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Jobcentre Plus

Volume 450: debated on Monday 16 October 2006

1. What assessment he has made of the performance of Jobcentre Plus in dealing with claimants; and if he will make a statement. (93396)

Since 1997, welfare dependency has fallen by 20 per cent. Claimant unemployment is close to its lowest level for 30 years. There are 2.5 million more people in jobs and 800,000 children have escaped the poverty trap. Jobcentre Plus has made a major contribution in achieving that progress and I would like to place on record my appreciation of the dedication and hard work of its staff.

I thank the Minister for that reply—[Interruption.] Please excuse my breathlessness. [Interruption.] It is not that exciting. [Laughter.]

I thank the Minister for his reply to my constituent Mr. Vialva, who was asked to pay back money from 1998 in 2006. It turns out that his was part of a stockpile of unanswered correspondence on this matter. That speaks to me of a Department that is absolutely chaotic. It turns out that papers were lost and few facts were available. We are talking about the massive sum of £175. Will the Minister tell me whether there are other constituents who are also caught up in the system and who are in a similar position to Mr. Vialva, and does the Minister have a figure on the matter?

I have that effect on people.

I am generally not aware of the constituency case that the hon. Lady has drawn to my attention, but I will happily look into it. I hope that she will accept my assurance that cases such as that are very much the exception and not the norm. In her constituency, for example, because of the hard work of Jobcentre Plus staff in her area, unemployment has fallen by 30 per cent.

Does the Minister think that the performance of Jobcentre Plus might be improved if the call centre numbers were changed from 0845 numbers to freephone 0800 numbers?

We are looking carefully at that important point and we have established a number of pilots on establishing 0800 freephone numbers. I would be happy to share the details with my hon. Friend.

Is not one of the problems for Jobcentre Plus staff that they are not able to advise all claimants that they would be significantly better off in work, because of the effects of means-testing? Was the Minister concerned, over the summer, to read the report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which said that some of Labour’s recent reforms

“have weakened financial work incentives”?

Over the next few months, as he prepares his personal manifesto for the Labour leadership, will he focus on policies that will improve work incentives?

We have always made that an important issue for us. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the effect of tax credits—for example, on the minimum wage—he will see that they have undoubtedly provided a clear incentive for the poorest to get off welfare and into employment. That has been a positive thing to do. We have made sure that work pays. The results of that are clear. There are 2.5 million more people exercising the right to work than in 1997.

I thank the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, who, at a point when our local Jobcentre Plus was failing to deal with urgent cases efficiently, intervened and made sure that it did. May I be assured that, when there is a local problem—in our case, I think that it was to do with recruitment of Jobcentre Plus staff—and when Members are made aware of it by their constituents, we can continue to have that kind of service? In our case, constituents had to wait an unacceptably long time, but as soon as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) and I intervened, they were able to get action straight away.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The chief executive of Jobcentre Plus acts to deal with these types of concern when they are brought to our attention. In relation to the question asked by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main), we have recruited something like an extra 70 staff to deal with some of the backlog of cases. It is important that, when someone applies for benefit, that case is processed in a timely and efficient way. We are committed to improving the service to our customers in all parts of the country.