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We know from the people with Asperger’s who get into work that they are extremely reliable. As with other conditions, however, such as mental health problems or learning disabilities, they present certain challenges from the employer’s point of view. Sometimes they take up management time once they are in post. That is why helping them into a sustainable job involves more than just helping them to find the job or getting them through the interview process. It is not about having someone to do the job for them—they can do it themselves—but having someone to troubleshoot on their behalf once they are accepted into the workplace. Occasionally, things can happen
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that are quite difficult for the staff to deal with, but if someone comes in to troubleshoot the situation, it is much easier to solve the problem so that the individual can stay in the job.

As to how this particular group can benefit from the changes that the Government have outlined in the Bill and presented today, I am reassured that Ministers are now well versed about this condition and have a good understanding of what is needed. The challenge is whether they can procure enough specialist advice around the country to help that group of people access opportunities for work along with everyone else. The vast majority are desperate to work. Some may realistically be able to sustain their attention span only for part-time work, but whether it is just a few hours a week, whether it is part-time or full-time, those people deserve the same chance as everyone else.

I welcome the Bill, which I view as a huge opportunity and step forward, so long as the Government are able to provide the necessary specialist support. That will require resources, but we discussed with Ministers how specialist provision—it is already there, albeit through limited providers—can help us to roll out help nationally. We should be able to ensure that within any county, district or area, however divided up, at least one disability employment adviser is peripatetic. If job centres knew that, perhaps on a Wednesday afternoon, the person who specialised in Asperger’s syndrome would be available in the region, it would be a huge step forward in helping those people into work.

I shall repeat one or two of the things that I included in the paper that I submitted to the Government, because they are important if the policy is to be successful. The worst thing that we can do is to set people up to fail. The impact on their mental well-being if they keep on trying and nothing happens cannot be overstated. However the Government approach that group, right from the beginning, they must distinguish those who cannot work from those who can, however limited the work, because for some people within that definition, as with those who have mental health conditions or learning disabilities, it would be grossly unfair to put them through the process of getting into paid work when that might not be the answer. They might, of course, benefit from doing voluntary work to which they do not have access now, so I would not want any of them to be excluded—to use the Minister’s words—but identifying who can and who cannot benefit will be very important.

Clear information is needed on what happens to people who go through the process, but for whom work ultimately fails. We must know how we will pick up the pieces, or we will leave behind more damage than we started out with. Some thought must be given to what happens if work fails, although I hope that that would involve only a small minority of people.

Mark Pritchard: My hon. Friend makes her points very well indeed. Does she agree that, if someone is employed and it does not quite work out, it undermines employers’ confidence in perhaps considering other people in the future?

Angela Browning: Yes, my hon. Friend is exactly right. That is why the schemes that work for people
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with Asperger’s involve briefing the employers and having a buddy in the work place who can help to broker some of the day-to-day problems that occur. Those problems can be very simple. For example, people whose behaviour is ritualistic might be prepared to eat only between certain times of the day. I know of one person who will only eat between 1.15 and 4 pm. So if such people are put on the 12 to 1 lunch shift, they go to lunch, but they do not eat. They do not say anything and cannot communicate the fact that they are under stress. They come back to work, and they are clearly in state of great anxiety in the afternoon. It is easy-peasy to sort out that problem—it can be done as soon as someone knows that that is the problem. Those are the sort of things that need to be taken into account in briefing employers, so that they know what the difficulties are, so that they do not occur in the first place. Where the system works and works well, it is a delight to see, but that group of people need special treatment from the beginning.

I am pleased to see the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform his place, as he has been extremely helpful to me on this subject.

The Government will get support, but I am still not convinced that the cost of providing the specialist so-called niche services has yet been thoroughly thought through. I have mentioned the fact that subcontracting immediately takes a slice of money from what is the already high per capita cost of providing a good quality service. I urge the Government to consider how they can contract directly, without top-slicing a chunk of money that is wasted, with the organisations that know what they are doing and have already made a difference to the lives of adults with Asperger’s syndrome. The Government can make so much more difference if they get it right.

7.24 pm

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning). I congratulate her on her speech, and I am sure many other hon. Members agree with what she has said.

I shall speak only to part 1, on the employment and support allowance and related matters. I congratulate Ministers on the consultation that has taken place in getting this far—I might be slightly more critical than that in a moment, but just let me get that in first. We had about a year’s consultation before the Green Paper. We had a proper Green Paper exercise and submissions where made to the Secretary of State. We now have a Bill. It has been a long process; it has not been a rushed process, with a Bill emerging from the clear blue sky. I congratulate my colleagues on the fact that we have had plenty of time to discuss these issues before debating the Bill on Second Reading.

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) made a comment about previous debates on incapacity benefit being toxic. My hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), who is no longer present, referred to the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999. As someone who is prone not to scratch old sores, I will not go in that direction, but my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North suggested that
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there appeared to be a degree of welcome consensus on where we go from here. That is true, and it is not something that could have been said five or six years ago.

The truth is that, because of events five or six years ago, many people in receipt of incapacity benefit and those who might receive it have become quite concerned about any new proposal and any change. They fear—dare I say it?—another cut in benefit, as under the previous Government and, sadly, as in 1999. Therefore, I start by praising the Bill, because of the clear assurance that it is not about cuts: it is about enabling disabled people and people with long-term sickness either to retain employment or to get back to work.

The problem with the number of people in receipt of incapacity benefit has never been one of fraud—it is about the most fraud-free benefit that we have—and it has never been about the benefit being generous. It is far from generous. People on incapacity benefit are usually living in deep poverty. Those two things have never been the problem. The problem is that we need to remove the barriers that prevent a very large number of people in receipt of incapacity benefit who want to get back to work from doing so. The Green Paper’s sub-title, “Empowering people to work”, is precisely what part 1 is about and precisely why we should congratulate the Government on introducing it.

We should never forget some of the basic facts that we are addressing. According to the Disability Rights Commission 48 per cent. of disabled people are out of work—virtually one in two. That increases to 79 per cent. for people with mental health problems, and it is 84 per cent. for people with learning disabilities. Those figures are shocking. They suggest that we must all address the current problems if we are serious about securing full employment for all.

The link between being out of work and being in poverty is stark and obvious, and the House does not need me to repeat the facts at length. Let me simply say that, in relation to the Government’s laudable policy and success in taking children out of poverty, 40 per cent. of children with a disabled parent today live below the poverty line. Almost one in two children of a disabled parent are in poverty. Yes, we must talk the language of the right to work; we must also talk the language of taking children and their families out of poverty. Therefore, the emphasis must be both on ensuring that people who want to work and can work receive the support to secure fulfilling employment and on ensuring that people who cannot work get a decent benefit. Those two approaches are essential if we are to make progress. The implication is that more support must be provided for disabled people in those two ways.

Let me talk about securing employment. The Green Paper was a bit vague. The direction was absolutely right, but it was difficult to pin down one or two issues. The Bill is only marginally less vague than the Green Paper. If we are honest about it, that is the truth. I am not being critical; I am simply saying that that is the situation. The Government have rightly promised that draft regulations will be produced as soon as possible. To back up comments made by other Members—and because I feel strongly about this myself—I would be grateful if the Minister could say when draft regulations are to be made available. I hope that that
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will not be only for the first Committee sitting; a summer recess is coming up, during which we will all be busy working, and it would be good if we could have the draft regulations earlier rather than later.

On which provisions will those drafts focus? I was talking to a specialist the other day, and she assured me that the Bill gives the Secretary of State—or all the Ministers in the Department—400 or so separate powers. [Interruption.] No, exactly. Another specialist told me the next day, “No, there are 600 powers.” I know not whether there are 400, 600 or 800 regulation-making powers in the Bill, but I know that there are a lot; there have to be a lot because the Bill is fairly vague. Can we have an assurance that these regulation-making powers will be published in draft form as soon as possible? When will that be, and which are the key areas that will be covered?

We need to know fairly soon what are the criteria for determining into which category of employment and support allowance a recipient might fall. How do we distinguish between those two groups? I cannot answer that question. We need to have some information on benefits, in order to make sure that people will be better off and not worse off. We also need to know more about how conditionality will work. Who will make the decisions? How will the appeals process work? In respect of a Bill of this kind, it is understandable that we do not have such details before us today, but I urge Ministers to make them available as quickly as possible.

On funding, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton is absolutely right that in some circumstances supporting some disabled people back to work—or supporting them in retaining employment—might not be expensive but in other circumstances that can be quite expensive. If this job is to be done properly, the resources have to be found. I recall the Secretary of State saying at the time of the Green Paper that getting 1 million people back to work would save £7 billion for the Exchequer. I join the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of York that a bit of recycling is a good idea. As people go back to work—

Danny Alexander: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point, but it is not just a point about recycling money. It is also a point about the overall benefit to the economy. As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has said, active labour market programmes are a good way of spending money because they release more money back to the Exchequer. So we all win.

Roger Berry: I would not suggest that there is never a net cost, but the fact is that enormous benefits come from programmes of this kind. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for City of York pointed out, the UK’s record in respect of spending on labour market programmes for disabled people is pitifully poor. The figure that I have in mind is a telling one: we spend 0.02 per cent. of national income—a fifth of the average European Union spend—on work-related programmes for disabled people. We can do better.

There is another issue that I must again raise. I know that the Government are now spending £62 million on access to work. That programme is one of the best kept secrets; 75 per cent. of employers have never heard of it, but those who have heard of it know how important
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it is—and many Members know constituents who have benefited enormously from it. When the Department for Work and Pensions writes to me that, for every £1 million spent, the Treasury gets back £1.7 million, it makes me ask: can I be assured that the DWP and the Treasury have ongoing discussions to ensure that access to work gets more money? I am deeply concerned at the announcement that that initiative will no longer be available for Government Departments. I know that it has already ceased to be available in the DWP. Before the Government go ahead with that decision, I urge them to provide evidence that it will not have a harmful effect. It is perfectly reasonable to say that Government Departments have large budgets—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I can give my hon. Friend and the House the reassurance that the Office for Disability Issues has said that it will monitor the situation, but of course all Departments are covered by a disability equality duty, which should mean that there is no detriment.

Roger Berry: I accept that, but I tabled parliamentary questions to all Departments asking how many disabled staff in each Department received support from access to work. It is interesting that some Departments simply did not know, and that others provided figures. Indeed, one Department—the Department for Education and Skills—to its credit has an earmarked fund, the reasonable adjustments fund, to deal with such requests. All I am saying is that I would like to be assured that there will not be any incentive on line-managers not to appoint somebody because they have a disability. If half a dozen people are coming for an interview for a post all of whom can do the job equally well so that the decision as to which to appoint is a marginal one, if one person will cost more money to employ because they are disabled, I would be worried, even in respect of a Government Department, that there might be an in-built bias to discriminate against that disabled person. As long as the situation is being monitored carefully, I will happily accept my hon. Friend’s assurance that I have completely misunderstood the problem and that such situations will never arise—but I will still be looking for it, just in case. Ring-fencing funds for that purpose—which is apparently what the DFES does—might be a way around that.

Where are the 1 million jobs to come from? I have only two minutes left, but let me make a few comments about the important role of employers. I attended a breakfast meeting with the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir). [Interruption.] I attended a breakfast on Thursday morning along with one or two Members—I can recall one of them at least—with the New Beginnings coalition, whose aim is to identify and help to dismantle the barriers faced by disabled people in employment, and particularly to ensure that employers are engaged in welfare reform. It is an organisation that my Front-Bench Friends will be well aware of, and it does sterling work. A number of issues were raised in relation to the employers’ role, and I think that it is fair to say that there was a general feeling that most employers are not engaged in the welfare reform
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exercise very much at all. There was a comment to the effect that as employers to some degree interface with the Department of Trade and Industry, could we pass on the message that we know that the DWP has the major role to play in this, but the DTI might also put in some effort to using its good offices to persuade employers to adopt good practice in this regard?

There is a range of issues to do with using the private and voluntary sector in pathways to work. I have said for quite some time that, sadly or otherwise, I have often found that there are private and voluntary sector organisations that are far better placed to give support than many of our Jobcentre Plus offices; that is the truth. There are some very good voluntary sector organisations, but they need to have good contractual arrangements. In an advertisement that I saw in SocietyGuardian last Wednesday—if I can mention The Guardian without the Whips getting too irate—for the new pathways to work contracts, the key contractors were offered contracts of three years-plus, but if there are subcontractors, I hope that they get more than mere one-year contracts under this system. Organisations that provide such support must be able to work in decent conditions, not least because the good ones employ lots of disabled people, which is why they are very good at providing the service.

7.38 pm

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), who made a characteristically passionate and well-informed speech. I want to make a few brief remarks about cancer patients, and others facing long-term illness, before moving on to consider the housing benefit proposals in some detail and the proposal to introduce the new local housing allowance.

On cancer patients and their families, carers and supporters, I have in my constituency both Macmillan Cancer Support and CLIC Sargent, with which I do quite a lot of work on ways to reduce the non-medical costs of cancer and long-term care. There are some depressing statistics. In respect of those aged 55 or less, seven out of 10 households with a member suffering from cancer suffer a loss of income, with the average income fall being in the region of 50 per cent. I applaud the campaigns to reduce those costs, which are very expensive, especially in London, and include parking fees and congestion charging, as well as other medical expenses. We need to look closely at lightening the load on cancer patients and those close to them.

I turn to housing benefit and the new local housing allowance. Housing benefit is an important benefit and it is vital to scrutinise it and the proposed changes properly. It is currently paid to 4 million households in the UK——mainly low-income tenants but also people of working age and pensioners. Only 20 per cent. of those 4 million live in privately rented properties—the primary sector under consideration in this Bill—and a key test for the future of these regulations will be when and if they are applied to social housing.

The gist of the new local housing allowance scheme is that it pays a flat rate that varies only according to the size of the family and the area in which the tenant or household live. That contrasts with the current
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system, under which housing benefit is related to the total rent of a house or flat. Under the new LHA system, tenants have a chance to shop around for cheaper property and pocket the difference, or to trade up and make up the extra rent themselves. As I understand it, that scheme will be introduced only for future tenants and that existing ones will, in effect, be “grandfathered”, at least for the time being.

The Bill also allows benefit reduction for those who commit antisocial behaviour and who refuse help in order to reform their behaviour. I shall not dwell on the idea for too long, but it has potential. As currently expressed, the scheme will kick in only after eviction and put the onus merely on going on a rehabilitation course. We could explore that idea further. In my constituency, too many tenants and residents have suffered for too long from the effects of antisocial behaviour, and they have seen little action from the outgoing Labour council in the past 20 years to combat the problems. The new Conservative council in Hammersmith and Fulham is certainly taking such problems very seriously.

In general, I greatly support initiatives to help those who are less well off in what are otherwise prosperous areas—a typical situation in large parts of inner London, including Regent’s Park and Kensington, North, to which reference was made earlier. For example, I took part in the launch of the new Hammersmith and Fulham credit union a couple of months ago, which is a scheme designed precisely to help the less well-off in an area that is otherwise superficially very prosperous. However, a constituency such as mine contains many very successful people, as well as many who are struggling. In my view, otherwise wealthy areas that contain a large number of poor people have suffered badly under this Government through, for example, the changes to the index of local deprivation, the capping of council tax benefit at band E over a six-year period, the fixing of funding formulae against London, and so on.

As a former councillor, I have a lot of experience in dealing with housing benefit cases in my own constituency; in fact, I used to represent tenants at housing benefit tribunals. The “HB regs”, as they used to be known, have evolved somewhat since the mid-1990s and have been updated many times, so I had to do a little updating myself before taking part in this debate. But I know from experience that changes to housing benefit need to be properly thought through and carefully piloted, and I certainly welcome the piloting approach that has been taken. Housing benefit has been particularly subject to fraud and poor administration over the years, as witnessed, for example, by problems in London councils during the late 1990s. We need to approach reform with caution, but reform is much needed.

Danny Alexander: Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about how the areas in which the local housing allowance is being set are being decided? In a constituency such as his, which has well-off and not so well-off areas, the LHA could be set too high or too low for the people living there.

Mr. Hands: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is right and he makes the point well; indeed, I shall come to that in a moment.

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