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16 May 2006 : Column 203WH—continued

It will be our ambition to ensure that everyIB claimant has a personalised road map that shows the training or work experience that they need. Over time, we will develop ways of putting real choice in their hands about where they can access the help that their map signposts for them. One way might be to trial a pilot in learning or guidance accounts. Those should not just be the preserve of undergraduates or people at advanced level. As the revival of the learning account concept takes place, I hope that incapacity benefit claimants will find their rightful place in that pantheon. We have to live the rhetoric that many
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people on incapacity benefit want to get back to work. We must trust them to take the right decisions, with the right help, for themselves.

Our Nottingham programme will have anIB claimants customer group, which will let us know whether we are meeting the needs of claimants. We are also considering using Jobcentre Pluses and geographical information systems—GIS—to door-knock. There is nothing like good, old-fashioned canvassing: eyeballing people and asking what they need and when they need it, with trained advisers taking the work of the estate-based local learning champions, a concept that we have pioneered in Nottingham, to a higher level.

Why not reward those on incapacity benefit who mentor a youngster at school, help the elderly or take on work as a park keeper as a bridge towards more appropriate and fulfilling work? That would reward those who want to keep working but cannot necessarily work conventionally. It would augment their income and raise their aspirations, confidence and experience. Nottingham is lucky enough to have strong community and voluntary sectors, and it is our aim that they will play a key role in our city strategy on IB issues.

Finally, we have already identified the work on mental health that we need to do with our health partners. Many people just need personal encouragement. Employment and the full reacquisition of social skills are as important as treating medical symptoms. There are massive service delivery implications for GPs and cognitive behaviour therapists, who will be needed to work not with the odd customer but with thousands of people. That needs to be carefully worked through, with colleagues in the health service and primary care trusts—particularly in the new era of practice-based commissioning.

There is also a need for employers to be given awareness training and education; they need to be able to achieve compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and provide appropriate mental health support to employees as well as occupational health support for those returning from time on incapacity benefit. There is a leading role for private and public sector organisations in piloting the arrangements and setting an example.

Most of the surveys and studies do not bear out the view that employers do not want to take people who have been on incapacity benefit, or that there is discrimination against people with a mental incapacity or mental ill health. None the less, an example should be set, not least by the big public and private sector employers. We need the whole team at the table, in the local context, in Nottingham, just as is happening at ministerial level in the national context.

As the Secretary of State said last week, we are beginning

In the brief conversations that I have had with colleagues from other parties—the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties—I have gained the impression that they, too, are anxious to exploit to the
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full the possible advantages of the new way of ensuring that people on incapacity benefit can lead more fulfilling lives. We certainly want to replicate that at local level. The issue is not a partisan one; it affects people—indeed, it affects claimants—of all political views or none, and does not discriminate on those grounds. We should not either.

Our consortium would be keen to add some of the seedcorn funding, which I understand will amount nationally to some £90 million from the deprived areas fund, but we see that only as an addition to the pooled resources that we have locally. A key point will be to enable all the individual organisations and agencies to come together. Of course we will welcome the additional resources, but the project lies in our own hands. The real prize in the next few months—this is something else that is evident from our consultations—will be to build a relationship, with trust, with central Government, so that the proposed freedoms and flexibilities can be negotiated with our national partner at the Department for Work and Pensions, to bring about real benefits for the people of Nottingham.

In Nottingham we know that the number of incapacity benefit claimants needs to be reduced. We are working towards a clear strategy on how to do that. Working closely with all our partners we intend to submit an expression of interest to the Department for Work and Pensions, as soon as the Minister requests it. I wish him well in his new appointment and hope that he will retain his position long enough to see the initiative through. It will be a long-running effort and will take a lot of setting up. I am not trying to keep the Minister from his ultimate rightful post in Cabinet, but I hope that he will be allowed a sufficient period to get involved in the issue and see it through—not just for Nottingham’s sake but for the sake of all the other pathfinders who get city strategies in the first wave. I could not wish for anyone more capable to do the Minister’s job, and we do not want to lose him, now that he has started out on the path.

I hope that by raising this debate, I have reinforced the Minister’s view that the agencies and organisations in Nottingham collectively look forward to meeting the challenge of making a serious impact, not only on the problems of incapacity benefit but on more fully realising the potential of the individuals who claim it but would welcome a return to appropriate work. Nottingham is a great city; our revival is continuing and our ambition is not to let the talents and potential of a single person in our city go to waste.

10.5 am

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing this debate on a very important subject for Nottingham and the whole United Kingdom. I congratulate him also on the detailed and eloquent case that he set out on the proposals coming forward within Nottingham, and on the leading role that he clearly plays in his community in trying to develop some of the ideas and thoughts about benefit reform and in helping back to work people who have long been excluded from the labour market. He clearly plays a leading role in making such things happen in his community, and that
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is a model that many hon. Members could follow. I congratulate him for all those reasons.

The hon. Gentleman set out the scale of the problem faced by people in Nottingham; his constituency and those of the other Labour Members who represent the city are among the 100 constituencies with the most incapacity benefit recipients. As he said, 17,600 people are on incapacity-related benefits in Nottingham. It is also interesting to note the high overall level of economic inactivity in the city: 36 per cent. of its population are classified as economically inactive for reasons of incapacity or for the many other reasons that he set out.

The hon. Gentleman drew particular attention to an important point that needs to come out more in the wider debate about benefit reform and helping people on incapacity benefit back into work: for many in the groups that we are discussing, low educational achievement is another barrier to returning to work.

Drawing attention to Nottingham’s problems helps shed light on the broader issues facing many cities—and indeed rural areas—in the UK. After all,2.7 million people are on incapacity-related benefits across the UK, and the December 2005 figures, although they may have been updated since, show that over the whole of the UK, 7.94 million people are classified as economically inactive. The Government are finally taking on the challenge to raise the level of economic activity and help people on incapacity benefit back into work, and I welcome that; it is important and timely, and it has come not a moment too soon.

Mr. Allen: As we have a little time, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will indulge me. I should like to reinforce his point about educational attainment being one of the key factors that we need to bring to bear in our partnership work on this issue. The powers and extra assistance from the Government on IB claimants are extremely welcome, but locally we need—we are attempting it at One Nottingham—to seek a city strategy. That is one of our priorities; the second—there are three—is to teach social behaviour in all our primary schools so that youngsters can get the social toolkit to learn, so that they qualify better than youngsters have in the past, and go on to further education, training and employment, so there will be less of a pool from which those on incapacity benefit can be drawn. We need to tackle the issue on lots of different levels, and the hon. Gentleman was right to emphasise that.

Danny Alexander: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He makes a good point.

Also, I should have welcomed the Minister to his place at the beginning of my remarks. I am delighted to see him here and to congratulate him on his appointment. I look forward to working with him as the welfare reform process continues. I am sure that he will want to give due emphasis to that process in the coming weeks.

The partnership approach taken by One Nottingham is one that the Government should encourage not only in Nottingham but throughout the country. It is
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important to bring together people and organisations from the public, private and voluntary sectors to deliver in a coherent, co-ordinated and locally driven way—that is an important consideration—policies and proposals to help back into the labour market people who have been out of or excluded from it for a long time, perhaps for reasons of incapacity. A lot of hard work is being done in Nottingham to bring people together, and that can be furthered. The hon. Gentleman set out clear targets, and made it clear that Nottingham will soon be ready to submit its application. That has been successfully advertised and highlighted today, and I congratulate him on that.

The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the social and human waste that incapacity benefit creates. A number of people have been on incapacity benefit for a substantial time. He drew attention to the often-quoted statistic that people who have been on incapacity benefit for more than two years are more likely to die or reach retirement age than they are to find work. That is a damning indictment of the current system. Many different barriers prevent people in that situation from getting back into work, such as having a lack of educational skills or confidence, or having an illness or disability. There are also more physical and practical barriers to prevent people from returning to the labour market.

The hon. Gentleman has made important points about the local situation in Nottingham and contributed to the broader UK debate about the welfare reform that we hope is about to get going. The concept of the city strategies, in which available funds—often a multiplicity of funds; I know that in Glasgow there are many dozens of strands of funding devoted to helping people back to work—are brought together and other funds may be brought in, is a welcome approach. However, there are several issues that relate to that approach that I want to draw to the Minister’s attention, and I will be grateful if he can respond to them.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North talked about scaling up in Nottingham. One consequence of the greater focus on welfare to work is that current projects and programmes need to be scaled up dramatically to enable them to meet delivery targets, but such scaling up raises issues of local accountability and responsibility.

It is important that the Government’s approach to welfare reform should not be to deliver it in a top-down way, but to allow local communities and organisations to develop their own strategies, programmes and ideas about how best to tackle the problems that they face in their own communities. The hon. Gentleman talked about the deprived areas fund that the Government are looking to set up. It is worth noting that that fund will be partly resourced through ending the action team for jobs model, which works in Nottingham, in Inverness in my constituency, and across the country. Can the Minister provide some reassurance that the areas that will be targeted by the deprived areas fund will, by and large, be those that currently benefit from the action team approach? In many parts of the country, including Nottingham, there could well be some
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concern that the important community engagement work of the action teams will be lost.

Mr. Allen: This is a rather paradoxical point. I am keen to have as much local discretion as possible and, going beyond this debate, I believe in constitutional independent local government, in getting off our backs. However, having been in this position of almost supplication for decades, it is not always easy to release people locally to get on and do the job. People are still unsure of where to go and how to take on those responsibilities. It is important that the Department is still there to offer advice.

We have had tremendous advice from officials in the Department for Work and Pensions and from people such as David Simmonds at the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion that has been invaluable in pointing us in the right direction so that we do not miss this fantastic opportunity because of inexperience in running our own affairs at that level. I hope that the Department will continue to do that with a light touch and to guide us in the right direction.

Danny Alexander: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

I want to speak about the national role of the DWP in bringing to fruition some of the local ideas that we have heard about today. The Department’s first role is to introduce legislation following the Green Paper, and any indication that the Minister can give us today about the likely timing of that will be gratefully received. Given the range and detail of the issues that have been rehearsed today relating to the strategy in the city of Nottingham and the rest of the country, it is important that sufficient time be allowed to scrutinise the matter in detail. I would be grateful for anything that the Minister can say about that.

Two other issues relating to the approach so far about which there are real concerns are, first, funding, and secondly, the arrangements for contracting with voluntary sector organisations such as those that the hon. Gentleman told us were involved in the consortium in Nottingham.

The overall package in the welfare reform Green Paper for funding the pathways to work scheme was £360 million. The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the importance of rolling out the scheme properly in Nottingham. I have looked at the pilots elsewhere, and it is clear—this is the view of many of the organisations that have commented on the matter—that £360 million is not enough to ensure that a roll-out on the scale that the hon. Gentleman wants in Nottingham and elsewhere can be taken forward. Even a calculation based on a written answer that I received suggests that the cost of the scheme is £400 per claimant, in which case over two years the total funding needed would be £440 million. However, that estimate does not include the cost of the back to work credit or the condition management programme.

I was surprised, to say the least, having tabled a parliamentary question to ascertain what proportion of that £360 million is for back to work credit and what proportion is for the condition management programme, to be told simply that the information was not available. That raises concern in my mind about
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how the Department calculates the figures and whether we will see pathways lite, which is not what people in the One Nottingham consortium or anywhere else really want or need. A further point is that the£360 million will supposedly come from existing DWP budgets. I am keen to hear from the Minister where the axe will fall to release even that inadequate sum for rolling out the pathways to work project.

I mentioned the condition management programme, as did the hon. Gentleman, in relation to necessary medical assistance. A successful condition management programme rolled out nationwide is dependent on a supply of properly qualified professionals such as cognitive behaviour therapists, but there is a shortage of such therapists and they take up to five years to train. It is important that the Minister in his response addresses how to ensure a supply of properly trained condition management professionals and properly qualified employment advisers. I also want to know how the importance of having people in those areas comes up against the current cuts in DWP staff in a number of areas—and, as I know from my own experience, how that has an impact on morale.

The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the important issue of engaging the voluntary sector and the private sector in delivering many of the back to work schemes that are starting. The separation that that entails and the engagement of such organisations are very important. The Government have talked about that, which I welcome, because a separation between the benefit decision-making process and the back to work help can be an important tool in engaging people in back to work activity without their fearing that they will be challenged on or lose their benefits. That might lead to Jobcentre Plus and the DWP moving into much more of a commissioning role: rather than delivering back to work services themselves, they will commission voluntary and private sector organisations of the sort that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

However, it is important to know how these contracts are to be set up. I think that that will be specified in legislation at national level; perhaps the Minister will spell that out. The Green Paper addresses the engagement of the voluntary and private sectors on a target-driven basis. In terms of the setting out of the contracts, it is important that there be sufficient flexibility to allow the kind of local initiative that the hon. Gentleman described. It is also important that sufficient time be available within a contract for a local organisation to develop and work through the best methods for engaging people in its area. Too often we hear about voluntary organisations coming up with programmes that, as the hon. Gentleman described, spend too much time working on next year’s funding application rather than delivering the services that they are setting out to deliver.

It is also important, as the hon. Gentleman said, that welfare to work—welfare reform—provides real support for employers. I was privileged during the Easter recess to visit the Working Links project in the Parkhead ward in Glasgow; some such projects have been picked up on in the plans being developed in Nottingham. One of the most striking things about that Parkhead project is how it engages with employers to help individuals once they have been placed in work not to lose that job. It can often be found that for
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people who might never have been in work or who have not engaged with the workplace for a long period, the basics of being in employment—such as turning up on time and dealing with their employer on a day-to-day basis—are an entirely new experience, and having support to deal with that is very important. I hope that providing real support to employers, and beefing up the access to work scheme, which is very important for helping people with disabilities back into work, can all be part of what the Government introduce.

The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the importance of mental health, and he will know that depression and anxiety-related conditions are now the largest cause of new on-flows to incapacity benefit, and that people once on incapacity benefit for other reasons often become depressed as an associated condition, so tackling those mental health-related conditions is very important. He said that the One Nottingham consortium was planning to do that.

That requires reform of the personal capacity assessment in particular. In the Green Paper, the Government talked about setting up a taskforce to look into reforming the Pca for people with mental health conditions. I understand that that taskforce has still not been set up. Will the Minister address that? Dealing with this issue is of great importance in terms of the wider point that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North made on the need to provide support that is as locally driven and flexible as possible, to help people in Nottingham who need it to get back into work.

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