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It is not without significance that new clause 7 is co-signed by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who convenes the Public and Commercial Services Union group in the
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House. There are wider concerns—perhaps political or subliminal—about the treatment of people on employment support allowance and those in the support group. Just as the PCS worries about two-tier work forces, I am sure that clients and claimants will worry about the possibility of different treatment and lack of access to facilities, especially resources, if they are in the support group rather than in the employment group. There is an even wider concern about equal handling from day to day and a worry that the Government or the system will write people off as if the easiest and simplest thing to do is park them in the support group on a reasonable benefit but with no expectation of change.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt) spoke movingly about the matter earlier when he reminded everyone that we are not writing people off. Options and facilities—perhaps new technology—may come along and enable people to work in ways in which we have not imagined in the past to be practical.

Of course, it is no kindness to claimants if they hammer on a door every day and say that they want a work-focused interview. The new clause would confine interviews to a reasonable number. We should not validate people’s hopeless quests but we should not treat people as hopeless cases and they should always have the option of work-focused interviews and availing themselves of support.

It is not only a matter of the claimants and their rights but of the Government’s attitude. In a wider context, some of my hon. Friends have expressed concern, which I share, that, in matters of social policy—be it related to child poverty or handling disability or incapacity issues—the Government will be tempted to go for the low-hanging fruit; the people whom they can most obviously motivate to get off benefit and back into work. That is the easy part of the task, but, if we are interested in social cohesion, we should ensure that everybody is part of the system, that it is open to them and that nobody, however difficult the condition and however long the period on benefit, is written off or given any signal that the game is not worth the effort.

Natascha Engel: I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), with whom I enjoyed serving in Committee. Many of the points that have been raised hark back to those that were made at length in Committee.

I want to speak against new clause 7. Despite the immense consensus in Committee, we are in serious danger of getting our legislative knickers in a twist. The new clause overdoes things and would achieve exactly the opposite of what we are trying to do, given that we all agree that the current system is inadequate to deal with the needs of those who are on incapacity benefit.

As the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) said, the majority of people on incapacity benefit want to go back to work. The Government are trying to facilitate exactly that in the Bill. They are doing that by establishing a support group and an employment group. The support group has that name because we are not trying to write off people on incapacity benefit who will receive employment support allowance.

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The support group will recognise and address the variety of different health needs, disabilities and fluctuating circumstances in which people find themselves. We also want to support people in the group not simply to remain in it for ever but to try to get work or engage in some sort of work-related activity. New clause 7 goes against the spirit of that and undermines everything that we are trying to achieve in creating the support group.

Adam Afriyie: We are attempting, through new clause 7, to untwist the Government’s knickers by making it clear that people in the support group can ask for a work-focused interview without risking being drawn into the rigmarole of leaving the group. I am, therefore, not sure what the hon. Lady’s concern about the new clause is.

Natascha Engel: I am worried and feel as if I am banging my head against a wall—perhaps I am not being sufficiently clear. There are two groups—the support group and the employment group. Those in the support group cannot have their employment support allowance stopped, docked or sanctioned. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds explicitly stated that he understood that financial support given to those in the support group cannot be stopped. Expressing a desire to participate in work-focused interviews or work-related activity will be backed in the support group, but those are only two of many options available to those in the group.

Mr. Hunt: We all agree that the purpose of the Bill is not to write anyone off. We also agree that different groups have different needs, which is the reason for establishing the support group and the work-related activity group. However, if we are not to write anyone off, surely that means that people in the support group—those with the most needs—must also have the opportunity to move away from benefit and engage in work. All that the new clause does is include in the Bill what is written in the explanatory notes, which state that people in the support group should be able to volunteer for work-related activity. The Opposition—and, indeed, many disability groups—fear that the Government’s strong resistance to including that in the Bill suggests that they may not put their money where their mouth is and give people in the support group the opportunity and necessary resources to participate in work-related activity.

Natascha Engel: Again, I feel as if I am banging my head against a wall. I believe that the hon. Gentleman’s point is already explicit in the Bill, as is the difference between the two groups. I am deeply frustrated tonight—and have been throughout the Bill’s passage so far—that that has not been accepted. I feel strongly that it is important, given the differences in the needs of those in the support group, to leave flexible whether they remain in that group for the rest of their working lives or move out of it into other activities. Personal advisers will work with those in the support group—indeed, there will be constant work with them—unlike the position today for those on incapacity benefit.

The flexibility and personalisation of the support for those in the group is fundamental to the success of the Bill. New clause 7 not only undermines the ethos of
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that but removes all the flexibility for people to move into the work-related group or stay in the support group, if that is what they need.

I agree with other hon. Members about the importance of the language that we use—a matter discussed at great length in Committee. However, I do not believe that the language used in the letters that are sent out during and after the assessment process to individual claimants, customers or whatever we want to call them is an appropriate matter for inclusion in the Bill. I would absolutely reject that proposal.

7 pm

Adam Afriyie: I had not intended to speak to new clause 7, because I thought that it was self-evident that it made a lot of sense and that it would create a clear pathway for people in the support group who choose, of their own accord, to go for a work-focused interview. Much of this debate has been about choice, and the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) mentioned empowerment. It is clear that there are a lot of pressures on people in society today, and the greatest cause of unhappiness, stress and mental health issues such as depression is the feeling that one’s life is out of one’s control.

There are 6 billion people on the planet, and 60 million people in the UK. There are very few identical twins. In a support group, there will be people with a positive frame of mind who, even though their PCA has suggested that they should remain in the group, will decide that they want to go through that door and take the opportunity to have a work-focused interview—as part of their own re-focusing of their life and their own positivity—without risking that action triggering a reassessment.

Someone in a support group might decide that, because they were in a positive frame of mind and feeling good, they were going to go for a work-focused interview. However, they would be hesitant and nervous in case their being successful and being deemed to be okay to take some form of work might trigger a recalculation or reassessment of their entitlement to be in the support group. That would be a natural worry. It would be a hard-hearted, pig-headed person who would not acknowledge that people in the group might have such concerns.

I want to ask the Minister a couple of questions on this matter. Where in the Bill does it state explicitly that someone in a support group has a right or entitlement to a work-focused interview? I am not asking about the principle of the support group, in which a person will be worked with to realise their potential. It is incredibly unlikely that any Government process, regulation or set of assessment criteria can prejudge the exact state of being of an individual in a support group for a particular period of time. We are all unique. We each have our unique needs, wants, desires and physical and mental attributes, as well as positive and negative outlooks on life. No system could capture every variation of those qualities. There will be a small group of people who might want to take the step away from the support group to try a work-focused interview, and my concern is that the Bill does not state explicitly how they can do that outside of taking the pre-allocated steps set down by the support group.

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My second question relates to clause 11(1)(b). It has been suggested that this provision will somehow close down all the uncertainty about someone voluntarily going for a work-focused interview. I have read the clause about 10 times, and I have scanned the Bill again—I read it 20 or 30 times in Committee—and I do not think that the measure shuts off any of those concerns. The paragraph states that regulations can be made purely for the work-focused interview, but it does not close off all the other avenues in relation to someone who might be successful in their interview but who is still technically a member of the support group. It is not clear from the Bill that other sanctions or regulations would not be applied to them.

In spite of my slightly agitated remarks today, I very much support the principle behind the Bill. It is a wonderful thing that we are looking at the capacity to work, so why not put these measures into the Bill? Let us open the door so that people can make the choice to have a work-focused interview without worrying that they might be risking triggering a whole new set of regulations.

Mr. Jim Murphy: I have pleasure in responding to this very productive and, on most occasions, constructive debate. Opposition Members have spoken from a sedentary position about angry exchanges during our conversation on this group of amendments. However, for the record and for the benefit of the many people who will read our debate, I do not think that anyone would describe this conversation as anything other than reasonable and relatively well informed. When it came to my intervention on the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), not only did I intervene but, with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I intervened at some length to enable him to find his reference point in the Bill. That is far from an angry intervention or exchange. That is help and assistance to inform the debate.

The nearest that we came to an angry exchange was when the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), again from a sedentary position, chuntered about the resources to enable the fulfilment of the provisions of the Bill. We have said repeatedly that we will fund the national roll-out of pathways using a similar model to the one that already exists across 40 per cent. of the country. It is a bit rich for those who voted against every penny of the money invested to enable that 40 per cent. roll-out of pathways now to say that it is not enough. Their argument at the time of the vote in the House was not that the funding was not enough; it was that they were against every single penny of the investment. That is a matter of public record in Hansard and in the votes of the House.

I agreed with the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds about our communications. He made an entirely fair point, as have others, about the nature of our communications with our customers, particularly those with a mental health illness or a learning disability. That is why we are finding ways to consult those with mental health illnesses and others about how we can improve our communications with those client groups. When we have an additional set of responsibilities, along with rights, it is important that
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we get the tone and content of our communications exactly right. The one proviso is that it is difficult to construct a legally based letter in gentle prose in every circumstance, so there will still be aspects of these communications that seem difficult or impenetrable to some people, but that is because it is necessary to set out certain legal responsibilities.

The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds has, throughout these proceedings, shown himself to be well informed, connected to the issues and phenomenally well briefed on the detail that he has brought to his observations in Committee and, thus far, today. Unusually, however, the main burden of his argument on clause 11(1)(b) is based on a misunderstanding of the Bill. There is a power to sanction only those on whom the requirement can be imposed, and because of clause 11(1)(b), that does not apply to members of a support group. There is no power to sanction anyone in the support group. That is explicit in the Bill, and it will be explicit in how the Act operates, and in how advisers and decision-makers, both in the public and private and voluntary sector, operate. I hope that that provides reassurance.

Let me confirm to the House that, as I said in Committee, someone’s well intentioned desire and determination to volunteer would not change their entitlement to be in the support group; only a change in their medical circumstances or condition and a new PCA would do that.

Mr. Boswell: That goes to the heart of the concerns that some Members have expressed. Can the Minister give an absolute assurance that the mere fact that someone in the support group has volunteered to participate in a work-focused interview will in no circumstances be treated by the official system as grounds for reopening the case, under clause 9, as to whether such a person should be in the support group?

Mr. Murphy: The answer is yes—I do not think that I can be clearer than that.

The hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) asked about our approach. In pathways areas, interviews and support are provided, where appropriate, to customers who volunteer by virtue of section 2 of the Employment and Training Act 1973. The number of interviews is not capped at an arbitrary level. I believe that the approach taken in pathways and in future under the ESA is entirely right. That is the legal basis on which we rest our ability to encourage and support people to volunteer. Thus far, in the roll-out of pathways, that approach has been effective, and it will continue to be appropriate.

With regard to new clause 7 moved by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds and supported by his hon. Friends, to provide interviews to all members of the support group under any circumstances would be wholly wrong. There will be situations in which that is not appropriate, such as when an interview would be detrimental to the customer’s health and safety. I do not want to require staff to conduct interviews in such circumstances. Setting a maximum number of interviews as has been suggested would not be appropriate. It would be wrong for the Bill to impose a legal responsibility to guarantee the right of volunteering for work-focused interviews. In some
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circumstances, because of the nature of the customer, that could be detrimental to the customer’s health, and it would be inappropriate, for health and safety reasons, to ask Jobcentre Plus or private and voluntary sector staff to conduct such interviews. Therefore, the right approach is to allow volunteering under the 1973 Act. It would be wrong, however, to guarantee in the Bill the right of every customer, regardless of their circumstances or health condition, to a work-focused interview.

Mr. Hunt: Will the Minister confirm that he has just said that if someone in the support group volunteers to take part in a work-focused interview, and the Government decide that it is inappropriate for that person to do so, that person will not be able to volunteer for a work-focused interview?

Mr. Murphy: It would not, of course, be the Government, a Minister such as myself or any politician who would take that decision. Medical evidence and advice and the views of personal advisers would determine that it was not appropriate or in the interests of the person concerned to volunteer for such an interview. The example that I used earlier was of someone who had an aneurysm—a point of weakness near the brain. Such a person might say that they wished to volunteer, but the medical advice would be that that was not appropriate at the time, but that help to get treatment, perhaps an operation and other medical support might enable them to volunteer later. That is an entirely sensible and sensitive approach to this progressive policy, and new clause 7 would undermine that.

7.15 pm

Amendment No. 87 refers to the provision of information to those in the support group about their ability to volunteer for work-related activity. I hope that I can provide additional reassurance in that regard. Currently, in pathways to work areas, all new customers, including those exempt from the requirement to take part in interviews, are, where appropriate, provided with a package of information on the support on offer. Furthermore, where appropriate, a personal adviser explains in a telephone call the access to provision in more detail. We are building on that approach through the questionnaire accompanying the invitation to tender for provider-led pathways areas, which specifically asks how the provider will ensure consistent delivery to mandatory and voluntary customers. That is clear in the key criteria set out in documentation to prime contractors, which has been placed in the Library of the House.

When the employment and support allowance is introduced, we will continue to provide information about opportunities for appropriate voluntary participation to all customers. As always, we need to work to improve those communications, to which I have alluded. Again, we will provide the information to support group customers under the Employment and Training Act 1973. We already use the existing power in that Act to do that for the exempt group in pathways areas.
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In relation to amendment No. 3 tabled by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), the work-focused health-related assessment is a key element of our aim to provide people with the support that they need to move from dependency on benefits and into work. I acknowledge that the amendment is probing, so I will not be as critical as I would have been were he seeking to divide the House on it. Such an amendment, which would remove the work-focused health-related assessment in its entirety, would morph the refined PCA back into the IB kind of PCA. I accept that a legitimate conversation is to be had about when the work-focused health-related assessment should take place, although not about whether it should take place in principle.

On the points made by my hon. Friends the hon. Members for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), for Kingswood (Roger Berry), and for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), we will pilot the work-focused health-related assessment during 2007, and we have listened to the concerns raised in the debate. As we said in Committee, our preference is for the medical assessment and work-focused health-related assessment to take place on the same visit, as part of a process in which the customer makes one visit. That is convenient for the customer. Again, only having the medical assessment would mimic the worst parts of the current IB PCA. The work-focused health-related assessment focuses on what a person can still do in the world of work and what medical intervention and support is appropriate, which is a much more progressive approach. We have listened to the points made by my hon. Friends, however, and we will reflect further on how we operate that in practice, so that we can support our customers in the most progressive manner.

The amendment tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, North and for Kingswood, which was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South, would give the customer the opportunity to decide the time and place of the interviews. I think that the amendment refers to giving the right to all customers in all circumstances to decide that, which is not an idea to which we are attracted. We will discuss further, in relation to draft regulations to be provided, how, when a customer’s health dictates that it is appropriate, the customer can say, with supporting medical evidence, that their medical condition would make travel to an assessment centre inappropriate, and that they would prefer heath professionals or those carrying out the health assessment and the work-focused health-related assessment to come to their home. In some circumstances, that would be more effective, and we will seek to reflect that in draft regulations. We will be happy to discuss that with my hon. Friends.

On amendments Nos. 1 and 2 tabled by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey and the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), we know that people on benefits can quickly lose their motivation and confidence. We do not want such people to miss out on the work-focused health-related assessment, which is why we are mandating people to take part or face sanctions for failing to do so without good cause. We will ensure that people with mental health problems are not penalised without contact having first been made with them or their carers.

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