HC Deb 10 December 2001 vol 376 cc575-7
1. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

What plans he has to enable the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service to use common IT communications.[19141]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown)

Mr. Speaker, may I identify Government Front-Bench Members with your remarks about our colleague, Sir Ray Powell? As a former Chief Whip, may I add that Sir Ray will be very much missed on our side?

We are bringing the Employment Service together with those parts of the Benefits Agency that support people of working age, to create Jobcentre Plus. The first 49 Jobcentre Plus pathfinders went live on 22 October. I am pleased to announce that the Brent Jobcentre Plus pathfinder, a group of four offices, opened this morning. That brings the total to 53. We plan progressively to extend that integration nation wide, beginning next year

We are investing to upgrade and replace the Department's outdated computer systems. We want to ensure that everyone, including people who use Jobcentre Plus, receives a modern service. The new and improved information technology that we are developing will allow us to capture the necessary information from people face to face or over the phone, instead of getting them to fill in multiple benefit claims forms. We will replace the main income support and jobseeker's allowance benefit processing systems and modernise the payments system, to improve the efficiency of the service that we provide.

Brian White

The new deal worked because it had good IT support. One of the lessons of the state earnings-related pension scheme debacle was the failure to communicate with Department of Social Security offices. The permanent secretary said that we needed to bring it up to date. Given that major progress has been made, will the Minister confirm that it remains a key priority for the Government?

Mr. Brown

Yes, I can confirm that. We want to ensure that all the new desktop infrastructure that we are rolling out into the Benefits Agency offices can run the major Employment Service systems. We are targeting the end of next year for having everything in place.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

Mr. Speaker, I associate Conservative Members with your remarks about the former Member for Ogmore. He was a character who brought a distinctive flavour to the House and we shall miss him.

We agree with the Minister that it is important that the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service communicate with each other. The ONE project was supposed to be about that. Last week, the Department placed in the Library a copy of its evaluation of ONE. Does the Minister acknowledge its results? The conclusions state: The evidence does not suggest that ONE has changed the probability of leaving benefit either for jobseekers or for sick or disabled claimants. Ministers say that they believe in evidence-based policy. Now that the Minister has the evidence, will he change the policy?

Mr. Brown

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his words about our former colleague, the Member for Ogmore, not least because Sir Ray Powell had dealings with his Opposition counterpart through the Whips Office. I agree that he will be sorely missed

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government would change their policy. The answer is no. It is not fair of him to dip into the evaluation of the ONE pilot and partially quote from it. He missed out many of the evaluation's positive points about working across Departments and with stakeholders. Our actions are partly based on the evaluation, but events have moved on and we intend Jobcentre Plus and the IT that supports it to be focused on moving people from welfare to work.

It was implicit in the hon. Gentleman's question that some of the equipment with which we have to work is 20 years old. I agree that it is long overdue for overhaul and modernisation. It would be reasonable to pause and consider why the equipment was not upgraded and modernised in 18 years of Conservative Administrations.