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MINISTER RESPONDS TO CRITICISM OF THE BENEFITS AGENCY

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Social security minister Roger Evans today moved to clarify the sequence of events and current position regarding t...
Social security minister Roger Evans today moved to clarify the sequence of events and current position regarding the on- going review of the Benefits Agency Out of Hours Service.

In a letter to Simon Hughes MP, Mr Evans said:

'In a press release issued on 14 March 1996, the chief executive of the Benefits Agency, Peter Mathison, outlined his plans for the future delivery of social security benefits and the review being carried out as part of the overall Departmental Change Programme. The press release confirmed that the need for an out of hours service would be reviewed.

'On the same day an internal planning and resources document was issued to senior managers within the BA, under the covering letter from Peter Mathison, providing a steer on the challenges and priorities in the year ahead. This document indicated that subject to guidance to be issued work must not be carried out after 1 October 1996 in connection with the out of hours service. This was intended to stress that managers must not assume that resources for this service would necessarily be available after that date.

'On 19 April an error was made when the Agency Budget Book was issued to all managers which confirmed the detailed distribution of the agency's funding. It stated that work in relation to the out of hours service would cease from 1 October 1996. This was not consistent with the documents issued earlier. A correction, in the form of a circular, was issued to all recipients of the Budget Book on 23 April with the words 'subject to guidance' being inserted.

'Apart from this error it has been clear throughout that the service was under review and that a decision had still to be made. As recently as 6 August, Benefits Agency managers were told that 'Ministers have agreed to commence consultation with interested parties before any final decision is made to withdraw the service.'

Consultations with local authorities on the issue have been going on throughout August.

'Ministers approved the Benefits Agency's plans which were published in March and agreed that the out of hours service should be reviewed. A decision on its future will be made following the consultation work now proceeding. This position was accurately reflected in the PQ answers provided by Peter Mathison between 24 April and 23 July 1996.'

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