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29 Jan 2008 : Column 167

Business Statement

3.31 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short statement. The business for Thursday 31 January will now be:

Motion to approve the Fourth Report of the Committee of Standards and Privileges, Session 2007-08, on the conduct of Mr. Derek Conway (HC 280), followed by a topical debate on the Holocaust memorial day, followed by the remaining stages of the National Insurance Contributions Bill.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I am grateful to the Leader of the House for making this short statement about the altered business on Thursday. I note that we did not have a topical debate last week, when we had a debate on Members’ pay. This week, this extra debate has been inserted, and it is not time-limited, as I understand it. Will the right hon. Lady set out her policy on when topical debates will and will not take place?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Lady will be aware that topical debates take place in Government time. I made the decision last week to give the House as much time as possible to discuss the important questions raised by the Senior Salaries Review Body report on Members’ pay and allowances. I made the decision on that day. We made the decision on the business for this Thursday last week. The decision that the topic for the debate would be the Holocaust memorial day was made first thing on Monday. Thereafter, we received the report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and that will be the first order of business on Thursday. It will come before the topical debate, and we hope that the House will have ample opportunity to debate the Committee’s report. When that debate ends, we will move on to the topical debate and then to the National Insurance Contributions Bill. We hope that the House will have the opportunity to do justice to all those issues.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): We welcome the statement, and we think that the Leader of the House is right to have the Committee on
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Standards and Privileges business on Thursday, when it can be debated without appearing to conflict with the matters that we have already determined should have priority today and tomorrow. I should, however, like to follow the question raised by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) by requesting that, in future, the assumption should be that there will be a topical debate unless there is agreement across the House that that should be changed.

Ms Harman: I remind the hon. Gentleman that topical debates take place in Government time, and that we will decide how to allocate that time. As he knows, the topical debate procedure is still in its early stages, and we shall review it in due course to see how it is working. This Thursday, the topical debate will take place after the House has had an opportunity to discuss the report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): On a point of clarification, will the Leader of the House explain whether the moment of interruption will be later than normal on Thursday because of the extra business that the Government and the House feel it is appropriate to deal with on that day? It is important that the amount of time available for debate in this House should not be limited. The national insurance contributions legislation is important, so will the moment of interruption be later to take account of the time spent on the earlier business?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman will know that there will be four items of business, and the moment of interruption will be at the normal time. Obviously, depending on how the debates proceed during Thursday, and through discussions with the usual channels, we will try to ensure that the right time is available for each of the debates. We have done what people expect to be done in these circumstances: if a report about a Member is issued, the House must have an opportunity to debate and take any appropriate decision about it as early as possible. We did not want to scrap either the topical debate or consideration of the National Insurance Contributions Bill, which had already been tabled as the business for the day. We hope that we will have the opportunity fully to debate all those issues; otherwise, we shall just have to keep an eye on things as they proceed. There should be enough time to debate all those matters.

29 Jan 2008 : Column 169

Employment Retention

3.36 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I beg to move,

This is the third time in the last few years that I have raised this subject in a ten-minute Bill and I can say that there has been firm consensus across the House that support should be provided to ensure that someone who develops an impairment or becomes disabled can remain in work. The Government have acknowledged that if they are to meet their target for an 80 per cent. employment rate and the requirements of public service agreement 8, they cannot ignore this issue. 2008 sees the latest strand with the Department for Work and Pensions employability campaign.

Yesterday, four days into the job, the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions outlined reform of the welfare system to move more people from benefits into employment. Today, three attempts into my campaign—and, I hesitate to say, having seen off two Secretaries of State—I find myself once again making the point that we need to focus on retention in order to prevent people from falling into the welfare system in the first place.

The widespread support I have always received for these Bills is testament to the fact that the matter is not confined to the margins of society. Every quarter, about 600,000 people become sick or develop an impairment as defined in the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and within one year 13 per cent.—78,000 people—have left work. Out of those, about 25,000 people permanently leave employment each year due to illness or disability, never to return. That works out at more than a quarter of a million people since the Government came to power in 1997. That more than cancels out the creditable achievement of the Department for Work and Pensions in helping 200,000 disabled people into work over the last decade. As a result of this and other barriers, a disabled person is nearly five times more likely to be out of work and claiming benefits than a non-disabled person, and crucially, we know that once out of work, they are far less likely to return to employment.

Behind those statistics lie people’s lives—lives that often become suddenly unrecognisable as they have to come to terms simultaneously with a permanent life-changing impairment while facing the prospect of losing their employment, their source of income and in some cases even their home.

Last week, I listened to a speech from an inspirational man, Roger Lewis, and I think that his story says more about this Bill than my contribution ever could. Just under four years ago, his sight deteriorated to a point where he felt unable to work either effectively or safely without support through workplace adjustments or special equipment. Roger’s employer, a local government social services department, suggested that he go to the doctor and be signed off sick. Following his refusal to do so on the grounds that he was not unwell, he was sent home on full pay and told not to return.

29 Jan 2008 : Column 170

Roger did not hear from his employers again until 12 months later, when they began a redeployment process to find him another position. Their only assistance was to provide him with a magnifying glass. A year later Roger, an employee for 20 years, had been given his notice and was left waiting by the phone, 10 minutes from redundancy. The call to prevent it came from his union only after the threat of a hearing at an employment tribunal forced his employers finally to change their approach. Subsequently, he was given three months away from work at one of the specialist colleges of the Royal National Institute of Blind People to train in using specialised computer software for visually impaired people. Only now has he been given the necessary support and equipment to enable him to do a job that he has always been capable of doing.

That process, which would have—and has—broken many others, was described by Roger as

His is by no means an isolated experience. The questions that must be asked are: why does this have to happen, and why do we let it happen?

Under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, an employer may be required to make reasonable adjustments to meet the needs of a disabled employee to ensure equality in his or her treatment with that of a non-disabled employee. That may involve providing a period of leave for treatment and rehabilitation, and to enable the employee to learn new skills in order to return to work. The non-binding code of practice illustrates the way in which the law is intended to operate when that provision kicks in. It envisages two employees, both of whom are out of work for six months. One, who is absent owing to a broken leg, returns to work once it heals, but the other, absent owing to a long-term disability, is dismissed. In that scenario, the employer would have breached his or her duty to the disabled employee.

The Government’s approach to the high unemployment rate among disabled people has been to increase awareness of the current law among employers. We welcome the employability campaign, but it misses a number of fundamental issues relating to the support that is needed to keep someone in work. Although the Disability Discrimination Act provisions are born from the principle and the arguments for employment retention, they remain inadequate when it comes to delivering it in practice.

As there is no prescribed system of assessment to determine entitlement to interventions, including a period of rehabilitation leave, there is considerable uncertainty for both employers and employees, accentuated by the number and the broad nature of the conditions attached to such interventions. As a consequence, employment retention policies are rarely granted. They are more often the grounds for legal dispute at a tribunal that takes place too late, when someone has already lost his job, or subjects that person to a tortuous process in order for him to keep it. Furthermore, the lack of a system of assessment means that the Disability Discrimination Act places the onus on the two parties to resolve the situation.

The importance of employment retention for a disabled person, for whom it is considerably more difficult to find work, is such that it is a free-standing justification per se. The Social Market Foundation estimates that
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improving the employability of disabled people would be worth £13 billion to the economy, and analysis by Lloyds TSB has shown that the financial benefit of retaining a typical manager who becomes disabled, weighed against the costs of making him redundant and hiring a new member of staff, amounts to £9,000.

It is important to note that the current law does not actually secure equality of treatment for all disabled employees, because discrimination will occur only on the basis of an individual company’s policy. Two people treated in exactly the same way by different employers will have entirely different entitlements.

The Bill’s main pillar is to introduce an assessment to determine whether disabled persons can be supported in the workplace, for example through “access to work”, or whether in more serious cases they need a period of leave, as Roger Lewis did for three months. That would secure far greater structure and certainty for both employers and employees. The Bill would also provide a much-needed vehicle to remedy the problems with the current provisions’ link to discrimination, which I have raised.

I started by saying that there was broad consensus in the House on the need to ensure support for people who become disabled while in employment, and already 133 Members from nine parties have attached their names to a motion in support of my Bill. While Members’ support is gratefully received, what is more pressing—and will, I hope, cause every Government member to get behind the Bill—is the fact that 25,000 people this year alone will, like Roger Lewis, be in need of these changes.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by John Robertson, Jim Sheridan, Mr. David Blunkett, Miss Anne Begg, John Bercow, Paul Rowen, Mr. Mike Weir, Julie Morgan, Dr. Alasdair McDonnell, Dr. Richard Taylor, Ann McKechin and Mrs. Sharon Hodgson.

Employment Retention

John Robertson accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for a statutory right to an employment retention assessment to determine entitlement to a period of rehabilitation leave for newly disabled people and people whose existing impairments change; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 14 March, and to be printed [Bill 60].

29 Jan 2008 : Column 172

Business of the House (Lisbon Treaty) (No.2)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Order [28 January],

Question agreed to.

29 Jan 2008 : Column 173

Lisbon Treaty (No.1)

(1st Allotted Day)

[Relevant documents: The Third Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2006-07, on Justice and Home Affairs Issues at European Union Level, HC 76, and the Government’s response, First Special Report of Session 2006-07, HC 1 021 .]

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague).

3.47 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): I beg to move,

The UK’s co-operation with our European Union partners across a range of justice and home affairs issues stems, rightly, from the Maastricht treaty. From tackling organised crime to taking action against terrorism, and from providing greater protection of children to ensuring the security of our borders, this co-operation has been, and continues to be, driven by the real challenges we face today. Criminals organise and operate internationally, and we need to work closely with our European and international partners to tackle their activities. In particular, we need to ensure that the EU focuses on these issues, and truly and demonstrably adds value where that makes sense for Britain.

The Lisbon treaty provides the next step in the evolution of justice and home affairs co-operation. It allows us to work more effectively to improve public security and protection, to protect British citizens in their daily lives and to provide mechanisms to help our citizens and businesses living and working abroad. The issues that matter to our people—tackling crime, countering terrorism and securing our borders—are not merely issues of domestic concern. They are, rightly, at the heart of our work in the EU as well.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I have listened carefully to the Home Secretary’s opening words about the importance for the EU of moving this forward. If this is such a positive move, why have the Government had to negotiate so many opt-outs and opt-ins?

Jacqui Smith: I am coming precisely to the point about the success of the Government’s negotiations in ensuring that, through the treaty provisions, we are able, in a much-enlarged EU, both to make progress on some of the issues that are of concern to us and to safeguard our national interests by delivering the opt-in. It was a negotiating triumph. Perhaps more important than the details of the negotiations or ongoing institutional wrangles is the way in which our active involvement in the EU is bringing results.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Why did the Home Secretary not just say that Great Britain wishes to keep in place the original architecture—outside the EU treaty and European Court of Justice jurisdiction—and
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to co-operate with other member states where appropriate, so that we preserve our veto and future Parliaments can change their mind if they wish? The problem with her system is that future Parliaments will be bound by any decision she makes.

Jacqui Smith: I made it absolutely clear that I felt—I shall outline this when I make some progress in my speech—that having the benefits of taking EU co-operation forward through the new treaty arrangements alongside the protection of UK interests negotiated through our opt-ins on a range of justice and home affairs areas was the right balance to deliver the sorts of results that we wanted.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con) rose—

Jacqui Smith: I was going to discuss those sorts of results, but I see that I shall now take further interventions. I suspect that they will not be about how we cut crime, counter terrorism and protect our borders, and that they may well be about something else.

Mr. Cash: This certainly will be germane to the subject matter that we are discussing. I would like the Home Secretary to answer a simple question. A wide range of matters are contained in these provisions. Is she aware that in the other countries, particularly France and Germany, the judges are appointed by political decision-making processes in their own constitutional arrangements? In respect of the application of those provisions, such a process differs significantly from the way in which this country conducts its justice and home affairs.

Jacqui Smith: That is precisely why we were right to negotiate the opt-in on each justice and home affairs measure. I am not clear what point the hon. Gentleman is making.

I said that I would move on, so I shall do so. Our active involvement in the EU is bringing results. The European arrest warrant procedure has been one of the most high-profile justice and home affairs measures in recent years. It has allowed us to secure the return of those who seek to evade justice by crossing borders and in some cases it has helped to cut years off extradition times. That is a prime example—

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con) rose—

Jacqui Smith: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Jenkin: In 2006, the previous Prime Minister gave a very clear undertaking to the House of Commons. He said that he would ensure that the justice system

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