State Pension Credit Bill [Lords]

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David Cairns: I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. However, the technology exists in modern call centres to record conversations. Perhaps that would be a route forward. I had a disastrous experience involving a call to Barclays bank in which I was given very bad advice that had catastrophic consequences in terms of my credit rating. However, the matter was resolved because a recording of the call existed and the bank was able to go back to it. I would like the Minister to tell the Committee whether the technology exists to enable recordings to be kept for a certain period so that calls could be monitored and mistakes such as those that the hon. Gentleman is rightly flagging up could be avoided.

Mr. Boswell: I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point. My next note dealt with the issue of recording. However, there is a converse and we should be honest about it. Some pensioners will not want to feel that Big Brother is snooping on them. They will not want their personal details to be recorded. We need to think about that sensitivity. I am attracted to the option of recording for what the financial institutions describe in their advertisements as ''training purposes''. There should be an opportunity for some calls to be recorded and for some officers to be trained using recorded calls.

I have one other concern. There is the danger of confused messages from a pensioner claimant. There is also the danger that when data are being transcribed a cup of coffee could get spilt or there could be some other interruption, such as a power failure, leading to the message's not getting through. I happen to use the same bank as the hon. Gentleman. I have had experiences in which a message has only partly got

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through and I have had to start again, although the consequences have not been disastrous or difficult.

All that is of concern. It is a question of customer service and, as the hon. Gentleman was properly implying, trying to replicate the best of modern private sector standards in the public sector. If that replication is not achieved and there is increasing concern about call centres, we need some safeguards to ensure that things are done properly. That applies particularly to situations in which people are taking details and using them to complete a form. There are ethnic minority issues as well—people's English may be imperfect. It may be—the Minister of State may want to respond to this—that pensioners will be able to get an early response from the Pension Service that sets up the schema of their benefit so that if the data do not correspond to what was said, they will be able to point that out. The area is one of continuing concern and it is right to debate it.

The other area about which I am much concerned is that of distance. I must be careful not to make too much of my own case. I live at the very edge of my constituency and have done so for more than 30 years. My constituency is divided into four regional postcodes—it used to have five—and my postcode belongs to a different region. That means that I am fairly used to the problems caused by people sending things to me with the wrong postcode. I shall give an example, which is not intended to imply criticism of the officials involved. I recently dealt with a case involving the disability and carers service and an adjacent village that has an Oxfordshire postcode, despite being in Northamptonshire. I was sent a letter from Wembley. We responded by saying, ''I am very sorry, the place has an Oxfordshire postcode, but it is in Northamptonshire,'' but it turned out that the files had miscarried between Wembley and Birmingham. I do not make a cheap point; it is an example of the sort of situation that could arise. However, the point was not specifically about administrative boundaries but about distance.

Leaving aside the special problems in the south-east, given that the Pension Service is located in Leicester, I understand that my own case will be dealt with in Leicester, as will those of many of my constituents. When I first moved to the area, we tended to use a local social security office in Banbury—I am sure that there was a knock-for-knock arrangement. That office is in a different county, and about seven miles from my home. Things were tidied up later, and everything was transferred to Northampton, my county town, which is 30 miles from my home. Leicester, good as it may be for the Pension Service—I have had a favourable contact with the new director—is 50 miles from my home.

It is nearly even stevens for time as to whether I go to Westminster or to Leicester. It will probably not matter to me, as I am used to using the telephone, and I can even make modest use of the internet. However, for anyone who does not have those advantages, it is a long way to have to hack up to Leicester. The Minister of State has given us lots of assurances about the flexibility that he wants to see, and has spoken of using

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drop-in centres and other ways of dealing with the problem. That should suffice, but there is a sort of iron logic in distance. It is therefore all the more incumbent on the Department to offer a local service.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Members of Parliament have a responsibility? If we are proactive in seeking to encourage people to apply for pensioner tax credit, and if we have information that we can circulate, we should not depend on the service's being provided automatically. It would be better for us to contact our pensioners. I have listened to the debate over the past few days, and recognise that it is everyone's intention that we get this right. However, I am still concerned. Labour Back Benchers have referred to the means-testing element—the complexity element—but if we keep talking about it I fear that we might be putting people off and preventing them from applying for it. If we work together to try to achieve what is necessary, we can make some real progress.

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

The Chairman: Order. May I appeal to hon. Members to keep their interventions concise?

Mr. Boswell: It was a worthwhile intervention.

The Chairman: Oh, very much so.

Mr. Boswell: The hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) made a good point. We may have doubts about the arrangement, but it is conceivable that the Bill will become law. It is therefore incumbent on us not to sit back and hope that it fails but to ensure that it succeeds. If we can, we should play an active and proactive role with local organisations such as Age Concern, and encourage them to make use of the opportunities to reach out to people. I am entirely with the hon. Gentleman on that, and I think that we should signal the fact here and now. That, I believe, is entirely the spirit of the new clause moved by the hon. Member for Northavon.

On distance, close attention needs to be paid to local delivery points; and interaction between the call service and local deliveries is necessary so that people can be transferred relatively quickly if needed.

The only other point that I wish to make is about the Pension Service's annual revisiting of entitlement. That is important if people might be entitled to more if their income has declined. In turn, that will require the use of some smart systems to enable people to notice that they have suffered a downrating of income. We are talking about national savings and investments, not a complex foreign security operation. Such changes in income may affect the overall calculation. We shall return later to the question of capital income.

There is a huge amount to do in the Pension Service. I agree with the hon. Member for Northavon and, in fairness, with the general tone of the debate. It will need a lot of attention along the lines that he has set out. If it has that attention, I am sure that it will get off on the right foot, and we can refine it later. There should be no doubt about the magnitude of the undertaking and the potential downside if it does not work because it is under-resourced or hurried or

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suffers from inadequate training later. I am sure that it can be got right; it certainly needs to be.

10.15 am

John Mann: This is a fascinating debate, especially for its talk of out-of-town call centres. The more Government Departments move away from London, the better. Should there be, because of demand, a requirement for more land, I can assure the Minister and civil servants that the best voice for call centres has been defined as the north Nottinghamshire or South Yorkshire—

Angela Smith (Basildon): Basildon!

John Mann: There are not a lot of South Yorkshire voices there. In terms of honesty and reliability—

Hon. Members: Put it to the vote.

The Chairman: This is a very controversial point.

John Mann: May I say as a crowning point on that particular issue that I am delighted to inform colleagues that the Labour party's national executive elections telephone voting contact has been awarded in the past week to a large call centre in my constituency. That is a major step forward. It is a non-partisan facility; business is business.

The point is relevant. I have become an expert in trying to win business for call centres in my constituency. This is about data imaging, and I declare an interest in translation, as I established a large translation company some 10 years ago. Data imaging is a key factor in the potential development of equal opportunities for Government services, and one that could be cost effective, and the company that I mentioned in my constituency is at the leading edge of it. It is a technology well beyond most of its competitors in this country and in western Europe, and well above the current capacity of any Government Department. I urge the Government to consider the matter in detail during the next year or two. The ability to use data imaging to complete and process forms in as wide a range of languages as is required will be a significant step forward in terms of the accessibility of Government services.

I would add a caveat to the comments of the hon. Member for Daventry and others about translation. In a sense it reflects that business opportunity. It would be absurd with the range of languages now spoken in this country—I believe that there are 860—to try to pretend that call centres or face-to-face interviews can be made effective by the provision of a translator. Essentially, we must apply the principle operated by Departments such as the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions—assistance is sought in an emergency, rather than there being de facto aid provision. Such a service does not exist and would be expensive to provide. I urge caution in relation to any suggestion that accessibility is attainable in that way. It is something of a myth.

I should like to raise two more points. I never cease to be amazed by the number of grey surfers in the mining villages of my constituency.

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