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Amendment No. 87 would remove our ability to give personal advisers discretion to defer or waive the requirement to take part in a work-focused interview. We need that discretion because the heart of the policy is that staff will be able to make decisions on whether or not an interview is appropriate on a case by case basis and in a way that takes account of the needs and circumstances of the individual.

Our expectation is that the vast majority of people will have an interview immediately, but advisers will judge whether the help and support they can offer will be of use to the client immediately, or whether intervention might be more effective later. There may be clients--a grieving widow, for example, or a mother who has just given birth--for whom an immediate interview is not appropriate. In other situations, people may benefit from an interview straight away, even if there is no early prospect of work.

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It would completely undermine the policy if we attempted to set out in regulations the precise categories to which that principle applies. We want work-focused interviews to be as helpful as possible. We think that they will provide an excellent opportunity for clients to discuss their situations and the action that they might take. We want to get away from categorising people by some predetermined label.

Mrs. Browning: I hope to expand on this point later in the debate, but I am concerned by the Government's apparent and remarkable failure to understand the groups who may be required to attend interviews. Many of those who receive severe disablement benefit have lifetime conditions. I am not labelling them, just recognising that they have medical conditions. For many such people, to have to attend an interview straight away would be a major trauma. While the Minister recognises the impact of an interview on someone who has just been bereaved, he does not seem to appreciate that for those who suffer certain types of medical condition, the suddenness of having to appear at an interview would be extremely traumatic.

Mr. Smith: Recipients of that allowance suffer a wide range of conditions. I do not say that it is appropriate in every case that they should have an interview straight away, but nor is it right to defer the interview in every case. Flexibility and sensitivity to clients are at the centre of our approach on the single work-focused gateway, but we want, as far as possible, to provide an early interview. Those interviews are not just about exploring barriers to employability, although that is important. They also provide people with an opportunity to meet their personal advisers to discuss a wide range of issues to do with their circumstances and their entitlement to benefit.

We shall see how well the pilots work, but I believe firmly that sensitively and expertly conducted interviews will be welcomed by claimants who will receive more effective support and advice. They will have a point of contact to which to turn for advice, and that point simply does not exist with any constancy at present. The hon. Lady should be cautious about saying that so-and-so should or should not have interview. We intend that people should find the interviews helpful and should welcome the opportunity to have them as soon as is sensible.

Amendment No. 87 would remove our ability to give personal advisers that discretion to defer or waive the requirement. It would totally undermine the policy if we attempted to be overly prescriptive in regulation in the way in which the hon. Lady appeared to suggest. Staff need discretion to decide whether an interview is appropriate according to the individual circumstances of each claimant.

Furthermore, and this may further allay the hon. Lady's concern, advisers need to have the discretion to defer the work-focused part of the interview if it becomes apparent during the interview that it is not appropriate, for example if the client is distressed or something about his or her personal circumstances emerges that was not previously apparent.

Mrs. Browning: The right hon. Gentleman is saying that we should go ahead with the interview and curtail it if it

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causes distress. It is almost 100 per cent. certain that the way in which he intends to make people attend the interview will cause distress to people with certain medical conditions. I ask him to think again. His suggestion shows a remarkable lack of knowledge and sensitivity on his part and on the part of the Government. I am thinking of conditions that might broadly be categorised as mental health problems and developmental disorders.

Mr. Smith: We are sensitive to the position of people who have those difficulties. Indeed, they were the subject of extensive debate and consideration in Committee. I remind the hon. Lady that clients can be accompanied to the interviews if they want. Of course, the advisers are being carefully trained to undertake the interviews. The whole point of the pilots is to learn from the experience.

The hon. Lady should be careful about producing yet more regulations that attempt to specify in fine detail matters that must be decided in large measure by professional judgment informed by good experience and sensitivity to the needs of clients. That is the way in which the system will operate.

The Opposition amendment could have some bizarre consequences, as it would be impossible to identify in regulations every situation in which the interview should be waived or deferred. Therefore, someone with a genuine case for deferral could be made to have the interview straight away if his or her precise circumstance had not been specified in secondary legislation.

Mrs. Browning: Can the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that the sensitivity and experience will be such that no one from the two categories of people about whom I am concerned--those with mental health problems and developmental disorders--will do a runner or suffer a relapse in their overall mental health when invited to attend such an interview? That is the reality of what happens to such people when they suddenly get that sort of letter.

Mr. Smith: It is ridiculous for the hon. Lady to ask me to assure her that no one who is invited to attend an interview will ever do a runner. She cannot be well informed about the day to day realities of life within the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service to suggest that a Minister could possibly give such an assurance. I will give her the assurance that people who are suffering from mental illness or other acute difficulties will be treated with sensitivity in the single work-focused interview and, moreover, that the purpose of the interview is to provide them with help, which they are not getting as a result of the way in which the system operates at present.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): The right hon. Gentleman says that he envisages and desperately hopes that the system will be sensitive and I in no way disagree. I believe that that is what he is seeking. Given that the National Schizophrenia Fellowship has carried out a review of the client group in question, which suggests that the mental health of 55 per cent. of people with schizophrenia and 65 per cent. of those with depression had worsened as a result of the Government's review of the benefits system, how can he be confident that the

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change that will be put into operation by the legislation will not have a similar effect on those who sadly suffer from mental illness?

Mr. Smith: Because we are listening carefully to the groups that represent such people in the design of the single work-focused interviews. From the outset, I proposed organising sessions where we invited representatives from the various groups to test the process to destruction and ask what could possibly go wrong, to ensure that every possible contingency was prepared for in how the process is designed and delivered, and in the training that people receive. One cannot train and prepare people for everything that might happen, but that is the case in the present system. This system will be infinitely better than the anonymous, alienating and sometimes unhelpful way in which many clients are processed now.

Mr. Burns: The Minister said that the Government were listening carefully to the views of special interest groups. Of that, again, I have no doubt, but it is one thing to listen sensitively and another to act on what one hears. If the Government are listening sensitively, what changes have they made as a result? Why will they not accept the view of all the groups that it would be better to exempt people suffering from mental illness?

Mr. Smith: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. He mentioned the National Schizophrenia Fellowship, which is one of the bodies that runs a pilot to help disabled people into work under the new deal for disabled people. Of course, with them and other groups, we will learn from the experience of the new deal for disabled people, which again involves interviews and all the hazards that he noted. They are clearly being dealt with in a way that commands the confidence of the group or it would not be involved.

Mr. Burns: The Minister said that he disagreed with what I said because he had been working with the NSF. Of that, again, I have no doubt but can he explain the NSF's briefing, dated 17 May, which states:

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