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


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Jonathan Shaw: It is difficult for me to respond on individual circumstances. If my hon. Friend wishes to write to me, giving the details, I will be happy to look into the matter.
In some circumstances, not all the information is before the decision makers. If there are deficiencies, we shall seek to improve the situation. I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that all of the many claims are processed 100 per cent. accurately. The vast majority are, and we strive to reduce the number of appeals, as was described. Indeed, we have a target, and I am focused on meeting it, but we are not there yet, and his example shows why we must continue to improve.
John Barrett: On a similar point, does the Minister accept that a problem with the assessment procedure is often that there is a snapshot of someone’s health, particularly when there is a fluctuating problem, when the GP, physician or surgeon could give a more detailed, in-depth analysis of the problem than can be obtained from one short visit?
Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for providing the opportunity to tell the Committee that that is precisely a difference between incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance assessments. When making arrangements for the new assessment, we brought in medical advisers and people from disabilities charities to help us to put the new arrangements together. We hope that looking at people over a period, instead of taking a snapshot, will assist both the process and, importantly, his constituent.
Reference was made to people failing to turn up. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean referred to Carers UK and its concerns. We have confirmed that there will be no conditionality for full-time carers. Hon. Members know that carers are not a homogeneous group, and the demands upon them and what they do varies enormously. Some choose to find employment, but for others that is not a possibility. That is why we need a good working relationship between the personal adviser and the customer so that they know the circumstances. There are many reasons why people might fail to turn up for an interview. A picture will emerge if someone consistently gives a similar excuse, and the personal assistant will have to consider the available sanctions. We do not want that to happen, and it is not the starting point for the reforms, but it is a necessary backstop to ensure that we engage with everyone on employment and support allowance, apart from those who are most severely disabled.
Mr. Harper: The reason for Carers UK’s concern—this returns to a point that was raised when discussing the Welfare Reform Bill—is that regulation 8 gives specific reasons that might be good cause with the catch-all at the end of “any other matter”. Carers UK is concerned that there is a list of reasons but “caring responsibilities” is not on it. We had a discussion about undue specificity, which the hon. Gentleman’s right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform is keen to avoid, and perhaps this is a good example of what happens when a list is drawn up but something is left off it, or it cannot be comprehensive. Carers UK just wants an assurance that that will be in the guidance to Jobcentre Plus advisers, particularly as the NAO report shows and the Department acknowledges that the knowledge of what carers need to get back into work is not perfect.
Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point again. He will appreciate that carers’ responsibilities vary enormously, and to refer to carers on their own would create more complexity than the hon. Gentleman would want to foist on Jobcentre Plus staff. It is about individual circumstances and the degree to which someone is caring for their relative, and so on. I hope that my words reassure the hon. Gentleman and Carers UK that if a care package falls apart, a carer cannot leave a frail or vulnerable relative to attend an interview. I am pleased to put that on the record.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the over-50s. The evidence shows that three interviews are less effective for them, so we intend to provide one interview to highlight the support on offer and then pilot a different regime to see what works best for that group. We obviously had a lot of debate about the pilots that we want to run and those that we have run. The thrust of our reforms is that to find ourselves in the right place we need to find out what works. Not only is that the most efficient use of resources, but it can give confidence to claimants because they will know that we have based our decisions on practical evidence of trying to get people off benefit and into work in this country.
Mr. Harper: May I probe the Minister on that? I do not recall the extensive discussions that we had on pilots during the passage of the current Welfare Reform Bill. I will not delve into this too much and try your patience, Mr. Streeter, but I do not remember discussions about pilots that were specifically focused on the needs of older incapacity benefit claimants. Is the Minister saying that during the piloting regime the Government will consider pilots aimed at older incapacity benefit claimants, to look at what they might need to get back into work?
Jonathan Shaw: Yes. The evidence from pathways to work shows that the approach is less effective for the over-50s, so we are adopting the more flexible approach of one interview to highlight the support on offer and a pilot regime to test what works best for that group. That is the evidence that has emerged from the pilots to date. In our White Paper we announced that we would put that particular regime in place.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the different levels of protection from sanctions within the incapacity benefit and ESA regimes, and that issue was also highlighted by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West. The ESA sanction is 50 per cent. of the work-related activity component. It is set at £12, which is slightly less than the current single IB sanction of £12.10, which is 20 per cent. of the basic rate of income support. The maximum IB sanction allowed by the current regulations is higher than in ESA, at £60.50. For ESA it is £24. The regulations will change the IB regime to ensure a uniform maximum sanction of £24 for both IB and ESA. I hope that that assures the hon. Gentleman.
In one of his first questions, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean asked me how many people I thought would be covered by the measure. I will have to get back to him on that. I will write to him, with a copy to the Chair and the Committee.
Mr. Harper: The Minister is right about the maximum level of the sanction. The concern is about those who are on incapacity benefit or income support by virtue of their disability and have not been on it for long enough to get up to the £84.50 level. If the £24 sanction comes into effect, their income will then fall below the £60.50 ESA equivalent and they will be in an adverse position. I think that was the thrust of the concerns expressed by the Child Poverty Action Group in the briefing that both the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West and I have used. As far as we can tell from the regulations, the sanctions regime will still apply to those who have not gone through the first phase of the process to get up to their maximum level of incapacity benefit. The issue is whether the Department intends to use a sanctions regime that will have that adverse impact.
Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for providing a little more detail on what he seeks to extract from me on that matter, and I can assure him that I will be finding the answer in a matter of moments. The hon. Gentleman referred to the regulations and bemoaned the fact that they were succinct and then ballooned. I am like him in that I prefer simplicity and as few words as possible. I know that my hon. Friends are thinking about that as they listen to me this morning. But it is not the case that all hon. Members want brevity. As he knows, on both sides of the House there are those who seek enormous amounts of detail from the Government, and clarification of matters.
John Barrett: I do not want to detain the Minister too much longer, but I wonder whether he could deal with the specific issue that I raised about people who would not be exempt from attending work-focused interviews under invalidity benefit or income support but would be exempt if they were ESA claimants. I suggested several groups such as pregnant women, those who are recovering from certain types of chemotherapy and people with many disabilities. Would home visits be an option for them, or is there another alternative? They will be caught in difficult circumstances.
Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who asked about groups of people who might be concerned that sanctions would be applied if they did not show up for a work-focused interview. I cannot emphasise enough that the interview is not the beginning of the process. It is included because we know from the pathways to work pilots that it has incentivised people, particularly those who have been a long way from the labour market, and who have lacked the confidence to seek employment. It has changed things. We introduce this regime not on the basis of wanting to take punitive action against people but because we know that it will work for them. Indeed, a small number of people were involved.
Mr. Flello: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for being so generous with his time—and ours. If someone attends a work-focused interview and it becomes clear to the adviser that actually they are not able to go into employment—that an earlier decision was, perhaps, incorrect—is there a mechanism for re-referral, and has it been used at all in the pilots?
Jonathan Shaw: Obviously, someone’s circumstances may change. That is why we introduced the linking rule for incapacity benefit. It provides people with the confidence to know that they can take a job for up to two years, and then return. Obviously, they would be subject to interviews, but they could return. That was an important reform to encourage people and to provide them with the confidence that they need to find employment.
Hon. Members will be delighted to know that, lo and behold, I have received some inspiration on the rates of IB and ESA sanction. They may be different; however, the alignment of the sanctions will bring a smaller maximum sentence—goodness me.
Mr. Flello: A Freudian slip.
Jonathan Shaw: Freud is all over this.
Alignment of the sanctions will bring smaller maximum sanctions on IB. We are reducing the amount on IB so that we have alignment.
Mr. Harper: Before the Minister concludes, can he confirm that the income of someone who is getting incapacity benefit or income support on the basis of incapacity will not fall below £60.50 per week? Could the sanction be imposed to bring it below that level? That was the concern that the Child Poverty Action Group had.
Jonathan Shaw: I am grateful for that further question. I will undertake to ensure that all Members get a detailed response, as the matter has clearly exercised the Committee. I apologise that I do not have the answer to hand.
I hope that I have been able to respond to most of the points, and I am grateful for the spirit in which questions have been raised. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved,
That the Committee has considered the Social Security (Incapacity Benefit Work-focused Interviews) Regulations 2008 (S.I. 2008, No. 2928).
11.9 am
Committee rose.
 
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Prepared 11 March 2009