Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Jobcentre Plus

12. Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): What representations he has received regarding the closure of Jobcentre Plus offices in north Wales and Porthmadog. [12312]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Margaret Hodge): Since July 2004, the Department has received representations from a number of interested parties. The development of Jobcentre Plus is not about closing offices but about transforming the service that we provide, thus making it more accessible, so that people obtain help in finding work at the same time as they apply for benefits. I am confident that Jobcentre Plus is well placed to deliver a high-quality service to people in north Wales.

Hywel Williams: I thank the Minister for that answer. The closure of the centre in Porthmadog will lead to the loss of some 50 jobs, and the closure of the Revenue office will also deal a further blow to the fragile and very local economy of north-west Wales. What discussions has she had with Economic Ministers in Cardiff regarding those economic effects of her policies?

Margaret Hodge: Every time we embark on a reconfiguration of services in a locality, we engage in extensive discussions to ensure that, if at all possible, alternative employment is found for some of the people who will be displaced by the reorganisation. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will make every effort that we can in those reorganisations to try to secure alternative employment for the people who will be affected by them.
18 Jul 2005 : Column 1071

Departmental IT Programme

13. Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): If he will make a statement on the development of the IT programme for the modernisation of his Department. [12313]

15. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): If he will make a statement on the development of the information technology programme for the modernisation of his Department. [12315]

The Minister for Pensions Reform (Mr. Stephen Timms): The Department's programme is being designed to realise the enormous potential of IT to modernise and improve our services, building on successes such as the direct payment of benefits and the Jobcentre Plus online database of more than 400,000 current vacancies.

Anne Main: Is the Minister aware of the concerns expressed by some of his civil servants who will have to use the debt management IT service, who have said that the bits they have been allowed to see are not fit for purpose but that things are being rushed to meet certain dates, and that if the system goes live, we are going to be in a long-term mess?

Mr. Timms: I am aware of some concerns about the customer management system in Jobcentre Plus. Its implementation, which was due in June in some offices, was delayed until this month. There will be a further software release for that system during the summer, and we remain on track to complete its roll-out by the end of next year. However, I hope that the hon. Lady will accept the very striking examples of the successful use of IT in the welfare system. I have mentioned the online database of 400,000 jobs, which replaces the scruffy old postcards that Jobcentres used years ago. Smart terminals are now not only used in Jobcentres—I noticed one the other day at Stansted airport—and they will be appearing widely in the coming months. Direct payment has also been a success: 96 per cent. of benefit customers now receive their benefit by direct payments, instead of using the ration-book technology bequeathed to us by the previous Government. The hon. Lady should welcome that success as well.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): I am glad to hear from the Minister that version 999 is to be issued during the summer. He has a deserved reputation in IT. What is going wrong in his Department? Is it a case of garbage in, garbage out? Is the wrong systematic description of what is required being given to the software provider?
18 Jul 2005 : Column 1072
Who will own up to saying what is going wrong with this, just as they have gone wrong with the tax credit system?

Mr. Timms: The Department has 35 major IT systems, including some of the largest in the world. Of course, it is a complex task to modernise and renew them. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remark. He is someone who also understands very well the potential of IT to improve and modernise public services. I hope that he will welcome the progress that has been made—for example, with the direct payment of benefits, which involved putting a new terminal on every post office counter position in the country. The system was on budget and on time, and it is doing a great job.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned the Jobcentre Plus terminals, which are incredibly successful and carry an amazing amount of data about the jobs that are available not just in the locality, but throughout the country. What analysis has he undertaken to find out how the customers have taken to using that kind of system? Does that system point the way forward for the design of systems in the future?

Mr. Timms: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is another hon. Member who well understands the exciting potential that IT offers to modernising public services. The reaction to the job point system has been very positive, and it will become increasingly positive as the terminals appear in a wider variety of locations. Of course, in addition, the database of 400,000 vacancies is available online to any internet user anywhere. That is why it is the most popular of the Government's online applications.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Having spent three decades in public sector IT development before coming into this place, it seems to me that, far too often high-ranking civil servants and Ministers fall for the blandishments of the modern day snake oil salesmen who populate the private IT sector. When does the Minister expect that we will show some faith in the internal staff who know the systems and can develop new projects to a better standard and within time scales in the way in which the private sector has notably failed to do?

Mr. Timms: We do indeed need to take advantage of the skills and expertise of staff who work in our Department and agencies, but we should also be able to call on expertise from outside when it makes sense to do so. Getting that balance right by getting a good mix of suppliers from the private sector will be important in achieving the success that we are committed to bringing about.

18 Jul 2005 : Column 1073

Business of the House

3.30 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a short business statement. Following tributes to the right hon. Sir Edward Heath, the House will adjourn. The business for the remainder of the week will now be as follows:

Tuesday 19 July—Second Reading of the Crossrail Bill.

Wednesday 20 July—Motion to approve the draft Council Tax Limitation (England) (Maximum Amounts) Order 2005, followed by remaining stages of the Regulation of Financial Services (Land Transactions) Bill, in turn followed by a motion on the summer recess Adjournment.

Thursday 21 July—Second Reading of the London Olympics Bill.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): I thank the Leader of the House for that statement and for making changes to this week's business so that the House today can remember a distinguished Member of more than 50 years' standing and a distinguished former Prime Minister of this country.

Mr. Speaker: I call Mr. Heath. [Laughter.]

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): No relation, but indeed a distinguished Member of the House.

May I ask the Leader of the House a brief question? He has obviously introduced new business for Wednesday this week. Given that a number of Back Benchers may want to speak on both the motion to approve the draft Council Tax Limitation (England) (Maximum Amounts) Order 2005 and the motion on the summer recess Adjournment, will he consider setting aside time for debate for both items of business?

Mr. Hoon: I am sure that that can be arranged through the usual channels.

18 Jul 2005 : Column 1074

Sir Edward Heath KG MBE

3.32 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

Sir Edward Heath died yesterday after a long illness. I am sure that the whole House would like to join me in thanking the team of carers from Oxley Care who looked after him in the last few years. I know how grateful Ted was to them.

There have been many handsome and well-merited tributes to Ted Heath as a Prime Minister, as a Member of this House for more than 50 years and Father of it, and as a man of vision, principle and integrity. He was quintessentially his own man. He made up his own mind and having done so, he was unshakable. But Ted Heath would have recognised, and have been proud, that it was his momentous decision to take Britain into the Common Market that would dominate the hundreds of thousands of words written and spoken about him today. He might have been Prime Minister for less than four years, but few holders of this office have made such a lasting difference to this country, its direction and its place in the world.

Ted Heath's commitment to Europe, and his determination that Britain should be at its heart, was born of the horrors that he witnessed while fighting to liberate the continent from the evils of fascism. These wartime experiences, as they did for many of his generation, shaped him as a man and a politician. They made him determined to do all that he could to ensure that Europe was never again ripped apart by conflict.

Ted Heath could also certainly have claimed to have been the first modern Conservative leader. He came, as we know, from a relatively humble background in Broadstairs. He was a grammar school boy and through his own hard work and intelligence, he won a place at Oxford, where he became president of the union.

It was at Oxford that Ted Heath first showed he was prepared to be unpopular in defence of his political views, when he joined those in his party who opposed appeasement and supported the anti-Chamberlain cause in the famous Oxford by-election. He was also a supporter of the republican Government in Spain, a result of a visit during the Spanish civil war, where he witnessed first-hand the destruction caused by air attacks.

After distinguished military service in the Royal Artillery, he was elected Member of Parliament for Bexley in the 1950 general election. Reflecting his political passion for the next half century, his maiden speech was a plea for Britain not to stand aside from Europe, but to play its full role as an active partner. He was also a founder of the one nation Tory group, which he was to personify throughout his time in the Commons.

On coming to Parliament, Ted Heath's talents were quickly recognised, and within five years he was Chief Whip. He showed enormous skill in this post, helping to keep his party together during the difficult days of the Suez crisis, despite his own deep personal reservations. As Chief Whip, he also had a prominent role in the appointment of Harold Macmillan as Eden's successor. In return, Ted Heath was eventually promoted to the
18 Jul 2005 : Column 1075
Cabinet, and soon after entrusted with the task of heading Britain's negotiations to join the Common Market. Between 1961 and 1963, he toured Europe's capitals ceaselessly, clocking up more than 100,000 miles trying to reach agreement. I understand that the main bone of contention was agricultural policy. Ted Heath very nearly achieved agreement, only to have President de Gaulle veto Britain's membership.

Interestingly, despite the intense and humiliating frustration of rejection by France, it never altered Ted Heath's view that Britain's future was in Europe. He saw correctly that de Gaulle's opposition was in fact a reason to proceed with membership, not to abandon it—that Britain had something unique and important to contribute to Europe. He also correctly recognised that the British alliance with the United States was stronger, not weaker, by dint of European membership.

Ted Heath's hard work and intelligence during the difficult negotiations greatly enhanced his stature within the Government and the country. Winston Churchill was among the many who wrote to him to congratulate him on his efforts. In Europe, he won the prestigious Charlemagne prize, which had a practical benefit, as he used the money to buy a Steinway grand piano, which was later to move into No. 10 with him.

Ted Heath's music and sailing were, of course, a big part of his life. I think it is safe to say, even with the many candidates now putting themselves forward on the Opposition Benches as potential successors, that he is likely to remain the only Tory leader to conduct at the Royal Albert hall and win the Sydney to Hobart yacht race during their time in the post.

Ted Heath's time as Opposition leader is perhaps best known for sacking Enoch Powell, a decision that required great political courage, and for appointing Margaret Thatcher to the shadow Cabinet. [Laughter.] His victory in the 1970 general election was against all the odds, but his premiership came at a difficult time for the country. He was beset by problems on the economy, on industrial relations and in Northern Ireland. He showed his integrity and leadership, however, when, despite the opposition of some in his party and outside it, he offered a safe haven to 60,000 Ugandan Asians threatened by Idi Amin, a decision from which our country greatly benefited.

Of course, the outstanding achievement of Ted Heath's time at No. 10 was in January 1973, when he took Britain into the European Economic Community. It was a political and a personal triumph for Ted Heath, but it was not enough, for a country hit by a three-day week, to save his Government. Three and a half years later, after entering No. 10, he called an early general election, but was narrowly defeated. Roy Jenkins often used to say that the tragedy was that Labour lost the election in 1970, which it should have won, and won the election in 1974, which it should have lost. Certainly, Ted would have agreed with the latter.

When Ted Heath lost again in October 1974, he found himself challenged by Margaret Thatcher for the Conservative leadership, and she won. For the next 26 years, he remained on the Back Benches, a familiar sight in this place. Throughout, he never flinched from arguing for the one-nation Toryism he believed in, or from putting passionately the case for Europe. Ted was very blunt in his manner, though once you got to know
18 Jul 2005 : Column 1076
him he was very kind. I remember that I first met him at a parliamentary reception in the mid-1980s shortly after I became a Member of this House. He said, "Are you an MP?" "Yes", I said. "Which party?" "Labour", I said. "Well, you don't look like it or sound like it", he said. [Laughter.] "What's more", he said, "as an Opposition, you're bloody useless." He then proceeded with remarkable insight to tell me exactly what we should have been doing.

His trenchant criticism of his own party leadership must have been very irritating for them. Being myself, for obvious reasons, generally disposed towards party loyalty, I was never sure about it. As those of us who can recall him know, he was magnificent; he would fill the House. I can picture him now, standing below the Gangway, often speaking without a note, with humour, incisive argument and magisterial disdain for the opposing view—swatting away anyone ill-judged enough to make a hostile intervention. To quote again his old Balliol friend Roy Jenkins, he was a

That is indeed how he was: an extraordinary man, a great statesman, a Prime Minister our country can be proud of. We shall miss him.

3.41 pm

Next Section IndexHome Page