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27 Jan 2009 : Column 227

John Mason: Is that an intervention?

Mr. Davidson: Will the Member tell us exactly what he has in mind as a minimum wage, below which he would not advocate any sanctions being placed on anyone for any reason?

John Mason: We are talking about a living wage, and the figure of £7 has been suggested as a possibility. I am not going to put my neck on the line for £7, but I think that the Government should be taking a joined-up approach and looking at welfare reform, child poverty and the minimum wage all as a—

Mr. Davidson: What is your figure?

John Mason: I have given the Member a figure.

Mr. Davidson: Is it £7?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr. Davidson: I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was just trying to clarify that point.

John Mason: I should like to turn to some of the specific issues in the Bill. There seems to be an assumption that all parents should be working. It has already been pointed out that many families are facing a lot of problems these days. For example, some children with physical disabilities, who might not even have survived in the past, need a huge amount of care. Sometimes, having a parent at home is the right thing for those kids.

Another group that has been mentioned is drug addicts. If we cut their benefits, what will be the result for their children? Would it mean less food on the table for them? That is what happens in practice.

Miss Begg: What does the hon. Gentleman think would be better for the children? Is it better to have a parent who is a drug addict in treatment and getting well, or to have that parent left to carry on being a drug addict?

John Mason: If it is real treatment, we are certainly in favour of it. However, the problem in Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland in recent years is that the drug problem has been managed. That is what happened under the previous Scottish Government: the problem was only managed; it was not tackled. People were put on methadone. The present Scottish Government now offer support with methadone as well as help for people to get right off drugs, which is the only answer.

Mrs. McGuire: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

John Mason: I would like to make a little progress, if the right hon. Lady does not mind. We have spent a lot of time on drugs tonight. If she was going to ask me something else about drugs, I can tell her that the Scottish Government are spending £29.5 million on drugs in the current year within the justice portfolio, and that will rise to £32 million in the coming year. That is evidence of a clear commitment.

A further question is whether the system will be too prescriptive. It is good to see a number of Scottish Members in the Chamber tonight. Some of us met representatives of Scottish colleges yesterday when they were down visiting London. They are trying to work with individual employers to get youngsters, and also older people, ready for particular jobs. The big advantage
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that the Scottish colleges have is that they have a lot more flexibility than colleges in England, and that is something that we are rightly proud of.

Sandra Osborne: Does the hon. Gentleman think that the Scottish National party Government should agree with the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament that more money should be put into skills and training as part of this year’s budget proposal?

John Mason: The big problem, when we talk about money and Scotland, is that the Scottish budget is being cut by something like £1 billion, so apart from the fact that we are already subsidising the UK with our oil money, we are also having our budget cut. That is making things extremely difficult for the Scottish Government.

The 16-hour maximum limit for a course is a real problem for the Scottish colleges, and a real problem in relation to getting people back into work. I hope that the Government will look at that issue as the Bill progresses. Furthermore, greater flexibility is needed for local Jobcentre Plus managers. For example, in Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway is very different from Glasgow, East, and different approaches are needed in such different places. Wording such as “tailored to the individual’s circumstances” has been used, and it sounds really, really good. But is that what is actually going to happen? Do Jobcentre Plus managers have the freedom to act in that way? Can they decide what is best for the individual, or is there pressure on staff to meet budgets?

Mr. Russell Brown: The hon. Gentleman said earlier that he had spent a morning at a Jobcentre Plus in his constituency. I did the same on a couple of occasions during the summer recess. There is flexibility in the system for managers to manage as they see fit, in order to adjust to local needs. The system is not as prescriptive as Members sometimes believe.

John Mason: That is a good point. A lot of well-intentioned statements are being made here tonight by a lot of people, and I include Ministers, many of whom are well intentioned. The problem comes when that works its way through to the actual job centre—if it does—where the same well-intentioned helpfulness, including training and all the rest of it, is not always as evident as in the House.

Mental health issues are also important. Having opened an office on a main street in my constituency, I find that many people come to see me, and it is clear that a number of them have mental health issues. I am concerned about the pressure that may be put on them if they are subjected to a very rigorous regime.

In conclusion, I promised my constituents that I would judge issues at Westminster by how they affected the gap between the rich and the poor in society. Now we are entering a recession, yet we see top bankers, who have virtually destroyed their banks and half the economy of this country—[Hon. Members: “The Royal Bank of Scotland.”] I include Scottish banks. Those bankers are walking away with knighthoods and handsome pensions, and are perhaps even getting other good jobs as well. By contrast, we see people at the bottom of our society being squeezed more and more. I just think that there is something wrong with that.

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7.21 pm

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): I think that the objectives of welfare reform have to be to free more people from poverty, to provide more support to get people into employment and to give disabled people the kind of choice and control over their lives that non-disabled people have. I support the Bill because I believe that it will move us further in the right direction in all three respects.

I do not believe that this Bill provides a solution to the global economic crisis, nor do I believe that it will create the extra millions of jobs that are needed pretty quickly in this country. That is a matter for fiscal policy—I hope that more such action will be taken in the near future—and for co-ordination internationally. The idea that there is some kind of choice between welfare reform on the one hand and policies to stimulate the economy on the other is wrong. The act of shifting money from one budget head to another will not on its own increase demand and will not of itself boost the economy.

Mr. Frank Field rose—

Roger Berry: I have deliberately provoked my right hon. Friend’s intervention.

Mr. Field: I do not know whether my hon. Friend was referring directly to me, but I was not arguing against having fiscal measures or against making them as effective as possible. However, for 400 years welfare has been about creating and offering jobs, not dole and, in the present conditions, I think that we need to change the balance so that some job creation is done in the community, as happened under the previous Labour Government.

Roger Berry: I am at one with my right hon. Friend in supporting anything that will create jobs. That involves action on the demand side and, indeed, measures such as those in the Bill, which is why to the best of my knowledge every single disability organisation supports the Welfare Reform Bill, because they believe that the measures in it will provide improved opportunities for disabled people. I was simply making the point that we should not set up a false opposition between the Welfare Reform Bill on the one hand and laudable measures to boost the economy on the other.

I want to concentrate on the Bill’s impact on disabled people, not least because according to official statistics, 3 million of the 10 million disabled people in this country are living in poverty. If we take into account the extra necessary costs of disability, whether it be for transport, adaptations, personal assistance, equipment or whatever, conservative estimates such as those produced by the Leonard Cheshire disability charity suggest that it is not 3 million but 6 million disabled people and their families who live in poverty. We must ask what policies are best fitted to tackle that incredibly serious problem, and I believe that for those who can, work is the best way out of poverty.

John Barrett: I am following what the hon. Gentleman is saying with interest and I think that he has hit on a very important point. Does he accept that although the unemployment rate among the disabled is roughly double that among able-bodied people, those who are out of
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work and disabled are more than twice as likely to want to work than the able-bodied? There is a real pool of potential among the disabled who are out of work.

Roger Berry: If I understand the comment correctly, I think the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that disabled people out of work are less likely to— [Interruption.] Oh, I thought that the hon. Gentleman was saying the opposite, which is why I was expressing a slight surprise.

One of the key reasons why so many disabled people live in poverty is, as we all know, that only 50 per cent. of working-age disabled people are actually in work. If we consider people with mental health problems or learning disabilities, we are down to less than 20 per cent. It must be right to take measures to help disabled people to secure better employment opportunities. That is partly what the new deal, Jobcentre Plus, pathways to work and, of course, a decent national minimum wage were all about. They were about providing employment opportunities to enable people to get out of poverty.

I should add that for those who are unable to secure employment—here I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)—social security benefits are simply too low. There is no third way for most people: if they do not have a job, they rely on benefits, and benefits in this country are too low. The TUC and others are absolutely right to say so.

To return to the employment front, there are 10 per cent. more disabled people in work today than there were 10 years ago, which is significant. For some, progress has been painfully slow, but there has been a significant overall improvement in employment opportunities. Those who have had the most difficulty securing employment are probably those with mental health problems. About half of people on incapacity benefit have a primary diagnosis of a mental health problem, and if we add those with a secondary diagnosis, the proportion is even higher. Such people with mental health problems need the kind of personalised support envisaged in the Bill, which has been piloted for some time. The provision of such personalised support is one reason why I support the Bill. The vision of specialist personalised support is crucial.

Part 2, which relates to giving disabled people greater choice and control over the services provided to them, provides another crucial ingredient of support—the so-called “right to control”. The problem, of course, is that services are currently fragmented beyond measure. Some people in the House know this better than I do from their personal experience, but countless assessments—well, not countless, but people could easily have six or seven of them—different eligibility criteria, the Employment Service, social care and health care do not offer a good example of joined-up service provision. In fact, they provide a terrible example because they are not joined up at all.

I thus strongly support the Bill’s identification of the need for disabled people to have right of control in the sense of bringing those services together. When the noble Lord Ashley put forward his Independent Living Bill in the other place, he envisaged one gateway and one budget over which disabled people could exercise control, thus eradicating the problem that arises when people have to negotiate such a fragmented range of services.

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In that context, I am disappointed that although the Bill talks about the “right to control”—and the Government have used the phrase quite a lot in respect of it—it specifically excludes services relating to social care and health. I find that strange. If we are to talk seriously about the right to control, it must embrace within that framework not just employment-related services, but social care, health and other services. I would like a clear statement from the Minister this evening that the Government intend to legislate for the right to control in respect of social care and health care, as well as for employment-related services.

As I have argued in previous debates, fragmentation is evident not just in different kinds of service provision; the classic problem remains that someone who has a health care package in one local authority but wants to work in the next door authority has to take the risk of abandoning the current care support package and then spend considerable time renegotiating a new package with the neighbouring local authority. If the right to control is to be more than rhetoric—if it is to be an essential part of enabling disabled people to secure decent employment opportunities—it must include the right to move from A to B to obtain work. Our present social care system blocks that. I hope that the Minister who winds up will confirm, very simply, that the “right to control” means that the Government will scrap the lack of portable support, and get rid of the present ridiculous system whereby people cannot take their care packages from one local authority to another.

Welfare reform plainly requires a major expansion of employment services. I welcome the news that funding for Access to Work is to be doubled by 2013, but I confess that because of the modest amount involved, and because for every £1 million spent, between £1.7 million and £1.9 million is returned to the Treasury, I still do not understand why it is necessary to wait until 2013 for that to happen. It seems to me that the Government’s aspirations are very modest. What is needed, I feel, is a massive awareness campaign to inform the many employers who do not know about Access to Work—and, perhaps, even disabled people who do not know how wonderful Access to Work can be—that it is available.

I strongly support the statements made by three Members about the barrier to work, and to other aspects of life, that affects blind people. It is nonsensical that blind people cannot access the higher mobility rate of disability living allowance. What is the distinction between someone who physically cannot move around unaided and someone who is unable to move around safely owing to sight loss? In both cases, the outcome is exactly the same.

I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw)—who is present, and who is Minister for disabled people—is very sympathetic to that argument, because I have heard him advance it. I note that the Secretary of State is very sympathetic to it as well. In my view, £45 million to enable 22,000 people suffering from serious sight loss to travel to job interviews, travel to work, participate as equal members of society and, dare I say, have some right of control over their lives is not an enormous price to pay, especially nowadays. I
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urge the Government—please, please, please—to accept the logic that blind people should have access to the higher rate of the mobility component of disability living allowance if they meet the relevant criteria.

My final point relates to the role of the voluntary and private sectors as providers. Not much has been said about that so far. I believe that the employment service should be the best possible for the individual. I do not particularly care who provides it. I know of voluntary sector providers—and some in the private sector—who do a fantastic job, and I have no problem with that. However, as the Minister will know, many organisations argue that awarding larger and fewer contracts to non-specialist providers is, in Mencap’s words,

Payment by results might also mean that those who received the support were those nearest to the labour market.

I look forward to receiving assurances from the Minister on both those issues.

7.33 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a great honour to follow the hon. Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry). He is always worth listening to, but he was particularly worth listening to tonight. I am sorry that he was unable to continue longer because of the time limit. I agreed with him about the desperate need to examine the issue of social care packages, and I also agreed with what he said about the treatment of blind people.

It was also a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). They, too, made powerful speeches. It is a shame, in my view, that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead does not sit on the Government Front Bench: I think that he would be a great asset to the country, given his radical views and ideas. I agree with him that the Bill was drawn up at a time when things were very different. I am sure the Prime Minister genuinely believed that the boom would go on for ever—he always said that it would go on, and there would not be a bust—but I am afraid that he was totally wrong, and that we may now face not a recession but a depression.

Because I find the whole issue of welfare reform very difficult to deal with, my speech will cover a number of issues that will not necessarily be “joined up”, and I apologise to the House for that. One issue arises in my constituency time and time again. I do not want to use the word “underclass”, but there is a class of constituents who know nothing other than being on benefits. They do not relate to jobs. I am sure that the thrust behind the Government’s proposals will be very useful in helping them to break that cycle, I know that the devil is in the detail, and no doubt there will be plenty for us to examine in Committee. If we could only break the cycle and get those people into employment, that would surely be a very good thing, and I hope that the Bill will help us to achieve it.

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