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We all agree that there will be a fair number of volunteers from the support group who wish to avail themselves of the opportunity to undertake work-related activity. We know that because so many surveys, which Members on both sides of the House buy into, suggest that in the region of 1 million of the 2.7 million fellow citizens who are on incapacity benefit would like to work. They are desirous of working, and wish to make a contribution and to be better off for the benefit of themselves and their families. They want to exercise personal responsibility, which is part of the
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Government’s agenda, allied with rights. We buy into that on the Conservative Benches as well and we are fully supportive of it. Those people want to get better. They want to get work-ready. We in the House should do everything that we can to help them. That is the purport of the new clause.

The new clause provides that support group members should not be subject to the conditions that are imposed on employment group members who undertake work-related activity. There is a reason for that. It is entirely likely that a member of the support group will have severe and challenging conditions—by definition, more so than a member of the employment group. They might have fluctuating conditions. They might have quite a good week after they have volunteered. Things could be going swimmingly. They would be able to tick off securing their first work-focused interview. We hope that they would be enjoying the experience. However—as we discussed in great detail in Committee—with many fluctuating conditions, a claimant can have one really good week followed by one really dreadful week when, through no fault of their own, they are completely unable to face up to or engage in work or even the prospect of work.

In that situation, we do not want someone in the support group who is doing something that they are not obliged to do—volunteering for a work-focused interview and, by extension, work-related activity—to be penalised because they have a bad week and are unable to satisfy the conditions of the work-focused interview. Perhaps they do not turn up on time, or do not turn up at all—again, through no fault of their own. We do not want someone to have their benefits docked or reduced in those circumstances, and I am sure that Ministers do not want that to happen, but that is implicit in the sanctioning regime in the Bill.

There is a hint that sanctions—benefit docking—might be a disincentive to those in the support group when it comes to volunteering in the first place. Many surveys—one from Capability Scotland has been cited many times—show that at least one in two disabled people do not want to engage in work-related activity out of sheer fear that their entire disability benefits package might be reduced if they show any level of functionality greater than has been previously judged.

New clause 7 would allow us to go the extra mile by ensuring that the fear of volunteering for work-related activity that a member of a support group might have, even though he or she would be under no obligation so to do under the Bill, would not put him or her off. Such people should not fear that they would be subject to a sanction if they showed some capability at a work-focused interview but were not able to keep that capability up—because of a fluctuating condition, for example—because they were unable to turn up and do the full raft of work-focused interviews.

6 pm

When we discussed the matter in Committee, the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform was alive to the situation, which arises logically from the Bill’s drafting. He observed—we have no reason to doubt these figures—that only about 1 per cent. of claimants under the pathways to work pilots have been
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subject to sanctions. Nevertheless, 1 per cent. of the big number of 2.7 million citizens could represent a lot of sanctioning, with some 25,000 people affected. We must remember that some of the people who could be sanctioned will have children. The Minister says that about one in six incapacity benefit claimants have children in their household. We have touched on the fact that sanctioning might not be terribly good news for families around the poverty line and we have all agreed that we would not want child poverty to be exacerbated by a sanction regime that kicked in to dock benefit and thus made a household poorer.

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Ruffley: I am very happy to give way to the hon. Lady. Her contributions in Committee were terrific and I am sure that her intervention will be equally fine.

Natascha Engel: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that build-up. I think that he slightly misses the point about the sanctioning regime and the difference between the support group and the employment group. It was made absolutely explicit in Committee—it is explicit in the Bill—that if a person in a support group voluntarily went into work-related activity, his or her employment and support allowance could not be sanctioned.

Mr. Ruffley: I agree with the hon. Lady on many things, but I must disagree with her last observation. The purport of new clause 7 is to put in the Bill the very protection that she says is already in place. That protection is not in place. I will explain why I think that she is in error, although I will be happy to allow her to intervene, if she does not agree with what I say.

In Committee, the Minister said that there were safeguards. He made it clear on more than one occasion that page 6 of the draft regulations with which he furnished the Committee referred to safeguards before a sanction was imposed. The problem that I have with that—the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) probably should also think that this is a problem—is that the text says:

The safeguards are not set out in not only the Bill, but the regulations. The document continues by saying that the safeguards

Page 6 of the document to which the Minister referred many times upstairs says that the safeguards are not in the Bill, or even in regulations, but in operational guidance.

When the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire made her intervention, she was probably referring to the assurances that were given in Committee about the way in which a volunteer from a support group could not be sanctioned. However, I am afraid that the Minister uncharacteristically missed the point in Committee when he said that in such circumstances it would be quite possible under the sanctioning regime for the sanction—the benefit docking—to be nil. However, that still is not good enough, because it
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implies that an individual from a support group who has volunteered falls under the sanctioning regime.

The Minister also said that support group members who volunteered would have a right of appeal, which presupposes that they would be mired in the sanctioning regime. Such people would get rung up and would need to show good cause. They would have to go through all the rigmarole of arguing the toss about why, under the hypothetical example that I cited, they were not able to turn up for the full raft of work-focused interviews because their fluctuating condition meant that they were okay one week, but not so good in subsequent weeks, which was why they had not satisfied the requirements of the officials handling their case.

Natascha Engel: Let me make two brief points. First, the hon. Gentleman’s comments presuppose that a work-focused interview would be mandatory for a person in a support group, which is not the case. Secondly, the sanction could not happen without a movement from the support group to the employment group. Without such a movement, all the points raised by the hon. Gentleman are completely irrelevant.

Mr. Ruffley: We will have to agree to disagree on this. The hon. Lady is a vigorous and vibrant debater, and I leave it to outside groups to decide who is right. The advice that I have received from many of those who represent with great distinction the interests of those on incapacity benefit and the disability lobby says that there is enough ambiguity in the way in which the Bill is drafted for it to be useful for new clause 7 to be included, which is precisely why I am moving it.

I thought that I had said this, but I will have to repeat it: those in the support group are under no mandatory obligation. They are volunteers. However, if those people make the decision to enter into the spirit of the regime that operates for those in the employment group, it is not clear that they will be free from sanctions and the sanction procedure. It is not good enough for the hon. Lady and her colleagues to say that there is a right of appeal. There is no doubt that an individual with a fluctuating condition who was a volunteer from a support group, even though he or she had no obligation to volunteer, could say, “I’ve got good cause because I have bipolar disorder and had a really bad week, so I missed a lot of the work-focused interviews.” New clause 7 would make it explicit that a person in such circumstances would not have to show good cause within five days—let us remember, there is a five-day period in which to show good cause, although the time for appeal under most benefits is a month—or make a case in an appeal.

We are arguing for crystal-clear clarity. I do not hesitate for a minute in saying that I hope that the hon. Lady is right that, in practice, those who volunteer from the support group will never be sanctioned. The chances are that it is 99 per cent. certain that they will not be sanctioned. However, I do not want to see such people having to go through the rigmarole of having a nil sanction against them or going through an appeal.

Danny Alexander: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is why I support the new clause. He is not saying that it is not clear in the Bill that the
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support group is exempt from the sanctioning regime—that is clear. However, the Bill is unclear about whether people who volunteer from the support group to engage in work-related activity might be seen to be leaving the support group, with the result that they could be subjected to a sanctioning regime. That would cause people significant worry, which is why new clause 7 would be of benefit.

Mr. Ruffley: The hon. Gentleman has just repeated what I said earlier. Of course, people in the support group would not be subject to the sanctioning regime, because they would be free from any requirement to undertake work-related activity. However, if those people were to volunteer to do work-related activity, it would be possible, under the Bill, that they would be subject to sanctions. That is absolutely clear.

Mr. Jim Murphy: My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) does not need me to support her—she spoke most vigorously in Committee—but perhaps I can come to her aid. I ask the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) to reflect on what he says in the context of clause 11(1)(b), which specifically excludes any

Throughout our proceedings he has been on top of the detail of the Bill in a way that is very effective but, uncharacteristically, in his comments on this group of amendments he seems to have ignored a specific guarantee and protection in clause 11(1)(b).

Mr. Ruffley: Of course I remember that we discussed the matter in Committee, but we did not get the assurances that we sought. If a member of the support group is involved in the work-related activity regime, the point is certainly arguable, and that is why we make the argument that we do.

Under amendment No. 87, which is in my name and in the name of Government Members, there is a requirement to notify people of their right to volunteer. It is important to ensure that members of the support group, who are under no obligation to undertake work-related activity, have the clear right to be notified and told that they may undertake such activity, and so receive all the resourcing and help that goes with it. In those circumstances, notification is symbolically important; it underscores the fact that the Government and the law-makers in Parliament understand that those in the support group are valued and can get access to more support and help, as a result of undertaking work-related activity—and they are in the support group because the test says that they are so severely challenged by their condition that they are under no obligation at all to undertake work-related activity. Many things come with such activity, including cognitive behaviour therapy and the options outlined in the “choices” package in the pathways to work programme.

In the context of that right to notification, I hope that the language used will be temperate, and that we will not fall into the trap of using some of the standard letter language included in correspondence sent to claimants in pathways to work pilot areas. It is worth putting on record once again, on Report, a letter, sent by officials, that was drawn to my attention and the
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attention of my hon. Friends by Mind and the Child Poverty Action Group. It said:

Outside groups found that language unfortunate. They suggested that it might make unhappy or unsettle claimants who might not want to be reminded too forcefully that their benefit might be docked.

Someone who is under no obligation to take part in work-focused interviews because they are in the support group should be notified in a manner, and using language, that makes it crystal clear that they have a right to volunteer. The notification should set out the support available and make it clear that the person is not part of a sanctioning regime. They should not be told, “You’re part of a sanctioning regime, but don’t worry, because you’ve got a right of appeal and there’ll be a ‘nil benefit docking’ decision.” It should be absolutely clear that if such a person wants to participate in work-related activity there is no possibility of any sanction applying, especially as elsewhere in the Bill sanctions apply to everyone who does work-related activity.

6.15 pm

Two Liberal Democrat amendments in the group seek to delete clause 10, and I would like to put on record my party’s feeling about them. The deletion of that clause might lead to wholesale chaos in the way in which assessments are managed at present. In addition, we should have regard to what the Minister said in Committee about the genuine potential need to hold three assessments—the initial limited capability for work test, the test for work-related activity under clause 9, and the health-related assessment for those who are in the employment group under clause 10. All three assessments could be required for those in the employment group. That would seem to involve a high level of complexity, or perhaps even duplication, and we debated the matter in Committee.

Although I do not support the amendments, the logic of deleting clause 10 is presumably that the clause 10 assessment could then be folded into a clause 9 assessment, which would simplify matters and lead to a maximum of two assessments, rather than three, which is what we are faced with for some in the employment group. However, the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) will flesh out his thinking later.

The fact that too many assessments are required is part of a bigger debate, which needs to be flagged up. Examples are legion of constituents of ours who have had to visit a medical centre to be assessed for a claim for incapacity benefit, and who have had to go there again for a disability living allowance assessment, and perhaps yet again for industrial injuries disablement benefit. It must be possible for Ministers and officials to continue their work to see how the benefit process can be streamlined and simplified. That is in the interests of the customer, first and foremost, but it is also in the interests of good government and the
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efficient dispatch of Government business. I commend to the House the amendments in my name and in the name of my hon. Friends.

Mr. Marsden: I wish to speak in favour of amendment No. 116, which stands in my name and those of hon. Friends. In view of the remarks of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), with which, in general philosophical terms, I totally agree, it might seem perverse that I should move an amendment proposing a time gap between the medical assessment and the work-focused health-related assessment, but I do so for good reasons.

First, I understand that the Government have been flexible and thoughtful in their approach to the subject. In Committee, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) said, in response to various concerns that were put to her, that the Government’s preference was for the assessment to take place directly after the medical assessment, but that the Government were prepared to consider whether that was appropriate. Indeed, holding both assessments on the same day would be more efficient, and it would minimise the need for travel, among other things. Those are sensible and practical observations, but unfortunately they fly in the face of what many organisations involved in the subject believe, and they fly in the face, too, of the experiences that many of us have encountered in our advice surgeries.

In that context, I pray in aid the strong reservations of Citizens Advice, which is, after all, a sort of second arm in respect of many of the issues that we come across in our constituency surgeries. Many of the problems that I deal with in Blackpool are referred to me from Citizens Advice, and vice versa. The briefing that it issued to Members says that it feels that the separation of the timing of the medical assessments and the work-focused health-related assessment was vital because the two assessments have very different purposes. It goes on to say that in the former the claimant is trying to prove eligibility for the ESA in general, and in the latter assessing work a person could do with the right support is apparently intended only for those allocated to the employment-related activity component. Furthermore, decisions on which component of ESA a claimant qualifies for will not yet have been made, and there is a risk that some people who are later allocated to the support component will have needlessly undergone an additional assessment.

Those points are strengthened by the briefings that Members received from the Disability Rights Commission policy manager and the policy group of the Disability Benefits Consortium, which expresses strong concern about the timing of the medical assessment and the work/health assessment:

It is incumbent on everyone, not least the Government, whom I praise for incorporating many of the groups’ recommendations, to reflect further on those issues. We should consider the human factor, as people are concerned about putting themselves forward for interview, which is a big step for them. I am not a psychologist, but it is a moot point whether it is better to obey the old principle of getting university finals out
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of the way in a short period and have a double whammy under the proposals or give people breathing space.

Mr. Boswell: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that there is genuine concern about the natural justice of such decision making and, indeed, confirmation of decisions? If one interview has taken place and a decision maker, who may not have conducted the interview, makes a decision, all subsequent interviews depend on the outcome and/or any appeal. It would be logical to follow due process and ensure that those operations were discrete, but I acknowledge that that could impose further stress on the claimant.

Mr. Marsden: In his usual balanced and fair way, the hon. Gentleman puts his finger on the dilemma. Of course, that is a danger, but it is outweighed by the points that he made earlier.

We must be mindful of the way in which people approach such things. The medical assessment and the work-focused health-related assessment are very different things in the minds of the people who undergo them. The first involves getting over a particular hurdle or being seen in a particular context, but the second is a much more refining process. The Disability Benefits Consortium says:

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