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Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his helpful comments. I appreciate there is no commitment in what he said but his remarks were helpful. In the light of those assurances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Earl said: My Lords, this Unstarred Question is concerned with the proposed cut in the running costs of the Department of Social Security. I have put it down not in order to make an argument but simply to try to find out what the Government are doing. As in A. E. Housman's Fragment of a Greek Tragedy, my purpose in asking is to learn.
The Secretary of State, speaking on the "Today" programme on 8th February, said his intention was to try to improve our efficiency by roughly a quarter over three years; in other words, to cut his costs by a sum approaching £1 billion. It is a considerable sum of money. So far, the only real scrutiny this proposal has received has been from Mr. John Humphrys. Although I do not wish to denigrate Mr. Humphrys' vigour, first of all he is not a social security specialist, and, secondly, it is for the honour of Parliament that scrutiny should not be confined to the media but that we should take our
I want to know first--so far as it knows this itself--what is the department actually going to do? Secondly, is this figure of a quarter of the running costs a wish, or is it a hard and fast target? Will it arrive at that figure absolutely regardless of the effects, or will it get there, or as near as it can, while trying to ensure that not too much harm is done in the process? Would the department draw back if it found the effects were proving really harmful? Thirdly, will the department take care not to diminish the effectiveness of the department?
In Whitehall language, in the framework document of the Benefits Agency for example, efficiency means cutting costs. Effectiveness means getting it right. What I would hope to hear is that effectiveness will not be sacrificed to efficiency. At the moment the Minister is presiding over an efficient--I mean efficient in my sense; not in Whitehall's--well running department. I would not wish to see that changed simply for the sake of saving money. If the Minister were to find that the department's effectiveness were being diminished by these proposals, would he back off?
Obviously the first question that comes to mind is that of redundancies. In a Written Answer to my noble friend Lord Addington, the Minister gave assurances that the department is not at present contemplating any redundancies. I am glad to hear that, but I should like to know whether that is a hope or a promise. Does the Minister merely feel that he would like to avoid them, or is he giving an undertaking that he will do so? Further, if, sadly, there were to be redundancies, will the department make sure it calculates the cost of those redundancies to the social security budget before it counts them as a net saving?
The Secretary of State gave some answers on the "Today" programme which I should like to explore further. He said that he was going to go for what the jargon calls "process re-engineering": ensuring that the processes are geared to achieving the outcome. That sounds unexceptionable enough. I should like to know what it means. I should like some examples of what is actually meant by process re-engineering because we cannot judge what the Secretary of State is proposing until we understand what it is.
That sounds an unexceptionable objective, but I should like to know exactly how he is going to set about it because the circumstances of claimants regularly change. I should like some assurances that it can be done without diminishing the capacity of the department to respond to changing circumstances. That is quite an important part of the benefit system.
The Minister probably will not remember, because it was before he was in the department, an interesting debate initiated by the noble Lord Peston about the introduction of ACT--Automatic Credit Transfer. Very strong views were expressed then that this should not lead to the closure of rural post offices and that it should remain possible to obtain benefit at a post office. I am sure I do not need to tell the Minister, who knows rural areas extremely well, that these post offices can be the lifelines of rural areas. I hope he can assure me that the Government are not going to stop the claiming of benefit at post offices and that this is not going to lead to rural post office closures.
There are other problems in computerisation. The benefit payment card obviously has its attractions but, of course, it is possible for cards to be stolen, especially from people who are sleeping on the street. The Minister must have heard of the phenomenon of "taxing". What is going to happen to somebody who has a benefit payment card stolen by a person who is "taxing" them on the street? Is there is machinery in place to ensure that the thief does not draw an immense amount of benefit before the theft is detected? There are risks here and it is going to need people to avoid those risks. Again, I would like to hear a note of caution being struck in the Minister's reply.
The points I have made about rural post offices also need to be made about rural benefits offices. People on benefit, especially the elderly or the disabled, do not have the very highest degree of mobility. Having to go a long distance to the nearest benefits office may make life very much harder. Again, I hope we can have some assurance that this saving is not going to be achieved through closure of local offices.
I am also concerned, of course, about errors, as is the Comptroller and Auditor-General. He has once again qualified the accounts and pointed out a rate of error in income support claims of 16.1 per cent. I do not intend to be too fierce about that. People on benefit may have very high mobility. You might say of them what my noble friend Lady Seear once said about students, "They hop about like fleas". I am sure the Minister understands that, at the other end, many of these errors may represent very grave personal hardship. I hope I can have an assurance that, as these changes are introduced, the Minister will be watching the rate of errors in handling claims, and that if the rate of errors should show signs of significantly rising he will think again about what he is doing and not go ahead with savings which drive up the rate of errors.
I also want to know whether the target is contingent on the number of people on benefit at any one time, because when the number of people on benefit goes up, the number of people you need to deal with them may go up. I commend to the Minister the speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, on the Second Reading of the Child Support Bill last year. The people
I hope also that the Minister can tell the House that there is not going to be a cut in the research budget. The department does not always like research by others, so I hope it can keep its own going.
I also want to offer a word of caution about self-assessment. The benefit system is hard enough to understand for us here. For people who unexpectedly go onto benefit it may be quite bewildering. If self-assessment comes in the Minister may find that it takes more staff to help people do their self-assessment than it would to continue as we are now. I should like to hear some assurances on that, too.
I am also anxious about the effects of these cuts on the introduction of JSA. The Minister will remember a debate we had on the first day of Committee when the Bill was before us. The merging of two huge bureaucracies is necessarily a cumbersome business. I hope he can give us assurances that both that and the new computer system will not suffer from these cuts in the running costs of the department. I suggest that he looks at the very wise words of Sir Michael Partridge, giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee on the Child Support Act, about the conditions for introducing a major new change and whether he should add one more--that a major change should not be introduced in the middle of a budget cut.
I also want to ask him whether he can give us any assurances about privatisation of the delivery of individual services. First, if there is privatisation, whether he can guarantee that the effectiveness of the service will be as great as it is in the hands of the department. Secondly, whether he can give an assurance that costs can be lowered while nevertheless figuring in a profit margin. Those are difficult questions and I should like to know what the Minister has to say about them.
Overall, I hope the Minister will remember that the Department of Social Security is running a lifeboat service. Lifeboats are not always needed at convenient working hours. If the effectiveness of a very good department is diminished by these cuts I would regret it very much. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
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