HC Deb 27 November 2003 vol 415 cc40-2WS
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond)

On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate (BFI) follow-up inspection report on Jobcentre Plus' relationship with local authorities was published today and copies of the report have been placed in the Library.

In September 2001, the BFI published its report on the then Benefits Agency's relationship with local authorities and made 49 recommendations to address weaknesses in benefits administration and counter-fraud activity, and improve closer working with local authorities. Since then the Benefits Agency has become part of Jobcentre Plus.

Jobcentre Plus came into existence in April 2002 bringing together parts of the Benefits Agency and the whole of Employment Service. This resulted in significant changes to the organisational structure since the first BFI inspection.

It is important that Jobcentre Plus works closely with local authorities to ensure that: the processing of benefit claims and their ongoing maintenance are made as simple and speedy as possible with the minimum of duplication. The fullest possible sharing of information helps ensure that customers receive the highest attainable levels of service; information that could lead to the identification of fraud and error is routinely shared so that joint action can be taken to eliminate overpayments; the welfare of customers, and staff of local authorities and Jobcentre Plus, is protected by the sharing of good working practices and regular exchange of information.

In 2003, BFI inspected Jobcentre Plus to determine the effectiveness of its working relationships with local authorities and see how the recommendations from the first report had been progressed by the new organisation.

Particular improvements highlighted in the report include the recruitment of Regional Fraud and Programme Protection Managers to work closely with local authorities and the successful roll out of electronic transfer of data systems. Both local authorities and Jobcentre Plus reported this had a positive impact on the relationship.

The BFI did find that many of the 49 recommendations from its earlier report had not been carried out. Specific areas identified for improvement included training staff in liaison duties, ensuring that joint working with local authorities features sufficiently in business plans and securing better management information at a national level on joint working performance. However, the report found that there was variation in performance, with some Jobcentre Plus offices making greater effort than others in their relationships with local authorities.

The report finds examples of good practice and some improvements since the first inspection. However, the report makes 45 recommendations to help Jobcentre Plus address the weaknesses and to further improve the working relationship with local authorities.

Jobcentre Plus is announcing its Action Plan for dealing with the BFI's recommendations, and is to set up a Senior Steering Group, including local authority representation, to oversee the implementation of the BFI's recommendations and report progress to Ministers on a quarterly basis.