There were 32,919 complaints in 2005-06, 43,214 in 2006-07, and 26,767 in the year to October 2007. Annually, Jobcentre Plus takes more than 15 million telephone calls, processes more than 3 million new claims and carries out more than 10 million interviews. In that context, complaints represent a small percentage, but we are not complacent and continually seek to improve services and, I hope, to learn from mistakes.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Over the past few months, I have seen a significant increase in the number of people in my surgery complaining about Jobcentre Plus. Does she agree that the ever-increasing complexity of the benefits system, failures in technology and cuts in front-line service from Jobcentre Plus staff have led to a situation whereby the most vulnerable in our society are receiving a reduced service?
The number of complaints in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency in 2005-06 was 117, and in 2006-07 it was 24. I will certainly look at any up-to-date information, but I think that that indicates what I said: we take every complaint seriously and there does not seem to have been an explosion in numbers. In his constituency, as elsewhere, whether in Wales, Scotland, England or Northern Ireland, people are being paid benefits more quickly than at any time in recent years. The number of outstanding claims has reduced significantly over the past year. I am pleased to say that today we have a record number of people going into work, and the numbers of people on all the main out-of-work benefits, whether income support, jobseeker’s allowance or incapacity benefit, are falling, as are the numbers of new claimants of those benefits. Clearly, in a period of change—certainly over the past 10 years—we have tightened procedures. We expect more people who can work to work; that sometimes creates complaints as well. We take this matter seriously and keep it under a watchful eye.
May I congratulate staff in Jobcentre Plus in Ellesmere Port and in Neston, particularly the regional manager, Mr. Mark Wilson, who has done a magnificent job in dealing with the process of change and getting more people back to work in my constituency, with great success? Now that we have a much smaller number of unemployed people, with a core group, some of whom are very difficult to place, will my hon. Friend ensure that the regional structures have sufficient flexibility to allow regional managers to plan to meet the needs of local communities, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution?
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution and for his warm remarks about the services in his local area. We are seeing huge improvements across the Jobcentre Plus service. Anybody who compared walking into a Jobcentre Plus establishment today with doing so 10 or 15 years ago could only comment on how professional, modern and user-friendly it is. Yes, we have looked to centralise benefit delivery services, because we want to make best use of technology and to have better standards of best practice across the piece. That also allows us to consider how face-to-face interactions can better be served, whether in Jobcentre Plus, a children’s centre or a community centre. I encourage our regional managers to engage with their local authority partners, employers, the voluntary sector and local communities to see how best that service can be provided, and I hope that we can give them greater flexibility to do just that.