§ 8. Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD)
If he will make a statement on how the new appraisal scheme is intended to help motivate staff, improve efficiency and improve performance in the Department. 
§ The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith)
The new scheme has a number of features to motivate staff, including clear work objectives, regular feedback on performance and a strong focus on personal development. It will help to improve efficiency and performance by more rigorously identifying and rewarding different levels of contribution by staff, which has been shown to work successfully in the public and private sectors.
§ Sandra Gidley
The Secretary of State will be aware that 50 per cent. of staff at the Department who are at a predetermined level will be rated "poor", and that only 10 per cent. can be rated "excellent". Under the previous scheme, 30 per cent. of staff were rated "excellent". As 97 per cent. of staff voted against the proposal, does he agree that it is unhelpful for the public to have to deal with demotivated staff, and will he think again about this proposal?
§ Mr. Smith
I do not accept the hon. Lady's categorisation of the proportion of staff who would be rated "poor", or the other figure that she mentions. However, we do recognise the concerns expressed by our staff, and we will undertake a continuous improvement review of the new system over the summer, following the end of the appraisal round. We have invited our trade unions to contribute and I hope that they will do so, so that together we can continue to drive up performance, staff have a more rewarding job, our customers get a better service and we give the taxpayer better value for money.
§ Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab)
Let me take up the concerns of staff and my right hon. Friend's concern for them. According to figures issued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister two weeks ago, the Breckfield ward in my constituency is the most deprived area in the country and the epicentre of what the Treasury describes as the biggest poverty cluster in the country. However, last week I was given to understand that there was a strong probability that the pension centre, which is the single employer of note in the area, 540 will be closed—scrapped and gone—in the name of efficiency. Some 316 people face the prospect of the scrapheap unless alternatives are found for them. I have spoken briefly to my right hon. Friend about the matter, but what guarantees can he give loyal staff in an area of high unemployment and high need? Under the aegis of the Government's stated intention to relocate jobs from Whitehall to the regions, and bearing in mind the fact that his is the Department of Work and Pensions, what does he intend to do to ensure that those people do not lose their livelihoods?
§ Mr. Smith
I acknowledge my hon. Friend's dedication to the needs of his constituents and I appreciate how difficult this news was. As he said, we spoke at the time of the announcement. When the number of centres has to be reduced—as it must—it is never easy for management to decide where it is to happen. The decision was the product of a careful review, although that will come as little consolation to those who face the possibility of losing their jobs. I would be pleased to meet my hon. Friend further to discuss how we can move forward, but, as I said to him before, no effort will be spared to try to find those members of staff alternative jobs, whether by way of redeployment in the DWP or elsewhere. With the movement of jobs out of the south-east, following the work of the Lyons review, we are considering destinations for those jobs in areas such as the ward he describes. I shall work closely with him, other local Members of Parliament and the local authorities to do everything we can to ensure that the closure of the pension centre does not mean that those people face a life without work.
§ Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con)
I have been looking at the Department's annual report on its performance, and I draw the Secretary of State's attention to page 133—"Managing Attendance". Will he confirm that his Department had a target for sickness absenteeism in 2003 of eight working days lost per person per year? Will he further confirm that in reality 12.7 days were lost per person in 2003? Why was the performance so far below the target, and why should we believe anything that the Government say about efficiency savings when they cannot deliver such an elementary objective?
§ Mr. Smith
As the hon. Gentleman will know from previous exchanges, we recognise that the sickness absence rate is not good enough and that further progress must be made to hit the target. None of us expects taxpayers to subsidise a higher rate of sickness absence in the public sector. We have taken several steps, including making it clear to managers that sickness absence must be managed downwards, both by tackling its causes by improving occupational health in the workplace and by taking tough action against those who abuse the system. We have introduced mandatory return-to-work interviews and tighter disciplinary procedures and we are looking further at evidence of best practice and what works effectively in other businesses.