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Benefit Payments

Volume 487: debated on Monday 2 February 2009

2. What steps his Department is taking to ensure the prompt payment of benefits to people registering as newly unemployed. (253025)

Jobcentre Plus is recruiting the additional staff needed to maintain a good service in the current economic conditions, and new jobseeker’s allowance claims continue to be cleared within the agreed target of just over 10 days, on average.

As my right hon. Friend knows, moving into unemployment is traumatic in itself for many people, but it can also be very confusing because of the interrelationship between jobseeker's allowance and other benefits. Can my right hon. Friend give the House a guarantee that the Government, and those who work for the Government, will make creating a seamless exchange for new claimants a priority, so that they do not fall foul of the consequences of either overpayment or underpayment?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. That, ultimately, is the ethos behind the merger of the Benefits Agency and the Jobcentre Plus network. I know that Jobcentre Plus staff endeavour to give everyone, at the appropriate time, all the information that they need both on establishing a JSA claim and on the ensuing benefits. The staff also work closely with local government, when that is possible, in connection with other benefits such as housing and council tax benefits.

While we are discussing the topic of prompt payment of benefits, may I ask when the Department will be in a position to issue a statement on the payment of disability living allowance to those living in other European Union countries?

I understand that that will happen in the near future, but I will certainly get back to the right hon. Gentleman if the position is different.

Does the Minister accept that many of our constituents who have recently been made unemployed and who may have worked for 10, 20 or 30 years are slightly shocked that the national insurance benefit for which they paid over that period amounts to £60.50 a week, exactly the same sum that they would receive if they had not worked for a single day? What plans has he to reform and increase national insurance benefit, so that the national insurance fund, which is in surplus, helps to carry some of the burden of the recession?

My right hon. Friend is right in terms of the premise of his question, but he is not right to imply that that is all that anyone will receive in such circumstances. I will send him some worked-up examples of other benefits that apply, some—although not all—of which take account of the national insurance contribution history.

At the risk of putting my head on the block, let me say that I think that many of my right hon. Friend’s recent pronouncements about taking full account of the history of contributions are worth considering in the longer term.

As more people lose their jobs, many jobcentres will struggle to deal with the numbers coming through their doors. Will the Minister consider proposals to use other public buildings, such as council service points or libraries, to extend the reach of Jobcentre Plus, especially in communities where there may not be a jobcentre? That would particularly benefit people living in remote and rural areas such as those that I represent.

The hon. Gentleman has made a fair point. We are already doing that, but we may well need to do more given the volume of people going through the system. When I was up in Scotland fairly recently, there was much use of GPs’ waiting rooms and GP focus centres. As we implement children’s centres throughout the country, they will become another obvious possibility. Given that we are trying to move more and more towards a personalised service for each individual—often confidential, but sometimes involving groups—the space within which that happens will become almost a secondary consideration, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about using the wider public estate.

My right hon. Friend is right about the need to get people into jobcentres as quickly as possible, but can he assure me that the training will be up to scratch? We have observed lately that some of the people in Jobcentre Plus are not up to the mark in dealing with the sensitive problems experienced by some of my constituents, and I hope that the training will become a great deal better than it is at present.

I am sorry to hear that, and if my hon. Friend has details of particular cases I would be happy to look at them. I made a rather foolish and rash promise on a recent Radio 2 show to look at each and every individual complaint, so I am happy to report that there has been a trickle of such complaints, but not the avalanche that the officials who were with me—they fell off their chairs when they heard what I said—thought that there might be. My hon. Friend is right: we have to update the training of staff in Jobcentre Plus constantly, not least for the reasons alluded to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)—that many people presenting this time around to Jobcentre Plus will have been in gainful employment for 10, 20, 30 years or more, and this will be completely new territory for them. We are trying to get that message across to our staff.

Some of the newly unemployed are in urgent need of assistance from the social fund, so why is it that the Department can answer callers to the CSA within an average of 18 seconds, when it often takes applicants to the social fund days to get through? The Department does not even know how many calls it is losing. When will the Department make a commitment to give a decent level of service to the most vulnerable?

That is a serious point, but the hon. Gentleman should perhaps calm down. We are doing much better than we have in the past. It has been an area in which we have been lacking, but I am assured that things are improving considerably. If the hon. Gentleman has examples of that not being the case, I will happily look into them, but he will have to agree that the situation is much better than it was.

One group of people that has been contacting me recently is the self-employed who are now out of work because their businesses have gone bust. That particular group seems to be having difficulties. What are the Government doing to ensure that that group are getting some advice about what help they can get at this difficult time?

That is a fair point, and I will happily meet my hon. Friend and some of the people about whom he is concerned to lay out clearly exactly what is on offer for the self-employed. At the other end of the continuum, we are trying to say, especially with our enhanced support at six months, that self-employment may be a route out of people’s current circumstances, but it is imperative that we show clearly what a self-employed individual can expect from the wider benefits system as well as from Jobcentre Plus. I will happily talk to my hon. Friend about that in more detail.