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Benefit Payments: Computer Project

Volume 588: debated on Wednesday 1 April 1998

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asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they expect the work on the computer project intended to distribute social security benefits by automation to be completed.

My Lords, the computer project to automate benefit payments at post offices is scheduled for completion by the end of the year 2000.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that reply. Is one of the aims of this project to make the social security system less vulnerable to fraud? As this is a very expensive project, can the noble Lord say whether the estimates have been exceeded and, if so, from where the extra money needed will come?

My Lords, this is certainly a system which is designed to combat fraud. Unlike order books and giro cheques, the payment card which will be part of the system has no intrinsic value and so carries little personal information. The system will be more convenient. Any changes to the benefit card will be made automatically on the system.

This is a huge project, which is under constant discussion, and Ministers meet to consider it from time to time. I am not in a position to say what the situation is regarding the budget.

My Lords, can the Minister help me as to how a computer can make a decision as opposed to carrying out the instructions of those who program it?

My Lords, the system is not designed to make decisions; it is designed to automate payments and thereby eliminate fraud at the point of encashment.

My Lords, can the Minister say how it will be possible to stop people applying for, and obtaining, more than one card in different parts of the country?

My Lords, there are systems in place to combat that kind of fraud. The system itself will help to check that there is no duplication and therefore people will not be able to have more than one card.

My Lords, in view of the Government's proposals to transfer responsibilities for a number of social security matters to the Inland Revenue and of the increasing tendency of computers to talk to one another, can the noble Lord give a clear assurance that the normal rules with regard to confidential information on individuals not being transferred from one department to another—for example, from the Inland Revenue to the Department of Social Security—will be strictly observed and that there will be no question of any leakage from one department to another?

My Lords, the announcement that that transfer would take place was made recently in the Budget Statement. Decisions on that matter have not yet been made and I can therefore give no assurance at this stage.

My Lords, can the Minister give an absolute assurance that all new computer systems being put in place will be totally immune to the effects of the millennium bug?

My Lords, will post offices all over the country take part in this project once it is completed, and will they therefore have much more to do? Will that relieve the burden on local social security offices if they have less to do in future?

My Lords, the system is designed for all post offices to be wired-up and automated. Post offices in all parts of the country will be on the system. I shall write to the noble Lord about how the work of local social security offices will be affected.