HC Deb 29 March 1995 vol 257 cc684-5W
Mr. Duncan

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement about the outcome of the review of the Benefits Agency. [17601]

Mr. Lilley

I announced on 20 July 1994,Official Report, column 257, a formal review of the Benefits Agency. Each next steps agency undergoes a periodic review to evaluate performance, to reconsider whether agency status is the best way of doing the job and to revise its framework document.

Part of that review involved an evaluation of the performance of the Benefits Agency since its creation in April 1991. I am pleased to announce that the evaluation report has been published today and a copy has been placed in the Library.

My colleagues and I have now considered the review team's recommendations. These take account of a number of detailed submissions from hon. Members, national and local customer representative organisations, and private companies. I am grateful to all those who have participated in the review.

The main conclusions of the review, which I accept, are that the Benefits Agency should remain a next steps agency within the civil service, responsible as now for a wide range of social security benefits. There is no scope to abolish or privatise an organisation of this nature; nor is there any evidence to suggest that wholesale contractorisation of the agency's functions is at present feasible or likely to improve value for money for the taxpayer. The review endorses the agency's initiatives to integrate its services more closely in order to provide a "one stop" customer service and to reduce significantly the scope for fraud and abuse.

The review also recommends that the agency should build on its existing change programme by developing a comprehensive strategy for improving its performance and efficiency. The details will be for the chief executive to decide, but they will include the involvement of the private sector wherever its skills would be of assistance, for example through re-engineering of the agency's business processes. The Government's "Competing for Quality" programme will continue to apply to the majority of the agency's support functions. In addition, and in order to inform the debate about longer-term possibilities, I have asked the chief executive to conduct a pilot project to establish the feasibility and desirability of separating the adjudication function from other parts of the benefits administration process.

The review goes on to recommend that the chief executive conduct internal reviews of the agency's structure and organisation, including the relationship between the corporate centre and the local units, and the numbers and boundaries of those units. This will devolve more power to local units to respond to local needs whilst at the same time sharpening accountability. All the elements of the strategy should have been decided by April 1996 to enable implementation of any changes from April 1997.

In conclusion, the review recognises the significant improvements in customer service and efficiency which the agency has achieved since its inception in 1991. These reflect great efforts by the chief executive and his staff. The review's recommendations are designed to build on this work. I am placing a copy of the executive summary of the prior options report in the Library today, and I shall shortly publish a revised framework document confirming the agency's aims, objectives and responsibilities.