Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman says that incapacity benefit is different from jobseeker's allowance and that that indicates the claimant's desire to get back into work, so does he feel that people on jobseeker's allowance have no desire to get back into work?

Danny Alexander: No, quite the reverse. In fact, one of the principal distinctions between incapacity benefit and jobseeker's allowance is that the latter makes it mandatory for benefit recipients to engage in back-to-work activity and actively seek work, whereas those obligations do not apply to incapacity benefit recipients at the moment, although the Green Paper, which is slightly fuzzy on the detail, suggests perhaps a slight change in that direction. No doubt, we will see more of that when such a Bill is introduced in due course.

The principal issue that I should like to raise in relation to the extent to which the Government's welfare reform proposals can succeed in helping to deliver the objectives of the life chances report of getting people with disabilities back into employment is the resources that are available to extend the pathways to work scheme across the whole country. The £360 million that has been allocated in the Green Paper is simply not enough, compared with the costs of the pilot schemes. I am very concerned that the roll-out might lead to a sort of "pathways-lite".

The Government's estimated cost of £400 per claimant suggests that £440 million will be needed over two years, but the Government's estimate of £360 million does not include either the cost of the back to work credit or condition management programme. We have heard several other estimates of the cost of rolling out pathways from a number of non-governmental organisations. They all suggest that the figure that the Government specify in the Green Paper is not nearly enough. The figure is, frankly, hard to estimate, because of the poor quality of information available from the Government on the cost of pathways, but the estimates that I have seen from a number of organisations all have one thing in common: they suggest that £360 million is not nearly enough for the comprehensive support programme that we would all like to see.

I hope that the Minister will address a further point in her concluding remarks. It is suggested that the £360 million that has been allocated will come from
4 May 2006 : Column 1141
existing resources, so I should be interested to know when we will find out from which existing resources that sum will be diverted to deliver pathways to work.

Condition management is a very popular and successful part of the programme, but it relies particularly on a supply of properly qualified professionals—such as cognitive behavioural therapists, for example—yet we do not have enough people in those categories and they can take up to five years to train. Likewise, high-quality employment advisers are also needed.

The Green Paper also considers the separation of welfare to work support from benefit decision making, particularly through the use of more private and voluntary sector contractors to deliver back to work help. That is a welcome move forward. I am sure that all hon. Members have examples of organisations that are effectively delivering back to work help in our constituencies. In Inverness, for example, there is an organisation called the SHIRLIE Project, which is very successful, particularly in enabling people with learning disabilities to get back into work. It has an astonishingly high success rate, and it has been able to draw on support from various Government bodies to deliver a flexible programme. Making more use of such organisations makes a great deal of sense. The Green Paper does not deal with the specification of contracts, but that is important if those organisations are to deliver help effectively, giving providers the time scale, flexibility and stable financial footing that they need.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): As my hon. Friend knows, my background is in dealing with visual impairment. Does he agree that just as important as getting people back to work is maintaining them in work, particularly in the case of progressive illnesses or late-onset conditions? Investing in initiatives to enable people to continue to do the work for which they are trained and in which they have expertise, irrespective of a disability that may otherwise hinder them, is money well spent.

Danny Alexander: I could not agree more, and my hon. Friend has anticipated my next subject.

Genuine support for employers and employees so that people can remain in work is an essential part of any policy framework to deliver the objective of the life chances report by 2025. The access-to-work scheme, on which the Minister and I have had exchanges before, is very valuable indeed, and it is one of the Government's great unsung success stories. If I were her, I would be shouting that success from the rooftops and promoting it to businesses large and small. However, 80 per cent. of smaller businesses do not know anything about it. I therefore urge her to go around the country and get on her soapbox to promote it. According to a parliamentary answer, its net benefit to the Exchequer is £1,400 and the net benefit to the economy after costs is £3,000 per person helped. Employers who employ individuals who have been awarded access-to-work credits can make adjustments to enable them to remain in work, which is particularly valuable in the case of people who experience a disabling event or who have a visual impairment. I congratulate the Government on the scheme, but we need to hear more about it.
4 May 2006 : Column 1142

There was a gap in the Green Paper on disability awareness among employers. When will the Government publish an employer engagement strategy to encourage businesses and companies in the private sector better to understand the issues and adopt the right attitude to the employment of disabled people?

Mr. McGovern: Is the hon. Gentleman aware of Remploy, which not only provides supported employment in the workplace, but helps to place disabled employees in full-time mainstream employment?

Danny Alexander: I certainly am. The hon. Gentleman has characterised its work very fairly, and it plays an important role. In the Easter recess, I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit the Working Links "Working in Neighbourhoods" project in Parkhead in Glasgow. Part of its success stems from the fact that it works closely with employers. Not only does it place people in work, but it continues to work with employers after they have been employed so that if problems arise there is a three-way discussion. That helps to prevent the problem of someone starting work, encountering difficulties and being thrown out of their job, perhaps leaving them even further behind than they were when they started work. Such initiatives should therefore be valued and promoted.

The Minister mentioned the duty to promote. Will the Government encourage more public sector bodies to attain the Employers Forum on Disability standard so that there is a better understanding in the public sector of the needs of the private sector and awareness of the forum's work to promote understanding and the right attitudes in companies? We have heard today that those attitudes would be valuable in many public sector organisations, as well.

The Government rightly accepted the proposal in the life chances report that each local authority should have a user-led organisation modelled on the existing centres for independent living by 2010, but in a survey this month by "Disability Now" magazine half the centres that responded said that they were threatened by the loss of all or part of their funding. Support for both core and project-related costs of peer-led projects for disabled people has been withdrawn. It has been given instead to organisations that are not run by disabled people or, indeed, withdrawn altogether, thus forcing centres for independent living to be excessively driven by funding demands and tendering requirements, preventing them from pursuing objectives focused on their members' needs, desires and wishes. How do the Government intend to ensure that their commitment to a network of centres for independent living is met, as the reality is that many centres are struggling to avoid closure?

Mr. Hunt: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of the most recent issue of "Disability Now", which reports that half the centres for independent living that responded to its survey said that

Danny Alexander: Not only am I aware of it, but I made that point 45 seconds ago. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, however, for repeating the point and giving some additional publicity to "Disability Now", which is an excellent publication.
4 May 2006 : Column 1143

Another organisation that plays a vital role in realising the goal of independent living is struggling to avoid closure. Assist UK, the umbrella organisation for centres that provide independent advice on finding the equipment that disabled people need to help them live independent lives, has lost its core funding from the Department of Health. During the Scottish parliamentary by-election in Moray, I had the pleasure of visiting the Elgin centre, which provides advice to disabled people on appropriate equipment. Such centres do fantastically important work, especially in ensuring that disabled people are not subject to doorstep selling techniques that can lead them to spend far too much on equipment that is not suited to their needs. The strategy unit report called for an independent living task force to be set up by December 2005, but that has still not happened. In answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled, the Minister said that it would be established by spring 2006. Spring was late this year, but the task force is even later, so can the Minister tell us when it will be established, as it will play an important role in promoting independent living?

Transport and getting around the community is vital to ensure that disabled people have the life chances that we all want them to have. It is important to stress that improvements are under way in many public transport sectors, thanks to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which the Minister rightly commended. Too many companies and organisations, however, have failed to abide by their obligations under the Act, and are getting away with it. Hon. Members will have received anecdotal reports of such problems. For example, last week a member of the Liberal Democrat Disability Association saw the companion of a wheelchair user ask a London bus driver to lower the ramp. As they waited by the exit door for the ramp to be lowered the driver closed the doors and sped off. The LDDA member asked the driver why he had done so, and he said that there was no room. However, that was not the case. Even if it was, he should have explained that to the person concerned. He refused to give his name, and a member of the British Transport police who boarded the bus said that they could not do anything to help.

That anecdote reflects a significant problem with people's attitude. What are the Government doing to ensure that disability awareness training is given to transport providers and that there is effective monitoring and enforcement? We need to see the full picture, but the anecdotal evidence is worrying.

Next Section IndexHome Page