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27 Jan 2009 : Column 184

We will do that in two ways through the Bill. First, in benefit calculations we will completely disregard child maintenance payments. We believe that that is the right thing. It means that instead of the money going to the taxman, it goes to the child. In addition, it will give a real incentive to parents to make sure that they know that the money is going to their children. We therefore think it will increase payments.

There is a minority of non-resident parents who are determined to do everything they can to avoid their responsibilities. They hide their money, they become self-employed and they employ expensive accountants. One of the ways in which we believe we can hit those parents in a way that gives them an incentive to pay is by saying that we will remove their passports or driving licences if they fail to live up to their responsibilities. Of course, the point is not to take away people’s passports or driving licences. It is to make sure that they comply with their responsibilities. Where this has been tried—for example, in Australia and in the US—it has resulted in a significant increase in child maintenance payments, in particular in the few days before people are due to lose their driving licence or passport. We therefore think it is an important measure to introduce.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Will the Secretary of State reconsider something he said a moment ago? Employing expensive accountants to get right figures seems to me to be the way forward. Anyone who is self-employed does not want wrong figures. I hope the right hon. Gentleman is not implying that the accountancy profession is in league with—

James Purnell: It is not my intention to slur accountants in any way. However, where fathers in particular are using accountants to avoid their responsibilities, they should be ashamed. We intend to stop that.

Last year— [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) is chuntering away to himself. He may want to listen to this point. Last year his party stopped such a measure going through in a Bill in the other place. The Opposition pretended to support it here but they stopped it in the other place, so I hope there will be a commitment from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead in her speech to support the measure that her party stopped in the House of Lords last year. I hope she will now commit to change her party’s policy.

Mrs. May: Perhaps the Secretary of State ought to look at the record of the debates that took place on that issue. It was, in fact, the Government Minister who chose to amend the Government’s position on the matter.

James Purnell: Precisely because we were running out of time, and it was the only way of getting the Bill through because the Conservatives were opposing it. I take it that the right hon. Lady is now reversing her party’s policy. She does not deny that, so I take it that the Opposition will support the Bill here and, we hope, in the other House. I hope that is one of many U-turns that we can look forward to under her leadership of the Opposition Front-Bench team.

Fathers also have an important role to play. As well as underlining people’s responsibilities, we want to make sure that the role of fathers is properly recognised. At the moment, it is much easier for a father to register
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their name on a birth certificate if they are married than if they are not. There are about 45,000 births a year to unmarried couples where no father is on the birth certificate. We think that that is wrong, and we want to put that right. We want to change the system so that the default is that both the mother and the father are on a child’s birth certificate, so fathers are clear about their responsibilities from the very start but, on the other hand, are involved in their child’s life, even if the relationship with their partner has broken down.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): What will the Government do if people do not produce two names?

James Purnell: If the mother says, for example, that she is unable to do so—which happens—or does not want to because of, for example, fear of violence, we will take the mother’s word. There is a careful balance between changing the system so that the default is that the father is registered and, on the other hand, going too far and involving the father where there is a threat to the child.

Mr. Field: We rightly place great emphasis on children knowing who their parents are. Some of us have constituents who have no knowledge of who their father is, and there is a real danger that half-brothers and half-sisters will get together. Surely there should be a procedure whereby, while protecting the position of the mother, at some stage children can actually find out who their father is.

James Purnell: We are trying to strike a balance, and I think that this proposal is the right means of achieving that. If we were to go in the other direction, we might put a mother in a position where she must involve a father whom she thinks is a threat to her or her child. The balance we have struck will mean far more children being able to know who their father is. I hope that my right hon. Friend will support the proposal on that basis.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): What evidence does the Secretary of State have that putting the names of the small proportion of irresponsible fathers on birth certificates will make them responsible?

James Purnell: This is partly about evidence and partly about the wishes of fathers. At the moment, fathers feel that it is far too complicated to register when they are not married. There are lots of examples in which fathers wanted to be involved but were unable to be. It is only fair to say that if we expect fathers to live up to their responsibilities, they should also have the right to be on the birth certificate. I am not saying that this is a magic policy that will solve all those problems, but combined with the other things that we are doing, it will help fathers to live up to their responsibilities and to be properly recognised.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Secretary of State clarify the difference between, as he has said, “taking the mother’s word for it”, if she says that she does not know or that there is a threat of violence, and making the whole scheme voluntary? Simply taking the mother’s word for it is not sufficient.

James Purnell: As I have explained to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), we are trying to strike a balance. We think that we have struck the balance in the right place. The proposal involves
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working with registrars to get far more fathers registered, and registrars have plenty of experience and are at the cutting edge of practice in that area. The proposal represents the first way in which the Bill will give people greater control over their lives by making sure that families work to support our important efforts on child poverty.

The second area where we need to make a real change involves giving disabled people the right to control the services that they receive. Hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise that Britain is probably at the cutting edge in terms of the framework for disabled people. In particular, good work has taken place on giving disabled people greater control over the support that they get in the health service through individual budgets. Although that change may sound dry, it is completely transformative.

I was in Barnsley yesterday talking to people who have benefited from individual budgets. In particular, a man called Patrick spoke about how he had been stuck in residential care for years and had been unable to go out because his carers did not have time to offer that to him. He felt that he was trapped and did not have control over his life. When he and two of his friends got individual budgets, they were able to rent a house and hire carers to look after all of them. They are now saving up the time with their carers to be able to go on holiday in Spain. Their lives have been completely transformed. Geoff, another man who was there, spoke about the change in his life. It meant that he had gone from being treated as a body that needed to be cared for to a person who needed to be helped. He mentioned that he now said to the people who looked after him that they were not his carers, but his enablers and that he was their boss. That is a complete change in the power relationship for disabled people. Through the Bill we want to take that idea, which has worked particularly in health, and widen it to a much broader range of support that disabled people get. We want to include a much wider range of services for disabled people, so that they can put them together to spend as they feel fit.

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend reassure those inside and outside the House who have been campaigning for a higher mobility component in the disability living allowance for those with little or no sight? As he said during his eloquent description of the young man in Barnsley, people must not be trapped in their homes but be enabled to prepare for work by engaging again with society, being able to leave their homes safely and having equality with other similar groups.

James Purnell: My right hon. Friend raises an important issue on which he has been leading the charge. The Government do not have any objection to it in principle. They totally understand the case that is being made; the question at the moment is how it would be financed. We would be happy to work with my right hon. Friend and other colleagues on how to make progress on the issue. We totally recognise the strength of feeling that has been expressed on both sides of the House.

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend honestly saying that the Government cannot find £45 million in his Department’s budget or elsewhere?

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James Purnell: There are questions about how much the cost will be, and we have worked with the Royal National Institute of Blind People on that. However, yes, the Bill is self-financing. We have made a number of simplifications and changes so that we can invest more in helping people. If we move forward with this, we will have to find the investment not only for now, but for the medium term, because a continuing commitment would be involved. However, as I say, we do not have an objection in principle.

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I support direct payments, but how does the Secretary of State intend to assist people who have either no capacity or a fluctuating or partial capacity to make decisions for themselves? That can happen in a lot of conditions such as learning disabilities, mental health disorders and, sometimes, autism. How will he help roll out direct payments to that group of people? They need something more than just the basic framework.

James Purnell: The hon. Lady makes a good point. That is what good social care is all about. Carers and families could be appointed to act as agents or support people in making the choices. As I am sure the hon. Lady would agree, in the past few years we have seen a real shift in the decisions that we expect people—including those with learning disabilities—to take. Such issues are certainly not a bar to individual budgets or this policy. The people whom I met yesterday had mental health needs and were classified as having learning disabilities, but the smiles on their faces showed exactly how their lives had been transformed by the opportunity to make the decisions for themselves.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend assure me and the House that the move to individual budgets can never be used as an excuse to cut budgets? A local authority might see some way of reassessing people that takes them out of its control but does not give the control back to the individual—because of lack of capacity or because there is less money.

James Purnell: That is an important point. I believe that the Liberal Democrat-controlled council in Aberdeen has used individual budgets for that very reason. That should not be done with this policy, which is not about changing people’s entitlement but about how they get their money and making sure that they can control it. If people are happy with the service that they are getting from the state, that is absolutely fine. However, the power should be with them so that if they are not happy, they can get the service changed or get the money themselves and use it as they can. After all, they—and not anybody else—are the experts on their own lives.

The Bill takes the powers to do that on a national basis. We will test it with trail-blazing public authorities, because it is a ground-breaking piece of legislation and we need to know exactly how it will work in practice. It introduces a fundamental change, and it will ensure that disabled people have the power to achieve what they want to in life in the same way as everybody else.

Thirdly, the Bill will give more control to people by helping them back into work. A decade ago, there was too little support for people to get back into work and too little expectation that they take it up. We started to
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put that right through the new deal and by merging the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service into Jobcentre Plus. We helped lone parents back into work, and we introduced pathways to work—the first time that people on incapacity benefit have had any help to get back into health and back into work.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend keeps talking about helping people back into work. I am particularly concerned about people with learning disabilities or other significant disabilities who perhaps have never had the chance to get into work in the first place. Will he include those people in his remarks? If the Bill is to make a difference to some people, it must tackle some of the situations that those who are truly excluded from work have experienced, and therefore take things further than ever before.

James Purnell: My hon. Friend makes a good point. People often talk about help for people who can work and security for those who cannot. When I talk to disabled people, I find that they hate that expression because they hate the idea of anybody being told that they cannot work. We have, as a society, changed expectations of what disabled people can do, and we should therefore be looking to help people, whatever their circumstances, to get back into work. We can do more in that respect—for example, through our subsidised employment programmes—and we are considering how to do so.

Liz Blackman (Erewash) (Lab): My constituents will welcome many of the measures in the Bill. However, we have to face the brutal statistic that 6 per cent. of people with autism are in full-time work and 12 per cent. are working part time. What assurance can my right hon. Friend give me that job advisers are fully cognisant with the situation of people who come to them wanting to go back into work? What support can they give, and are they fully up to scratch in terms of their training?

James Purnell: We have worked with the National Autistic Society, for example, to see exactly how we can deal with that, because people who are on the autistic spectrum may have difficulty understanding or complying with some of the expectations in the job-seeking system. We want to ensure that we are sensitive to those needs while giving people the right support. For people who have more serious mental health needs, we may need to think about a different approach apart from just helping them to interview for a job and then expecting them to be able to stay in it when their condition will often recur or get worse. We can start to think about that new approach through the work that Dame Carol Black is doing on mental health and employment.

Importantly, because the Bill will reduce public expenditure in some ways, we have been able to increase the money for Access to Work—a scheme that helps people with disabilities to stay in work or to go into work. Because of that extra money, we will be able to do far more for people with mental health needs, particularly those with fluctuating conditions. We are working with Mind on a project in precisely that area.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Bill is very timely, because at a time of economic downturn it is more important than
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ever that we put the work in to ensure that people do not get too far away from the workplace and are able to come back into it as soon as the economic conditions allow?

James Purnell: I agree. It is because we know that our support helps people get back into work that we want more people to take it up. That is why we want to have a system where virtually everyone who is getting benefits is doing something to prepare for a return to work. The benefits system is not there for people to stay on benefits but to help them to get back into work.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): At the jobs summit that the Prime Minister held with the TUC on 3 January, the TUC produced a document called “An emergency ten point plan to tackle unemployment”. Has the Secretary of State had a chance to read that, and will he work with the TUC to take it forward?

James Purnell: Yes, I have. I have discussed it with Brendan Barber, and we are working on precisely how we can take it forward. Indeed, since the jobs summit, the TUC has been working with us on the proposals that we made then.

John Robertson: My right hon. Friend mentioned access to work and getting people into work, but the Government have not fulfilled employment retention needs. They have touched on the edges of the subject and helped in some ways, but is it not time that we took the matter on board and wrote it into the Bill, so that every company, and the Government, must consider employment retention and ensure that they keep people in employment?

James Purnell: My hon. Friend is a fervent campaigner on employment retention. We believe that his goal is met by the existing legislation on disability, but we are working particularly on examining how we implement the equality Bill to see whether we can give him more reassurance. For example, we could point to examples of companies that have considered employment retention as part of their compliance with the Disability Discrimination Acts. We are happy to keep working with him on the matter.

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): The Secretary of State has mentioned the impact of the recession on his strategy. Will he clarify his idea of using private providers and giving them a cash reward as the principal source of remuneration for getting people back into work? Is it his intention to shift the balance in those contracts in a world in which it is more difficult to get people back into work, so that more of what the providers get is a lump sum and less is related to performance?

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