payments. The present system is not working well, but the system that he is proposing will be even worse, and Members of Parliament will spend even more of their time sorting out the kind of queries that the Government should be answering.

What is being proposed as a replacement for the present arrangements is, effectively, nothing more than a Benefits Agency telephone chatline. It is no substitute for a proper dedicated benefits service. People in my constituency and throughout Wales deserve better than that.

Just over a year ago, the Select Committee on Social Security reported on the work of the Benefits Agency. It said that a claimant should be able to receive accurate advice and that a one-stop service, of the kind that we have at present, is the ideal arrangement for such a service. That is what the Benefits Agency should be required to provide, not something peppered with the appalling management jargon to which many of my hon. Friends have referred, such as "customer interface".

On Sunday, the Minister was quoted as saying that the figures show that benefit help for those on low income is continuing to reach those in greatest need. The Minister, of course, was referring to the figures for benefit take-up. The proposals detailed in the document that we are considering this morning are tied to the Minister's responsibility to ensure that benefit help is reaching those who need it most. Thousands of people in my constituency and throughout Wales can tell the Minister from personal experience that help is not getting through to those who need it most.

My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) will remember that, in his constituency, the European Community set up the south Wales anti-poverty action project, the main aim of which was to tell people to what benefits they were entitled. I think that he will agree that it was an enormous success, but the European Community had to provide that basic information to people because the Government were not doing their job.

Why, according to House of Commons Library figures, does between £114 million and £168 million of income support go unclaimed in Wales each year? In the Cynon valley alone, between £2.6 million and £3.9 million of income support is unclaimed every year. If the benefit is really reaching those who need it, will the Minister explain to the widows and families of men in the Cynon valley and other former mining communities why hundreds will die before the new chronic bronchitis and emphysema compensation scheme takes effect next April?

Surely the Minister's primary duty is to ensure that benefit is paid to those who are entitled to receive it, and that people are made aware of their entitlement and given every assistance to take it up. That process relies on a proper network of local benefit offices run by dedicated staff. Let us hear no more nonsense about customer interface, and let us hear more about providing a proper face-to-face service at the point of need to people who are desperately in need of help and support.

11.57 am
Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)

I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words in support of the hon Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones). He has raised an important issue, the significance of which is demonstrated by the good turnout of hon. Members from throughout Wales who have come here to oppose the Government's proposals.

I support the hon. Gentleman's call for the proposals to be withdrawn, but if the Minister is not willing to withdraw the proposals, will he propose an extension of the consultation period? It is unacceptable to the House for the closure date for comments on a document issued in the last fortnight to be 31 December and for some of the proposals to be brought forward in January and February next year.

If we are to have a meaningful consultation in which local authorities, citizens advice bureaux, user groups and benefit recipients can have a meaningful input, we need a longer consultation process so that people can express their views. Today's debate is a welcome beginning, but I urge the Minister to make such an announcement this afternoon.

I am particularly concerned about the effect of the proposals on the Benefits Agency services in my constituency and in my part of north Wales because they will mean the closure of the Rhyl office in the constituency of the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards) and the Flint office in my constituency. As I said in my intervention to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn, that will mean that in my part of north Wales—in Flintshire and in Denbighshire—there will not be a Benefits Agency office. After the next general election, which will be held in the next six months, the Rhyl and Flint benefit office will cover three constituencies, and none of those Members of Parliament will have a Benefits Agency office in his or her constituency.

That is not acceptable to me or to my constituents. As is well known, my part of the world—Flint and Holywell—and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones)—are hard hit by unemployment. People there depend on the Benefits Agency services. In Prestatyn in my constituency, which is covered by the Rhyl office, there are many elderly people who depend on those services and who do not necessarily have recourse to public transport or telephones—the means which the Benefits Agency is touting as the way for people to receive those services.

I live in Flint, in the heart of my constituency. It would take me 50 minutes to travel by car to the benefits office in Colwyn Bay and 35 minutes by car to the office in Wrexham. If I travelled by public transport, it would be almost impossible to get to Colwyn Bay and an extremely difficult journey to Wrexham. Most of my constituents who need those services may not have telephones or telephone skills.

The proposals are outrageous. They should be rejected by the House and withdrawn. Failing that, the Minister should come to the House this afternoon and announce that he will extend the consultation period to March at the earliest.

12 pm

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

I have two questions for the Minister. First, will he clarify where responsibility and authority lie? In the letter of 14 November which launched the consultation document, there is no suggestion that the proposals require the approval of the Secretary of State or of Ministers. That is worrying. Can he give me an assurance that no such proposals will be implemented by the Benefits Agency board without ministerial approval? That would mean that at least there was democratic responsibility for the decision.

Secondly, if the ultimate decision is the Minister's, will he come to some of our offices and see for himself the work done there, before he makes any decision? Let him come to the Merthyr office, which is a wonderful new office with—to borrow the jargon—the most user-friendly environment possible, and let him see the stream of callers, the staff working behind the counters, the inquiries that are made and the interviews that are conducted. People call at the office not in ones or twos, but in dozens each day. Having sat there for part of a day, the Minister should ask himself whether all that can be taken over by a telephone service.

The Merthyr office is not to be closed; it is one of the major district centres. The Minister should see the caller facilities, which allow people to walk in and receive advice. I am sure that claimants would agree to his overhearing their conversation with staff. For example, a daughter may come in about her mother's problem or her own problem. She may seek advice on a variety of problems. Filling in forms is a major problem facing many elderly people. The forms have got longer and longer, and help in completing them is an important service. The centre offers a form of social service, in addition to being a benefits office, as the Minister would see if he visited it.

After the Minister had seen that, I should like to ask him whether he still believed that, as the document claims, the entire service could be provided by telephone.

12.3 pm

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) on introducing this timely debate, and I thank hon. Members from the Labour party as well as my colleagues for making the case so effectively to the Minister. The Minister cannot help but be impressed by the arguments put forward today.

As the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) said, it is not acceptable for the consultation period to run over Christmas and end on 31 December, and for some of the plans to be implemented on 2 January. What sort of consultation is that? It is a sham.

The proposals will affect my constituency. The Caernarfon office deals with 150 people a day and it will close down. That is ridiculous. Throughout Wales, more than 1.5 million people a year call into benefits offices. Many will lose that facility and will have to make appointments. Distances are prohibitive and many of those people do not have telephones.

The Pwllheli office is to close down. The Porthmadog office will lose the facility for people to call in, as they do now. If people from Aberdaron must go to Bangor, they will have to travel a distance that would take an hour to an hour and a half by car, and many of the people who need the services do not have cars.

We know from the "Wales on Sunday" report last Sunday that more than £200 million-worth of benefit a year to which people in Wales are entitled is not being taken up. The changes will do nothing but worsen that situation. Vulnerable, elderly and disabled people who need help will not get it. I know of the assistance that is given in the Caernarfon office to a woman who has been widowed. She may call in and get help in filling in complicated forms that run to 10 or 20 pages. At probably the most vulnerable time of her life, she needs that support, but it is to be taken away.

Officially, there will be a loss of 700 jobs, but the true number of job losses in Wales may be nearer 1,000. The hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards) asked for assurances that there would not be redundancies. The whole point of the exercise is to cut 25 per cent. off the running cost of the agency. That will lead to redundancies. Already some staff in Caernarfon are doing work at home. People are calling in on them at home for help in filling in forms. That shows the of demand.

Finally, I press the Minister: please will he extend the consultation period and give an assurance that, if the Government intend to go ahead with any of the proposals—which I hope they will not—none will be introduced before 1 June at the earliest? Equally, if that assurance is given, I ask the Labour Front-Bench spokesman for an assurance that the Labour party will give a commitment to keep the offices open.

12.7 pm

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) on his success in securing the debate, which is crucial for people in Wales. The contributions of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris), my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), for Neath (Mr. Hain), for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), and for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd), and of the hon. Members for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) have all shown the importance of the services provided by the Benefits Agency in Wales.

The hon. Member for Ynys Môn gave a graphic description of the dire consequences that the proposals would have.

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the closure of the Cwmbran office would have a disastrous impact not only on the most vulnerable of my constituents in Torfaen, but on the Minister's constituency? For the time being, he represents part of Cwmbran, and if he goes ahead with the proposals, he will condemn his own constituents to immense hardship.

Mr. Griffiths

My hon. Friend makes a telling point. Each of the proposals for cutting the number of offices will diminish the service for our constituents and for the constituents—for the time being—of the Minister, the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Evans).

We should consider the views of those who supervise the system and who try to ensure that it works efficiently and effectively. Several hon. Members—not least my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West, who serves on the Public Accounts Committee and takes a keen interest in public expenditure efficiencies, and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn—mentioned the difficulties facing the Benefits Agency in ensuring that people receive their entitlements and the high number of complaints with which the ombudsman must deal. Every week, hon. Members receive complaints about the workings of the Benefits Agency, yet the Government propose to make the situation more critical and more difficult for agency staff who are obviously under great strain.

Why have costs risen so sharply? Although reducing expenditure is a laudable aim, we must ask why it has risen so dramatically under this Government. There are two fundamental reasons for that increase: first, the number of people receiving unemployment benefit has doubled, with a resulting rise in access to other benefits; and, secondly, the number of means-tested benefits has increased, leading to added complications and reduced service effectiveness.

The Government's agenda is not driven by a desire to improve the service for those unfortunates who are forced to use it—people do not use it voluntarily; they use it because they have needs. The Government are trying to turn the benefit service into a sort of Direct Line insurance agency operation, but there is no similarity between the two services. Complicated forms must be completed before benefits can be distributed and, given the Government's stated desire to reduce fraud, there is no way that the Secretary of State will agree to okay benefits via a telephone service.

Government policies have led to an increase in service costs and it is quite clear that the Government's hidden agenda is not to provide a better service, but to reduce the number of applicants by making it more difficult for them to apply. I ask the Minister to respond positively to the numerous complaints about the length of the consultation period and the way in which it is being conducted. It would appear to the outsider that the consultation process is meaningless because 10 offices will be closed within days of its conclusion.

The citizens advice bureaux have expressed concerns about the office closures. Their figures show that benefit-related inquiries have increased by more than 7 per cent. this year. Bearing in mind other Government changes to the benefit system, it is likely that the number of inquiries to CAB offices and to Members of Parliament will increase still further.

Perhaps the Minister will tell us what is happening behind the scenes. The Government have proposed a partnership arrangement with bodies in other areas, such as local authority social services departments or health trusts. However, such bodies are under severe financial pressure so where would they get the money to fund the services that it is suggested they provide under the partnership arrangement? The home visits service helps people to obtain their proper entitlements when they cannot go to a benefits office. Why do the Government propose to transfer that service to the fraud department? That gives completely the wrong impression to benefit applicants.

How will crisis loan applicants receive benefits if offices are closed in many places? Where will they travel to? Hon. Members have already referred to the travelling times involved with journeys to the restructured benefits offices. What about hardship payments for 16 and 17-year-olds which would fall into a similar category? The Welsh board's proposals are driven by a desire to reduce costs by 25 per cent. The consultation process is not about how to provide a better service, but about what sort of service may be provided with a 25 per cent. cut in administrative costs.

Why remove the benefit buses? It obviously costs more to run those buses than benefit offices but I believe that, at £3.65 per caller on the Wrexham-north Wales coastline, the bus service is cheaper than home visits. It is an effective use of funds if providing that service for those on the north Wales coast who cannot travel to an office will save the Benefits Agency the expense of home visits. Why do the Government want to abolish district information officer services? Such people visit pensioner and disabled groups and attend other meetings to explain the sorts of benefits available. However, that service is to disappear and the free line advice service has already been abolished.

The thrust of the Government's proposals is to reduce the availability of services while giving the impression that the telephone line service will somehow make up for the loss of vital face-to-face interviews. Many hon. Members have mentioned their visits to local Benefits Agency offices which have become very user-friendly. The office in Bridgend is no exception. I visited that office earlier this year, when staff talked proudly of the many improvements to the service. However, after spending millions of pounds, the Government plan to close many user-friendly offices across Wales and replace them with an impersonal telephone line service.

I make it clear that, while Labour wants to see benefits administered more efficiently and effectively, the Government's proposals will not achieve that aim. We believe that the changes should be put on hold: let us wait and see whether the Government's mandate is renewed at the next election and, if it is not, let us consider how we can reshape the service in Wales to provide a better service and reduce costs. We could use new technologies to back up local offices with effective specialist advice services. The Government have blundered into making 25 per cent. cuts, which, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West said, are being pushed through in spite of disagreement within Government ranks about their effectiveness.

We believe that the whole process should be put on hold. The review should be about how to provide a more effective service at a cheaper cost than at present. It should also be about getting people back to work, which is why we place such great stress on our proposal for a windfall levy on the privatised utilities, because getting people back to work will reduce the benefits bill.

The Minister has had some tough jobs recently—taking the flak for his Department, while his boss then strolls in and makes a more pleasant announcement—but I hope that he will be able to tell us today that he has the authority to halt the proposals in Wales, which are damaging to the interests of Welsh people. I am sorry that—apart from one who sauntered in halfway through the debate—no Tory Members were present to defend the rights of their constituents, but they will not be here after the election anyway, so perhaps that is no surprise.

12.20 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Roger Evans)

I begin by dealing with the fundamental issue that has been put to me: the status of the document on the blueprint for the future of the Benefits Agency in Wales. I stress that it is a set of proposals—no more, no less. Ministers will in due time determine what, if anything, will be implemented. That is the first point that I wish to stress.

Secondly, the purpose of public officials—one of them, Mr. Ian Watson, was mentioned in a most unpleasant way by the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) earlier—

Mr. Hain


Mr. Evans

No, I shall finish this before I deal with that particular point.

The purpose of expert advice is to advise Government of the management arguments and to make proposals. I should make it clear that there was extensive in-house consultation before the publication of the documents for general consultation last week. The purpose of all this is to give advice, and in these days of open government, the cards are placed face upwards and everybody is given an opportunity to see what they are and to make something of them. No decisions have been made. It will be a question of consultation.

The third point that I wish to stress is that the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson)—not only in the debate but by parliamentary question, which I am about to answer—asked a specific question: can we extend the consultation period, because the end of December is too short? I have listened to the arguments that he and other hon. Members made. I see the force of their arguments and am prepared to say here and now that we will extend the consultation period to the end of February. There will be further opportunity for the proposals to be examined in detail. Every hon. Member who is affected has either written to me or spoken in the debate—or no doubt will shortly if he or she has not done so. Individual representations and particular problems will be looked at individually before any decisions are made.

Mr. Llwyd


Mr. Win Griffiths


Mr. Evans

I will give way at this point, but I have quite a lot to say and I have only eight minutes left.

Mr. Llwyd

Will the Minister assure me that my three offices—Blaenau Ffestiniog, Llanwryst and Dolgellau—will not close on 2 January?

Mr. Evans

Yes, is the simple answer.

Mr. John Morris

We are very grateful to the Minister for the extension of the consultative period. It is very sensible and wise of the Minister. If it is extended to the end of February, when does he expect a decision to be made—before the election on 1 May or after?

Mr. Evans

That will depend on the decision that is made at the .time. I am not able to help further on that.

Mr. Hain

Is the Minister saying that he will take personal responsibility for all the decisions, or are they the decisions of the Benefits Agency? My point about the Benefits Agency's director is that agencies have a lack of accountability to the House. If the Minister is taking personal responsibility, I withdraw my remark. If he is not, I do not.

Mr. Evans

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman deeply shocked most of us with an attack on a public official on the basis of "Do the Tories' bidding, and if you do, you'll be sacked." I am, of course, delighted to hear that it was a misapprehension on the part of the hon. Gentleman. I shall clarify the situation for him, although I had hoped that it would have been understood by everybody. Mr. Watson and other public officials at the Benefits Agency are civil servants, and Ministers are accountable for their actions. Officials propose; Ministers have to make decisions in due time. It is important that there is a full, informed public debate.

A number of strands in the argument have not been developed this morning. I do not say that that is not understandable in the sense that it is right and proper that individual constituency Members raise their constituency concerns, but there are a number of striking features.

Mr. Murphy

Does the Minister agree with the Bishop of Monmouth that the closure of the benefits office in my constituency, which would also affect that constituency, would have an appalling impact on both of them?

Mr. Evans

The views of the hon. Gentleman, and, indeed, the distinguished bishop, will be taken into account when the consultation period is concluded, when matters are evaluated and decisions made.

A number of factors were not mentioned this morning but have a significant effect on the Benefits Agency's business. The first and most significant is the introduction on 7 October of the jobseeker's allowance. Whatever the faults, strengths and triumphs of that system, the most important difference, for the purposes of this discussion, is that the allowance is available from jobcentres. There are 93 jobcentres in Wales.

The hon. Member for Delyn said that, under the proposals, the Benefits Agency would be withdrawn from his constituency. I remind him that there are four jobcentres in his constituency. If someone is part of the unemployed list, he or she will get the JSA from the jobcentre. Previously, 70 per cent. of the unemployed were on income support and would have had to visit a Benefits Agency office. Now the system has changed, and it is a fundamental change in the operation of the Benefits Agency.

I stress that there are 93 jobcentres in Wales, which are more evenly and widely spread and more numerous than the existing Benefits Agency offices that we have been talking about. In some cases, the number of callers to Benefits Agency offices will drop. I have had one example in another part of the United Kingdom where the number of callers during October dropped down to about 15 per cent. of what they were. The statistics are only recently available—

Mr. Rowlands

Fifty per cent. or 15 per cent.?

Mr. Evans

Down from 700-odd callers to just about 100 in a month. That was the result of a particularly large employment case load for that particular Benefits Agency office.

I stress that the figures in Wales do not appear to be anything like as striking, but there will be a reduction in the caller load, which will affect some offices more than others, simply as a result of the service being streamlined and delivered through jobcentres. That is an important factor that responsible public officials have to bear in mind when advising Ministers on the importance and significance of particular Benefits Agency offices.

The second management issue, which is also extremely important, is the roll-out of the benefit payment card, which is under way and should be completed by 1999. A computer change in the central system will effect the payment, and then the customer or claimant—whatever one prefers to call them—can go to the local sub-post office, perhaps in rural Wales, and draw the amount awarded, whatever it may be. We do not have the current system of individual personal girocheques and order books, which have to be kept available in a wide range of offices. That in itself will have some influence on the way in which the Benefits Agency operates.

I use as an example a social fund loan. Hon. Members commented about doing things by telephone, and some things have to be done by post and by telephone in some circumstances, but what really matters is that, if someone has a benefit payments card, he or she does not have to collect the giro or the order book. It is simply a matter of authorising payment under the card. That is an advance in the way of doing business, and it will produce a better service.

A number of trends are significant. I shall deal first with the use of telephones. The right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) said that telephones are no substitute for the vulnerable who are in difficulty. I respectfully agree with him, but that does not alter the fact that an increasing number of members of the public who come in contact with, and make claims on, the agency prefer to use the telephone. We can, of course, have an argument as to precisely what the quantification of that is. The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) mentioned 4 million telephone calls and 1.7 million personal calls. There is a tendency for personal calls not to increase quite apart from the introduction of jobseekers' allowance. In some offices, quite apart from JSA, the number of callers is diminishing quite rapidly.

There are two other factors, and I have literally only half a minute to deal with them. The 34 caller units in Wales are not linked, any more than the benefit bus or the old freeline, with the computer system to authorise payment there and then. That is obviously a matter of concern and—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Time is up.