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House of Lords

Wednesday, 1st April 1998.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.

Benefit Payments: Computer Project

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they expect the work on the computer project intended to distribute social security benefits by automation to be completed.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, the computer project to automate benefit payments at post offices is scheduled for completion by the end of the year 2000.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that reply. Is one of the aims of this project to make the social security system less vulnerable to fraud? As this is a very expensive project, can the noble Lord say whether the estimates have been exceeded and, if so, from where the extra money needed will come?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, this is certainly a system which is designed to combat fraud. Unlike order books and giro cheques, the payment card which will be part of the system has no intrinsic value and so carries little personal information. The system will be more convenient. Any changes to the benefit card will be made automatically on the system.

This is a huge project, which is under constant discussion, and Ministers meet to consider it from time to time. I am not in a position to say what the situation is regarding the budget.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, can the Minister help me as to how a computer can make a decision as opposed to carrying out the instructions of those who program it?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, the system is not designed to make decisions; it is designed to automate payments and thereby eliminate fraud at the point of encashment.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, can the Minister say how it will be possible to stop people applying for, and obtaining, more than one card in different parts of the country?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, there are systems in place to combat that kind of fraud. The system itself will help to check that there is no duplication and therefore people will not be able to have more than one card.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, in view of the Government's proposals to transfer responsibilities for a

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number of social security matters to the Inland Revenue and of the increasing tendency of computers to talk to one another, can the noble Lord give a clear assurance that the normal rules with regard to confidential information on individuals not being transferred from one department to another--for example, from the Inland Revenue to the Department of Social Security--will be strictly observed and that there will be no question of any leakage from one department to another?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, the announcement that that transfer would take place was made recently in the Budget Statement. Decisions on that matter have not yet been made and I can therefore give no assurance at this stage.

Lord Addington: My Lords, can the Minister give an absolute assurance that all new computer systems being put in place will be totally immune to the effects of the millennium bug?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, yes, I can give that assurance.

Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, will post offices all over the country take part in this project once it is completed, and will they therefore have much more to do? Will that relieve the burden on local social security offices if they have less to do in future?

Lord Haskel: My Lords, the system is designed for all post offices to be wired-up and automated. Post offices in all parts of the country will be on the system. I shall write to the noble Lord about how the work of local social security offices will be affected.

Reserve Forces: Future

2.41 p.m.

Lord Mottistone: My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Milverton, who is unable to be here today, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the TA and other reserves will be protected against excessive reductions in size and support capacity.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert): My Lords, the future size and shape of the Reserve Forces is being considered as part of the Strategic Defence Review, together with all other elements of our force structure.

Lord Mottistone: My Lords, in view of the fact that the Territorial Army, in particular, is such a strong recruiting base for the Regular Army--I understand that 10 per cent. of Army personnel are recruited from the

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Territorial Army--will the Government bear carefully in mind the need not to reduce the numbers of the Territorial Army more than is absolutely necessary?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that no final decisions have yet been taken in the course of the Strategic Defence Review in respect of the total size of the Territorial Army. In that review we are taking into account precisely the considerations that the noble Lord has offered us.

Lord Grenfell: My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that producing 10 per cent. of the totality of the British troops in Bosnia from the Territorial reserves demonstrates how important a role they play? Can we be sure that, since they have a vital role to play, particularly in support and peacekeeping operations, every effort will be made to maintain their strength?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I have no difficulty in accepting the first part of my noble friend's question. We are all very proud of the role of the Territorial Army in Bosnia. As to future force strengths, I am afraid that I have to crave your Lordships' patience for just a little while.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, I have to declare an interest as more than 30 years ago I commanded the No. 1 Northern General Hospital TA. In view of the fact that the present establishment of the regular defence medical services is so far below what it ought to be, does the Minister accept the crucial importance of maintaining the medical strength of the reserve army and the other support services which have played such an important role in the Gulf and in Bosnia?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am delighted to give the noble Lord the assurance that we are interested in sustaining the defence capabilities not only of the reserve forces but also of the regular forces, which, very unfortunately, have been allowed to run down drastically over the past few years.

Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, does the Minister agree that since the passing of the Reserve Forces Act our reserve forces have been very much complementary to our front-line troops and therefore should be reduced only after very careful consideration? Secondly, does he agree that the reserves and the TAVRs are immensely important in maintaining the link between the forces and the community throughout the country, and they, again, should not be reduced without very careful thought?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am very happy to accept both suggestions of the noble Lord.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff: My Lords, will my noble friend convey to the Secretary of State, who is a Scotsman, that in Wales these proposals will be scrutinised very closely in view of the fact that there are

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only two battalions at the moment--one in the north and one in the south--and that if one were removed it would create a great deal of disturbance for the Government?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I view my noble friend's admonitions with great trepidation. I will of course convey his comments and his compliments to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, has the noble Lord read the letter that recently appeared in the London Times signed by the chairman of the Council of Territorial, Auxiliary and Volunteer Reserve Associations, General Sir Edward Jones, which sets out the problems that the Territorial Army will face if it is severely cut? If the Minister has not read that letter, will he assure the House that he will do so before he initials the Strategic Defence Review?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I do not normally read the correspondence columns of any newspaper because of the "nutcases" who normally write into the most respectable broadsheets. But, having said that, I did read the letter in the name of General Sir Edward Jones. It was a very serious letter. I also read the reply sent to him by the Chief of the Defence Staff. I hope that General Jones accepts that he has had a very thoughtful reply. As to the noble Earl's last question, it is not for me to initial Strategic Defence Reviews.

Lord Renton: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in each of the two World Wars we would have been at a grave disadvantage if we had not had a large and well-trained Territorial Army? Is he further aware that in each of those wars we stood alone for several years without allies? Will the Government bear that in mind in planning for the future?

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