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Social Security Office, Knottingley

Volume 893: debated on Monday 9 June 1975

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12.12 a.m.

I understand that it is the intention of the Department of Health and Social Security to close its office at the Old Town Hall, Knottingley, in my constituency, with effect from 1st August next.

This news was conveyed to me in a letter dated 6th May from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and I am grateful for his presence here to discuss this problem tonight. I hope that he will not consider it ungracious of me to have re-acted to his courteous letter by seeking this Adjournment debate. I feel it is right that the whole background to this important question for my constituents in Knottingley and district should be discussed in this House.

Until 1972 the Department's office at Knottingley Town Hall provided for Knottingley and district all the national insurance functions inherited from the old Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. With the creation of the new Department of Health and Social Security, one can understand the policy now of providing all national insurance and supplementary benefit functions at the same offices of the new Department, although this should not necessarily mean a reduction in the total number of offices operated by the Department.

In the Knottingley area the Department has coupled its policy of rationalisation of functions with centralisation of offices. The building of a new all-purpose social security office at Pontefract has led to the gradual withdrawal of services from Knottingley. One could see the possibility of this happening over four years ago, when I corresponded on the subject with the Department's regional controller in Leeds. Yet, in a letter which I received from his office, dated 13th May 1971—a fortnight before I was elected—it is stated that the Department intended to retain its office at Knottingley
"… to ensure that the needs of those local residents who prefer to conduct their social security business in person will continue to be fully met."
On 29th September 1972 the Department's new office in Pontefract was opened and all the main functions which has been served by the Knottingley office were then transferred to Pontefract, but the Knottingley office was kept open on a full-time basis, five hours a day, five days a week, to provide any callers there with a personal inquiry service on all matters related to social security.

But only five months after that change the Department decided to reduce the hours of the Knottingley office to three hours each weekday morning. I was able to discover, by means of a Written Question, answered on 2nd March 1973, that during January and February of that year there had been an average of 75 callers per week at the office. The figures for mornings and afternoons respectively were not available then, but it was thought that the majority of callers came in the mornings.

I exchanged letters with the then Under-Secretary of State, and on 6th April 1973 he wrote:
"I am confident that the revised arrangements will continue to fully meet the needs of the people living at Knottingley and I am sure that any fears you may have on this score will prove unfounded."
In view of those bold words, I was disappointed a year later, in June 1974, to receive word from the Department's manager at Pontefract that the hours of the Knottingley office were to be further reduced to only two mornings a week, Tuesday and Friday, with effect from 19th July 1974. In reply to another Written Question, I was told that the number of callers at the office for a week in the middle of June 1974 was 45, taking the five mornings together.

I was not surprised by the reduction in the number of callers since February 1973, as a large part of the population of Knottingley consists of shift workers, including many working wives, who could not necessarily visit the office during the morning, and, although one might say that people in this category might not need to draw social security benefit themselves, there would sometimes be occasions for them to call at the office on behalf of aged or disabled relatives.

During August 1974, not long after this further reduction in the opening hours of the office, I received representations from the Knottingley and District Trades Council opposing the reduction of the service maintained by the Department at Knottingley. Nevertheless, the Department is now preparing to administer the final blow. In the letter dated 6th May 1975, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State stated that the number of callers at the office had fallen to about 18 each session—that is, 36 a week, which is not many less than the figure in June 1974 and averages one caller every 10 minutes while the office is open. That does not seem to me to be too low a figure to justify keeping one official busy. I speak with some experience. I hold my monthly constituency surgeries in another room in the same building on the first Saturday morning of every month. I find that an average of one interview every 10 minutes keeps me busy.

In his letter of 6th May my hon. Friend claimed that only about four of the 18 callers at the Department's office each session needed any advice; the rest simply handed in forms or medical certificates which could just as easily be posted direct to Pontefract. I would not discount the value of having an inquiry office where forms can simply be handed in. Such a service helps to put a personal human face on the Department and is for the general convenience of local residents.

In these days of expensive postage, many elderly people will find it a blessing to be able to avoid paying postage on any item. If the Knottingley office is closed after 1st August as the Department intends, those local residents who require a personal interview about social security problems may even opt to come to my constituency surgeries which are held in the same building each month. They may take the view that if it is good enough for the local Member of Parliament to come to Knottingley regularly, so should a representative of one of the major public Departments.

Those members of the public who decide that they want to make a personal visit to the next nearest office of the Department in Pontefract will need to make a round trip of six miles there and back, for which the total bus fare is 22p and there is one bus every half an hour. The total time for such a trip could be about one and a half hours, depending on how long one needs to be in the office in Pontefract. The journey may be physically impossible for mothers with young children in perambulators or for old or disabled people. It must be re- membered that many recipients of national insurance and supplementary benefit are included in those categories.

From this whole story I am bound to say that the gradual closure of the departmental office at Knottingley looks like an example of administrative centralisation which may suit the convenience of the official machine but does not help the general public. In too many walks of life nowadays the tendency to centralise is destroying the personal approach, making it more difficult for people to feel part of a caring community.

In addition, the process by which the closure at Knottingley has been and is being undertaken smacks a little of bureaucratic guile. First, the hours are reduced, thereby making it more difficult for people to visit the office and so reducing the number of callers. That provides more evidence for cutting the hours still further. So the thing goes on in a downward spiral. By gradual cuts the Department may hope to avoid the outcry which a sudden, outright closure might have produced. The end effects of the two different strategies are the same and I submit that they call for the same critical comments now.

Further, the withdrawal of the office of a Government Department will be another blow to the local community pride of Knottingley. Up to last year Knottingley and Ferrybridge formed a thriving urban district, but with reorganisation in April 1974 the seat of local government was moved to Wakefield. Knottingley now has no council of its own. It is a rapidly growing town with some 18,000 inhabitants, that popuation having almost doubled in the past 15 years. In addition, the surrounding rural area which was served by the old national insurance office at Knottingley contains about 10,000 people.

The people of Knottingley have an independent spirit. They in no way regard themselves as a suburb of Pontefract. I know they will feel somewhat hurt by the loss of the social security local inquiry office at their own town hall. I do not think it is unreasonable to ask that the present service, which has been operating on two mornings a week, and on average assisting one person every 10 minutes, should be retained after 1st August this year.

12.25 a.m.

Certainly I do not think any the worse of my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) for raising this matter tonight, despite the somewhat late hour. It is right and proper that he should seek every opportunity to raise matters which are of obvious concern to his constituents.

I should like to put the matter in more general perspective. As my hon. Friend rightly said, since the merger of the former Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance and the National Assistance Board in 1966 it has been the policy of my Department to bring together contributory benefit offices and supplementary benefit offices to form a network of integrated offices, each capable of dealing with all types of social security benefits, many of which are, of course, interrelated. Although the great bulk of the business of local offices is conducted by post, one of the purposes of integration was to obviate the need for some claimants to have to go from one of the Department's offices to another in furtherance of their business. Jumping from the old supplementary benefit office to a national insurance office was not a good service for the claimants.

Full caller facilities are provided at the all-purpose offices for those who prefer to call and make their claims and inquiries in person, and wherever the demand and local conditions make this desirable, particularly in more remote areas of the country, public inquiry offices are also maintained, sometimes on a full-time basis, and sometimes, as in the case to which my hon. Friend referred, on a part-time basis.

Before September 1972 Knottingley was served for national insurance purposes by its own office. There was a similar national insurance office at Pontefract, but supplementary benefit matters for both towns were dealt with by a separate, third office, also in Pontefract. So in my hon. Friend's case his constituents and others before the amalgamation did, in fact, have to move these distances of which he fairly complains.

These offices were amalgamated in September 1972 to form one all-purpose office. This office which is situated in Horsefair, Pontefract, was designed to provide a comprehensive service for persons living in what were then the Pontefract municipal borough, the Featherstone and Knottingley urban districts, the Osgoldcross rural district and the eastern part of Hemsworth rural district. Residents of these areas were asked to send all correspondence, claims, medical certificates and national insurance contribution cards for exchange to the new address, but a full-time inquiry office was retained in Knottingley to provide an inquiry service for personal callers. It was impossible to forecast at the time what level of business this full-time office would attract and whether this would need to be more than a temporary arrangement.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Goole will know from answers to previous Questions which he has put down on this subject, the number of people making inquiries at the inquiry office in the Old Town Hall in Knottingley has fallen steadily since the new Pontefract office was opened. When the number of callers fell on average to fewer than 20 a day in 1973 the hours of opening were reduced to mornings only. I must tell my hon. Friend that it was the fact that the numbers fell which led to the reduction in hours, and not the other way about. We certainly did not reduce the hours so as to bring about a fall in the number of callers.

Since then, however, the numbers have continued to decline. By June 1974 they had reached a point where the need for facilities at all began to be in doubt. Despite the small number of callers, it was decided, however, to continue to provide a local service on two half-days each week, and at present this is the position.

The office continues to open on Tuesdays and Fridays from 9.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m., but, as my hon. Friend admits, the number of callers has fallen to about 18 each session. This was stated in the letter I sent to my hon. Friend last month. On average, only about four of the 18 need any kind of advice which they can obtain only by a personal call. The remainder call solely to hand in forms or medical certificates, which could have been posted direct to the main office at Pontefract.

My hon. Friend spoke of the cost. The cost of postage applies only to the first medical certificate. For subsequent certificates the Department provides a franked envelope, so it is not a question of expecting sick people constantly to pay additional costs for medical certificates.

When my hon. Friend talked of one person being interviewed every 10 minutes he took into account those who called only to hand in a certificate. Those who call for advice total eight in six hours, which is one every 45 minutes. If I moved at that speed in my surgery I would spend a long time there. It costs the Department £5 for every person who calls for advice. We must take into account not only the cost but the time of skilled and scarce staff. It is because the number of callers has fallen that we have had to reconsider the matter.

In situations of this sort the Department must balance its obligation to provide a reasonable service to a particular section of the public against the cost of so doing and to ensure overall that its resources are deployed to the best effect. I am sure that in this case the balance is in favour of concentrating those resources on the integrated office in Pontefract, and for these reasons it has been decided that the inquiry office at Knottingley should be closed on 1st August 1975. I do not believe that any substantial hardship or inconvience need be suffered by Knottingley claimants.

The Pontefract office can deal with most enquiries quite adequately by correspondence or by telephone. Indeed, there is some advantage in this in that the inquiry can be deal with by an officer who specialises in the subject under inquiry. For the few who continue to feel the need for a personal call, I understand that a regular bus service is available and that the Pontefract office is conveniently situated opposite the bus station. The distance is only three miles. There are many parts of the country where claimants have to travel much further than the six-mile return journey. I speak sincerely with knowledge of the matter from my own constituency.

The three miles distance is simply that between the Knottingley office and the Pontefract office. Many of my constituents who would normally have gone to the Knottingley office have to travel many miles before even getting to Knottingley.

I took the three miles from what my hon. Friend said. Certainly there is an additional journey of six miles return.

My hon. Friend is aware that the office operates a home visiting service so that those who need it may be visited in their own homes. My hon. Friend rightly drew our attention to the difficulties that elderly and disabled people might have if they had to travel a longer distance. Provided the home visiting service is used properly, there is no reason why elderly and disabled people should have to visit the office. A neighbour or anyone else can post a request for them to be visited at their home, where their claims should be dealt with effectively.

If my hon. Friend comes across difficulties in this connection, I hope he will draw them to my attention. The service is intended to deal with the sort of individual case to which my hon. Friend rightly drew our attention, and which causes considerable feeling—that of the infirm, disabled or elderly person, or the expectant mother. I must tell my hon. Friend that the number of people requesting this service has fallen to such an extent that it is not possible to use the resources of the Department to keep this office open.

Having said that, I hope that our home visiting service will meet the needs of all the elderly and disabled people in my hon. Friend's constituency. If he or anyone in his constituency comes across specific problems which are not being adequately dealt with by our home visiting service, I trust that my hon. Friend will bring them to our attention. But I cannot say that we would hope to keep open such a caller office, which is so little used in present circumstances. I regret having to say that, and I trust that the other services will be adequate to the needs of my hon. Friend's community.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to One o'clock.