The administration of Jobcentre Plus is a matter for the Chief Executive of Jobcentre Plus, Lesley Strathie. I have asked her to provide the hon. Member with the information requested.
Letter from Lesley Strathie, dated 6 July 2006:
The Secretary of State has asked me to reply to your question asking what representations he has received since the closure of much of the Jobcentre Plus office in Cotlands Road Bournemouth; what assessment he has made of (a) the capacity of the revised arrangements to deal with inquiries from claimants unable to get help or advice on the telephone and (b) the number of officers in management roles at the Chippenham office; what the average time taken to process an application for benefits has been in each of the last three months. This is something which falls within the responsibilities delegated to me as the Chief Executive of Jobcentre Plus.
I fully accept that the services offered to our customers in Bournemouth and Poole over the last few months has not been as I would want. We are part of the way through the creation of a network of Benefit Delivery Centres to modernise the processing of claims for benefit. Chippenham, which serves customers in Bournemouth and Poole, is one of these sites and I regret to say that there have been a number of local issues which have had the effect of reducing the level of service below acceptable levels. Specifically, we have been short of experienced staff and some key management posts were unfilled which has inhibited our ability to respond to local problems. Experience levels are growing and we have recently filled all of the management posts. We now have four senior managers on site and 22 junior managers to support them.
We have developed a local improvement plan and a number of steps have already been taken with some early signs of improvement showing through in the data for April. These steps include the recruitment of 38 additional staff and the transfer of four experienced Incapacity Benefit staff from another site to bolster experience levels. We have also reviewed our internal process from first contact by the customer to payment, which will reduce the time it takes to assess claims. We are reviewing progress against this plan weekly and putting in place arrangements to clear the arrears of claims that have built up by lending Chippenham additional help from outside.
I have set out in the attached tables the latest data on claims clearance at Chippenham and representations received. Neil Couling, Director of Benefits and Fraud, would be more than happy to meet with you to discuss these.
Finally, you ask about the difficulties being experienced by customers getting through to Chippenham by phone. Some technical issues have exacerbated problems but I am pleased to say that these issues are being addressed. Our contractors hope the service will start to improve in July. Benefit Delivery Centres have a key role to play in supporting the improvements to our services, including improving processing times and reducing fraud and error in the benefit system. For customers who are unable to access our services through the telephone or electronically, we still have other options including office interviews and home visits.
I hope this is helpful.