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Perhaps the Under-Secretary will explain in his winding-up speech why the best that the Government have devised so far is a limited programme of a few pilot schemes. After the previous Budget, hidden away on page 60 of the Red Book—the hon. Member for
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Burnley will be familiar with that, given that she has been a Treasury Minister—is a commitment only to “explore” implementing David Freud’s proposals in full. The Under-Secretary acknowledged that we are facing a difficult economic position, when we need to extend help and support. It is a time for not exploring but implementing ideas and delivering help and support to people who need it.

John Penrose: I support my hon. Friend’s comments. Earlier, I asked the Under-Secretary about Government plans, in the event of rapidly rising unemployment in the future and given the economic downturn, to adjust the budget for the flexible new deal because more people would need the sort of support that the programme involves. That was a golden opportunity for her—I offered her an easy lob—to say that the Government’s budget could be flexible if they adopted the Conservative party’s proposal, which they have already agreed to examine, simply because the budget would automatically rise pro rata as the unemployment benefits bill rose in the downturn.

Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend makes a sensible point, and it is disappointing that the Government have failed to act.

Kitty Ussher: I rise to the challenge. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear, we accept the Freud report and we are doing exactly as he recommended by starting with a pilot.

Mr. Harper: The Under-Secretary knows that, during the Budget, the Secretary of State made it clear that he agrees with David Freud and wants to implement the report. Unfortunately, the look on the face of the Chancellor of the Exchequer demonstrated that, yet again, the Treasury is blocking the proposal.

Jonathan Shaw rose—

Mr. Harper: Let me finish my point. The Red Book makes it clear that the Government will only explore the ideas. Given that the economy is contracting, that next year we will experience negative growth in every quarter, that 164,000 people have lost their jobs in the last quarter and that the position will get worse, it is a time for stepping up the help and support that we need to provide. That will not be done unless the funding is in place. When will the Government accept David Freud’s recommendations to allow benefit savings to be used in full to help fund the necessary support?

Jonathan Shaw: Let me make it clear that “explore” means pilots. Is the hon. Gentleman interpreting Government policy through a look on a Treasury colleague’s face? That is rather odd, or perhaps he has hidden talents. I emphasise that “explore” means pilots. That was the recommendation—how much clearer does he want us to make that?

Mr. Harper: The Secretary of State made it clear in the Budget debate that he wanted to move much faster. It is clear from the Red Book that he has been blocked from doing so by the Treasury. If the Minister is comfortable with the scale of the help and support that the Government will be able to provide in the recession, that shows a
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worrying complacency. Both he and his hon. Friends will regret that lack of ambition and the fact that the Government are not moving fast enough to make the proposal work.

Another crucial issue for getting people into work will be adopting the right commissioning strategy for welfare programmes. The current approach appears to be tilting the balance in favour of larger volume providers, at the expense of those smaller, specialist providers, who help some of those furthest from the labour market. That is a cause for concern. The Government need to think again and ensure that the most vulnerable are not parked to one side or ignored by providers. We need to refocus our efforts on what is best for the thousands of people who need our help to get into work and give them the support that they need, rather than risk the silo approach of having a small number of excessively large providers.

The Social Market Foundation recently published a comprehensive report into the issue, which said that “it is unlikely that” the flexible new deal

The Social Market Foundation worked closely with the Department on its report. It is therefore disappointing that, instead of taking the report’s warnings seriously, the Department’s representative tried to rubbish it at a recent conference. The Government should pay attention to such concerns. Indeed, those bidding for such contracts or thinking of doing so have expressed many concerns to the Government, which they should take seriously.

Before I finish, I want to ask the Minister one or two questions that he can perhaps respond to when he winds up. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell recently met the Terence Higgins Trust, which raised concerns about the review of the special rules for those with HIV. The special rule benefits were introduced at a time when contracting HIV was expected to lead to rapid death. Owing to very welcome medical advances, however, some people have been on such benefits for a decade or more.

As a result of the special rules review, one in five people with HIV on such benefits have had their award removed and one in three have had it reduced and are expected to return to the workplace. That is absolutely right, but the Terence Higgins Trust is concerned that the support for such people to return to work is not adequate, as they have been moved on to jobseeker’s allowance only and are not receiving the proper help that they require. It would therefore be helpful if the Minister explained what support those people, who have been out of the workplace for perhaps a decade or more and who are coping with a highly stigmatised condition that requires ongoing medical treatment, will receive to return to work.

I want briefly to touch on the employment and support allowance, which the Minister mentioned in her opening speech and which I debated with the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford in a Committee considering the regulations. We agree with the broad thrust of the employment and support allowance. I thank him for writing to the Chairman of that Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), to address some of the issues raised that he did not have time to deal with in Committee. As
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he said, the previous system focused too much on what people could not do, as opposed to what they can do. We welcome that change.

Unfortunately, however, we are concerned that ESA does not live up to the reassurances that we were given. The Government have broken their promises on the ESA rates, which are lower than they promised. We raised concerns that the system favours people with fewer national insurance contributions and penalises those who have worked—that is, those on the contribution-based ESA, rather than the income-based ESA. The Minister acknowledged that problem in his letter to the Committee, but said that it applied only to relatively small numbers of people. It might therefore be helpful if he said how many people, of those going on to ESA, he expects to be on the contribution-based ESA and on the income-based ESA.

I tabled a written question, which was due for answer on 17 October, to ask

into the introduction of that benefit. Despite receiving a holding answer, I am still awaiting the substantive answer. Perhaps the Minister will take this opportunity to prod his officials into action, unless of course the answer is awaiting his approval. I also tabled a further question for the Secretary of State, to which an answer was due on 10 September, to ask

the very welcome increase in the access to work budget would be drawn. A holding answer has been received, but a substantive answer, nearly two months later, has not. I should therefore be grateful if the Minister chased that up.

In conclusion, as we enter stormy economic waters, work and welfare policy will become ever more pressing. The Government’s record on welfare reform has been characterised more by disappointment than by real reform. Many thousands of people will look to the Government for the right support in getting into or returning to work. Should the Government look to accelerate the implementation of the Freud proposals, with that change to the DEL-AME rules, so that the benefit savings can be used to help people get into work sooner rather than later, we will support them. It would have been a lot easier to reform the welfare system in the good years, but that opportunity was squandered. It will be more difficult to do so now that we face difficult economic times. However, I agree with the Minister that it is hugely important that we do so.

1.46 pm

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): This is the second day this week that I have had the pleasure of following the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper). On this occasion, however, I suspect that there will be less agreement than there was in Westminster Hall yesterday.

I welcome this afternoon’s debate, which gives us an opportunity to discuss various issues, not least the Green Paper, which has been referred to already, as well as support for lone parents, policies for tackling child poverty, and support for disabled people. My focus will be on policies to support disabled people. I therefore first welcome to his post the new Minister responsible
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for disabled people, who very kindly came to the all-party group on disability soon after his appointment. I am sure that we will continue to have good relations with him.

Let me also express not only my profound thanks, but those of the House and the wider community, to my hon. Friend’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire). I notice that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean referred to the latest issue of Disability Now at the start of his speech in order to make a comment—and not a very helpful one—about the new Liberal Democrat disability spokesperson. The same edition devotes a whole page to quotations from members of the disability movement congratulating and thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling on her work. The former chair of the Disability Rights Commission said of my hon. Friend:

I, too, wish to place on record my thanks for her sterling work during her period in office.

I have no doubt that improving opportunities for employment for disabled people who are able to work is the best route out of poverty. That is why policies to secure full employment, a decent national minimum wage, the new deal, pathways to work and all other such policies are central to providing opportunities for disabled people. Why do one in three disabled adults of working age live in poverty? It is because half of them are unemployed, while those not in employment receive benefits that are simply too low. If we are honest, we will accept that they are in receipt of benefit income that is below the poverty level.

Progress has been made on the employment front, so I am genuinely surprised to hear the assertion that nothing has happened over the past 11 years. That is nonsense. Some 10 per cent. more disabled people of working age are now in employment. That has happened for the simple reason that we have had record employment growth and specific programmes to support disabled people into work and legislation to outlaw discrimination in the labour market. My view is that the successful economy and specific programmes have been by far the most effective. There have been changing attitudes among employers, too, and that should be welcomed.

The fact that 10 per cent. more disabled people of working age are in employment is progress, but clearly much more needs to be done. For example, the employment rate among people with mental health conditions is not 50 per cent., but only 20 per cent. For people with learning disabilities, it is 25 per cent. An important challenge that we face is to increase employment among those groups of disabled people. To address their needs, specialist and individual support is clearly required. We have all said that many times. That is why I warmly welcome the direction taken by the Green Paper. No one should be written off, and we should all support the thrust of the Green Paper.

I am, of course, delighted that funding for the access to work scheme has been doubled, finally. It will go up from £69 million per annum to £138 million by 2013. That is not quite as ambitious a change as I had in mind, but it is a significant increase and it is far better than the £15 million available under the previous
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Government. It is not what people say but what they do that matters in politics. Once that £138 million is spent yearly on the scheme, it will enable another 48,000 disabled people every year to enter and remain in employment by providing payments for the purchase of reasonable adjustments.

Along with many others, inside and outside the House, I have been calling for a substantial increase in that funding for many years. With the House’s indulgence, I should like to repeat the reason why it is a good thing to support disabled people into work. As the Department for Work and Pensions confirms, for every £1 million that is spent on enabling access to work, the Treasury gets £1.7 million. It is a no-brainer. At some stage I would be interested to hear whether we are not aiming for more than £138 million a year because there is no need for more money, or whether somebody has not realised that getting a £1.7 million return on a £1 million investment is one of the better deals at the moment.

We can move in the right direction and do good things; the access to work scheme is a good programme which I have seen in operation. I have had constituents who have benefited from it and it is outstandingly important. It is a win-win situation in every case. I would have thought that the amount of money available could be even higher. At some stage, I would like to know why we have to wait until 2013. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will no doubt answer that question when he responds. I support what is happening, but we could do things quicker.

We also need to ensure that employers are aware of the scheme—the Green Paper refers to this problem. Five or 10 years ago, it used to be said that the access to work programme was a closely guarded secret. Virtually no small employers knew about it, and about a third of large employers had heard of it. The implicit fear was that if more people knew about it, too many people might apply. I do not think that that is the case now. I would be pleased to get reassurance on that point.

Let me give an example. RADAR—the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation—estimates than only a quarter of employers know about the programme. It is a very important way of reducing discrimination by employers who might be worried about the additional costs of employing a disabled person. It is a critical programme: please, please can it have as much money and as much publicity as possible? [ Interruption. ] That statement is only slightly off message. We are talking about millions, not billions. If my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), the Whip, tempts me, I could be a bit off message later when we get to the economy. In all seriousness, can we do the best that we can with the programme?

I am not entirely happy that the Government argued in the recent debate that blind people could not be allowed access to disability living allowance higher-rate mobility allowance because the money was going to the access to work scheme. I was not impressed by that argument. Many of us were at the Royal National Institute of Blind People lobby, where constituents and others told us that people with sight impairments felt that they could not afford to leave their homes, faced considerable taxi costs and wanted to have independence but felt that they could not afford it. People with serious sight impairments should have access to the higher-rate mobility component of DLA. I hope that my hon.
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Friend the Minister will give a positive response to that, too. It was quite disappointing that the extra funding for the access to work scheme was invoked as a reason why such a provision might not be affordable. That is not good enough for a Government who have otherwise made enormous progress in relation to disabled people and disability rights.

As I am talking about people who want to live independently, let me move on to some points on chapter 5 of the Green Paper, which is about delivering choice and control to disabled people. It is frequently said that with rights come responsibilities, but it is also true that with responsibilities come rights. If more is being asked of disabled people in making personal efforts to secure work, their right to support should be regarded as of equal strength.

In my view, rights to independent living are a prerequisite for successful welfare reform; they are not just an add-on that might come later. The Government’s independent living strategy defines independent living in the following familiar terms, saying it should mean

The Government’s strategy welcomed the principles of the Disabled Persons (Independent Living) Bill, introduced by my noble Friend Lord Ashley, which was passed in the other place. They welcomed and supported its principles, but have so far resisted encouragement to legislate on independent living and specifically to legislate so that disabled people have greater choice and control over their lives, particularly when it comes to individual budgets that could be used to support their social care needs, housing needs and so on.

Independent living should not be regarded as an add-on to the welfare reform programme. If people cannot get to work because of the transport system or the costs of transport, cannot live in decent accommodation, and cannot get the support of personal assistants or whatever else makes their life better—

Nia Griffith: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Roger Berry: Of course.

Nia Griffith: Will my hon. Friend also ask Ministers about the important issue of what we can do when a person who is disabled and has access to concessionary travel needs to be accompanied by somebody who, at present, cannot access concessionary travel?

Roger Berry: I shall ask the Minister that question without repeating it. I have had constituents in precisely that situation, too. It is part of the general point that with responsibilities come rights. If someone is prepared to go to an interview to discuss work, to take up more training or to try out a work placement, that is the responsible thing to do, but unless that person has the right to access decent transport, proper support in the community and all the other things that people with disabilities or ill health require to do their day-to-day business that other people do not require, a significant extra burden is placed on them.

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