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Benefits System

Volume 476: debated on Monday 2 June 2008

Benefit simplification is important to our welfare reform programme, for example in the roll-out of the local housing allowance since April, in the introduction of the employment and support allowance in October, and in pensions reform from 2010. In the longer term, we are looking into the possibility of a single benefit for people of working age.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I think that Britain is the only country in Europe where benefits are delivered through the agencies of three Departments. That makes the system complicated, expensive to administer, and difficult for claimants. Is it not time that we seriously considered giving responsibility for all benefits to one Department, namely his?

There is good co-operation between my Department and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on tax credits, and between the Department and local authorities on housing benefit. A very good pilot in north Tyneside has shown excellent results, and we have now extended it to another half a dozen local authorities. My hon. Friend is right that there is good scope for co-operation, particularly with local authorities, in order to deliver benefits more quickly, and to deliver a better service.

Occasionally, complications in the system to do with benefits and allowances can impact on people doing voluntary work or holding particular offices in their community. I would very much like to discuss a constituent’s case with the Secretary of State or one of his colleagues, and I should be grateful if he agreed to a meeting in which we could do that.

There certainly are a number of issues to do with volunteering and the benefit system. We have been considering them, and we have made good progress in recent months. If the hon. Gentleman would like to drop me a line, I will be happy to look at the case that he has in mind.

I welcome the progress that my right hon. Friend the Minister has made in extending the 16-hour rule to Stoke-on-Trent, but further flexibility is needed. In particular, will he look at the situation faced by those on incapacity benefit who are anxious to gain skills and move into education and training, but who do not want to have to go on to jobseeker’s allowance to do so, and will he get back to me on that, please?

I thank my hon. Friend for what she says. As she will know, under the employment and support allowance, which is being introduced from October, the arrangements for therapeutic work will be significantly different from those in place under incapacity benefit. If she looks at the new arrangements, she will find that there has been some welcome progress. If there are other points that she would like me to consider, I should be happy to have a conversation with her about them.

Does the Minister accept that one of the reasons for the low take-up of some benefits is the complexity of the application forms? Is that not another powerful reason for seeking to simplify the benefits system?

Of course the right hon. Gentleman is right. I am sure that he will therefore warmly welcome, as others have done, the introduction of the three-page application form for housing benefit and council tax benefit for people already receiving pension credit. That has been a big step forward, and we will be looking for others.