03 February 2005

S2M-1916 Local Benefits Services

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 3 February 2005

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:30]

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Local Benefits Services

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business is a debate on motion S2M-1916, in the name of Brian Adam, on cuts in local benefits services. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament expresses great concern about the impact of the proposed cuts by the Department of Work and Pensions in local provision of benefits advice; regrets the likely reduction in benefits uptake by many vulnerable people; deplores the unfair geographical spread of the cuts, leaving Grampian, Tayside and Fife without any local offices; recognises the consequential increased workload that will fall on local authority and voluntary sector money advice services, and believes that the Scottish Executive should make representations to protect the interests and incomes of the vulnerable in Scotland.


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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I listened with considerable interest to Richard Baker's speech. He said many interesting and valuable things. Of course, the jobcentre plus staff are committed and engaged. During the recent problems at Richards, they went beyond the narrow brief of their job. That is an example of why the public services, in many instances, have an advantage over the services that are provided by private companies. The problem is that the proposed changes put at risk the public service ideal. I am sad that Richard Baker was unable to sign the motion in Brian Adam's name, but I take it that he is supportive of it. If MPs failed to relay their constituents' concerns, whatever their individual views, they would reap the whirlwind. If those MPs are part of the Administration that is making changes that could potentially disadvantage their constituents, they will be judged not on their ability, but on their achievement.

There are some important general issues around all this. We must consider innovative ways of delivering benefits and ensuring that people in our community are able to access the benefits to which their situation entitles them. In Aberdeen, there are encouraging signs and, in some places, one can go to one address and access a range of services. However, it appears that the changes that are envisaged might well put that at risk and mean that people will have to visit many doors to get the same support as they received before.

We should not underestimate the real difficulties that people have with paperwork. My wife, like me, is a mathematician, who has made a successful business career for herself. However, like many others, faced with her tax form, she kept it right to the end until, finally, on 25 January, she said, "I need your help." By the way, I refused to give her help, on the basis that she is at least as intelligent as I am—and probably more intelligent—and that she might blame me for making a mess of it. The point is that the people who most need the support of a range of benefits are those who are least able to deal with the paperwork.

If we take that further, it is obvious that moving support to the telephone will create more barriers. As my colleague Brian Adam mentioned, it will create an economic barrier because the 0845 dialling code, which was originally introduced as a local-rate call that could be delivered nationally, is now tied to a fictional local rate that no telephone company charges that now exceeds what the telephone companies charge for national calls. The practice has been severely criticised in a recent Office of Communications report, which also criticised the charges for 0870 numbers, so I hope that we will see some change on that.

However, the proposed closures will also remove the essential across-the-desk contact that allows the adviser to see the body language of the person who is seeking help and the recipient to get feedback. Those with the greatest needs are precisely the people who will not get what they need without human access. Like other members, I suspect, I have used the services of DWP staff for many of my constituents who I thought would benefit from the benefits check facility that is available. That service is put at risk by the proposed changes across Scotland.

I say yes to innovation and to delivering services through a single door. However, simply paying off staff and closing offices will contribute nothing to addressing social exclusion.


Stewart Stevenson
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