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I welcome the measures in the Bill on benefit fraud, including the “two strikes and you’re out” approach, for which it is sensible to extend the relevant period from three to five years. I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), who spoke with great experience about housing benefit and the local housing allowance. Generally speaking, I am in favour of the way in which the Government are going. It is sensible to move towards a more market-related solution, although I understand my hon. Friend’s real concerns about how large a region or area is. London has specific problems because great discrepancies can be seen even a few miles apart. I certainly welcome the suggestion of further trials. However, in any sort of use of the welfare
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state, it is important, when possible, to increase the amount of personal responsibility that people have. We should not always assume that people have to rely on the state to do everything for the outcomes that they want.

When I first read the figures for incapacity benefit, I was rather shocked that 2.71 million people, or 8 per cent. of the working age population, are on incapacity benefit and that more than half those people had been on it for more than five years. I was also a little shocked to find that 40 per cent. of those people had mental or behavioural problems, because that is an extremely high figure. I also noted that the number of young people on incapacity benefit has gone up by 71 per cent. There is evidently a big problem.

As we have heard throughout the debate, if we are to tackle poverty and social exclusion, and deal with child poverty in particular, we must bite the bullet by tackling incapacity benefit and doing our best to get as many people as possible into the work force. The Government have set quite an ambitious target, whether the figure is 1 million or the 640,000 that my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) cited, but until we know all the details—problems with draft regulations have been mentioned—it is difficult to be too specific about several aspects of the Bill.

Early intervention is important. There has been little mention of the national health service, but we all know that some people on incapacity benefit are waiting for operations. They are thus waiting for the NHS to assist them by putting them in a position in which they can go back to work—so it is important to have joined-up government.

I welcome the fact that the Government are allowing private, voluntary or not-for-profit organisations to deliver some of the pathway projects, although I understand the concerns raised by my hon. Friend about their not being given enough latitude to bring innovation into the system. That is one thing that the private and voluntary sector can do.

There is an ambitious programme. According to the Library, even Poole has 3,200 people on incapacity benefit—about 6 per cent. of the working age population. That is a lot of people. If the Government’s target is to be met, about 1,000 people will have to move from incapacity benefit into work. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton said, it is important that to do the assessment, there is a range of people who understand the problems that people have. With mental difficulties and behavioural problems, it is important that niche services are provided, so that we get it right.

As was mentioned earlier, the problem is that if we do not get it right, there are consequences both for the individuals if they go back into work and do not stick to a particular course, and for employers. If employers take on someone with a particular problem and it works out, they may go back and take on a second, third or fourth person. However, if it does not work out, the whole scheme may fail. It is important that we do not just focus on individuals. We also have to focus on employers and educate them. Clearly, if we are to mobilise a lot of people on incapacity benefit—many of them have specific problems, and niche problems—it
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will be a big job to educate employers on how to deal with that and to get the best out of them.

Broadly, I welcome the Government’s direction. Much will depend on the details, and the detail in regulation. I am sure that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will test many of the propositions in Committee. There is a degree of consensus, and it is important that we give this large number of people the right and the opportunity to get back into work, because of the impact that it will have on their lives, the state of their mental health and so on. As we all know, work is important. It must be very difficult for those who are denied it who feel that they have been sentenced to many years on benefit, without the tools to get back into work and to join in many of the things that the rest of us who have worthwhile jobs do.

8.12 pm

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I welcome the tone of the debate on both sides of the House. It has been a positive discussion. That reflects the briefing papers that I received—perhaps other hon. Members were also deluged by them—from various organisations with an interest in welfare reform. There has been a general welcome for the principles of the Bill, although inevitably there was concern about the detail.

I want to concentrate on the first half of the Bill, which deals with disability and getting people with disabilities and ill health back into the workplace. Many other things in the Bill are also important, such as provisions covering lone parents, people over 50 and housing benefit. I am afraid that I do not have the expertise in housing benefit that my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) has. She said that she had an unhealthy interest in housing benefit. I am glad to say that I do not, but I do know that it is very important to many of our constituents. They are often in a benefits trap because of housing benefit. That is a particular problem for those in the private rented sector. Their rent is so high that they cannot afford to get into work, but they cannot get a council house because, although their housing provision is extremely expensive, there is nothing wrong with it and the council think that they are adequately housed. However, the problems that my constituents face are nothing compared with those that the constituents of London MPs must face. I do not know how people can afford to live and work in London, because of the huge cost of housing.

It is important that the debate has been couched in the tone that has been used today. It has taken a long time for us to get to this stage. I remember a journalist at the last Queen’s Speech saying that the Government would have to face down their rebels on welfare reform and that there would be huge opposition to it. Instead, we have discovered that there is no major opposition on either side of the House. That is a tribute to officials and Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions, who have managed to change the tone of the debate by talking about welfare reform as a positive thing that will be good for people. They have said that it needs to be done, and that as a result, people will be better off.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry), I have spoken to disabled people and
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they have been apprehensive about what reform means. MPs take reform to mean change for the better, but in the collective memory of many disabled people, “reform”, “welfare reform” and “benefit reform” have meant changes that have resulted in them being worse off, with a worse service and less money from the Government. It has taken a long time to change their perception and to build up trust in the Government’s actions as being something to their benefit, not to their detriment.

One way in which the Government have done that is by having examples of good practice that they can point to. Those examples are not only in the pathways to work projects. Many hon. Members mentioned specific programmes in their constituencies which have worked. Aberdeen Foyer has been incredibly successful in dealing with predominantly young people who live on the margins of society and who are often recovering drug addicts. It has delivered a number of welfare-to-work programmes, including progress to work and getting people to the job-ready stage, capable of doing a work-focused interview and getting into work. The examples exist to show that such success is possible. Whether it is down to DWP staff themselves, the third sector or, in some cases—this is particularly true in Glasgow—the private sector, there are models that work. That has begun to allay some of the fears of many disabled people.

It is also important that reform is not about saving money. Although ultimately it should save the Government money—partly because when people get off benefit and into work they will contribute to the Exchequer in the form of paying taxes, rather than taking from it—that is always a side issue. It must never be the central issue for any kind of welfare reform. The aim is to make welfare work for people, and for it not to be a barrier.

One of the big disincentives to work has been the welfare system itself. We talk about the different barriers that disabled people face, but disability or ill health is often not the primary barrier to disabled people getting into work. Sometimes that is three, four or five strands down the list. Child care and travel to work may be bigger barriers than a disability. There is no doubt, however, that the welfare system is one of the main barriers to work. That cannot be a good system.

Danny Alexander: I agree about the barriers to work in the welfare system. Does the hon. Lady share my concern about the taper for housing benefit and council tax benefit? On going into work, people find that they lose their benefit at the rate of 85p in every pound, so the incentive to work is much less than it should be.

Miss Begg: It is important that work must always pay. That is why I always have been a very strong supporter of the tax credit system; it has made sure that people in work are obviously better off than those out of work. Whether a taper at 85 per cent. for housing benefit or council tax benefit is correct—perhaps it is on the sharp side and could be flattened slightly—the Government’s overriding concern must be to ensure that there are no disincentives in the welfare
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system, and that people do not think that they are working for nothing. I do not accept the argument, “Well I’m not working for £20 a week extra,” because people are in fact working for £200 or whatever it is in benefit, plus the extra. If everybody took the attitude that they were working only for any amount above what they would receive on benefit, we would not have enough people in the workplace to pay for benefit for others.

Work in itself has value, not just because of social contact and many other reasons, but because it is easier for someone in work to get a better job. I am not as critical as many about people coming off incapacity benefit and going into entry-level jobs, because once they have on their CV the fact that they are able to sustain that job, they will be able to move up the chain of employment skills. They certainly cannot go in further up that chain without the experience that they gain from being in work.

Some organisations have expressed concerns that the Government must address. When pathways to work is rolled out across the country it is crucial that it must not be “pathways lite”—a watered down version. It has been so successful because of the investment and dedicated work of those in the DWP and in organisations brought in to provide the employment programmes.

I will not go on about what will be in the regulations, because that has been covered by other hon. Members, although all the organisations that wrote to me were certainly keen to have sight of them, and for the matter to be addressed.

I was going to say a great deal about the role of rehabilitation and preventive measures, but I could not possibly follow the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), who summed up everything that I had planned to say on the issue far more eloquently. Employers have a responsibility to ensure that those who are already in work do not fall out of work, to keep them in work for as long as possible and to adapt the workplace to ensure that they remain.

I have some questions about work-related activity. Is there a role for somebody to become a perpetual volunteer? Some hon. Members have said that there must somehow be an end to work-related activity, when somebody must enter a job—but that might not be the best solution for everybody. I think of someone who has a progressive condition who would not want to be written off completely and be on the support element alone, and who would want the employment support element of benefit. Volunteering could provide enough hours to keep them in a workplace of sorts. Volunteering is not necessarily less valuable than paid work, so there might be a case for allowing someone to remain on the higher level of benefit but continually to have a volunteering role. That would overcome the problem that some face of putting their benefit in jeopardy as a result of volunteering.

I am also interested in the Government’s comments on the backdating of holding benefit. I accept that holding benefit will be at jobseeker’s allowance levels for those who are going on to the employment and support allowance, because that is at the level drawn by other unemployed people—but what about people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness or have a
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rapidly progressive condition? If they have to wait three months to receive the higher benefit and it is not backdated, it might be too late for them. My hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform is nodding, so hopefully there is an answer to that.

Finally I want to talk about where things are still very difficult and specific help must be given—in the area of mental health. Every organisation that has written to me, and all those to which I spoke last summer when I was consulting on issues in the White Paper, mentioned stigma and discrimination, and the fact that employers need to change their attitudes. That is still regarded by many with mental health problems as the biggest barrier to work. I do not have problems with conditionality, provided that it is there for a purpose, that it is not punitive and that the support is right. We often heard complaints that that would be a problem with the new deal for the young unemployed, but it turned out not to be so. Provided that the programme in which people are engaged is of a sufficiently high standard, conditionality does not become a problem, and instead acts as an incentive to get people through the door and over the threshold so that they can see what they can do to open up life for themselves.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Clearly a large number of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. If Members take considerably less than 12 minutes each, it would be very helpful and allow me to call many more Members.

8.26 pm

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I should like to say at the outset that the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru are not opposed in principle to the objectives of the legislation.

In my experience, most people on disability benefits genuinely want to work, but there are many barriers to that aim and it is those rather than a wish to languish on benefits that prevent them from doing so. In so far as the legislation genuinely helps and encourages people, providing support for them to get into work and, crucially, to retain work, it will have our wholehearted support.

One problem, however, is that we are effectively debating in a vacuum, because we do not yet have the regulations that will set out the detail of the system. Mencap makes the telling point in its briefing that the Bill refers to regulations 243 times in its 73 pages, which is more than three times a page. I appreciate that the Minister has said that the regulations will be published prior to considering the Bill in Committee and that is welcome, but I reiterate that we need to see them well before that stage so that we can consider the detail and so that those of us who are lucky enough to serve on the Committee do not have to deal with them there and then.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) made some very good points. Like her, I arranged meetings with groups in my constituency and throughout Tayside to discuss the White Paper when it
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was first published. The meetings were useful. In some cases I was able to reassure people about some of the more wild stories. One headline in Third Force News read “Welfare Reform Plans Outrage Disability Groups”. The reason behind it was a comment made by the Secretary of State about more responsibility and increased obligations. In the early stages, there was much concern among groups representing disabled people that the reforms would impact seriously on them. As it turned out, as is often the case, once the White Paper was published and looked at, people realised that it was not as bad as had been trailed.

The meetings were also useful because they enabled me to make a submission to the consultation. One of the principal concerns, which is reflected in various briefings that have been sent to us, is about the scope of the personal capability assessment. Every hon. Member must have had a number of constituents raising concerns about the operation of the current system and claims of inadequacy of the assessment by the medical practitioner appointed by the DWP. It is interesting but hardly surprising to note the findings of the report “Paying the Price: the real costs of illness and disability” for Citizens Advice Scotland, which noted that there was a 63 per cent. success rate among its clients who appealed against a decision. That must suggest that a significant proportion of decisions were incorrect in the first instance.

In particular, many of those I consulted were concerned that the people assessing them did not have sufficient expertise in their condition. Many felt that they were given a cursory examination by a complete stranger who lacked relevant experience, and that is reflected in briefings. For example, Mencap said:

Rethink said:

Macmillan Cancer Relief made the very good point that people suffering from terminal cancer cannot be expected to go through the same assessment procedure as others. They should have the choice of being assessed at home, rather than in an examination centre. The more cynical could say that all those organisations are making special pleas for their own groups, but the crucial point is that they are all making the same pertinent argument. Whatever form the PCA takes, we must ensure that whoever carries out the assessment has expertise in the particular illness or disability from which the subject of the interview suffers.

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