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Public Bill Committee Debates

Social Security (Incapacity Benefit Work-focused Interviews) Regulations 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Gary Streeter
Baron, Mr. John (Billericay) (Con)
Barrett, John (Edinburgh, West) (LD)
Flello, Mr. Robert (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab)
Harper, Mr. Mark (Forest of Dean) (Con)
Jones, Helen (Warrington, North) (Lab)
Kawczynski, Daniel (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con)
Keeble, Ms Sally (Northampton, North) (Lab)
Kidney, Mr. David (Stafford) (Lab)
Main, Anne (St. Albans) (Con)
Mason, John (Glasgow, East) (SNP)
Milburn, Mr. Alan (Darlington) (Lab)
Moffatt, Laura (Crawley) (Lab)
Moss, Mr. Malcolm (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)
Munn, Meg (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op)
Shaw, Jonathan (Minister for the South East)
Twigg, Derek (Halton) (Lab)
Sarah Thatcher, David Weir, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Third Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 10 March 2009

[Mr. Gary Streeter in the Chair]

Social Security (Incapacity Benefit Work-focused Interviews) Regulations 2008

10.30 am
John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Social Security (Incapacity Benefit Work-focused Interviews) Regulations 2008 (S.I. 2008, No. 2928).
I am sure that when the Minister replies he will be able to respond to a lot of our concerns, because the Government believe that there are serious issues to be addressed.
Let me say at the outset that my hon. Friends and I have no problem with asking people to participate in the work-focused interview process to ensure that those who are not entitled to claim do not receive benefits. Although we are not talking about a straightforward transfer of funds, every penny that is paid to someone who is not entitled to claim means that there are fewer resources for those who genuinely deserve to make claims. That said, my hon. Friends and I have serious concerns about the proposals for work-focused interviews.
Let me list the groups that will take part in these interviews: those making a claim for or entitled to employment and support allowance; those who are on or making a claim for claiming incapacity benefit; those applying for or receiving income support; and those who are on or applying for severe disability allowance. We have many concerns about specific groups and specific issues, which I will highlight.
Given that the changes are being introduced, however, it is worth touching briefly on the current employment situation. The provisions covering claimants are being tightened up and are expected to be stricter, with 10 per cent. fewer people going through the process, but unemployment is rising to 2 million, and expert predictions suggest that it will go on to 3 million. In my constituency, the Royal Bank of Scotland and other banks are major employers. RBS has announced 2,300 redundancies, and its chief executive has confirmed that 20,000 job cuts may happen in the year ahead.
Many people will therefore be forced on to the job market and forced to make claims. Many of them will enter the system for the first time. What they and we expect is a fair and equitable system, in which people get what they are entitled to. People should not have to go through a system that is inappropriate or which does not give them a fair deal at the end of the day.
Let me touch on a briefing that the Child Poverty Action Group supplied for today’s debate. It gives specific examples showing how the basic amount for claimants under the new system will not be protected in the same way as it is for other claimants. The basic amount for all ESA claimants, regardless of age, is £60.50, and the minimum income guaranteed for an ESA claimant from 14 weeks onwards is £84.50. No sanction for failing to attend a work-focused interview can be applied until that extra component has been awarded to a claimant at the end of the assessment phase.
No such protection is offered to incapacity benefit or income support claimants under the new scheme. The structure of the different regimes is such that, in normal cases, a person will have to receive incapacity benefit or income support for a full year before their benefit is equivalent to the £84.50 that ESA claimants receive after 14 weeks. However, there are no rules under the new system to provide that an incapacity benefit or income support claimant cannot have a sanction imposed on them before their benefit has been increased to that level or that they must be left with at least £60.50 per week.
There are several examples in the Child Poverty Action Group briefing, and the Minister no doubt has access to it. I have seen at first hand in my constituency, as other hon. Members have no doubt seen in theirs, that people have had to go through interviews to establish whether their invalidity is genuine or their health conditions are what they claim they are. A lot of people who make claims do their best at those interviews to show that they can walk the required distance or that they are up to the mark. An example from my constituency involved an 18-year-old boy who had had part of his leg amputated below the knee. He had a partly artificial leg and was determined to carry on and go to university so that he would be no different from the rest. At his interview he was determined to walk the distance he was asked to. His mobility allowance was then cut. He came to me because his new circumstances meant that he might not be able to carry on at university.
For some other individuals or groups perhaps a home visit could be the option. For instance, pregnant women will not be in the exempt groups for work-focused interviews, but I am concerned about pregnant women who face the risk of serious damage to their health if they must attend, or people receiving or recovering from certain types of chemotherapy, or people with specific diseases or disablement. No doubt it will be possible for the Government to win the vote on their legislation, but I ask the Minister to say that people will get a fair hearing.
In the past, many people have had the decision that was made at their initial assessment reversed on appeal. Currently 25 per cent. of decisions are reversed on appeal, which means that the wrong decision was made. Many of those who win their appeal must live on reduced benefit for weeks or months. Some of the reduced amounts are below the poverty line. I understand that the Government want to move forward. The times have changed and many people are concerned that these are not the times to make the necessary changes, when more people are being thrown into unemployment and the job market.
I ask the Minister to address my concerns and those of the Child Poverty Action Group. How is it proposed to deal with the groups that do not have exemptions? When people are asked to their work-focused interview and do not attend—and there are sanctions for that, which may be justified in many cases—the duration of the sanction will depend on the Department for Work and Pensions arranging a new interview, if the person has been brought into line, as the Minister might think. In a matter that relies on the efficiency of the DWP, I hope that the Minister can assure us that people will not have to wait too long to get the fair deal they deserve, if they are unemployed, or on incapacity benefit or income support, or are disabled.
10.38 am
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Streeter. It is worth saying at the start that the regulations have already come into force, on 15 December. Despite a prayer having been tabled before Prorogation, the slightly less speedy ways of this place mean that we finally get round to debating them in March.
It was interesting to study the explanatory memorandum prepared for the regulations. The original draft, explaining their purpose, was commendably brief, and I congratulate the Minister on that. It was a mere 31 words, explaining that the purpose of the instrument was to avoid the need to operate two regimes, and that the Government had decided to align the requirement for incapacity benefit claimants to participate in work-focused interviews with employment and support allowance.
Unfortunately, the memorandum did not stay as brief as that. The revised explanatory memorandum is four times longer at 116 words, and pretty much says the same thing in a more complicated way, as far as I can tell. The Minister and I have had this conversation about simplicity before, when debating the Welfare Reform Bill. In that exchange he said that because the lives of the Department’s customers were getting more complicated, the regulations must get more complicated too. I do not think that explanatory memorandums should fall into that category. Brevity and clarity are welcome. That is my message for the future: shorter and clearer is better, on the whole.
The purpose of the regulations remains unclear. The first explanatory memorandum said that their purpose was to avoid the need to operate two regimes, but I am not entirely certain that that can be the case. Unless everybody on incapacity benefit who must have a work-focused interview falls under the new regulations, there will still be two regimes. Will the Minister explain how many people currently on incapacity benefit he expects the new regulations to apply to? Information from the DWP’s research suggests that the number of incapacity benefit claimants who move from incapacity benefit into work and then back on to incapacity benefit is significant, at about 18 per cent., which indicates that we should expect a similar number to fall under the ambit of the regulations. It would be interesting to know how quickly he expects people to transfer over.
There are three main areas in which the regulations differ from the previous set. First, precise timings for work-focused interviews are no longer set out in the regulations; more flexibility is allowed. Secondly, work-focused interviews can now be deferred, although not waived entirely. Thirdly, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West said, the amount by which benefit is reduced when the claimant fails to take part in a work-focused interview has been changed as well. The sanction has been toughened up. Will the Minister confirm that that, in a nutshell, is what the regulations do?
I have a couple of questions about how the regulations tie up with the White Paper. The regulations apply to existing incapacity benefit claimants under the age of 60. In the White Paper, the Government set out different regimes of work-focused interviews for those under 50, who will receive three interviews, and for the over-50s, who will receive one. Clause 26 of the Welfare Reform Bill, which is currently passing through the House, provides for the extension of work-focused interviews to IB claimants over 60. The regulations appear to assign to those incapacity benefit claimants a regime of six work-focused interviews.
Unless I am being incredibly dense, there seems to be some complexity there. It would be helpful if the Minister explained exactly what regime will apply and why different systems appear to apply to incapacity benefit claimants of different ages. How does having different regimes depending on the age of the claimant simplify the system? It seems to make it more complex.
One potential reason why those over 50 will get only one work-focused interview rather than three may be that the Government cannot find the resources to guarantee all incapacity benefit claimants the extra help that they require to find work. If someone has been claiming incapacity benefit for a number of years and is over 50, especially during this difficult economic time, they are likely to need more help than one work-focused interview to get back into work.
I differ slightly from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West, who wondered whether this was the right time to make such reforms. On the contrary, in this recession and time of difficulty—I know that the Minister agrees—it is important to offer more help to those who are not working and might not have been in the labour market for a long period. It is perfectly true, as the hon. Gentleman said, that they might find it difficult to get into work at the moment, but if we do not prepare them now and give them help and support, when the economy recovers and more jobs become available they will be at the back of the queue again. The Minister is right to say that help and support should be offered to people on incapacity benefit, even during a recession, but offering only one work-focused interview to those over 50 will not cut the mustard.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West set out reasonably comprehensively the differences in the sanctions regime. He properly credited the Child Poverty Action Group’s work in preparing a comprehensive briefing for Members. I want to add my support to the questions that he asked and to ask the Minister whether he accepts that, in the regulations, there are differences in the levels of protection afforded to claimants on incapacity benefit and those on employment and support allowance in relation to sanctioning. That is important because there is a protection for those who are on employment and support allowance, because the most that they can lose is the element of their work-focused activity component. They are still effectively guaranteed a minimum income of £60.50.
As the hon. Gentleman said, for those on incapacity benefit who have not gone on to the full phase of that benefit, there is a danger that they could be sanctioned by the full £24 and that their income falls to a particularly low level. I am interested to know whether the Minister agrees that that is what the regulations allow and if that is the case, whether the Department intends to use them in that way. If it does intend to do so, what impact are the regulations likely to have on poverty in general and child poverty in particular, which is obviously the concern of the Child Poverty Action Group?
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West has already mentioned that the sanctions depend on the administrative efficiency of the DWP, so I will not labour that matter, but further issues have been raised by another excellent organisation, Carers UK. It has raised one or two issues about those with caring responsibilities and has said that it would welcome clarification that caring responsibilities will be considered a valid reason for deferring an interview and will specifically be referred to in the guidance that the Department issues.
Carers UK also had a question about whether the carer will have to keep using their caring responsibilities to justify deferring interviews, or whether if it is established after an initial interview that someone is caring for somebody with a long-term condition, and that that position is unlikely to change, there should still be an expectation of regular interviews. Carers UK has said that, during the Welfare Reform Bill Committee, the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform confirmed that full-time carers will not be subject to conditionality. I should be grateful for confirmation from the Minister of whether that will be the case.
A further issue raised by Carers UK is the failure to take part in work-focused interviews. A list of potential reasons has been set out that people might miss a work-focused interview, but Carers UK would welcome clarification on whether the Department considers a problem caused by a breakdown in care arrangements to be good cause for not turning up to a work-focused interview. Carers UK would also welcome—as would I—clarification on what guidance will be issued to Jobcentre Plus advisers.
I am asking for that clarification because a recent National Audit Office report on the Department for Work and Pensions entitled “Supporting Carers to Care” had a number of important findings about how well Jobcentre Plus was set up to deal with those with caring responsibilities. For example, more than 70 per cent. of carers surveyed who had contacted Jobcentre Plus in the past 12 months thought that the services were not well suited to the needs of carers seeking work. Only one third of the group reported that staff were helpful, approachable and sufficiently aware of carers’ circumstances. Indeed, when the NAO talked to Jobcentre Plus staff, only a fifth thought they had the skills and knowledge that they needed to support carers who wanted to work. So, Jobcentre Plus staff want to do a better job at supporting carers to get into work, but they need the Department to give them the tools to do so. Clearly, unless there is good guidance and training for Jobcentre Plus advisers, carers have a justified worry that they will not be treated fairly under this regime.
The NAO’s final finding was that two thirds of the Jobcentre Plus staff that they surveyed were unaware that carers who only claim carer’s allowance were exempt from attending work-focused interviews. I know that the Government are planning to introduce care partnership managers in every Jobcentre Plus district, and that is welcome. However, given that they will cover a significant area, how will care partnership managers’ knowledge be cascaded down through the Jobcentre Plus network so that every personal adviser on the front line is sufficiently briefed on how the regime will work?
Before I conclude, I shall just make a point about the timing of work-focused interviews. The explanatory memorandum states that precise time limits are not set out in the regulations, as they were in previous regulations, in order to allow greater flexibility in line with the employment and support allowance process. At the moment, the timings are largely the same as under the pathways to work programme. Will the Minister say how the Department plans to use that extra flexibility, and what benefit he thinks it will have in fitting individuals’ circumstances better and helping them to get back to work?
I hope that the Minister will reassure me and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West on the questions that we have raised. If so, we and the House will be much more comfortable with the regulations.
10.50 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Streeter. I thank hon. Members for the points raised this morning.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West began by unfairly characterising the arrangements as punitive, yet they put an additional £300 million up front for ESA so that we can provide people with support at the beginning rather than the end, because we know that the longer people are on the allowance or on incapacity benefit, the further they become from the labour market. The hon. Gentleman also knows that we are putting an additional £1 billion into pathways to work. It was unfair to focus on the element of conditionality, as he did. We are investing in supporting people and helping them to find employment.
The hon. Gentleman expressed a number of concerns about the interviews, as did the hon. Member for Forest of Dean. It is important that a relationship develops between the personal adviser and the customer claiming ESA or incapacity benefit. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West referred to a young man in his constituency who, we hope, is pursuing a university education. It was a good example of someone trying his best. Many people do so. However, all right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of cases that have arisen in their constituencies in which people have tried their best for noble reasons but in doing so did not give the whole picture.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the number of successful appeals. The reason for those is that new information will have come to light. I recently spoke to departmental staff, who were discussing the matter with a tribunal chairman, about seeing whether things could be improved. Staff want all the information in front of them when making decisions. It does no one any good if they do not, and it has a cost to the Department and the public purse and causes anxiety for people such as the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.
Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): A constituent who came to see me recently has a history of mental health problems. At the initial interview, none of her extensive medical history and none of the details from her GP on her profound problems were taken into account. It was very much an initial questionnaire, ticking boxes and so on, but it has had to go to appeals. That has taken a long time. Will my hon. Friend turn his attention to that situation? If, as he says, the staff are keen to take in such information, why are they not doing so now?
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