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Mr. Jim Murphy:
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Even at this stage, it is important to reassure him and others who consider our proceedings carefully. The revised PCA test seems to be working as
expected. However, to clarify intentions, there has been a need to refine some of the wording of physical function descriptors and mental health function descriptors. Some of the scores also have to be refined, so it is clear that we are learning as we go on. In the spirit of co-operation that has existed throughout the passage of the Bill, I will be happy to continue to share such information with the hon. Gentleman, as will the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), the Minister for disabled people, who has played a remarkable role in the formulation of the policy over the past few months.
Mr. Ruffley: I thank the Minister for that. I associate myself with his charitable and generous comments about the work of the Under-Secretary. It was a delight to debate matters with her in Committee, and I think that our debates generated a lot of light. It is important to remind ourselves as proceedings on the Bill draw to a close of the critical importance of the PCA and the vital need to ensure that its operation is not just looked at over a long period of five years but is evaluated annually. The disability benefits consortium has made the point that genuine evaluation must include examination of whether the assessment of capability to work was accurate, as it does not believe that there is a check to achieve that objective under the current arrangements. It suggests that health or social care providers who know the claimant could be asked whether they believe the new score to be a fair assessment, and it asks whether that could be designed into the new PCA. It says that claimants themselves could be asked whether they agree with their new score, and that members of the PCA could be asked to convene technical groups to interview people who are disqualified by the new PCA, but who qualified under the old PCA, to gain a fuller sense of whether they should, or should not, be considered to have limited capability for work.
Ministers may find it difficult to accept those propositions, but they are an example of the way in which an iterative process must be used when officials and practitioners at the sharp end implement the new test. We must always have an eagle eye and constantly evaluate the impact of the measures on claimants. The Minister, and Ministers generally, do not regard the new PCA as a draconian measure to choke off the flow of future employment and support allowance claimants, and I congratulate the Government on the fact that they have not used the macho rhetoric of the stick. Ministers, no more than the rest of us, want claimants, past, present and future, to be intimidated by the language that the welfare state uses about their future. I do not doubt the Ministers good intentions or those of future Ministers. The Minister mightwho knows?be moved onward and upward in the impending summer Government reshuffle in recognition of his great work on welfare reform. Whoever occupies his seat will want sensitive application and implementation of the new PCA, but annual, independent evaluation is required. A key reason is that problems may be discovered in the first year, new problems may be discovered in the second year, and yet more problems may be discovered in the third year, so in their lordships viewand in my view, tooit is essential that a rigorous, independent annual evaluation is conducted.
We accept that the Government have listened to those entreaties in another place, and that they are going to undertake qualitative evaluations. Research studies are undertaken anyway by the Department for Work and Pensions, the rollout of pathways to work is being evaluated, and academic research is accessed on top of that. We accept that all those things were going to be done anywayLord McKenzie made that pointbut the amendment makes provision to pull everything together in a single annual report, and stops a piecemeal analysis with bits and pieces all over the shop. It ensures rigorous, regular scrutiny of that important test.
The Minister referred to Lords amendment No. 2, which clarifies the Bills wording to ensure that it includes a tighter, more specific definition of a health care professional. There were concerns that the original definition was too broad and that less than qualified people would fall into the category of health care professionals and be allowed to carry out medical examinations. It was thought that that would affect only a small minority of individuals. Nevertheless, the disability benefits consortium was surely right to welcome the amendment, which specifies the staff who may carry out a work-focused health-related assessment of a disabled persons ability to engage in work-related activity and the kinds of adaptation and support they may need to enable them to undertake such activity. It went on to say that concern had been expressed by disabled people and those who represent them that unsuitably trained staff with relatively little experience of disability and health-related issues might be used. However, the amendment specifies the professionals qualified to undertake interviews, and that will provide important reassurance to disabled people who go through that gateway in future and who are assessed under the new process.
We support, too, Lords amendments Nos. 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 to clause 15. They remove from the Bill the ability to contract out decision making leading to sanctions. The category of excluded decisions includes all the decisions that can lead to sanctions, as well as decisions about the sanction itself. As a result of the amendments, decisions on sanctions will be made by Jobcentre Plus staff. The Secretary of State cannot, at this stage, authorise contracted-out providers either to deliver the sanction or to make decisions leading to sanctions. Again, it is important to reflect the non-ideological nature of the conversation that we have been having for several months. Contracting out is not an across-the-board, ideological fix. It depends on how it is used and what it is used for. It was the judgment of shadow Ministers that it was not appropriate for contracted-out providers to make those decisions. Conflict of interest could obviously arise, particularly when contracted-out providers are paid according to outcomes, and are given a fee for success, as it were. The implication is that they might be seen by claimants as having an interest in wielding the stick, applying sanctions so that people are more likely to work and the provider can earn more fees as a result.
I was never one for thinking that the private sector would be so crass as to go down that route. Most of the private sector contractors to whom I have spoken overthe past year have a genuine caring mission in taking people from welfare into work. Yes, there is a
commercial advantage in their doing so, and they have to make a profit but, by and large, they do so with great skill, compassion and concern for the customer. I never thought that the possibility that Ministers would want to contract out sanctioning to the private sector would be a major problem, but insofar as it worried outside lobby and support groups that help disabled people and claimants, it was likely to worry claimants. We made it clear that we wanted the state, not a private outsourced contractor, to make those potentially sensitive decisions on sanctioning. It was interesting to read in the report, Reducing dependency, increasing opportunity: options for the future of welfare to work, which was published in March, David Freuds recommendation that sanctions be administered though Jobcentre Plus.
The outside groups that expressed concern to me and to othersMencap, the disability benefits consortium, Leonard Cheshire and many othersshould be pleased with the outcome of their lobbying efforts and persuasion throughout the Bill, including on this point. They can say that Parliament and Ministers have been listening and have made the decision that they wanted. If Ministers want to give a power of sanction to the outsourced contractors, they will again have to argue the case in Parliament. We shall see whether that is necessary in future.
We had an interesting debate in Committee about sanctions attaching to housing benefit. Some of us thought that there were sufficient sanctions in the system already. For totally unacceptable behaviour by tenants, the sanction is eviction. The provisions in the Bill suggested that in addition, after evictions proceedings had gone through, there would be a further benefit sanction if the recalcitrant tenant causing misery for neighbours did not mend their ways.
We then moved on to the topic of piloting. In fairness, Ministers always envisaged that the new housing benefit sanction after evictions proceedings had kicked in needed to be tested. We were concerned that the piloting would be open ended. We argued for a two-year sunset clause, in effect enabling Parliament to monitor the pilots for up to two years. I am delighted that the amendment, which the Minister supports, means that if the Government want a scheme to run after December 2010, further primary legislation will be required, as the hon. Gentleman indicated.
I conclude by endorsing the Ministers remarks about the generally bipartisan cross-party consensus on the principles of the Bill. That does not mean to say that the job is done. Pursuant to the Bill, detailed future regulations will be produced, and as we all know, the devil is always in the detail. Those regulations will not be subject to substantive amendment, but with the provisions that we have discussed today, particularly the annual report, I am confident that the Government of the day, whoever they are, will be put under scrutiny to make real the possibility of those on welfare getting a better deal in Britain in the 21st century, a better chance to get out of welfare and into work, out of dependency and living more fulfilling lives.
I am grateful to the Minister for listening to what was said in the other place on these important groups of amendments, and for contributing so well to our
deliberations in this place. I hope, like him, that the Bill is at least a starting point in making Britain a better place for those who want to get out of dependency.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): I am new to the deliberations on the Bill. I do not claim to know as much about the Bill or the arguments behind it as the Minister or his Conservative shadow, but my colleagues who do and who have been involved with it have asked me to convey their appreciation of the fact that a consensus approach has evolved and that many of their concerns have been dealt with. As is often the case, the other place has significantly improved the Bill.
There were several specific areas of controversy that concerned my colleagues, each of which has now reached a reasonable end point. The first is Lords amendment No. 1, which relates to the evaluation of the new personal capability assessments. As we all know from our constituency work, the process of assessment is stressful and difficult. We all have numerous cases of constituents often with complex and variable conditions who, on the basis of a perfunctory interview with medical staff from the Department for Work and Pensions, have lost their benefits and begun a long and difficult process of appeal. It is a stressful business.
Under the new system there will be two basic changes, one of which is the shift from incapability to capability, which is in one sense progressive, but in many respects is more difficult to test. Also, as we know from the statistics, the number of people involved in invalidity benefits of one kind or another is increasingly people suffering from mental conditions, rather than physical disabilities. Those, as we know, are often very difficult to capture, vary from time to time and are complex and difficult to measure. The processes that will have to evolve will therefore have to be more sophisticated and more robust than has been the case in the past.
I am aware that the Department has been evaluating the new PCAs and trying to get them right, both with its internal medical staff and with the external software consultants. I believe that disability groups have expressed some concern about the outcome. As the Minister said, the DWP is constantly trying to improve the assessments. The missing element was a genuinely independent and regular evaluation. My colleagues tabled amendments about that, and I am delighted to see that the Government have accepted the principle and we have achieved a good result.
The second issue was less fundamental, but my colleague Lord Oakeshott was among those who tried to achieve a more precise definition of medical practitioner. Again, the Government have produced their own amendment, which largely meets the case.
The third area of concern related to clause 15 and the potential that appeared to exist initially, because of ambiguity, for private contractors to make judgments on benefits and sanctions. We see no problem in principle with the private sector playing a role in the work of the Department, but it must clearly be circumscribed. This was not an appropriate area. We are glad that the role has been much more clearly defined. Again, that is a satisfactory outcome.
Finally, Lords amendment No. 9 to clause 30 relates to the linkage between housing benefit and antisocial behaviour. This is clearly a controversial subject on which people have very different views. It is right that that is proceeding through pilot studies. Our view from the outset was that the pilots should be time-limited and that a sunset clause was needed. Again, there seems to have a sensible compromise on the duration of the sunset clause. Overall, we are content with the way in which the other place has developed the Bill. I express my appreciation to all those concerned with that process.
I am pleased to have this opportunity today to debate the situation in Sri Lanka, and I am grateful to the right hon. and hon. Members present for their interest in this important issue. There has been mounting concern about the continuing violence and tragic displacement of people from their homes on that beautiful island. I want the House to know that this debate is the result of expressions of concern from right hon. and hon. Members. It is not, as some propagandists and partisan elements have claimed, a debate generated by any faction of Sri Lankan politics or by any lobbying organisations claiming to represent any part of the large Sri Lankan diaspora residing in Britain, pro or anti-LTTE.
I participated in a debate on Sri Lanka a year ago, when I expressed the hope that its Government and the LTTEthe Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelamwould fulfil the commitments that they made at talks in Geneva in February 2006, which were the first talks for three years. The Government had pledged that no armed group or person other than Government security forces would carry arms or conduct operations. For its part, the LTTE had pledged to ensure that there would be no acts of violence against the security forces and the police.
Sadly, those commitments remain unfulfilled. We have over the past year seen worsening violence. Extra-judicial killings, disappearances, intimidation and violence by paramilitary groups are all too common. The violence has fuelled an atmosphere of extreme mistrust and polarisation, which has fuelled further antagonism and violence. Innocent civilians have borne the brunt. There are now more than 100,000 displaced persons in the eastern district of Batticaloa and hundreds more arrive every day. There have been more than 700 cases of missing persons in the Jaffna peninsular, and nearly 500 are still unresolved. There have been more than 50 abductions in Colombo in the past year, and nine media workers have lost their lives in recent months. In the past few weeks, bus bombings have killed dozens of people simply going about their daily business. These are despicable terrorist acts that are totally without justification.
The responsibility of the LTTE for violent acts over the years is well documented. It is a proscribed organisation under the Terrorism Act 2000. The EU listed the LTTE as a terrorist organisation in May 2006. We have repeatedly urged the LTTE to move away from the path of violence. In the absence of a full renunciation of terrorism in deed and word, there can be no question of reconsidering its proscribed status. LTTE involvement in killings, torture, detention of civilians and denial of freedom of speech is a reality. The LTTE does not tolerate any expression of opposition and its continuing recruitment of child soldiers is a matter of great concern.
The ability of the LTTE to raise funds overseas helps to sustain its ability to carry out violent acts and reduces the incentive to move way from the path of
violence. LTTE fundraising activity in the United Kingdom encourages war, not peace. It will not be tolerated, and I have recently met our security authorities to discuss how we can counter the bullying, threats and acts of fraud that are used regularly to extract money from the Tamil population and others in the country.
The LTTE is not the only source of violence in Sri Lanka, however. Civilians in Government-controlled areas regularly fall victim to brutal attacks by paramilitary groups, often acting with apparent immunity. Reports of the Governments links with the faction led by Karuna, a former LTTE commander, concern us a great deal. We believe Karuna and his faction to be responsible for extra-judicial killings, abductions, intimidation of displaced persons and child recruitment. Karunas record is appalling, and we will be watching very closely whether he acts on his commitment to the United Nations to address the child recruitment issue. We will want to see clear evidence that he has delivered against his welcome promises. Karuna needs to go further and cease all acts of violence and intimidation against civilians.
There must be no question of the Government of Sri Lanka allowing Karuna to perpetrate those crimes. If they are serious in their desire to find paths to an inclusive, peaceful Sri Lanka that embraces all its peoples and cultures, they must disassociate themselves completely from all acts of abuse, terrorism, intimidation or torture, no matter who commits them or what agency encourages them.
Karuna hasnt merely supported the LTTE cause, he has orchestrated support in the US?
Before the Minister concludes his speech, will he answer two questions? First, what international co-ordination is there on intelligence to stop fundraising for the LTTE? Secondly, is there similar co-ordination to ensure that people such as Karuna, who have committed acts of terrorism, are brought to justice?
Dr. Howells: The hon. Gentleman is right: the list of crimes by this faction is long. We have been exchanging intelligence with a number of agencies in other countries. He will know that I cannot go into detail about that matter, although I can say that lately intelligence has indicated that there may be widespread fraud scams in the country. We are not certain about that, but they may be one of the sources of funding, at least part of which finds its way back to the LTTE and acts of terrorism.
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