HC Deb 28 July 1997 vol 299 cc3-5
3. Mr. Andy King

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if she will make a statement on the Government's plans to improve services to claimants by sharing information within her Department relating to claimants. [9030]

Ms Harman

Improving services to claimants to help rebuild public support for the social security system is central to our plans to reform the welfare state. It is unacceptable that claimants have to give the same information over and over again to different parts of the benefits system. Through the Social Security Bill, we shall take steps to remedy the matter.

Mr. King

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her answer. Time and again, people have come to my surgeries in despair at the amount of time and energy that they are wasting in trying to find their way through the very complex and inefficient system that we inherited from the previous Government. Will she confirm that, on average, some people who appeal against decisions must wait six months for a decision, and that, in some cases, they must wait up to two years for a hearing? What will she do to tackle that intolerable situation?

Ms Harman

My hon. Friend raises two important points: the amount of time that claimants must waste in providing the same information to different parts of the social security system; and the fact that claimants must, on average, wait six months before their appeal is decided. In many cases, those appealing against a benefit decision do not receive a decision for more than two years, and that is totally unacceptable. One of the objectives of our Social Security Bill is to cut the time required for people to have an appeal heard and decided.

Mr. Tredinnick

Is not one related problem the amount of time required for claimants to reach benefits offices on the telephone? Does the Secretary of State have any proposals to improve communications between members of the public and her offices? If so, will she institute a review into the matter?

Ms Harman

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Government need thoroughly to modernise the relationship between the social security system and claimants, and we intend to do so. The way in which the social security system currently operates—requiring claimants to provide, time and again, the same information to different parts of the system—wastes the time of staff and claimants and taxpayers' money.

Claimants subsequently have to ring a benefits office if they lose track of what stage they have reached in dealing with the system about one of the five benefits that they may be receiving. I am holding the forms necessary to notify one single change in circumstance—that a lone mother wants to move off income support because she has found a job. A lone mother must fill in all of these forms to communicate to the Child Support Agency, the local authority and those dealing with family credit and income support the one bit of information that she has a job. If she subsequently tries to telephone to discover what on earth has happened to any of the forms, she probably will not be able to get through.

Mr. Kirkwood

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the best ways of improving services to claimants would be to guarantee that they will have ready access to Benefits Agency offices? Is she aware that there is concern that, if the Government—as anticipated, under what is called the prime scheme, the private sector resource initiative for management of the estate—announce that they will dispose of benefits offices as heritable property and lease them back, it will be the prelude to a rationalisation process in which Benefits Agency offices will be closed? Will she give an assurance that that will not happen, and pay attention specifically to the needs of claimants in rural areas, who are sometimes already far removed from the nearest Benefits Agency office?

Ms Harman

We are absolutely determined to modernise and improve social security services, not only for those who live in towns and cities but for those in rural areas. The opportunities provided by extended telephone use and new technology mean that there is no reason why claimants should have to waste half their lives trying to deal with different parts of the system. We are ensuring that we shall improve the system so that it wastes less time for claimants and staff, wastes less money for taxpayers, provides a prompt and efficient service and makes the right decision the first time.

Mr. Blizzard

I welcome my right hon. Friend's drive to reduce paperwork in the benefits system. Will she also consider the needs of disabled people who, under the benefit integrity programme introduced by the previous Government, are required to fill in a 33-page questionnaire? If they do not, a home visit can then be followed up by a tribunal. Will my right hon. Friend consider whether that is really necessary, especially in the light of reports from my local disablement information and advice line office, which is inundated by cries for help from disabled people to whom it cannot always respond because of the sheer weight of paperwork from the Benefits Agency?

Ms Harman

My hon. Friend raises two points. First, he referred to people with disabilities being required to fill in dozens of different forms that require the same information and then having to repeat the exercise. I addressed that in earlier answers. We share his concern, which affects people claiming benefit as a result of disability as well as pensioners and the unemployed.

Secondly, my hon. Friend referred to benefit fraud. We are concerned to get benefits to people who are entitled to them because of incapacity or disability. However, we are also concerned that those who are not entitled to benefits should not receive them. We want to rebuild public support for the social security system. People will not support a system that wastes claimants' time with hundreds of forms. Nor will they support a system that they know is open to abuse whereby those who are not entitled to benefits receive them.

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