HC Deb 11 November 1999 vol 337 cc812-3W
Mr. Boswell

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what action he is taking to ensure that vulnerable people will receive their benefits over the New Year, with particular reference to people with disabilities and those receiving direct and manual payments; and if he will make a statement. [93483]

Angela Eagle

[pursuant to her reply, 27 July 1999, c. 297-98]: The administration of benefits is a matter for Peter Mathison, the Chief Executive of the Benefits Agency. He will write to the hon. Member.

Letter from Alexis Cleveland to Mr. Tim Boswell, dated 10 November 1999: I am writing pursuant to Peter Mathison's letter of 27 July, Official Report, columns 297–298, in response to your Parliamentary Question asking what action would be taken to ensure that vulnerable people will receive their benefits over the New Year, with particular reference to people with disabilities and those receiving direct and manual payments. As Mr. Mathison is currently on leave, I am replying. Mr. Mathison's original letter contained an error, therefore, I enclose the revised text in full. Each year the Benefit Agency (BA) brings forward the production of order books, Girocheques and Automated Credit Transfers (payment directly to bank accounts) so that people receiving direct and manual payments of benefits can have their money in advance for holiday periods when Banks and Post Offices are closed. These arrangements will again be made for people in receipt of all BA benefits, including disability benefits, for the forthcoming Christmas and New Year period. Throughout the year, the BA has continuity planning arrangements in place which could involve manual payments being implemented where problems such as postal disruption are anticipated. In the most vulnerable cases, such payments could be issued to the customer in the office the same day. The BA will also consider sending a visiting officer to those who are unable to attend the office. Over the Christmas and New Year period, BA local offices will not be open on Friday 24 December in England and Wales. Scottish BA offices, however, will be open on 24 December. All BA local offices will be open on 29 and 30 December, and 4 January (except in Scotland, where offices return to normal working hours on 5 January). Working hours will be advertised in the local office. The BA also provides an out of hours service (OOHS) to help customers who find themselves in particular need outside normal office hours. On weekdays this service operates until at least 20.00 hours. At weekends and on statutory holidays, it will operate for at least six hours daily, normally between 9.00 and 20.00 hours. Contact with the OOHS is normally made through the social services or police who liaise with a central emergency officer through a telephone message service. The officer then considers the individual person's needs in consultation with outside agencies. In addition, the BA has been aware for some time of the issues which may arise as a result of the Year 2000 date change. A full programme of work was established in 1996. Most of the major mainframe systems (the benefit payment computer systems) hold their dates in a way which is largely unaffected by the Year 2000 problem. Nevertheless, a full regime of checking has taken place and all benefit payment systems are now fully year 2000 compliant. Interfaces with external computer systems, including the systems which pay benefits directly to bank accounts, have been rigorously tested, or plans are in place to do so. An intensive testing process is also under way on our major benefit paying systems to provide additional assurances. For example, BA has recently concluded a business confidence review of Jobseekers Allowance and Income Support that did not identify any risks of material disruption to payments of benefits. I apologise for any inconvenience caused by the original error and I hope this is helpful.