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House of Commons

Monday 12 November 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Child Support

1. Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): If he will reinstate the first eight weeks of maintenance payments by absent parents under the child support regulations; and if he will make a statement. [11679]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): The deferral of maintenance liability reflects the complexity of the current scheme and the need to encourage non-resident parents to respond quickly. We are introducing new simpler child support arrangements from April next year, which will apply initially to new cases. In the new scheme, maintenance will be calculated quickly and payments should start flowing within six weeks. Maintenance liability will normally begin from the date that the Child Support Agency contacts the non-resident parent.

Mr. O'Brien: There is a family in my constituency in which there are twin daughters aged 11, a girl of 15 and the parent with care. They were deserted by the father earlier this year. For the first two months, no maintenance was received. As maintenance is paid in arrears, that period can extend to three months. The consequences are that no mortgage or energy bills are paid. There is difficulty in meeting food and clothing bills. It was decided to send the elder girl to a private school when the family was a unit. As a result, there are fee arrears. In addition, the parent with care has to meet £90 a month in legal fees for a divorce that she never intended.

A system that drives children into poverty is a bad system, and the system that props up that system is also a bad system. What advice can my hon. Friend give me to ensure that the people to whom I have referred do not lose their home, and that they will be able to enjoy the quality of life that they had before the CSA became involved?

Malcolm Wicks: I would be happy, with my colleagues, to examine the circumstances surrounding what is clearly a sad case. We all have experiences of the inadequacies of the current system. That is why the Government consulted widely and legislated. We will be

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implementing new child support measures from April next year. They are designed to put children first, and to ensure that children benefit from the maintenance that is received. I have described the new arrangement for maintenance liability, which will start from the day that the non-resident parent is contacted. I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend. I assure him that the reforms will make a substantial difference.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): If the Minister is to re-examine the regulations, surely he should look again at the very existence of the agency. Surely he will accept that maintenance orders should reflect the individual facts of each case and should not be determined in accordance with a formula. If that is right, does he accept that an agency cannot exercise such discretion? That discretion should be entrusted again to a court or to a quasi-judicial body.

Malcolm Wicks: We should not make the mistake made by many English people of being optimistic about the past. The court system did not work. I remember the facts and figures. That is why the House, led by the then Conservative Government, introduced the agency. We are all agreed that in circumstances of family breakdown in modern societies such as ours, we must ensure that there is parental responsibility. If we have a child, we must help to maintain that child. The agency did not work under the Conservatives, and that is why we are undertaking fair and efficient reforms to put children first. The right hon. and learned Gentleman and I would agree with that.

Jobcentre Plus

2. Liz Blackman (Erewash): What plans he has to improve co-ordination between the benefits system and the support given to help people find work. [11680]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Employment Service and those parts of the Benefits Agency that deal with people of working age are being brought together to form a single gateway to the benefits system known as Jobcentre Plus.

Despite industrial action on the part of a minority of our staff, the first 49 Jobcentre Plus offices opened on 22 October, providing for the first time a fully integrated employment and benefit service. We plan to extend this integration nation wide beginning from next year.

Liz Blackman: I took the opportunity to visit Jobcentre Plus in Derby during the recess. I was impressed by the refurbishment and the atmosphere. However, there are some clients who on occasions will be difficult and challenging toward the staff at a Jobcentre Plus office, as elsewhere. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give that their security and safety remain the highest priorities?

Mr. Darling: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for taking the trouble to see a Jobcentre Plus office. I think that everyone who has been to one of the offices has found that they are qualitatively better than the classic DSS office with which so many people were depressingly familiar.

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I agree with my hon. Friend that staff safety is of paramount importance, as is public safety. That is why the new Jobcentre Plus offices will operate in a predominantly unscreened environment. There will be screen facilities available for people we know are difficult, or where there are benefit problems—for example, crisis loans.

In addition, each office has undergone a safety assessment. That has led to the installation of closed circuit television and, for the first time, security staff on the floor of offices, who are ready to intervene if someone is difficult or is not behaving in the appropriate manner. I urge all Members to visit one of the new offices. They are better, and I believe that in the long run they will show real results both for the efficiency of the system and, critically, in getting people into work.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): Last week, with the Department's assistance, I too visited a Jobcentre Plus office; I am grateful to the Department for making that possible. I met committed staff who want to help people get back to work. It was clear that they lacked back-up in their information technology systems. For example, when clients phone in, the information is typed into a computer, then printed out and typed into a different computer because one system does not talk to the other. The Benefits Agency system does not talk to the Employment Service system. When I asked the staff about that, they did not have a clear idea of when the two systems would talk to one another. Will the Secretary of State tell us when that will happen?

Mr. Darling: Yes, I will. Following the spending review settlement last year, for the first time the Department has the resources to begin to replace its entire IT system. Our difficulty is that some DSS IT systems are nearly 20 years old and are woefully out of date, leading to the problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We are therefore in the process of making changes. Indeed, the IT equipment on staff desks will be changed over the next year or so, which will overcome a lot of those problems. However, the back-end changes necessary for the Department's main computer system will take longer simply because it is one of the biggest in the western world; it will take a long time and a lot of investment to change it. However, we are committed to doing so because otherwise it will continue to be riddled with the problems with which every hon. Member is all too familiar.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): I commend the Jobcentre Plus initiative, but does my right hon. Friend accept that the co-ordination of the benefits system and the work system requires radical changes in housing benefit? That is particularly important for areas like Hemel Hempstead, where housing costs are so high that there is still a strong disincentive to go out to work.

Mr. Darling: I agree; it is not just the organisational change that will be achieved by Jobcentre Plus that is necessary, but changes to the tax and benefits system. That is why, over the past four years, we have reformed the tax and benefits system to make work possible and to make it pay. The working families tax credit is an example of the changes that we have made.

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I agree with my hon. Friend about housing benefit. We have made a number of changes, including the benefit run-ons and so on, which will make the transition to work far easier. We also need to improve the administration of housing benefit which, in too many local authority areas, is frankly lamentable. Often the hassle of trying to get housing benefit leads to work disincentives. As my hon. Friend will know, we are committed to longer-term change in housing benefit, which will involve restructuring it, but that will take some time because housing benefit is quite expensive. However, I agree entirely with the general point that my hon. Friend seeks to make.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The Secretary of State rightly identified the problem of attacks on staff. He will be aware that such attacks have doubled in the past few years and that there were 5,100 last year. He mentioned the introduction of closed circuit television cameras; he will also be aware of trade unions' concern. What practical steps can he take in addition to introducing screens so that that growing trend diminishes?

Mr. Darling: Since the hon. Gentleman raised that, perhaps I should make the position clear concerning the number of assaults. The figure of 5,000 that he quoted includes verbal assaults, in which someone perhaps uses words that we would not use in the House; that can sometimes happen—[Laughter.] More seriously, last year there were just over 160 physical assaults. Of course, that is 160 too many; however, when quoting the figure of 5,000 care has to be taken to disaggregate verbal assaults and physical assaults.

Another point is that some of our staff—those doing home visits, for example—are used to dealing with clients away from the general security of the office. That said, as I told the House a few moments ago, I take the security of staff seriously. Frankly, in the past, we did not do enough; we allowed the public areas in some benefits offices to be turned over to people who fought with one another, dealt in drugs and did all sorts of things that created an atmosphere and environment in which trouble was likely.

I am committed to carrying out a safety assessment in every Jobcentre Plus office, which may involve CCTV and having security staff ready to intervene. However, the whole reform will result in a better and safer environment. Finally, the test of all that is that nearly every single Jobcentre Plus office is open, despite the strike. Nearly every member of our staff who will be working with the public in those predominantly unscreened environments is at work. To a large extent, the people on strike, on the picket line, will not be seeing members of the public.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): We condemn the industrial action currently being taken over Jobcentre Plus. Will the Secretary of State continue to bear in mind what is being asked of staff, who will now have to deal with benefits and provide employment advice, and sometimes, as the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) says, deal with challenging people and be exposed to verbal assaults? Will he also bear it in mind that those on the receiving end of verbal assaults are predominantly female workers? Is the right hon.

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Gentleman aware of the views of Mr. Nick Burkitt of the Institute of Public Policy Research, who says that advisers might find themselves having to

Does the Secretary of State agree that safety must be paramount? He said that, but will he see that every reasonable precaution is taken, that the number of staff available to help with incidents involving advisers is sufficient, and that advisers are not exposed to the risk of physical or verbal assault?

Mr. Darling: As I said a few moments ago, great importance must be attached to maintaining the safety of our staff and the public. That is one of the reasons why we are engaging security staff, who have instructions to intervene in the event of any difficulty. It has been known for members of the public to be attacked. The hon. Gentleman's second point relates to training. Yes, we are making sure that our staff have sufficient training. If he goes to one of the Jobcentre Plus offices—he may be one of the hon. Members who have been to such an office—he will know that one of the things that the staff like doing is being able to advise on benefits and on how to get into jobs at the same time.

Finally, it is the Government's policy, with which I take it the Opposition agree, to give help to people who up till now got no help in getting into work, and to get them into work. That means that there must be a single gateway to the benefits system. The old distinction between people who signed on as unemployed, and those who signed on for benefit and got no help or assistance, must stop. That is the rationale underpinning Jobcentre Plus, which is why we will make sure that all our offices are converted to Jobcentre Plus over the next few years.

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