Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I can give that assurance, although no distinction is made in the record between Jewish and any other victims.

15 Jan 1998 : Column 1136

Public Services and Severe Weather

3.29 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What urgent consultations they have had with the electricity, telephone and other public service companies, as well as with other appropriate authorities, about provision for severe weather emergencies.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, the Government share some of my noble friend's concerns, particularly as regards electricity. The Government have therefore asked the Office of Electricity Regulation (Offer) to look into the steps taken by the public electricity suppliers to restore supplies following the high winds over Christmas. It wants to hear about their efforts to keep customers informed of when supplies were likely to be restored and the ability of the distribution networks to withstand such weather conditions. The Government have asked Offer to submit a report of its findings. The position on telephones was less severe. There was some loss of lines, particularly in the Selsey area, but they were fully reinstalled within 48 hours and 999 access was maintained throughout.

Lord Judd: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Does he accept that there is widespread admiration for the way in which those involved worked like Trojans in order to bring relief and contain the damage, especially as it involved being away from their families during the festive season? However, will my noble friend accept that the information given on the telephones is not accurate? I know of delays in restoring telephone services of more than a week.

Does my noble friend agree that there is a danger that where private firms are working in the sphere of public service the downsizing in the interests of profitability may have gone too far with the result that there is little spare capacity with which to meet emergencies that may occur? Does he agree that if global warming is to result in the more frequent recurrence of such turbulent weather the responsibility of the Government to protect those at risk is as great in this dimension as in the military dimension?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, as regards downsizing and staffing levels, it does not appear to the Government that the companies lacked resources. They appeared to have sufficient staff available. During the Christmas period, the electricity companies called engineers back from holiday. They received help from other companies that were not so badly affected. Outside contractors were also used. I join the noble Lord in congratulating the engineers on their work during that time.

It is the regulators' job not only to regulate prices but also to set standards of performance. They must ensure that all licensed companies have the financial capability to carry on their licensed activities. The Government are committed to putting consumers at the heart of utility regulation. We must ensure that we get the balance right and that consumers get a fair deal. That is the purpose

15 Jan 1998 : Column 1137

of the review of utility regulation being undertaken by the President of the Board of Trade. The review will produce proposals in the coming weeks.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, does the Minister agree that in emergencies such as the sudden cutting of electricity supplies there should be a good information service from the electricity companies to those affected and that they should plan for that service well in advance of the emergencies?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, all the electricity companies have emergency plans and regularly carry out exercises. Those plans were deployed in the severe weather emergencies which occurred. British Telecom instigated its storm plan. Some 350 lines were lost during the storm but were fully reinstated within 48 hours--unfortunately, not that of my noble friend Lord Judd.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, has special consultation taken place with Scottish Hydro-Electric, which has more experience in dealing with bad weather than any other electricity company?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I am sure that the utility companies can learn from the experience of the Scottish Hydro-Electric company. I am not aware of any special consultation taking place, but I shall write to the noble Lord about the matter.

Lord Rowallan: My Lords, would it not be more sensible to put all the utility provisions underground where they are not affected by problems relating to the weather?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, it may be more sensible, but the cost of doing so is enormous. The electricity regulator commissioned a Mori poll in order to discover whether people believed the extra costs to be worthwhile. The result was firmly against.

Lord Judd: My Lords, will my noble friend research why he has been briefed to inform the House that telephone services were restored within 48 hours when to my direct knowledge they were not restored for a week in some communities?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I shall take that matter up.


3.35 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, while I am not yet in a position to give the House a definitive date for the Easter Recess, I thought that it would be convenient for your Lordships and others if I indicated that the Easter Recess will fall in the week after Easter--that is, in the week beginning 13th April--rather than in Holy Week. I shall give the House more precise dates, such as the dates of rising and return, much nearer the time.

15 Jan 1998 : Column 1138

National Lottery Bill [H.L.]

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That it be an Instruction to the Grand Committee to whom the National Lottery Bill has been committed that they consider the Bill in the following order:

Clause 1, Schedule 1, Clauses 2 to 7, Schedule 2, Clauses 8 to 10, Schedule 3, Clauses 11 to 23, Schedule 4, Clause 24, Schedule 5, Clause 25.--(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Teaching and Higher Education Bill [H.L.]

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That it be an Instruction to the Committee of the Whole House to whom the Teaching and Higher Education Bill has been committed that they consider the Bill in the following order:

Clause 1, Schedule 1, Clauses 2 to 29, Schedules 2 and 3.--(Baroness Blackstone.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Social Security Bill

3.36 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I shall not take the exodus from the House too personally. Indeed, I am delighted to see how many noble Lords have shown an interest in social security by putting their names down to contribute to the debate today. The list of speakers is longer than that which usually graces social security debates. I am sure that I speak for the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the former Social Security Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, in welcoming new recruits to the territory of social security reform.

I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Reforming the welfare state to meet the needs of the 21st century is one of the biggest challenges facing this Government. With our first Social Security Bill, we are taking an important step towards meeting that

15 Jan 1998 : Column 1139

challenge. The Bill puts us in a position to be able to tackle the problems we inherited when we first came into government.

I am delighted that the former Secretary of State for Social Security, the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, is making his maiden speech today. He is remembered with affection by those in the department--I asked them--apart from his smoking. Officials were always puzzled why only the Secretary of State was exempt from the no-smoking rule. Actually, they were not puzzled at all! I asked officials whether they had any amusing anecdotes of the noble Lord's time in the DSS. They assured me that there were plenty, but, unfortunately, none was suitable for me to repeat or for your Lordships to know.

We inherited a system full of rules that are difficult to understand or apply, forms that are difficult to complete correctly, and processes which are so complex that they lead to double handling and inefficiency. The system is difficult for staff to administer and mistakes are easily made which can lead to unnecessary hardship for customers and cost to taxpayers. We want to change that and make the system work better so that we get things right, and get them right first time.

We want to build a system that enables us to break through the barriers of inefficiency and waste. We want a system that allows us to focus on investing in people's opportunities and success instead of staff being tied to administering outdated procedures and customers being tied into the system.

Service delivery is essential to our approach to welfare reform. Our services must actively help people to move off welfare and into work. They must be focused on what customers need, and they must ensure that help goes to those who need it and not to those who try to rip off the system. They must be efficient services that offer the best deal to customers, taxpayers and staff.

We want--and I am sure the entire House wants--an active, modern service that delivers all those things. The difference that an active service will make for our customers is that the work of staff will change from passively paying out benefits to actively helping people into work where they can be better off than they could ever be on benefits. We are already finding some of that success coming through for our new deal for lone parents where, with the help of a personal adviser, lone parents receive support, guidance on job search, training and after-school childcare and job action plans tailored to their circumstances.

I shall give your Lordships an example of the feedback from one lone parent who said:

    "It feels good to be back at work. I haven't had a proper job for 14 years and I wouldn't have had the confidence to go out and look if it wasn't for the jobcentre. They really helped me".

But the current legal structure ties us into the current problems. That is why this Bill is necessary to lay the foundations for modernising the service. The Bill paves the way for the reforms which I believe all Members of your Lordships' House will agree are broadly necessary. It is a large and complex measure and it may help the

15 Jan 1998 : Column 1140

House if I start by briefly describing its structure before I talk in more detail about the measures contained within it.

There are three major parts of the Bill, together with a miscellaneous section. The first major part of the Bill, some 47 clauses, encompasses change to benefit processes. These measures will streamline the decision-making process, set up new arrangements for appeals and allow us to introduce automated decision-making and sharing of information where it is suitable to do so. My noble and learned friend the Lord Advocate will take personal responsibility for that part of the Bill, and I am extremely grateful to him. I am sure that the House will be much enriched by the legal experience which he will bring to bear on those issues. Perhaps I may encourage your Lordships to take up any particular legal issues in relation to that part of the Bill directly with the noble and learned Lord if it is felt appropriate to do so.

The second part of the Bill, Clauses 48 to 65, covers changes in the national insurance contributions regime to introduce a new penalty and enforcement regime for the Contributions Agency; to close loopholes which will allow people to avoid paying national insurance contributions, whether it is payment in gold bullion or payment in vouchers; and to cut red tape through more alignment between the rules on tax and national insurance contributions.

My noble friend Lord Haskel, as a former major employer, has forgotten more dodges than most of us could invent. I hasten to say that of course he never practised them. He will assist my noble and learned friend the Lord Advocate and I on that part of the Bill.

Part III, Clauses 66 to 74, makes a number of changes to benefits. Most of the changes are minor, tidying-up measures but some, including Social Fund decision-making and child benefit for lone parents--a matter already aired at Question Time today--I shall talk about, with your Lordships' permission, in more detail later.

As I said, the Bill seems large and complex--indeed, it is large and complex--and there has been some comment on the number of regulatory-making powers in it. Because we want the legislative framework to be easier for people to understand, we have replaced parts of the existing law which are not being changed so that it will now be clearly set out in one place. That means that about one-third of the total 100 or so regulation-making powers are in fact re-enactments of existing powers in existing legislation. They are not new powers but are included for completeness and ease of reference.

Other regulations simply repeat the same provision in a number of areas, because we want to have a unified decision-making and appeals system across the range of the department's business rather than the confusing differences that exist now between various parts of the department's business.

The main point is that this Bill will create a robust framework for the administration of the new system. But we aim to replace a cumbersome and rigid legal

15 Jan 1998 : Column 1141

framework with one that is flexible and able to respond quickly to change. Much of the detail will therefore be set out in regulations rather than on the face of the Bill.

One of the themes that echoes through the Bill is that it is important that we get things right at the beginning, at the initial information-collecting and decision-making stage, rather than to seek to correct it later by an elaborate, lengthy and cumbersome review and appeals procedure. I am sure that the House is agreed on that. Therefore, the first part of the Bill will pave the way for a modern, integrated service to customers. We shall introduce changes to the department's processes which will help us to get the all-important first stages right.

At the moment people are often asked to provide the same information, or report the same change in their circumstances, several times over to different parts of the social security system, and they risk being overpaid--and having to pay back the money--if they tell one part of the department and not others. That wastes time for the public and the department; wastes money for the taxpayer; and can put the claimant in serious financial difficulties.

People have responsibilities to provide us with accurate and up-to-date information. Our aim is for each person to be able to give us that information just once, in a way that is convenient for them, and for us to then be able to advise them how that affects all of their dealings with the department and other relevant bodies. In other words, this Bill enables us to devise modern business processes and maximise the benefits of future developments in information technology, so that we can offer a straightforward, simple and fair service.

It may be useful to consider an example of what currently happens when a parent who is in receipt of income support and housing benefit reports that they have found employment, First, they must contact the income support section of the Benefits Agency to report the change and provide details of their job. The income support clerk will input the details to the income support computer system, which will recalculate benefit. If the parent is no longer eligible, the clerk will terminate income support.

The parent must also notify the local authority that income support has ceased. If he thinks he may still be entitled to housing benefit, he must complete a new application form for housing benefit, again providing details of the job, and submit the form to the local authority. The local authority clerk will input details into the local authority computer system and a letter will be issued to the parent notifying him of any future entitlement.

The parent may then wish to claim family credit to supplement his earnings. In that case, he will complete another form, again giving details of employment, and send the form to the Benefits Agency in Preston.

Typically, a new employee may work up to a month before receiving his first wage. If this is the case, the parent may need to claim a Social Fund payment and will complete another form with details of earnings. If any maintenance is in payment the parent must report his changed circumstances to the Child Support Agency.

15 Jan 1998 : Column 1142

Finally, the parent's new employers will, of course, deduct any national insurance contributions and notify the Contributions Agency.

In that example the lack of a common spine of information about employment details means that it is not possible to provide an integrated service to the parent. Information about the employment has been received by up to five clerks and entered into up to five different computer systems, which may or may not talk to each other. Each clerk will have access to his own computer system and although some of these clerks may be authorised to access another system, they do not have access to all systems and action is invariably duplicated, often building in errors on the way.

The Bill will create a much simpler process for deciding customers' claims. At the moment the system is incredibly complex. Currently there are 13 different types of decision taken by six different types of decision-maker--I could list them should your Lordships be interested. Each follows different guidance; several may be involved in the determination of a single claim. Again, I could take your Lordships through the different stages. But too often, because so much information is being processed from one to another, it is easy to make mistakes and it is difficult to correct those mistakes when they are made at that initial stage, even if they are the result of a simple error, without going on to a lengthy appeals process.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page