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9 Jan 2007 : Column 244

The reform of incapacity benefit and its replacement by the employment and support allowance reflects a changing approach to the labour market. It reflects a change in society’s attitude, a changed legislative framework and changed attitudes to mental health—particularly to those with mental health difficulties and fluctuating mental health conditions. It reflects a change in society’s attitudes to those with learning disabilities and their role in the labour market. Proper support for them is underpinned by the sense that people with learning difficulties can play a constructive, productive and economically valuable part in the labour market.

The broad consensus that has developed around these reforms reflects the values on which they were built: values of opportunity; the sense of a contract between the state, the citizen and the welfare system; and the fundamental importance of work in tackling poverty and social exclusion and social mobility and fulfilling personal aspirations.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend share my concern that many people moving away from receiving benefits often find themselves in low-paid employment? Does he agree that the quality of service given to those vulnerable people by Jobcentre Plus in particular is of paramount importance? I have received a number of representations from my constituents on these matters. One deaf person who is also unable to speak was refused a British sign language interpreter for a work-focused interview. How will the quality of service offered to such clients be improved?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend has raised that matter before, and I shall be happy to look into the specific problems affecting her constituents, but she is right to say that the effectiveness of the Bill will depend on professional and sensitive interventions to help people to re-enter and remain in the labour market. That applies both to Jobcentre Plus and to organisations in the private and voluntary sectors, and I shall be happy to discuss those matters when I visit her constituency on Thursday.

The Bill is the latest stage in the development of the welfare state. Extending opportunities has been at the core of the Government’s welfare and reform agenda since 1997, and it has involved the creation of Jobcentre Plus, the introduction of the new deal and the extension of the disability discrimination legislation. The Bill creates the employment and support allowance and initiates the national roll-out of local housing allowance, and is the next step along the journey to welfare reform. Contributors to the debate from all parties recognise that we have made real progress in recent times. Pathways is recognised to be the most effective initiative ever of its type when it comes to helping people to get off incapacity benefit and return to work.

However, one point of collective criticism that I want to make is that we often frame the debate about incapacity benefit, welfare reform, employment and support allowance and all the rest in terms of statistics. They are important, and we have set ourselves the enormous challenge of helping 1 million to leave incapacity benefit over a decade but, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) noted, we all
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know from our constituency casework that people’s real life experiences and aspirations underlie every statistic.

Recently, three people in particular have told me about their hopes and aspirations for the future, and I want to share what they said with the House. One case involves a young female paramedic in Motherwell. She has a brain injury, but more than anything else in her life wants the right to work again. Another involves a young woman from Reading whose mental health fluctuates and who talked with great passion and frustration about how society does not understand the nature of her condition. She too is determined to get a foothold in the labour market again.

The third case involves a 29-year-old man who is recovering from cancer. He has two young sons: one has a disability, and the other was born with cancer. He told me that until recently he considered himself to be retired from work for the rest of his life. That young man had envisaged that for nearly four decades he would rely on incapacity benefit or employment and support allowance, but the personal intervention made possible by pathways has helped to transform his attitude to work and to his role in society.

We all know from our constituency work that most people on incapacity benefit want the right to work. When they first claim that benefit, they want—and expect—to return to work. This Bill puts in place the legislative support to enable that aspiration to be fulfilled. Although the state has a duty to help people back to work and to provide support for those who suffer the most significant disadvantage, all who can do so have a duty to take up the support that is offered to them to make progress in preparing for, and gaining, work.

I can again reassure the House, and the many organisations that have contributed to our debates, that we share the goal of making sure that the most disadvantaged and vulnerable are supported in the best possible way. The treatment of those who are terminally ill has been a concern to many. Let me reassure the House by saying once again that we will continue to look at ways to ensure that they receive the support, through the ESA and welfare reform proposals, to which they are fully entitled.

Finally, the Bill is a legislative fulfilment of the traditional Labour and trade union demand for the right to work. For too long, too many long-term sick and disabled people have been written off by the welfare system to a life of dependency, entirely reliant on benefit and devoid of experience of the labour market. The Bill puts that wrong right, and I commend it to the House.

9.26 pm

Mr. Ruffley: The Bill has noble aims: to get 1 million of our fellow citizens off incapacity benefit. That is achievable, because all the Government’s surveys, which we accept, suggest that at least 1 million of the 2.7 million incapacity benefit claimants want to work. That is important in itself, but so, too, is the change of focus in the Bill. The Government are to be congratulated on that. For the first time there is a focus on capability, not just disability. That received cross-party consensus in Committee and in our proceedings
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today. Long may it continue. There is no “but” coming, so the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform should not be nervous.

When the Bill was published, it was described as a flagship Bill—rightly so, for the reasons to which I have just alluded. However, the idea that this is the only major Bill on the subject in this Parliament should not lead us to the conclusion that we have cracked the problem. I know that Ministers would not suggest that for a moment.

The Bill is a start, but only a start. More needs to be done—not just for those on incapacity benefit, but for lone parents, who may have no incapacity issues, and for older workers. Indeed, a year ago in the Green Paper, the Secretary of State referred to those two groups as parts of the work force who need more assistance. More must also be done for the long-term employed.

The Bill is only part of the solution. On the Conservative Benches, we know that we have to do more policy thinking. The social justice policy group and its “Breakdown Britain” analysis is part of the work that we shall be doing in future, but Ministers, too, will be doing more. Last month, the Secretary of State announced a new and important review to consider what more could be done in the sphere of welfare reform. The Minister will lead that review.

Although the Bill is only part of the story, it received serious scrutiny in Committee. In my nine years serving on Committees, this Bill’s Committee proceedings have been by far the most collegiate across the party divide. It was good natured and well informed—I shall not refer to the other Bill Committees of which I was a member, as comparisons might be invidious.

In Committee, the nuts and bolts of the Bill were taken apart and put back together. Ministers answered our queries, as well as those of other Opposition politicians and, on occasion, of Labour Back Benchers, with skill and expertise. Everyone on the Committee had one goal in common: to make sure that we have welfare that works on the ground, not just on paper.

I would briefly like to thank my team: my hon. Friends the Members for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) and last but certainly not least my indefatigable and indispensable hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) whose wisdom, cleverness and civilised values shone through the Committee proceedings—and will continue to do so. He was a huge help to me and my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey in making our maiden appearances on the Front Bench.

I would also like to talk about the Government’s team in all their manifestations and not just the Ministers to whom I have referred. Powerful, wise and intelligent contributions were made, in particular by the hon. Members for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford), for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) and for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson). I also wish to thank the Clerks who refereed the proceedings with their usual peerless charm and assurance.

During the course of the Committee and the proceedings today, clarifications and assurances have been sought and, in large part in many instances, have
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been given by Ministers to clarify things that were not in the Bill or had been alluded to in the explanatory notes. Much of what has been said in Committee and today will, I know, be very important for the outside groups that have done so much to inform the debate and to brief and to help Opposition Members such as myself. It will probably also mean—and I am sure that the Minister will welcome the observation—more work for us. What he and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), have said on the record will provoke more thoughts and more queries, so perhaps our work begins after the debate today. It will continue.

I want to say something about the number of regulations that will be issued pursuant to the Bill. The Minister did the Committee a great service by giving it as many of the draft regulations as he could, but that cannot get round the facts that the regulations need a lot more work and that we have not seen some at all. When they are brought back to the House, many outside groups will furiously brief Opposition Members and we will have more work to do. There is a more limited ability for us to have full debates on some of the important regulations, but I know from the assurances that the Minister has given that he will work hard with his hard-working officials to make sure that every “i” is dotted and every “t” crossed.

I wish to reflect on some of the key issues on which comfort has been given to outside groups. The new PCA is absolutely central to the effective operation of the new regime that the Bill will usher forth. Five dozen dummy runs of the three assessments that are outlined in clauses 8, 9 and 10 have led to a few raised eyebrows outside this place, but the Minister has assured us that they will be looked at carefully to see how the potentially complex interaction between three assessments in one day for one individual in the same place in the same room by the same assessor will operate in practice. He has undertaken to look carefully to ensure that customers will not be disadvantaged in future dummy runs and further work. In particular, we flagged up the problem that a claimant or customer might have to show potentially conflicting things at the same time. The first is his or her level of capability or level of functionality and the second is their level of unwellness. We flagged up the point that that might introduce a conflict of interest. On the face of it, that appears to be a problem, but the Minister has said that he will keep an eagle eye on it.

The hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) called for consideration to be given to the desirability of an independent analysis and evaluation of the operation of the new PCA. I hope that the Minister understands that lots of outside groups—not just Opposition politicians—will want to see evidence-based material on how that is working. If that crucially reformed gateway is not got right, the whole system could be thrown into doubt. Customers would not have confidence in the new assessments, which could lead to more appeals. That would not be in the interests of anyone—the Government or the customer.

We also had an important debate on employers’ attitudes. We all understand that the rights and responsibilities agenda requires customers to do what
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they can to put themselves in a situation that means that they can be work-ready. As we said, 1 million of the 2.7 million people want to be work-ready, with the right assistance. The Bill will help many of them. However, that is the supply side of the equation. The demand side of the equation is that employers have to be more willing to consider recruiting those with an incapacity or disability. That was a point of agreement on both sides of the Committee and the House.

Anti-stigma campaigns are important. Some 40 per cent. of incapacity claimants have a mental or behavioural condition that leads to their claim being accepted. We know how far employers discriminate against those with mental health conditions and fluctuating conditions. We also know that the issue of talk therapy and better interventions for those with mental health conditions is a top priority—not only for the Opposition and outside groups, but for the Government.

Some important things were said on both sides of the House about the support group. We had a long and fruitful discussion today. I will not repeat it. Needless to say, those in the support group—the most vulnerable claimants under the new regime—must have the right to volunteer for work-related activities, sure in the knowledge that there will be no sanctions and that resources and every possible assistance will be given to make sure that they get the best possible chance of getting back into the world of work.

In Committee, we also talked about contracting out. There was widespread agreement that the new contracts must be designed in a way that avoids cherry-picking, so that those who are the most easy to help are not the only people or the first people to be helped by private and voluntary sector contractors. We were also clear that, whether we are talking about incapacity benefit personal advisers at jobcentres or the employees of private and voluntary sector contractors, they must be absolutely up to speed on understanding the needs of the customers and clients. We must consider whether they have enough training in mental health conditions and difficult-to-meet-needs customers, such as those with autism and severe learning disabilities.

In the course of the Bill’s proceedings, we did not have the opportunity to say enough on the earnings disregard and the thorny but hugely important issue of permitted work. How much work can an individual incapacity benefit claimant—soon to be employment and support allowance claimant—do without jeopardising the full value of their benefit package? That is something for another day, I hope, and perhaps for another Bill.

Finally, there is housing benefit, in part 2 of the Bill. In a series of reassuring contributions, the Under-Secretary was able to give comfort about the sanctions that will be applied in relation to housing benefit for those antisocial individuals who have been evicted by virtue of their antisocial behaviour. They then become subject to HB sanctioning. She showed a real sensitivity to what many outside groups were saying about the sanctions—their comments were reflected by my hon. Friends. Such sanctions should be used exceedingly sparingly, if at all. We must always have any impact on child poverty at the front of our minds. I know that the Under-Secretary does not need
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lecturing on that. She has been reassuring and I know that her words will be read closely and with care by outside groups and hon. Members.

There has been much common ground among the political parties on the Bill, but we have not agreed about everything. A lot has been done, but there is a lot more to do. In that spirit, Conservative Members are content to support the Bill on Third Reading.

9.40 pm

Mr. Rooney: Congratulations are due, especially to the Secretary of State, who walked into a quagmire about 15 months ago when a Green Paper had been several months in germination, but showed no signs of appearing. He injected much needed realism into the process and there was genuine consultation with not only Back Benchers and Opposition spokesmen, but numerous groups outside the House. The subsequent Green Paper and the Bill were far better for that; perhaps the process is a model that other Secretaries of State should follow.

The Work and Pensions Committee has taken a great interest in the whole process. We followed closely the pathways to work pilots, especially their impact in terms of mental health. As politicians, we are still learning what that really means. The process has meant that we now have a far better system—it is revolutionary—to allow the representative bodies to design the new personal capability assessment. Such a thing might not happen again, but the process has certainly been an interesting experience.

We need to remember why we are where we are. There is a core of people who have been on incapacity benefit for all sorts of reasons—we do not need to go into the politics of that—for far too long. Sadly, people who are disabled are going to be in poverty. If people have a disabled child in their family, they are going to suffer poverty. Disabled parents with a disabled child will be in even greater poverty. We must address the situation. There was a time when pensioners were almost automatically in poverty, but that is no longer the case. We must get to a point at which that is no longer the case for people with disabilities. A disability is not a reason or excuse for someone to be in poverty.

Much as the Bill promotes work as an option and is designed to facilitate people moving into work, we must never forget the need for people with disabilities to be retained in work. Quite frankly, the attitude of employers in this country is still a massive problem. It is two years since the strategy unit produced a report on improving the life chances for disabled people, which cited the need for Government Departments, especially the Department of Trade and Industry, to do more work. There has not been anywhere near enough action over the past two years. As I have said many times, discrimination on the grounds of gender or race is almost always malicious, while discrimination on the grounds of disability is almost always due to ignorance. We need an education programme for employers and all parts of the Government need to engage in that; the opportunity to work is the civil right of everyone in society. The Government need to take the action necessary to ensure that those less fortunate than ourselves can have that opportunity.

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We need to find out how the cities strategy will work. The initiative is exciting, but we need to find out how much flexibility we can lend to it. The impact of Leitch gives rise to an enormous agenda.

The Government should be congratulated on their foresight and courage in introducing the Bill. I do not want to embarrass anyone, but never has the disability lobby had as doughty a champion as the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire). There might have been someone as good, but there has been no one better. I do not want to deny her any prospects of promotion, but as long as she is in her post, we are in good hands.

The Select Committee will be keeping a watching eye on the situation. All its members have a great interest in the matter and we want the system to work. There will undoubtedly be teething problems, but given the flexibility in the Bill, I hope they can be dealt with speedily.

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