HC Deb 17 March 1995 vol 256 cc745-6W
Mrs. Liddell

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement about acts of intrusion into the privacy of clients of the Benefits Agency with particular reference to the arrangements made with Royal Mail for the opening of mail to the agency.

Mr. Roger Evans

This is a matter for Mr. Michael Bichard, the chief executive of the Benefits Agency. He will write to the hon. Member.

Letter from Michael Bichard to Mrs. Helen Liddell, dated 16 March 1995: The Secretary of State for Social Security has asked me to reply to your recent Parliamentary Question concerning confidentiality aspects surrounding the opening of Departmental post. The Government's Competing for Quality initiative subjects public functions to competition from the private sector. As part of this initiative the Benefits Agency has market tested its accommodation and office services, which includes post opening operations. The work was placed in geographical packages before being market tested and the outcome has been a mixture of wins by in-house and external suppliers. The Royal Mail are now opening and sorting post for the Benefits Agency under a sub-contract to the in-house team in the Tyne/Tees, North and West Yorkshire, Scotland, East Midlands, Wales, Greater Manchester and South East areas. This is not a national contract. The sub-contract with the Royal Mail was not obligatory for successful in-house teams, but the in-house teams in these areas have the opportunity to provide significant service enhancements along with savings for the tax payer. The contract specifications drawn up with the Royal Mail contain all the necessary safeguards to ensure confidentiality of information is maintained to the high standards required by the Civil Service. All staff directly involved in post opening are bound by the same stringent security and confidentiality rules, including each member of staff being required to sign a declaration acknowledging the provisions of section 123 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992, which makes it a criminal offence to disclose personal information provided for Social Security purposes. The Royal Mail is a Government body and consequently the staff are already governed by the Official Secrets Act. The mail is opened under supervision in a separate, secure area which is locked at all times, and only staff directly involved in the contract will be allowed access to this room. Whilst the post is being opened and sorted no one is allowed to enter or leave the room. Any mail marked "Private", "Personal" or "Confidential" is left unopened. The sorted mail is then placed in sealed bags and delivered to the District Office sections each morning. The Benefits Agency has ensured that in seeking to provide better value for money in the delivery of public services, standards of quality and confidentiality will not be sacrificed. In particular the Agency has:

  • specified carefully in the contracts the standards which must be observed;
  • ensured that staff are properly trained in post opening operations;
  • set up detailed and continuous procedures to monitor the standard of service being provided.
There are many opportunities for enhanced customer service, in terms of the Agency's business as a whole, to be gained from the new arrangements and I am confident that we are able to maintain our high standards of customer confidentiality. I hope you find this reply helpful.