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14 Feb 2006 : Column 413WH—continued

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Pathways to Work Pilots

12.30 pm

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): It is a particular delight to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Pope. You were to have served as Chairman of a Standing Committee on which I served earlier in the year, but we dispatched the business so swiftly that, unfortunately, you were unable to chair any of the sittings—[Interruption.]—which just shows that the Conservatives, whose Members are now leaving the Room, sometimes overestimate the amount of time that they need to waffle in debates.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise again an issue that I have raised several times in the House. I am also grateful that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform is present, not least because she visited the Rhondda late last year to see precisely what had been happening in our pathways to work pilot project, which covers the Rhondda, Bridgend and Rhondda Cynon Taff. Many hon. Members, if they chose to think about it, would probably regard that area as a deprived area. It has faced historical problems and long-term decline, from the days in the 1920s and '30s, when the Rhondda had 170,000 men working in the pits, to 1991, when the last pit closed in Maerdy. That period of steady and debilitating decline has affected the culture of work and the possibilities of work for many people.

No Opposition Members are present, which is perhaps not surprising, but few Government Members would disagree with the proposition that when the mines were closed, and particularly at the time when the Government were facing trouble over their unemployment statistics, many men were actively encouraged to go on to incapacity benefit or some form of sickness benefit rather than appear in the unemployment statistics, because those figures embarrassed the Government. The long-term legacy of decline for constituencies such as mine and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Caerphilly (Mr. David) and for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), where there has been one predominant industry, whether steel or the mines, has been the creation of a complex culture around work, unemployment and sickness benefit.

I start from certain fundamental principles. First, everyone should be guaranteed security and dignity, especially those who, because of what they were dealt at birth or incapacity that they have developed later in life, have no opportunity to fend for themselves. It is a sign of a civilised nation that we are magnanimous to those who can least afford to defend themselves. The Green Paper "A new deal for welfare: Empowering people to work" is a splendid document, although I doubt that that it took the Government a great deal of time to devise the title, because it is remarkably similar to the title of every other document that they have ever produced. I particularly welcome the idea that we will be more generous to those who most need support. We have, at times, been parsimonious and we should be more magnanimous.

My second principle is that no disabled person should be discarded. I believe that everyone should be given the chance to work. Time and again when disabled people come to my constituency surgeries, they tell me that they want an opportunity to work but that it is very difficult
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for them to do so. Travelling to work may be complex: valleys communities were built for people who would be working within 15 minutes of their home; traversing them is much more difficult for someone whose job is not within five or 10 minutes' walk of their home. Some people's journey to work may involve two complicated bus journeys.

People also tell me that many employers look askance at someone who has had a medical problem. Despite the fact that nearly 50 per cent. of those on incapacity benefit in the Rhondda have mental health problems of various kinds, and despite the fact that the vast majority of people with mental health problems have every chance of returning to full mental health, many employers—including, depressingly, employers in the public sector—look askance at someone who has had a mental health problem.

It is important that we give opportunities to those people, many of whom are desperate for opportunities. In part, that means improving the swiftness with which the national health service can deal with complaints, so that people do not languish with a medical problem that could be sorted out and so that they can get back into work. We also need to ensure that some of the cultural problems that make the process of getting back into work so complex are overcome.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one problem that people on incapacity benefit face is the fear that, if they return to work and that job does not work out, they will go back on benefit but at a much lower rate?

Chris Bryant : I agree. One problem is that, for many people, benefits, particularly if they have been on them for a year or two, are a much safer option because they are guaranteed—they keep on coming—whereas work can seem frighteningly insecure, because, as everyone knows, some jobs do not work out and some businesses collapse. A measure that has worked in the Rhondda is the return to work credit, which has given people an extra £40 a week and therefore an extra incentive to get into work. Because some people who go into work from incapacity benefit have relatively low incomes, that extra money has made a dramatic difference. There is also the guarantee that people will be able to return to the same level of benefit as they were receiving, so they will not have to start from scratch. That, too, has made an important cultural difference to many people who, understandably, are juggling to try to find the best way in which they can provide for their family. The leader writers for the Daily Mail or The Mail on Sunday might think that this is all about a lot of malingerers thinking about how on earth they can do the system over, but they are wrong. In the main it is about people trying to work out how they can best provide for their family and ensure a decent quality of life and dignity for everyone in the family.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most encouraging changes that we have seen in recent years is the widening of access for people with disabilities—even those with severe disabilities—to workplaces that were not accessible before? Is that not part of an encouraging trend whereby people with disabilities, both severe and
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mild, will receive not only economic benefits, but the enormous boost of having a fulfilling job, because work is by far the best medicine?

Chris Bryant : As my hon. Friend often does, given his mastery of the language, he ends on exactly the right point, which is that for the vast majority of people work is the best medicine. The counter to that is that living on benefit and not having a sense of purpose, which is sometimes the result, means that many people who are on incapacity benefit for more than six months develop a serious mental health problem.

I do not underestimate the problems of depression and stress, which can be very acute. Often in areas such as those represented by the hon. Members present this afternoon, some of the talking therapies are hardly available. The people who train to be counsellors, advisers and so on are predominantly from the middle classes, and they train and practise in their middle-class areas, with the result that it is virtually impossible to access decent cognitive behavioural therapy or even ordinary counselling in areas such as ours. That means that when Mrs. Jones at No. 32 has a mental health problem—when she is suffering from stress or depression for whatever set of complicated reasons—she ends up popping pills, because her GP does not have time to give her the support that she needs. People in Wales pop 19 per cent. more barbiturates and other forms of antidepressant per head than is the case in England. When that type of problem is mixed in with a high level of people on incapacity benefit in a particular area, it results in a very complex and important challenge for us to overcome.

I very much hope that the trial being started in St. Andrew's surgery in Tonypandy will make a difference. There will be a work adviser based in the GP's surgery to whom people can be referred by the GP. That will be at the GP's suggestion—the medical route will not be circumvented—and it will make a difference by providing a new route out of depression and stress and into work. I hope that we can create a virtuous circle out of that.

The pathways to work pilot in Bridgend and Rhondda Cynon Taff has been based on some fundamental concepts. Everyone making a new claim for incapacity benefit will have a work-focused interview. They will have a personal adviser who will treat them as an individual rather than a statistic. The project is operating in the new Jobcentre Plus environment. As the Minister knows, we have a brand new building in Porth, and completely refurbished offices in Tonypandy and Treorchy, and the atmosphere has changed as a result. Now that job centres are no longer like fortresses and there is a much more personal service—one that is focused on the individual, instead of one that tries to prevent people from having access to benefits, which is what the process used to feel like. That, too, has also contributed to the change of culture.

I have already mentioned the return to work credit and the £40 extra. When my right hon. Friend the Minister was in the Rhondda, she asked quite a lot of the advisers, "Does the £40 make a difference?" Perhaps she was wondering whether it did make a vast difference and whether we should necessarily stick with it. I think that she would admit that many advisers said that it does make a difference. It is part of the juggling act that
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people undertake when they are trying to decide whether it is in their family's interest to pursue the avenue of going to work. I hope that the Government will stick with the credit.

Another part of the project has been the NHS condition management programme. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West referred to that in the context of trying to find individual routes to enable people to manage conditions with which they could work if they were given the opportunity. All too often employers' arrangements, personal environment or travel to work problems have made it impossible for such people to consider work a possibility, given their condition.

Another important part of the programme, which the Government have transformed during the last few years, is making allowance for people to do voluntary work. The first route into paid employment for a large number of people in my constituency has been through voluntary work, because it got them used to the business of turning up to an office on time, doing their work, being part of a team and so on. That is very important. Obviously, charities should not start to consider people who are on incapacity benefit as a source of free labour paid for by the state. If someone has been engaged in such work for a period of time—perhaps 18 months or two years—the state can properly intervene to see whether there are ways of helping them into paid employment. Nevertheless, the voluntary sector in the Rhondda benefits from people taking that route, as do the people themselves.

The original pilot was aimed at new and repeat claimants. Across the whole of Bridgend and RCT, 24,330 people were seen. There were 8,330 initial work-focused interviews throughout the whole of RCT, of which 823 were in the Rhondda. From last April, the project began to consider people who had been on incapacity benefit for up to two years. Now, it is considering the cadre of people who came on to incapacity benefit between 1997 and 2001. Of course, the task is becoming progressively far more complex because people have more established conditions and more established ways of living their lives. We know the pressures that that can create: people are almost institutionalised into a life on incapacity benefit.

There have been a further 572 work-focused interviews in the Rhondda, dealing with people in their first two years of benefit. When that process started, many Labour Members were concerned that people would be very anxious and they would get lots of phone calls from constituents saying, "Oh my God, I'm about to lose my incapacity benefit and the state is waving this massive stick at me." However, all the feedback that I have had in my constituency has been entirely positive. It has been positive at both ends—from people who have been helped through the process, treated as an individual and ended up getting jobs, and from the staff.

When my right hon. Friend the Minister was in the Rhondda, one of the most moving moments occurred when she was talking to one of the personal advisers. The adviser said that she had worked for the Department for Work and Pensions and its predecessors for many years and that it was the first time she had come into work looking forward to it, because she knew
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she was really making a difference to people's lives. Rather than just doling out cheques week by week, she felt that she was making people's lives ones of possibility. She almost had tears in her eyes. That is not an uncommon experience among many staff working on the programme. I pay enormous tribute to them and the senior management who have enabled those people to have a really fulfilling job.

The statistics are pretty impressive and for me, this is a socialist project. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] It enables people to live their lives to the fullest. I worry that the way in which incapacity benefit has played out has been the biggest cause of poverty, poverty of aspiration and poverty of opportunity in my constituency in the past 40 years. If we can tackle that, I will be more than grateful.

Mr. David : I was inspired by my hon. Friend's comment that this is a socialist policy. I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Does he agree with me that one of the principles running through the whole set of proposals is the right to work? We are talking about extending that right to work.

Chris Bryant : My hon. Friend takes us back 100 years to the concept of the dignity of labour—a phrase used by Charles Gore, bishop of Worcester and subsequently bishop of Oxford, who was the first bishop to take the Labour Whip in the House of Lords. He argued passionately for that concept and I wholly support it as well.

The figures make interesting reading. In October 2003, there were 11,543 people on incapacity benefit in the Rhondda—almost 23 per cent. of the working age population. In June 2005, the figure was 10,682, which means there has been a 7 per cent. fall—almost double the fall recorded in areas that do not have the pathways to work project. That is why I passionately believe that is an important project.

I would like to put one point with the Minister. The Secretary of State wrote to the 100 Members who have the highest levels of incapacity benefit in their constituency. His figure for the number of people on incapacity benefit in the Rhondda is 8,700. Jobcentre Plus has a figure of 10,682. According to the Secretary of State, the Rhondda is twelfth in the ranking, but according to my figures it should be third. It is not a competition that the Rhondda particularly wants to win, but we have to ensure that we get the statistics right. I do not like merely bandying statistics about—I prefer people to be treated as individuals—but we need to get the statistics right so that we can prove what is working and what is not.

12.48 pm

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Margaret Hodge) : I share the pleasure of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) in participating in a debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope. I hope that this will be the first of many such debates. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Throughout his time in the House, he has always
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shown an interest in welfare policy. Someone cleverly found his maiden speech for me, which I am sure he will not mind me quoting. He said:

That is what our policy is all about.

My hon. Friend alluded to the letter he received from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the concentration of people on incapacity benefit in his constituency. I will come back to him to try to sort out which figures are right, but I have the same figures as my right hon. Friend—so that means a slight sigh of relief. As he said, they put the Rhondda 12th in the country in terms of the absolute number—not the percentage—of people on incapacity benefit.

The Rhondda was one of the first areas in which we launched a pathways to work pilot. The launch took place just over two years ago, at the end of October 2003. My hon. Friend quoted the statistics in one way. I prefer to say that there are more than 3,500 people in work who were not in work before we started the introduction of pathways to work pilot. Like him, I pay tribute to the staff, who work in a very committed way, as I was fortunate enough to see when I visited the constituency.

I shall comment on the elements of the programme that my hon. Friend said worked so well. I am interested to hear that he believes that the return to work credit is an important element of the pathways to work intervention. Clearly, want to learn what works best from the pilots as we roll out the pathways programme across the country. We are now committed—we have identified the resources—to ensuring that pathways to work is rolled out across the country by 2008, at least for new claimants and we hope increasingly for existing claimants, too. We are talking about an integral part of our programme, but we want to ensure that we get the best value for the massive investment of resources into that client group. I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that we must constantly reflect on what the most effective parts of the programme are.

I share my hon. Friend's passion about the condition management element of the programme. One thing we know from incapacity benefit claimants is that if there is no early intervention to provide support to individuals once they start on the trajectory or escalator of dependency on incapacity benefit, they quickly get locked in for the long term. We know that people who have been on the benefit for two years are more likely to die or retire without coming off it. Early condition management helps to deal with the early signs of mental illness and some of the musculoskeletal conditions that so often take people out of the labour market. That early intervention—getting access to the appropriate cognitive behavioural therapy or to a physiotherapist—is an essential component of the pathways to work intervention and has proved popular and effective in the pilots.

Equally important has been a role that my hon. Friend did not talk about in his contribution: the role of the job brokers, who link individuals' capabilities,
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competences and skills to the employers who need them. The job-broking role that we have defined has been important, as has the role of personal advisers in Jobcentre Plus offices. It is important that people have somebody to talk to and to work through all their problems with when they are feeling insecure and lack confidence in themselves, but want to take steps to get back into the labour market. If they build a good relationship with that personal adviser, that unlocks a lot of potential and helps to secure huge benefits.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda talked about the linking rules and trying to make the move from dependency on benefits into work easier. We have done a lot in that area. Later in this calendar year, we will introduce an automatic right to link back to one's previous level of incapacity benefit for anybody who comes off the benefit and into work over a two-year period. As we proposed in our Green Paper, we are working through what else we can do on issues such as housing benefit and council tax benefit to ensure a quick return to those benefits for those who try to shift themselves from benefit dependency, but for whom work does not work out. We are doing all we can to support individuals in making those difficult transitions in their lives and to ease their fears of poverty and destitution, which so often mean that they do not take the leap off benefits back into work.

I am pleased that pathways to work is consistently demonstrating an 8 per cent. increase in the number of people who come off benefit within the first six months of being on that benefit. We have trawled the world looking at what other countries are doing in relation to disabled people or people with a long-term illness who are locked into benefit dependency, and we believe that the combination of interventions that we have christened "pathways to work" is the most successful way that anybody has found of providing opportunities for work.

The whole of our welfare reform agenda, as set out in the Green Paper and symbolised by pathways to work, brings old Labour and new Labour very close together. The agenda is not about cutting benefits. It is entirely about making real the value that is at the heart of everything we believe—people's right to have the opportunity to work. We all know that work is the route out of poverty for those who can work. It provides a means by which one can support oneself and one's family and it provides one with a position in society that gives one self-esteem and a sense of value, purpose and belonging. It also provides important things, such as a network of friends, that enable people to participate and get the most out of their lives.

For far too long, people on incapacity benefit in particular have been left totally unsupported to spend their lives dependent on benefit, without seeing any hope for the future. As one comes to understand more about the sort of people who get locked into incapacity benefit, one of the interesting things that one observes is that four out of 10 people coming on to the benefit demonstrate a mental health condition, but six months, a year, or two years into their life on benefits, eight out of 10 say that they have a mental health condition, possibly in addition to other physical or mental conditions that prevent them from working. That makes
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sense—we all know that the longer someone is out of work, the more they lose confidence, so what starts off as mild anxiety can quickly become long-term depression.

Our reforms are not about cutting benefits but about providing opportunity. The Government have been successful in tackling unemployment. Now, we have to move our attention to providing intervention. Our strategy is both to prevent people moving on to incapacity benefit and to support people as they come off that benefit through programmes such as pathways to work.

I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda mentioned the GP pilots, because they are part of the structure that we are trying to put in place to provide that early intervention. The first person that people go to see when they fall ill is their general practitioner. The general practitioner usually has only 10 minutes per person and the easiest thing is to write a sick note. We want to transform their culture and the culture of employers, families and individuals so that people see work as a route out of poverty into good health and well-being.

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