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24 July 2006 : Column 656

I now turn to the provisions relating to antisocial behaviour. Liberal Democrat Members bow to no one in our determination to deal with antisocial behaviour, as the performance of Liberal Democrat-run local authorities across the country will show.

Mr. Khan: Say it with a straight face.

Danny Alexander: I did say it with a straight face, because it is true. However, the people who suffer from antisocial behaviour want measures that work on the ground, not just on the front page. We will need to examine in Committee whether the proposal will deliver a real benefit, or whether it is just a gimmick to provide headlines for the Government.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): My impression has been that the Liberal Democrats have pretty much opposed every piece of antisocial behaviour legislation. Can the hon. Gentleman go into a little detail about why he opposes this measure? It seems to me that it is removing housing benefit from people who have already been evicted for antisocial behaviour, and is essentially designed to get such people to undertake a rehabilitation course?

Danny Alexander: I am grateful for that intervention, as it gives me the opportunity to point out that, as my colleagues reliably inform me, Liberal Democrat and Conservative Members have been in the same Lobby on most votes on antisocial behaviour. We will not take any lessons from the hon. Gentleman on antisocial behaviour. If he is interested in discussing antisocial behaviour, he might care to reflect on ideas such as acceptable behaviour contracts, which have been pioneered by Liberal Democrat councils such as Islington, and which have even been celebrated by Government Members; perhaps when they did not realise that they were Liberal Democrat ideas. If he had listened carefully, he would recall that I said that the measure would need to be examined carefully in Committee to see whether it will deliver a real benefit.

Mr. Love: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct that the rehabilitation courses suggested will need to be considered carefully. As I understand it, however, the Government are suggesting that there should be a number of pilots over two years. Is not it sensible to wait for the results of those pilots?

Danny Alexander: I am aware that the Government have said that there should be pilots for the measure. Ministers, although not the Secretary of State, have also said that the number of occasions on which they expect it to be used is very few—

Mr. Laws: Tiny.

Danny Alexander: As my hon. Friend says, the word used was “tiny”. What we will learn from the pilots I do not know. As I said, we will need to scrutinise the proposal carefully in Committee.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): Given the hon. Gentleman’s declared Liberal
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Democrat opposition to this policy, will he say whether any Liberal Democrat councils will agree to be part of the pilot scheme?

Danny Alexander: As a good Liberal Democrat, I take the view that democratically elected councils should be in a position to decide such things for themselves. I do not share the authoritarian tendencies exhibited far too often both by Ministers and by Conservative Members. If the hon. Gentleman had listened carefully, he would know that I have not declared stringent Liberal Democrat opposition to the measure. I have said that it needs to be considered carefully in Committee. I was also about to make clear—this point may be of interest to some Members who intervened earlier—that there are still real concerns about the impact of the proposal on families with children. Who is being asked to take the punishment for antisocial behaviour? Is it the children of an antisocial tenant, or perhaps even the parents or siblings of an antisocial teenager? We need a lot of answers on that point. I look forward to debating the matter in Committee. [Interruption.] I am not sure whether that was an intervention, so I shall press on. Perhaps an acceptable behaviour contract would be appropriate.

In relation to the provisions on compensation for mesothelioma, I welcome the Government’s steps to expedite the issue. It is important, however, that we get a proper answer to the point that the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) made in an intervention. Can the Minister ensure that the compensation process is as rapid as possible, and that it will extend to partners suffering from those diseases, such as wives exposed to the fibres while cleaning overalls? The issue has been much debated, and it is important that we press on, as time is of the essence.

The objective of the Bill is to help more people off incapacity benefit and into work. We support that objective. I hope that the Bill will receive its Second Reading tonight, so that it can proceed to Committee and the issues and flaws that I have identified can be addressed. We will work constructively to improve the Bill. Whether we support it when it returns to the Floor of the House, however, will depend entirely on the extent to which Ministers are willing to listen to the many concerns that exist both in the House and outside.

6.55 pm

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): All-party consensus usually makes me a little nervous. On a topical note, the high degree of consensus in relation to the introduction of the Child Support Agency should act as a salutary reminder that the fact that we all agree with something does not mean that we have got it right. Undoubtedly, however, the thrust of this Bill is right, sensible and carefully balanced. Both current and recent Ministers should be congratulated on tackling an issue that only a few years ago was toxically controversial, and producing a package of proposals that can command broad support, subject to debate about a number of specific and detailed issues of implementation.

I want to spend most of my time talking about the housing benefit elements of the proposals—housing
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benefit is an issue in which I take an almost unhealthy interest. Before I do so, I want to spend a few minutes on incapacity benefit, especially as it relates to my community. As my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) was saying, just as national trends in incapacity claims tell us a great deal not just about the claimants but about the labour market, social and even cultural context, so local trends can alert us to something important going on, and warn us that we need to take action.

In my constituency, the leafy-sounding Regent’s Park and Kensington, North, 11 per cent. of the working age population are on incapacity benefit—more than the number of people who claim incapacity benefit in the Rhondda, the equal highest percentage in London, and a higher percentage of the working age population than many areas traditionally associated with high IB levels, such as Barnsley, Bradford, Chesterfield and Clwyd. In addition, my constituency has 1,100 more claimants than in 2001, making it one of the largest increases in benefit take-up in the whole country. Therefore, something important is going on. We have some understanding of what is happening, but not necessarily of why it is happening. The message, of which I ask Ministers to take due note, is about the dynamic of London and London poverty, and not only about incapacity benefit. It requires us to take a much more robust approach to the analysis and treatment of such problems in London than has hitherto been the case.

Justine Greening: As a fellow London MP, I am listening to the hon. Lady with some interest, and she has a very good point. Some of the incapacity benefit claimants who come to my surgery are highly skilled people who, for one reason or the other, have ended up on that benefit. The current system is not really structured to help them to get back into work. For example, they might be ex-IT consultants who were offered what, for them, would essentially be remedial, basic IT courses. Perhaps she has experience of a similar group of people.

Ms Buck: Disturbingly, there seems to have been another outbreak of all-party consensus. That is absolutely true, and I was about to refer to precisely that problem.

In London and in my constituency in particular, there is an even sharper IB profile than can be seen in the country as a whole. The increase in mental illness and mental ill health is evidently a particularly strong driver of IB claims. In my constituency, 49 per cent. of IB claimants have a mental-health problem as their primary disorder, compared with 39 per cent. in the country as a whole. Claimants are younger, and—importantly—much more are black and minority-ethnic. That does not reflect the nature of the population disproportionately, but it demonstrates that we need a more sophisticated package of support than has sometimes been provided.

Mr. Khan: My hon. Friend has spoken of problems that are specific to London. Is she aware that the number of recipients of IB with mental or behavioural disorders increased from 21 per cent. in 1995 to 39 per cent. in 2005?

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Ms Buck: I was not aware of that statistic, but it makes perfect sense in the context of what I am saying.

In my inner-city community and, I suspect, in others, we see a peculiarly compounded set of problems, leading to an extremely complex case load. Some people’s first language is not English; some may have physical problems, which may be exacerbated by a range of mental-health problems. Let me return to what was said by the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening). The refugee communities in my constituency display all those characteristics, and define the problem very well. They include people with exceptionally high skills, and the level of education among them is significantly higher than that of the general population. Many of them have been victims of torture and have experienced the trauma of exile as well as their underlying conditions; many also have language difficulties. Nevertheless, they could contribute a great deal to the economy if they received the intensive support services that are needed to help them to work.

Let me give some examples. Ali, who was an architect in Sudan, now has to deal with chronic depression—unsurprisingly—and with damage to his back and legs as a result of torture, but is perfectly capable of working as an architect. The amount of help that could help him to use his qualifications is very limited. Fatima, who was a midwife, is also extremely keen to return to work. She suffers from mental-health problems, depression and back pain. She would be able to return to work, but is frequently sent on skills courses and asked to consider employment in the retail industry. She has neither the training nor the application for that.

It is not only refugee families that experience such problems. Dennis, whom I saw a few weeks ago, had a high-powered job in an advertising company until he had a nervous breakdown and was accepted as homeless. He is keen to return to work. Unfortunately, he turned down an offer of permanent accommodation because he was nervous about the area. The council then discharged its duty to house him, and now he is homeless on top of all his other problems.

Historically, we in inner London have not enjoyed anything like the success that welfare programmes have generally achieved in other parts of the country. The new deal has been less successful in inner London, and there has been a much lower take-up of tax credits. A range of excellent programmes, which I strongly support, do not deliver in the area. There is a real danger that that will happen again. If we do not accept the particular complexity of case-load needs and the existence of multiple disadvantages, compounded in many cases by housing problems, we will not be able to deliver the outcomes that we want.

That is even clearer when seen in the context of the London labour market, where we see a projected continued reduction in the level of entry to the lower-skilled jobs towards which so many claimants are directed in the first instance. If we do not raise our game in terms of the quality of skills training offered to those people, we will find ourselves trying to encourage them to return to a market that no longer exists for them.

What worries me greatly is that unemployed people, those on income support and, indeed, IB claimants
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who are anxious to return to the labour market, or at least to be diverted from long-term benefit dependency, are being leapfrogged by globalisation. A wider labour market throughout the south-east of England—and, nowadays, throughout Europe and worldwide—is taking the jobs that are needed by so many of our disadvantaged individuals.

Let me say a little about housing benefit. The Bill does not refer to the problems experienced by families in temporary accommodation in overcoming disincentives to work. The Department for Work and Pensions is running a small pilot scheme in Newham, “Working Futures”, designed to help families paying the high rents that are charged for temporary accommodation and treated as if they were standard social housing rents for the purposes of benefit claims. Why is that a tiny single-borough pilot scheme?

My borough contains 3,000 households in temporary accommodation, of which 92 per cent. are not in the labour market. That compares with 67 per cent. of all social housing tenants. We can therefore assume that, almost at a stroke, 1,000 households in a single borough could be encouraged into work if their housing benefit were treated differently. As it is, those people are asked to clear a rent of £400 or £450 every week before they can gain any benefits from working. Given the interaction of the tapers, it is no wonder that most people feel that that is simply not worth their while. There are 100,000 families in such accommodation in the country as a whole. We should be bold and sensible, and roll out the pilot scheme as quickly as possible. The Treasury is spending £400 or £450 a week on housing benefit, which is lining the pockets of private landlords and trapping people in benefit dependency.

I generally welcome the roll-out of the standard housing allowance across the private sector, and strongly welcome the decision not to proceed with its extension into the social sector. The fundamental difference is that most private-sector tenants on housing benefit were already subject to shortfalls between rent and housing benefit. That is not the case in the social rented sector, so there would have been a huge number of losers. It would have been insane to proceed, and I am very pleased that the Government saw sense.

I worry about the possibility that the local housing allowance in high-value areas could result in more homelessness. The pilot schemes show a disproportionate impact in different areas. We may find that it works perfectly well in some parts of the country, but leaves us with a headache in others. I hope that we will watch the situation closely.

I, too, am extremely anxious about the sanctions for antisocial behaviour. I am pleased about the decision not to proceed along the lines proposed in 2003. I acknowledge that there will be pilot schemes, and that the proposal is infinitely better targeted and more carefully drawn up than the original version. I still believe, however, that in what will almost certainly be the majority of cases, because of the profile of families in social housing, families with children will find sanctions locking them further into a downward spiral of homelessness and debt. They simply displace the problem from one form of housing to another, without doing anything fundamental to deal with the problem.

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In that context, I am aware of young children with personality disorders, including autism, whose control over their behaviour is extremely limited, but there is virtually no provision for helping families with such children. They are almost entirely outwith the support system. It is right to do what we can to take such families and individuals into intensive rehabilitation. Sanctions in respect of tenancy have to apply, but I believe that this will not be a productive way forward.

In summary, it is an excellent Bill with much to commend in it. I hope that it will be strengthened still further by a constructive set of proposals that will take us through Committee. I remain hopeful that in respect of one or two aspects of the Bill, there is still time for a rethink.

7.10 pm

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I would like to focus on the part of the Bill that deals with incapacity benefit and on the problem of getting people with disabilities into work. A broad range of charities and organisations welcome and support the Bill, but that support is not unqualified. Those organisations and I have expressed many caveats about which we are concerned.

In response to the Green Paper, I submitted a document on the specific subject of Asperger’s syndrome and how to help adult sufferers of it into work. I am grateful that the Secretary of State met me in March to discuss that paper; and that, last week, the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform met me and a representative from the National Autistic Society, who runs the Prospect employment scheme. We discussed how best to interface with the Government’s plans, and particularly how best to get this group of people into work.

Why Asperger’s syndrome? There are reckoned to be about 332,000 people of working age who have an autistic spectrum disorder and are thought to be of average or above average intelligence. Of those who hold down a job, however, only 6 per cent. are in paid employment and among the high functioning end of the spectrum, the Asperger’s group, only 12 per cent. That shows how low the figures are, yet we are talking about a group of people who are capable of education, in some cases right through to degree level.

When I try to describe Asperger’s syndrome to people, I try to get the mix right and it sometimes sounds a bit quirky. If we think back to the second world war and those highly intelligent people who worked at Bletchley Park and cracked the codes, quite a high percentage are reckoned to have had Asperger’s. That tells us the level of expertise and intelligence that those with the syndrome may have. At the same time, such people can be difficult to place in work. Why? It is not because they are learning disabled in the recognised sense of having an IQ of under 70, but because autism often presents problems of communication and social interaction and difficulties associated with ritualistic behaviour. That, despite their educational and training experience, makes them least well equipped for today’s workplace. Even some of the most basic jobs on offer today demand good, socially interactive skills. Employers often want people who are good team players with good communication skills. Even stacking
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shelves in a supermarket demands being able to communicate with customers, to be polite, personally to direct customers to where the soap powder is stocked and so forth. Social skills are a core part of just about every job advert and they are likely to be important in the interview.

Placing those with Asperger’s in work thus needs expertise. Those trying to help them must understand the condition from which those people suffer and must be able to develop their work-ready skills. As we described to the Minister last week, the Prospect scheme run by the National Autistic Society could be a valuable resource for the Government.

I want to pick up a point that others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), have already mentioned—the fact that what we are talking about is not a cheap option. It is not something that can be read up in a textbook or that people can be briefed about for a few hours on a training course. It is not possible to learn how to help those people on that basis.

From my experience of working with and advising adults with Asperger’s, I am aware of current problems. Some are already engaged in the process of trying to get into employment through job centres and other organisations, but the weakness is that much more time needs to be spent on developing their skills in preparing them for interviews or preparing a CV, for example. All of that is pretty routine, but the vast majority really need someone present with them during the interview process. That means that the employer as well as the potential employee need to be coached and prepared for the interview to come. That is necessary if people with Asperger’s are to get a fair chance to be considered for a vacancy on the same basis as everyone else.

All too often—this is the key weakness—all the different stages are gone through with all the boxes ticked on job preparation, job coaching and preparing for the interview, but the problem is that those people seem to be left on their own to find the job in the first place. They are almost abandoned at that point. Finding the job is one of the hardest parts of the whole process, because in the main, we are talking about people who have great difficulty, if it is not within their own experience, in imagining what a job would be like. I recall one young man who repeatedly declared that he wanted to be an astronaut. It was totally unrealistic, but because he had seen it on television and identified what the job was, he felt quite safe and secure in saying that he wanted to be an astronaut. He could relate to that, but the truth is that he would have made an extremely good accountant.

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