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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Eric Martlew
Bacon, Mr. Richard (South Norfolk) (Con)
Baron, Mr. John (Billericay) (Con)
Curry, Mr. David (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)
Harper, Mr. Mark (Forest of Dean) (Con)
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)
Keen, Alan (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
McDonagh, Siobhain (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)
McNulty, Mr. Tony (Harrow, East) (Lab)
Rowen, Paul (Rochdale) (LD)
Ryan, Joan (Enfield, North) (Lab)
Shaw, Jonathan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)
Stoate, Dr. Howard (Dartford) (Lab)
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew (Chichester) (Con)
Webb, Steve (Northavon) (LD)
Wicks, Malcolm (Croydon, North) (Lab)
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Sixth Delegated Legislation Committee

Thursday 29 October 2009

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]

Social Security (Incapacity Benefit Work-focused Interviews) (Amendment) Regulations 2009
8.55 am
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Social Security (Incapacity Benefit Work-focused Interviews) (Amendment) Regulations 2009 (S.I. 2009, No. 1541).
Thank you, Mr. Martlew. It is certainly a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I am sure that the same goes for Labour Members, who will be delighted to be here to debate these important regulations.
By way of preamble—a brief preamble, you will be pleased to hear, Mr. Martlew—it is worth saying that the regulations are important in the context of the recession. We are seeing a significant rise in unemployment, and this is obviously a difficult time for those who are on incapacity benefit or the employment and support allowance. At this difficult time—I am almost sure that the Minister will say this later, and I would agree with him—it is even more important that we provide proper help and support for those on incapacity benefit or the employment and support allowance. Even if it is not possible to get all of them into work now, it is essential that we make sure that they get the training and help that they need so that when the economy eventually recovers they can get back into the workplace. We very much support that central thrust, and we certainly do not object to the central thrust behind the regulations. However, I want to challenge the Minister on a number of important issues.
First, on the parliamentary process, the regulations were laid before Parliament on 25 June and the prayer was tabled four days later, on 29 June. The House did not rise for the summer recess until 21 July, which should have given us ample time to debate the regulations. After the House returned from the recess, it had two weeks to debate them before they came into force on Monday. It is rather disappointing that we have ended up debating them three days after they came into force; it would have been better if time had been found in the timetable to debate them before they came into force. It might be worth the Minister saying a word about the inordinate delay in finding time to debate the regulations.
I turn now to the detail of the regulations. The provisions are applicable to existing incapacity benefit claimants of between 18 and 24 years old who have been claiming continuously for 12 months or more and who live in a Jobcentre Plus pathways to work area—an area where Jobcentre Plus, rather than a third-party provider, deals with the pathways to work programme. Essentially, the regulations provide for claimants who fall within that definition to attend three mandatory work-focused interviews.
I have some questions about the number of people in the group that the regulations will affect. It is difficult to get all the information from the Department for Work and Pensions website and the tabulation tool that it uses, because one cannot select all the criteria at one time to pull the information off. The information that I have managed to pull off so far is that 96,040 IB claimants between 18 and 24 have been in receipt of the benefit for more than a year, compared with the total IB population of 2.2 million. The regulations, therefore, affect just under 5 per cent. of the existing IB case load.
The Minister, having access to the data, will be able to come up with a slightly more refined number. It would help if he set out how many IB claimants the regulations affect—how many are in the 18 to 24 age group; what proportion that is of the total; and how many have been claiming for more than a year. As I said, 96,040 or so claimants are potentially affected by the regulations, but the regulations affect only those who live in Jobcentre Plus-led pathways areas. In respect of the total number of IB claimants, it would help if the Minister provided figures showing the split between how many are in a Jobcentre Plus-led pathways area and how many live in a provider-led area—and, in each of those areas, how many of the IB claimants have been claiming for the 12 months or more for which they would need to have been claiming for the regulations to kick in.
The explanatory memorandum states that existing “stock”—forgive me, Mr. Martlew; that is not a great word—customers, who are already on IB and who made their claim for IB before pathways to work was introduced, have no conditionality requirements. That means things that they have to do to seek work. It would help if the Minister informed the Committee of how many of the IB population, both in the age group that we are discussing and in general, currently have no conditionality requirement at all to seek work-focused interviews or to get back into work.
I also want to probe the Minister on whether the financial backing for the regulations stacks up with what they are designed to do. The impact section of the explanatory memorandum states:
“The impact on the public sector is less than £5m in administration costs.”
In a previous written answer to a parliamentary question, the Minister said that the average cost of conducting a work-focused interview was £35. If £5 million is the cost of conducting the work-focused interviews and we assume that there are three for each person, which is what the regulations provide for, the cost of the regulations would cover about 47,000 claimants. I want to see whether the number of people whom the regulations will cover stacks up with the financial resources that the Government have put in place to conduct the work-focused interviews. I should also like an idea of the period over which the interviews will take place—how quickly do the Government propose to carry them out?
Given that the point of the regulations is to have IB claimants attending work-focused interviews and getting back into work, I want to explore how effective those interviews will be at helping people to do that. The original “Pathways to Work” document, published in 2002, made the point that once a person had been on IB for a year, they had only a one in five chance of returning to work within five years, and that the average duration of their claim would be eight years. Once a person has been claiming for more than a year, it is very difficult for them to leave IB and get back into work. I should be interested to know what estimate the Minister has made of the number of IB claimants who will be affected by the regulations who will get back into work as a result of the additional work-focused interviews, and how many would not have been expected to get back into work but for those regulations. It would also be interesting to know what analysis the Government have made to assess the effect of the work-focused interviews on the flow of IB claimants off benefit and into work. A key point is that we should not just get people off the benefit, but get them back into work as well.
Given that the regulations specifically affect those IB claimants who live in the Jobcentre Plus-led pathways areas, I wanted to touch on the question of whether Jobcentre Plus will have the resources—the finance and the people—to carry out the additional work-focused interviews. We know that Jobcentre Plus does an excellent job in coping with the growth in the number of its customers, for want of a better word, during the recession. However, we want to make sure that it will be comfortable in dealing with the extra burden.
The next thing that I want to mention may be a feature of what happens when regulations are laid and not debated for a few months. The explanatory memorandum states that the Government’s approach to IB has led to the fact that the numbers on the benefit are continuing to fall. It also states that IB numbers—this is actually IB and employment and support allowance together—
“are down 47,000 to 2.60 million in the year to May 2008.”
It continues:
“There is no clear evidence yet that the economic downturn is leading to rising numbers on Incapacity Benefit”.
I think it is fair to say that that was true when the regulations were laid before Parliament, but I do not think that it is true any more. Since then, the Government have published some data about the early estimate of the IB and employment and support allowance client group as of 31 August. That estimate is that the numbers reached 2.63 million—up from 2.59 million in August 2008. It would help if the Minister confirmed that I have got that right, and that the IB and employment and support allowance case load has started to rise as a result of the economic downturn.
I wanted to touch on the total goal that the Government have set themselves. The regulations affect only a proportion of IB claimants—those between 18 and 24 living in particular areas—but part of the Government’s overall goal is to reduce the numbers on those two benefits by 1 million by 2015. There are a couple of things on which I want to test the Government.
First, I think the starting point for that goal is set at the peak of the case load in May 2005, when claimants totalled 2.74 million. How do the Government expect to achieve the target? Of course, the benefits are working-age benefits, so as people reach retirement age they move off them and on to the state pension. More than 500,000 current claimants are likely to reach retirement age by 2015, so doing nothing would effectively mean that 500,000 incapacity benefit claimants would drop out of the system as a result of their age.
Is the target simply to move 1 million people off benefits, or is it to move them off benefits and into work? Clearly, in the first of those choices, half the job would be done through the age profile of the claimants. Trying to move people into work would affect only those of working age, but it would be a more challenging target than just getting people off benefit.
My next point is about the migration of incapacity benefit claimants from IB to the employment and support allowance. The explanatory memorandum states:
“Customers subject to these regulations will not need to attend the 3 WFIs again when this future IB to ESA migration takes place.”
When do the Government intend to start migrating existing IB claimants, in the age group that we are discussing, on to the employment and support allowance? Do they plan to prioritise the migration of existing IB claimants of that age, or will they do it in some other way without focusing particularly on young people? Once those people have been moved on to the employment and support allowance, will they have to undergo the six work-focused interviews that existing claimants have to have? How do the Government plan to deal with people once they move on to the ESA? Do they plan to align the requirements once IB claimants have migrated to the ESA?
Finally, I turn to the question of good cause for failing to attend a work-focused interview, and the need to provide such cause within five days. The regulations before us amend regulation 8(3) of the Social Security (Incapacity Benefit Work-focused Interviews) Regulations 2008, which states that a claimant who has failed to attend an interview must show that he or she had “good cause” for failing to do so
“within five working days of the day on which the interview was to take place”.
The Minister will know—we discussed the matter during the passage of the Welfare Reform Act 2007—that some disability charities, particularly those that speak for people with mental health problems or other fluctuating conditions, are not convinced that five days is long enough for such people to notify the Department of their reasons for missing the interview.
When debating the Welfare Reform Bill, we discussed whether five days was appropriate or whether more time was needed. We spoke then of the guidance on the time period, issued to the staff at Jobcentre Plus so that they could deal sensitively with someone who had a mental health problem or other fluctuating condition and allowing the regulations to be interpreted, rather than having to be changed. Are there any data from Jobcentre Plus on problems with that five-day “good cause” timetable having been breached?
Those are my questions for the Minister. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
9.13 am
Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I apologise, Mr. Martlew, for arriving late. I shall not repeat what the hon. Member for Forest of Dean said, but I have a number of other questions for the Minister. I hope that he can assist us.
Since laying the regulations before the House, the Government have introduced the young person’s guarantee. How does the operation of the work-focused scheme fit in with the guarantee? We are dealing with young people aged 18 to 24. The three interviews will obviously be quite different; if the guarantee is in operation, what support and advice will be available to ensure that these young people have the options that we all want for them?
Following on from what was said by the hon. Gentleman about people who might present particular problems, one issue that concerns me is young people who have autistic spectrum disorder. There is a lot of support in the education system for autistic students up to the age of 18, but there is a lack of understanding and support not only in employment but in social services for those on the autistic spectrum. Will the Minister say what support and advice will be available for Jobcentre Plus staff on dealing with such young people? Will there be specialist advisers?
Many primary care trusts employ specialist mental health advisers who advise Jobcentre Plus staff. They support people who suffer from mental illness and help them get into the workplace. Does the Minister intend such support from primary care trusts to be available to assist Jobcentre Plus staff in dealing with young people who present with autism or other mental illnesses? Has he given any thought to the numbers that are in that category? We are talking only about those in the pathways to work pilot. Nevertheless, that covers a lot of the country.
There are real concerns that people with mental illnesses and multiple sclerosis are being classed as fit to work when medical practitioners say firmly that they are not. I have concerns about the operation of that process. Today, we are discussing young people. I would like an assurance from the Minister that the system will be operated much more sympathetically.
9.19 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw): It is a joy to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Martlew. We appreciate your guidance during these proceedings.
I will begin by attempting to answer some of the questions of hon. Members. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean rightly talked about the need to help young people and to ensure that Jobcentre Plus has the right resources. As would be expected, I remind him and other Opposition Members that we have ensured that we have sufficient staff in the Jobcentre Plus operations in our communities by increasing the staffing levels. Normally, we recruit about 500 a month into the organisation; at the moment, the figure stands at about 2,500. That has been made possible by additional borrowing in respect of the £5 billion as part of the fiscal stimulus. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of that. I am pleased that he supports the additional staff, even though he refrains from supporting the additional resources used to provide those staff.
The future jobs fund is helping many youngsters avoid the pitfalls of unemployment. In the hon. Gentleman’s region, for example, we expect more than 1,000 jobs to be created over the next 18 months. That will assist young people, but again, doing that takes resources. We are pleased by the partnership of many local authorities of all political persuasions around the country as they support the policy, even though the Opposition do not support providing the resources to help our young people.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the split between pathways to work provided by Jobcentre Plus and that provided by the private and voluntary sectors. It is a 60-40 split. The 40 per cent. relates to the Jobcentre Plus pathways provision, which accounts for about 30,000 youngsters who will be affected by the initiative. In response to the hon. Gentleman’s question about the target, I should say that our long-term aspiration is to ensure an 80 per cent. employment rate. That can be achieved only if significant numbers of those currently on incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance come off those benefits and go into work.
On the number of people who have no conditionality, I should say that approximately 2 million people joined the benefits before the conditionality legislation applied to them. They will come under the ESA conditionality arrangements when we migrate people from the current incapacity benefit system to the ESA over the next three years.
I was asked why the provider-led pathways were not involved. The focus is on the Jobcentre Plus areas, and we will be ensuring that the under-25s and all groups are migrated on to the new system, which we plan to start in 2010. How quickly will that be carried out? We believe that the work-focused interviews will be completed for all the 30,000-odd relevant customers by March 2011.
The hon. Gentleman asked about extra help. I have advised him about the extra staff at Jobcentre Plus and the future jobs fund, which is having an impact in our communities. The hon. Member for Rochdale referred to the September guarantee. We are doing a great deal proactively to assist young people to prevent that group from becoming long-term unemployed. We know that the longer that people from that group are on benefits such as sickness or ill health benefits, the more difficult it is for them to get back to work, as the hon. Member for Forest of Dean said.
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