HC Deb 11 February 1999 vol 325 cc453-5
8. Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)

If he will make a statement on the development of the single work-focused gateway. [68879]

The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities (Mr. Andrew Smith)

We are on course for pilots of this important innovation to start in four Benefits Agency areas in June, and in another eight in November. I am visiting each of the early pilot areas, meeting staff, councils, claimants' representatives and advisory bodies, as well as arranging briefing here for hon. Members whose constituencies are affected. We are determined that the gateway will provide a better standard of service and support to claimants than they have ever received before, as well as striking a good balance between rights and responsibilities.

Ms Taylor

Will my right hon. Friend join me in saying a big thank you to the northern region Employment Service? Paul Robson's staff have worked hard and creatively to achieve good job opportunities for hundreds of people. The northern region is very disappointed not to be part of the pilot schemes, as the staff were keen to be involved.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the gateway offers us the chance to put welfare reform and good employment opportunities together in an excellent manner, developing most persuasively the personal adviser approach?

Mr. Smith

I am pleased to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Employment Service and all the other partners who are making such a success of the new deal and the other initiatives that we have launched for job generation. I agree that the role of the work-focused gateway, by extending the continuity of support and advice from personal advisers, which has been such a successful feature of the new deal, will indeed help claimants towards work where appropriate, and towards greater independence and personal development. It will stop claimants being shunted from pillar to post as they all too often have been in the past, as well as striking the right balance between rights and responsibilities. The single gateway will provide a whole new standard of service for claimants as well as shaping the future of the welfare state.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

I am sure that the Minister will be aware that the National Audit Office can provide robust evidence that fraud and mispaid benefits in the social security system amount to a staggering £4 billion. How will the single work-focused gateway reduce that figure?

Mr. Smith

In two ways: first, we will provide a genuinely joined-up service, integrating that which is separately provided at the moment through the Benefits Agency, jobcentres and local authorities. Secondly, by requiring people to attend a work-focused interview as a condition of receiving benefit, we will have the opportunity to cut fraud and to make people aware of their responsibilities, as well as the extra help that we are providing.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the single gateway is to work as we would wish, much will depend on the personal advisers? Can he assure the House that sufficient training will be offered to those advisers to enable them to do their job effectively with the vast numbers of people with whom they will have to deal? Will that include training in disability issues and in recognising mental health problems, so that they can adequately support their clients?

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend identifies an enormously important issue. There will be a comprehensive training programme for all personal advisers and those helping claimants through the single gateway. That will draw on the existing expertise within the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency—for example, disability employment advisers—as well as ensuring that people who are coming to what, for them, is a new area of work, are fully appraised of the benefit entitlement and the extra help in the single gateway areas.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

Does the Secretary of State realise that he will receive support from the Liberal Democrats for the gateway, provided that it offers clients advice on child care and other benefits, and provided that clients are visited at home for the interview if they cannot get into the gateway? Is he aware of the practical difficulties? The gateways will have staff from the Employment Service, local authorities, other agencies and private providers—all with different pay and conditions and different computers. How will he ensure that they will be able to talk to each other to ensure that the Government's good intentions provide good results?

Mr. Smith

By doing the job properly—and considerably better than I imagine the Liberal Democrats would, judging by the hon. Gentleman's convoluted question. I assure him that the provisos that he puts on his support will be satisfied. Therefore, we will have support from the Liberal Democrats for the initiative.