Select Committee on Work and Pensions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 319)



  Q300  Jenny Willott: Is it possible on appeal for somebody's sanctioned benefit to be backdated and repaid? One of the issues, for example, we have had raised in some of our previous evidence has been that there are cases where people have mental health difficulties where they are wrongly classed as being non-compliant when actually it is a factor of their illness.

  Mr Hutton: I am obviously disappointed to hear that has happened because in relation to mental health we do take extra safeguards to make sure that we do understand, for example, the reason why someone has not attended a work-focused interview. So there is a home visit programme built into the process that leads up to an eventual sanction, but my understanding is that if the person wins the appeal, there is a retrospection element to that so the benefit will be restored to the level it should have been.

  Q301  Jenny Willott: Are you aware of health professionals raising concerns about the implications for medical ethics if it is made compulsory to participate in medical interventions like, for example, the Condition Management Programme?

  Mr Hutton: I am not really quite sure what the concern is there. I am aware some concerns have been expressed, but is there anything specific you want to raise with me?

  Q302  Jenny Willott: Just whether that had been brought up as an element of concern and how far compulsion should go and how far sanctions should be able to be spread?

  Mr Hutton: The decision to sanction is not a decision of a health professional; it is a decision of the Jobcentre Plus personal adviser.

  Q303  Jenny Willott: Certainly, but the compulsion element might be determined by somebody within the Jobcentre Plus requiring a claimant to undertake some medical intervention or some medical action.

  Mr Hutton: No. We will not do that. We cannot compel people to undergo medical treatment. That is not part of the sanctions regime.

  Q304  Jenny Willott: So the Condition Management Programme is not going to be included as part of the elements of conditionality?

  Mr Hutton: No.

  Q305  Jenny Willott: So it would specifically be entirely work-related activity, so job searching?

  Mr Hutton: I think we have to be very careful about sanctioning medical treatment. We are not sanctioning that type of thing now. We will have to be very careful about saying to a competent adult that they have to undergo a particular type of treatment, particularly mental health treatment, or face a benefit sanction. That is a very difficult step to take because of the right of an individual to decide their own medical treatment. You have to be very careful in that regard.

  Q306  Jenny Willott: So are saying it will not happen?

  Mr Hutton: No, it should not happen.

  Q307  Jenny Willott: Thank you. In the Pathways to Work pilots, there is a lot of evidence that existing claimants, the stock, horrible expression, are volunteering in enough numbers to show that compulsion is not actually necessary. There is also evidence from the initial evaluation of the Pathways to Work pilots that shows that compulsion can be counter-productive to existing claimants and also that compulsion can specifically have a particularly negative impact on mental health conditions. Why do you feel it is necessary to introduce conditionality, and potentially sanctions, given that so many people are already volunteering?

  Mr Hutton: Remember, in the Pathways areas new claimants have to be part of the work-focused interview regime.

  Q308  Jenny Willott: I am talking about the existing claimants?

  Mr Hutton: Right. In all these things you have to be clear about what your ultimate end purpose is, what it is you are trying to do. I think it is entirely reasonable for us as a society to say we are prepared to make a very significant investment in providing extra help and support for people on benefit, but we do expect people to be part of that process of getting back to work, where that is possible. Were we not to take that view, most ordinary members of the public would find our stance utterly incredible, but there is a world of difference between taking that reasonable stance, which is what we have done in relation to the New Deal, very successfully in the last few years, between saying we expect people to attend a work-focused interview and start to plan their return to work—I think that is an entirely reasonable thing for society to say to people on benefit, for example—and saying on the other hand we are going to behave like a Nazi state in relation to people when they are in the benefit system. The problem with this whole area is that quite often it is automatically assumed that if you are going to apply any level of conditionality, it is going to be applied inappropriately, and I do not accept that. It is the hallmark of a fair and balanced welfare system that there are proper rights and responsibilities within the system, and I really would question whether it is unreasonable to say to people coming into benefits "We expect to see you. We expect to sit down and plan with you your return to work." The whole system of the Employment and Support Allowance is going to be geared around that basic premise that it is wrong and utterly unfair to disabled people to assume that, because they are claiming an Employment and Support Allowance, they are not capable of working ever again. That is a nonsense.

  Q309  Jenny Willott: I do not think any of us have said that this afternoon.

  Mr Hutton: No, but what is underpinning this argument that there should not be any level of conditionality at all is that really, people are not capable of working, and therefore it is wrong to go through this exercise of requiring people to come in and plan their return to work. I just reject that absolutely. I think if there is one thing, one claim I would make for these reforms, which is an important issue, it is that ultimately I think this is an issue here, and the reforms enshrine this basic premise, that disabled people have exactly the same right to work as able-bodied people and it is the job of a welfare state to support and find a way of making that right to work a reality for disabled people. That has never been achieved in the welfare state so far. Quite the opposite. You look at the figures. If you are on incapacity benefits for more than two years, you are more likely to die or retire than ever get back to work again. That is a wholly unacceptable state of affairs, and I really do not think it is unreasonable or Draconian to say to people coming into the benefit system "Now that we are going to provide this extra help and support, we do expect to see you regularly to plan with you your return to work, and that will be a condition of your entitlement to benefit." I think in relation to Pathways, as I said, it is quite wrong to say that it has all been based on a purely voluntary approach. That is not true. For new claimants it has been a requirement to be part of the work-focused interview arrangements, and if you look at the success, the vast majority of the successes, the job entries, have come from people who have entered Pathways through that particular route. So I would take issue with those people who say we do not need a conditionality regime here. I think it is an absolutely essential part of these reforms.

  Q310  Jenny Willott: The issue I am raising with respect to what you have just said, what you were saying as the arguments, is not what we have been suggesting this afternoon. The point is that for existing claimants, absolutely we identify that there are a significant number of people who are disabled and on incapacity benefits who want to return to work anyway, and who are volunteering to take part in the programme. The issue is why was a decision made, rather than to invest in publicising the positive outcomes of the pilot and doing it in a much more positive and proactive way, instead to put resources into conditionality and potentially sanctions, because there is going to be an in-built cost, particularly if you have to have an up and running appeals process and so on to deal with those who are going through the conditionality?

  Mr Hutton: Like all these things, the choice comes down to this, basically: is it all going to be entirely voluntary or is there going to be an element of conditionality? I think it is entirely right for there to be an element of conditionality, as long as that is fair and reasonable, and I think attaching it to the work-focused interviews is a fair and reasonable point to attach it. It is a perfectly credible argument to say there should be no compulsion at all; there should be no conditionality whatsoever in the system, but I seriously doubt whether that is a sustainable long-term position. I think in relation to existing claimants we have said it is a voluntary approach, and that is perfectly fair and reasonable, but specifically in relation to new claimants, we have taken the view this will be a conditionality approach that we will adopt and I think it is working. I think the evidence there is that it is working, and that is equally true of the international evidence, and I think we should basically go with what works, I think we should be fair and reasonable to people, I think that is absolutely essential, but I think the idea that you could really do all of this from an entirely voluntary approach with no conditionality regime at all I struggle with. I think that would be incoherent to the public at large.

  Q311  Jenny Willott: Finally, in the existing Pathways to Work pilots, the number of work-focused interviews for existing claimants is three rather than six. Can you tell us what the rationale was behind that decision?

  Mr Hutton: It was our first stab at trying to work out what the right balance was, and again, for existing claimants—and I think you are talking about people who have been claiming incapacity benefits for up to two years—there was a recognition that they are probably in a different space and place than people coming into the benefit system ab initio, so to speak, with an originating application. So they are a different bunch of people if you like, and we were trying to do it gradually, to understand what works and how to treat people fairly and reasonably. For new entrants coming into the system, the one thing we have learned is that you have to engage quickly, and you have to be decisive and clear about the help and support packages you put in place, and that is why we have gone for more proactive intervention with the new claimants, because of that basic understanding that we have about the need for primacy and immediacy in your response to a new claimant. People who have been on the system for a while longer I think are in a different place and we wanted to try and make this bridge between virtually no contact with Jobcentre Plus, which is basically what most people on long-term IB have, minimal contact, to the point where they are getting gradually more and more regular and frequent contact, and from October this year that regime, that requirement to attend for three work-focused interviews, of course, as you know, will be extended to people who have got up to six years of claiming incapacity benefits. We need to re-establish contact with a large number of people who we have not heard of, in many cases, for a very long period of time so we can sit down and start to plan with them how we can help them get back to work, if that is what they want.

  Q312  Jenny Willott: So is it envisaged that they would have more work-focused interviews but they just would not be compulsory, or that they would only have three?

  Mr Hutton: No, we are not planning to make any changes to the number of compulsory work-focused interviews for existing IB claimants. We have drawn the line where we have drawn it, and it may be it is not the most scientific distinction.

  Q313  Jenny Willott: I was not meaning in the future in terms of your planning. I was meaning, do you envisage that when an existing claimant goes into the Jobcentre, they have three compulsory work-focused interviews, and after that that they are able to take it more at their own pace on a voluntary basis with their adviser?

  Mr Hutton: If you are a new claimant, and unless I have it wrong, you will have six.

  Q314  Jenny Willott: Existing claimants?

  Mr Hutton: You will have three work-focused interviews, yes. That is the deal for existing claimants.

  Q315  Jenny Willott: Yes, and are you expecting that they then have more that are not compulsory?

  Mr Hutton: I think that is perfectly possible, yes. I do not think their sole contact with an Incapacity Benefit personal adviser would just revolve around the three compulsory work-focused interviews, no.

  Q316  Jenny Willott: Can I just clarify one other thing? You were saying that in October it will be extended to people who have been on incapacity benefits for up to six years. Will there be an element of compulsion, conditionality, applied to them participating in the system as well?

  Mr Hutton: For the work-focused interviews, yes. I think that is in the Pathways areas, but I can write to the Committee with the details.

  Q317  Michael Foster: I think you have acknowledged the particular challenges that those with mental health problems sometimes have in returning to the work force, and in the Green Paper the role of the personal adviser, as they have in the Pathways to Work projects, has been an important part. Do you think those personal advisers have sufficient training, particularly in dealing with mental health issues?

  Mr Hutton: That is a very moot point. We provide, I think, up to about 26 days of specialist training for Incapacity Benefit personal advisers, and again, the details of the training, if the Committee would be interested, I would be very happy to make available to you, but we do try very hard to make sure that our personal advisers are properly trained and equipped to do the very difficult job that we ask them to do. Can we improve on that? Yes, I am sure we can and we should always be prepared to look at ways of improving the training that we provide, and we do that. We do make a major effort to try and get this right. It is a very difficult field, certainly in relation to mental health, to make sure we have given our advisers the full range of competences they need. It is very difficult.

  Q318  Michael Foster: The reason I ask the question is that under the Green Paper, of course, they will have the powers to agree appropriate actions. In fact, they have already under the Pathways to Work projects. What we are being told by groups such as the Disability Rights Commission is that personal advisers appear to waive or defer WFIs more frequently for those with mental health problems than they do for others, which may suggest a lack of understanding of the condition that they are looking at.

  Mr Hutton: It might mean a number of things. That might be one possible explanation. The other explanation might well be what we have just been discussing. I made it clear there are additional safeguards that we try and follow in relation to someone on incapacity benefits who has a mental health problem. So there is a home visit, there is a proper effort made, rightly so, to establish the reason why a person failed to attend a work-focused interview, and we need to be sure about the reasons for the non-attendance before we could consider applying a sanction, and that may well be the other equally plausible explanation as to why, like for like, there seem to be less sanctions being applied in relation to people on incapacity benefits who have a mental health problem than those who do not.

  Q319  Michael Foster: In a sense, personal advisers are relatively low-paid individuals. I am not saying they are not competent but they are not professional in the sense of having any experience in dealing with mental health conditions except through experience of the work they do. Do you not think it is really a role for health professionals to make judgments when they are talking about the conditions of those with mental illness?

  Mr Hutton: We do, as I said, try and make sure that our personal advisers have the necessary training to allow them to discharge their functions, one of which is to make a determination in some cases of a decision to sanction. I think it is entirely reasonable to place the responsibility at that point. It has to be clearly matched by the appropriate level of training, and we do, as I said, try very hard to do that. We do not ask Atos Origin to make benefit sanction decisions; that is not the contract we have with them. I am not persuaded that it would be sensible to employ, as it were, medically qualified people to make decisions about whether it is right to sanction in relation to non-attendance for a work-focused interview. That is four square within the responsibilities of Jobcentre Plus to resolve.

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