HC Deb 10 January 2000 vol 342 cc12-3
10. Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

What assessment he has made of the scope for improved IT in the administration of his Department and of benefits payments. [102937]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle)

The potential for new technology to transform the welfare state is enormous. However, our current IT infrastructure is old and out of date. It also essentially computerises clerical processes. We have ambitions for a major transformation, including more interactivity, telephone access and more remote access, all of which cannot be achieved overnight.

Dr. Turner

My hon. Friend the Minister has reminded the House that the chaos that the CSA brought to the lives of many of my constituents was amplified by the horrific computer-generated literature that it used to send en masse, with people sometimes receiving two or three five-page missives a week. It is obvious that we need to learn the lessons of the past when considering computerisation in the future and I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend's reassurance that the arrangements in the new Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill will be properly supported. It was clear when my hon. Friend visited my constituency that wholesale reform of the Department's IT is needed. Is there a timetable and is the budget sufficient?

Angela Eagle

There is a timetable. Clearly, the Child Support Agency computer system must take priority because of the new legislation to go on the statute book, which we cannot put into effect without a new system. It says something for the legacy of the previous Government that the CSA, the newest agency in the social security system, still has a computer system that is unusable in the modern age.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

Part of that legacy was a benefit card project that would have ensured a future for post offices around the country delivering benefits. The Government have abandoned that project. Is the Minister aware of the widespread concern among post office staff about their future under the Government's proposals? Under the previous Government, the hon. Member for City of York (Mr. Bayley), now Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, wrote to all the sub-postmasters and postmistresses in his constituency recognising the widespread concern about any change in the method of payment for pensions and other benefits to automated credit transfer. The hon. Gentleman said that such a change would cause severe difficulties for many constituents who rely on the post office to cash their benefits and, in some cases, may not even have a bank account. He promised a petition then, on behalf of the people who wanted to keep using their post offices. Will there be another petition now?

Angela Eagle

I hate to carp, but part of the problem with all these computer systems is the huge mess that we inherited from the previous Government, from the national insurance recording system 2 to the Horizon project, to which the hon. Gentleman refers. This project was three years behind time when it was cancelled, and was providing infrastructure that has already been overtaken by other developments. The new system will automate the Post Office and will still enable people to get their benefits from post offices if they so desire.

The cost of ACT is 1p per transaction. The hon. Gentleman expects us to stick with order books, when it costs 49p per transaction to present an order book foil, and 79p per transaction to encash a giro. That is very old and expensive technology. ACT will save us £400 million per annum when it is introduced, and we anticipate saving another £240 million on fraud. The hon. Gentleman cannot tell us off about fraud and also tell us off when we introduce a system to prevent it.