In line with normal procedures, the Government will respond formally to the Public Accounts Committee report on contact centres in January 2007.
In response to the Department’s efforts to save £375 million, many local offices are being closed and are being replaced by 62 call centres. As the Minister knows, the Public Accounts Committee has described the call centres as unresponsive, unreliable and frankly not working. Will he please reassure us that efficiency savings are not hitting front-line services, as they appear to be?
Since April this year, call centres have received 22 million calls. All but 0.3 per cent. were answered, and only 0.3 per cent. produced the engaged tone. A National Audit Office report showed that 86 per cent. of customers thought their calls had been dealt with in a reasonable time. Of course we can go on finding more ways of improving customer care for benefit recipients and customers, which is why in the last couple of weeks we have announced a freephone number—a single point of contact—for all working-age benefit claimants. I think that that will be welcomed by customers and citizens throughout the country.
In responding to the report on call centres, will the Minister pay particular attention to the problems currently affecting crisis loan helplines? Citizens Advice reports that in some parts of the country there are severe delays in the answering of calls, and that some people are having to make calls repeatedly over a number of days before they are answered. Given that people in need of crisis loans are among the most vulnerable in society, will the Minister ensure that steps are taken to ensure that calls are answered promptly and claims are processed as quickly as possible?
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point from his temporary position on the Back Benches. It is true that on some occasions performance is unacceptable. For example, two years ago those claiming disability living allowance did not receive the support and customer care to which they were entitled. We have now increased the number of telephone lines to make it easier to help people in the position that the hon. Gentleman describes. If he finds that his constituents are not getting through to helplines despite that increase in capacity, I shall be happy to listen to further representations from him.
Many tens of thousands of people are still unable to get through to contact centres. This summer, for example, it took 25 days for a centre to call back and pay jobseeker’s allowance to a constituent of mine, causing severe hardship. Given that the Gershon process calls for no reduction in service due to efficiency gains, will the Minister commit the Department to working towards the elimination of blocked calls and ensuring that all calls are returned within a day unless a longer period is requested?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position on the Front Bench, and hope that his future questions will be a little better informed. As I said, since April our telephone lines have received 22 million calls. Of course, if his constituent is one of those who make up the 0.3 per cent. of customers who have received an engaged tone, that is unacceptable. In the public sector, we want continually to find ways to support customer service and responsiveness in the public services. We can learn from some of the innovations in the private sector. We want continually to find ways to provide a first-class service to our public sector customers, regardless of whether they are benefit recipients, benefit customers or anyone else.