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9.45 pm

Danny Alexander: As has been said, there has been a great deal of cross-party, or all-party, consensus on the principles behind this important Welfare Reform Bill. In particular, there was consensus that we need to encourage greater responsibility from claimants on the one hand, and to offer greater reciprocal support from Government to enable people to get back into work on the other. That is a philosophy that Liberal Democrat Members support very strongly.

The Bill is the first that I have dealt with as a Front Bencher, and the same is true of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), as he said. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) for his support. Like the Minister, I would like to thank the Chairs of the Committee, the Clerks, the police and all other people who made our proceedings, and particularly our Committee proceedings, run so smoothly. I also put on record my thanks to the lobby groups. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds mentioned them, too, and I will not list them all. However, the Disability Rights Commission and the Disability Benefits Consortium, which represents a wide range of organisations, both provided enormously valuable briefings and support on part 1. Shelter and Citizens Advice were particularly helpful on part 2, not least on some issues to do with single room rent, which we debated today.

Sometimes, political consensus gets too cosy. The Committee certainly was not cosy; it was friendly and frank, and both the criticisms and the ministerial responses—and, occasionally, concessions—were perceptive. None the less, too cosy a political consensus is not good for the soul, and things can often seem too cosy from the outside, too, so I should like to offer a few pointers on issues that need to be taken further, beyond proceedings on the Bill. On some of them, there will again probably be cross-party consensus, bizarrely enough.

First, I return to an issue that I mentioned earlier, although the Minister poured scorn on what I had to say. The issue of funding and support, particularly for the pathways to work programme as it is rolled out, is important. We must make sure that the programme is genuinely available to the 1 million claimants—I
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suspect that there are actually a lot more than that—who would like to benefit from the additional support. I hope that that subject will be probed further in the other place.

On a related subject, in respect of the roll-out of pathways to work and the use of the private and voluntary sector, the job has been half done. The Government are taking steps in the right direction, but they still have not fully grasped the opportunities that can be gained by taking advantage of the innovation of the private and voluntary sectors, and their potential to deliver some of the services. I hope that, in due course, the Government will have greater confidence in taking more radical steps in that direction. We Liberal Democrats will certainly develop our own policy on the subject in months to come.

The Minister has been reassuring about the personal capability assessment today, but there is need for a great deal more reassurance, through further research, evaluation and testing, before everyone can be confident that the new test genuinely meets all the needs that people place on it. The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), rightly referred to the role of employers. It is striking that the Bill has often seemed like a supply-side device to get people ready for work. Too little attention is paid, both in the Bill—although that is perhaps natural, given its context—and generally, to the importance of tackling disability discrimination among employers, and raising disability awareness and confidence among employers. That must be done if we are to avoid a situation in which, because of the successful implementation of pathways to work, hundreds of thousands of former claimants are ready for work, but are unable to take advantage of the opportunities available to them because of other barriers, which might relate not to their disability or impairment but to attitudes in wider society. That is why it is so important to take the social model of disability as a conceptual basis for the Bill.

On housing benefit, there is unfinished business on the subject of the single room rent and in particular on openness among rent officers, and the way in which the process can be further opened up to public scrutiny. The most significant problem, which taxed everyone in Committee, is the issue of people with mental health problems. There is mixed evidence from the pathways to work pilots of the advantages for people who claim benefit primarily because they have mental health problems. I draw the attention of the House to the work of Lord Layard on the provision of mental health support in the NHS, which is critical to the condition management programme that helps those people to return to work. There is a big gap, however, and a great deal more work must be done if we are to help people with mental health problems back into work.

One Committee sitting was rather odd, as all parties declared their support for the long-term objective of a single working-age benefit. Thinking on benefit reform must be directed much more along those lines. I hope that those considerations will be taken into account and, with those few caveats, Liberal Democrats are happy to give the Bill a Third Reading.

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9.50 pm

Roger Berry: Given the limited time, I shall make two brief comments. First, my hon. Friend the Minister is correct that the Bill is about the right to work and the need to tackle poverty. Some 40 per cent. of children with a disabled parent live in poverty, and 48 per cent. of disabled people are out of work. The challenge is enormous. It is easy for Back Benchers who do not deal with the issue daily to forget the scale of the problem and the importance of this policy area. The Bill highlights the Government’s enormous progress in dealing with child poverty, but child poverty targets will not be met unless opportunities improve for children in families in which there is at least one disabled person. The size of the task cannot be overestimated.

Secondly, I very much agree with the hon. Members for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) about the importance of the demand side. I am tempted to be blunt, now that we all agree about the need for the measure. The Department for Work and Pensions has worked its socks off to deal with the supply side. We all have criticisms of the Bill, and we can all claim to do better, but it has worked its socks off to produce a package that empowers people into work. I am thrilled by the progress that has been made in recent years, but if we are to create 1 million jobs, private, voluntary, and public sector employers must be prepared to employ 1 million more people.

I wish that I saw in employers and the Department of Trade and Industry the same commitment to address the problem as I saw in the Department for Work and Pensions. I have engaged in private correspondence with Ministers in the DTI, and I have checked its website and disability equality statement. I have checked what Business Link, the small business sector and the CBI say about such issues and, frankly, it is not a great deal. More significantly, in meeting after meeting with organisations such as the Shaw Trust and bodies that know about the delivery of employment-focused support for disabled people, I hear what ministerial colleagues hear—the employers’ contribution must be stepped up. Disabled people have an obligation to take advantage of available opportunities, but there are equally important—arguably more important—obligations on employers to deliver on the demand side. Much more work must be done on the problem, and I look forward to even more joined-up government. I would hate all the good work by the Department for Work and Pensions to be undermined by employers, both collectively and individually, not getting into gear fast enough.

9.54 pm

Mr. Boswell: The Bill will be memorable to me for three reasons. The first is, as has already been said extensively, the remarkable degree of consensus on the principle, if not on the detail. The second is my own entirely consensual and painless transition from the Front to the Back Benches during its passage. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) for his kind remarks about that. The third is the entirely unnoticed but nevertheless confessable sin late in the Committee stage
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of confusing St. Augustine with Martin Luther, which I hope will draw the indulgence of both confessions.

We need to remember that the Bill deals with people who are extremely vulnerable. The nature of their relationship with the state is an asymmetric one. The state has abundant coercive power. It can remove benefits from people who have quite small resources. On the other hand, people have to live and find a living. They are not always articulate, they are sometimes unwell and they are sometimes in difficulty. So if we have emphasised the right side of things, and if we have queried, as my hon. Friends and others have done even on Third Reading, some of the applications of the details of the Bill, it has been from the best of motives.

As we well know, there is a process of welfare reform encompassing the Bill, the regulations that will need to follow, the decisions that flow from them, and the introduction of contractorisation. It also encompasses the principles that continue into other aspects of welfare reform. I did not succeed in getting my baby, the principles clause, debated here, though perhaps it might attract some attention in another place. Nevertheless, it is not only a matter of law.

Ministers might be frightened of judicial review, but I hope that they will take the principles on which we have agreed and put them in the front of their programme for rolling out the Bill, in the regulations that they draw up, in the benefits handbook and the instructions to decision makers and those who advise them, and finally in the way they handle individual cases.

In the end, we can agree, and that is a good thing. It is an advance. However, we need to remember that the people about whom we agree do not always have the powers that we have. The credibility of the Bill and what it achieves will stand or fall by whether we treat them decently. It is as simple as that.

9.57 pm

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): As a long-time supporter of the campaign to end the single room rent—the SRR—restriction on housing benefit for young people, it would be an understatement if I did not express my disappointment that the Government did not grasp the opportunity to abolish it completely.

In 2000 the Welsh Affairs Committee, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and I were members, held an inquiry into social exclusion in Wales. In our conclusions we stated:

We took evidence from a great number of people. During our visit we heard repeated complaints about the inadequacy of housing benefit, especially for young people.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend quotes from a report published in 2000, when we were both on the Welsh Affairs Committee. Is she aware of the report commissioned by the Welsh Assembly Government, which has recently been
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prepared by Shelter Cymru? It also draws attention to the dire state of young people under 25 in Wales.

Mrs. Williams: Indeed. Without going into great detail, we took evidence from many people. In Bangor in my constituency, we were told that SRR was set at £35 a week, whereas the price charged for a one-bedroom flat was between £58 and £75 a week. Such evidence was the basis for our conclusion.

The Bill offered a unique opportunity to do away with the discriminatory restriction placed on young people under 25 who claim housing benefit. As hon. Members will recall, the policy was introduced by the Conservatives when they were in power.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.




Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000

10 pm

John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab): I have a petition from residents of Bexley and neighbouring areas regarding the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, which makes it unlawful for public authorities in carrying out any functions of the authority to do any act which constitutes discrimination.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

9 Jan 2007 : Column 255

Jamil el-Banna

10.1 pm

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): This week marks an ignoble anniversary—the fifth anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay. My constituent, Jamil el-Banna, has been held in Guantanamo Bay for four years without trial and without charge. He was picked up in Gambia, where he was on a business trip, and illegally rendered first to Afghanistan and then to Guantanamo Bay. His wife and five British children live in my constituency. Last Easter, working with my local paper, we started a petition for the return of Jamil el-Banna to the UK in order to face a fair trial or to be released. As I hand in this petition, it has an added urgency because his health is failing in Guantanamo Bay owing to poor medical care. Eleven hundred people have signed the petition, with support right across all communities in Brent.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Bed Tax

10.2 pm

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): I wish to present a petition signed by 2,732 residents on behalf of the Skegness Hoteliers Association, Skegness chamber of commerce and others.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

9 Jan 2007 : Column 257

Sheltered Accommodation (Bexley)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Liz Blackman.]

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