HC Deb 07 July 2003 vol 408 cc737-8
4. Ian Lucas (Wrexham)

What action he is taking to ensure that jobcentres advise customers that benefits can still be collected in cash at their local post office. [123523]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Desmond Browne)

The Department is writing to most Jobcentre Plus customers affected by the changes in the way that state and war pensions and benefits are paid. A personal letter and leaflet will let them know about the change to direct payment and will give them the facts that they need to make an informed choice about which account option is most appropriate for them. New customers will have the options explained at the point of claim and, as jobseekers regularly contact our Jobcentre Plus offices as part of normal business, those occasions will be used as an opportunity to discuss direct payments.

Ian Lucas

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that Wrexham jobcentre has issued local information to customers, stating that they can have their benefits paid directly into private bank accounts but not saying that those benefits could be paid into Post Office card accounts? Will the Department please institute an instruction that jobcentres should advise all customers that they can have their benefits paid into Post Office card accounts?

Mr. Browne

I was aware of the historical position that my hon. Friend reminds the House of—indeed, I am as pleased as he is that the position has now been resolved—as he wrote to my hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions some months ago, can assure my hon. Friend that all Department for Work and Pensions staff who deal with customers have received appropriate training about direct payments that highlights to staff the options available, including that of making payments into Post Office card accounts, which can be collected from their Post Office branch.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

The Minister will know that about one in four of the 2.8 million people who have been contacted so far about transferring to direct payment have failed to respond— almost 750,000, according to the Department's figures. Problems with changes in the benefits system are not unusual, but the question arises: what happens in 2005 if there are still hundreds of thousands of customers who have simply not told the Government whether they want their pensions and benefits paid into a bank account or a Post Office card account because they have simply not responded? At questions last month, the Secretary of State pledged that all those who wanted to access their cash at the post office could do so. Will the Minister therefore tell the House exactly what failsafe system will be in place to ensure that this pledge is met in all such cases?

Mr. Browne

The hon. Gentleman is turning scaremongering into an art form in relation to the payment of benefits and pensions. He is well aware, as he points out in the preamble to his question, that changes of this nature take some time to follow through. In our view, there is sufficient time to achieve the objectives that have been set. For those who are unable to collect their benefits in the fashion offered by direct payment, an exceptions system will be available, as he is aware.

Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new appointment and wish him well with his new responsibilities. He will find in the modernisation of the working-age services provided by the Department great opportunities to help those who need our help the most. He will also find that there are great opportunities merely to deliver the services that we provide more efficiently. Can he tell us something about the impact of modernisation on the Department's fraud targets?

Mr. Browne

I thank my right hon. Friend for his characteristically generous remarks in welcoming me to my new position. He has served this Government and the people of the United Kingdom with great distinction in a number of key posts in Government and has considerably more to offer. I thank him for the inheritance that I received from him—not only the work that he did in relation to the roll-out of Jobcentre Plus but the significant work that he did in the creation and maintaining of the best labour force market statistics that this country has ever had.

My right hon. Friend asked me a specific question in relation to fraud, which I am pleased to answer. He knows that more than 100 pensioners have their order book stolen every week. Of course, direct payment modernisation will eliminate that risk. He knows the effect that lost or stolen giros can have on the delivery of the principal business of Jobcentre Plus—getting people into work—which I saw for myself last week in Willesden. He also knows that if modernisation has the effect that we hope it will have on fraud, we shall save at least £80 million every year.