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8.3 pm

Mr. Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): I am following my neighbouring MP, the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies), in this debate; there is particular experience in the valleys of south Wales of economic incapacity and worklessness. My experience of trying to deal with the local organisations is slightly different from that of my neighbour. Interestingly, many local initiatives have been undertaken and they are beginning to achieve success. The incapacity rate in my constituency has dropped by 8 per cent. over the past 18 months—the problem now is that its unemployment rate is rising rapidly. So we have experience of starting to make inroads into the process, but my concern is that in order to do that, we have to be very careful about issues such as conditionality.

Many speeches have been made about conditionality today, and what is important is to go to the people who have actually experienced things and find out what their
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direct experience is. I commissioned a research project jointly with some local universities back in 2006—it is on my website, should hon. Members wish to read it—dealing with conditionality and the problem of how you apply it. It is not the case that you do not need any, because you clearly need some; the question is when and how to apply it appropriately, because it can be a disincentive rather than an incentive. The project describes some experience of that.

I am concerned that in the architecture of this Bill, like that of previous Bills, I am at variance with the Government in as much as they seem to have an abiding belief that in some way there is magic in a market and that a hidden hand will, in some way or another, incentivise and provide wonderful solutions that the public services are apparently too dull or inept to dream up, devise and monitor for themselves. I do not accept that view. My experience is that, through Jobcentre Plus, the constituency now has those resources and that a lot of success is being achieved. There is good value in the public servants who are delivering these processes. My area has some very good private and voluntary sector providers with whom they work. There is enormous experience among these people in doing exactly what I mentioned: devising their own new architecture of how they can collaborate to deal with the problems.

Now I face a Bill that seems to suggest that it does not really matter who the provider is, as long as it is not the public sector. I do not agree with that view, because it does matter who the provider is and there is a value in the public sector being involved in doing the providing. Do not automatically freeze out the Department for Work and Pensions with these contracting arrangements, because you will rue the day. One of the things that we have lost in the economy is a lot of strategic capacity, and part of the reason for that is that we have slavishly got rid of processes out of the public sector in the past. I would give you a general warning about how you go about things in the future. The world has turned—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I just remind the hon. Gentleman not to use the term “you” and to refer instead to hon. Members? I do not wish to be involved in this discussion.

Mr. Havard: I apologise Madam Deputy Speaker. I was referring not to you but to the Government; that is what I meant and that is what I should have said. The point I seek to make is a simple one: how things are done is the guts of this. There is a lot of commonality about what should be done—the need is obvious and some of the solutions are agreed. How they are applied is a very important part of the argument, and I am warning about how that is done.

I have encountered people who are trying to involve themselves in the new architecture of contracting that comes under the existing legislation and the new regulations. They tell me that if the Government are not careful, they will destroy capacity rather than embellish and create it. What they do not want is to be involved sometimes in what is described as market process, because that is not the efficient thing to do. That discussion must be had, because sometimes it is valuable to put things out to competition, but sometimes it is not. To have a slavish idea that it is always better if things are put out to competition will not provide us with either
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efficiency or utility and certainly will not provide us with sustainability. Ever since I came into this House in 2001, I have made it clear that it is sustainability of investment that will solve these issues, but how we apply it is equally part of the process. I shall be very interested to see how this Bill progresses, because there is clearly a lot of consensus about it.

However, there is confusion among the very best people who are helping to provide solutions, and the Government do not need to compound that. They need to explain to people how they can work collaboratively with the processes that the Government wish to put in place, because that is not clear at all. I have had this discussion informally with the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform and with the Minister for disabled people, and I would like them to visit my constituency and speak to the very agencies that wish to collaborate with the DWP, not to compete with it. These agencies do not wish to take over its function when it is not appropriate to do so, although they certainly wish to absorb part of its processes if it is valuable to do so. They are not interested in being in a situation where they compete for someone else’s resources. They want to work collaboratively, not to compete with each other to provide solutions. They know that when someone with a mild mental health problem turns up at the DWP, the DWP will have to contract someone to help, and the local health boards have been very helpful in such cases. Indeed, that process has been very successful, so why does that mechanism for collaboration have to be thrown out and replaced by private enterprise, which will do the same thing but with the imperative of making a profit? My fear is that that will mean a different approach for the individual.

Much has been said about tailoring activity to the needs of the individual, and I agree with that approach. A constituent of mine is now doing a degree in nursing at the local university. She is a single parent and the only reason why she left the house to start that process was to learn how to ice a cake for her daughter’s birthday at the healthy eating classes run by the Workers Educational Association. That is what liberated her to start her journey into education, and there are many such journeys to be made. Many local organisations have collaborated to provide that result for that individual. That is the lesson that we need to learn—not to jettison activity from the public sector for the sake of some political obsession with the market.

Some people seem to think that all the public sector should do is set contracts and monitor performance as a commissioning agent, not a delivery agent. We need to get over that particular political prejudice and look at the reality. If people visit my constituency, I will show them that reality. We need to get on with doing what is really important, instead of trying to introduce some spurious market.

8.11 pm

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I want to concentrate on people who want to work, but who, because of the prejudice of others or the lack of appropriate support, find it difficult to get into work at all. I will concentrate primarily on people with a learning disability, but many of the issues also affect people with physical disabilities and people with health problems, including
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mental health problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) has already ably covered many of those issues.

Mencap tells us that there are 800,000 people with a learning disability of working age in the UK. They are the disabled group most excluded from the work force and when they do work it is often for low pay and part-time hours. The estimated rate of employment for people with a learning disability is only 17 per cent. compared to 49 per cent. of disabled people as a whole and 74 per cent. for the working population. A study has shown that, in contrast to this low figure, 65 per cent. of people with a learning disability would like to work.

The Government have taken a lead on issues of equality and signalled that no one should be left out because they have a disability. The Mental Capacity Act 2005 was welcome because its emphasis was on what people could do and on allowing them to do it, rather than assuming that because a person might not be able to manage one aspect of their life they could not manage any other. The introduction of the disability equality duty—a requirement that public bodies promote the equality of disabled people both in the services they provide and in their employment practices—was also important.

As we are experiencing significant pressure on the economy and job losses, as many hon. Members have mentioned, it is easy to see how getting learning-disabled people into work might become a lower priority. But if we are serious about equality, we cannot allow that to happen. I welcome the focus in the Bill on helping disabled people. Clearly, many people will struggle to get jobs, so it will be important to have a realistic assessment of the skills—both work skills and life skills—that will increase the likelihood of employment. There needs to be consideration of the opportunities for learning and the development of skills that will be needed when the economic situation improves.

As I pointed out in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, much of the literature around this Bill refers to getting people “back” to work. Many disabled people may never have worked before, or their experience was a long time ago, which means that the world of work is now entirely different. It is not therefore surprising that the proposals as they are portrayed in the media often frighten people who envisage that they are going to be forced into a situation in which they cannot cope. It is therefore essential that the promise of personalisation is real. To start with, we need to find better ways of describing what it means.

I understand how terms are developed to describe processes, but they can easily sound to ordinary people—and, indeed, to Members of Parliament—like a foreign language. Personalisation must mean giving people the help that they need in the way that they find most helpful. That might mean the use of advocates. Attention must also be paid to the process by which people are moved from invalidity benefit to employment support allowance, as it is likely to be a trigger point for anxieties.

I seek an assurance from the Minister that the regulations made under the Bill will be subject to consultation. Many people fear what this legislation might mean for them, and reassuring them that there
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will be opportunities for them and organisations that represent them to comment on regulations is one way in which the Government can lessen that fear.

I am pleased that the DWP has produced an easy-read version of the report on conditionality rules, although it is a long document. I would encourage the widespread advertisement of its availability and the selection of relevant bits, otherwise it is quite confusing. I also advocate the production of easy-read versions of other important documents, perhaps with leaflets that focus on particular issues that will affect learning-disabled people.

It is also important that safeguards are put in place to ensure that disabled people are not sanctioned inappropriately. Personalisation will mean nothing if advisers are not adequately trained to understand the needs of disabled people. For example, concern has been expressed about the provisions on failure to comply without “good cause”, and I seek assurance that “good cause” will include failure to understand what was expected or the lack of adequate support to enable a claimant to comply with the requirements.

Many people with learning disabilities who have had the support to enter and stay in work enjoy the positive aspects that we all experience, including a sense of purpose, self-esteem, financial reward, the social aspects and the opportunity to use the skills and abilities they have. But, as I said at the outset, for too many people that can mean low-paid or part-time jobs, so I urge the Government to ensure that there is real equality for people with learning disabilities. They should be able to work at not just any job, but one that they have both the skills and abilities to do and one that they aspire to do.

Support for employers can also be an essential part of taking on a new employee who has a disability, and this needs to be part of the work that is undertaken. I was pleased to see in the White Paper recognition that volunteering can be a legitimate and effective way for people to acquire work skills. In the right setting, someone who has not been in employment for some time or at all can use the opportunity to experience conditions akin to a workplace, to learn new skills and to experience the disciplines of the working environment. I recently visited the charity Emmaus in Sheffield which has developed a social enterprise that helps homeless people with accommodation and work. They take volunteers, including adults with learning disabilities, to work alongside the residents and give them the opportunity to experience a productive working environment. That can be a useful and important step into paid employment.

My final point is that with such a low employment rate for people with learning disabilities, we are clearly a great distance from achieving equality. I urge Ministers to pay attention to the needs of those people when developing the systems set out in the Bill. Many people approach the issue from the standpoint of fear of the unknown, but it should rather be an opportunity to offer people with learning disabilities more help and support than they have ever had. May I urge the Government, in seeking to offer that support, to ensure that they draw on the experience of organisations that have extensive experience of such work and can show that they have supported people into meaningful long-term work? I urge the Government to recognise that such
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skills may be found in small local organisations, and not just in larger organisations that may initially appear better equipped to bid for contracts.

8.20 pm

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I welcome and support this Welfare Reform Bill. The Government have shown conclusively that the choice between helping the poor or reforming welfare was a false choice—it was not a case of having one or the other. Radical welfare reform goes hand in hand with the support of other policies such as tax credits and the national minimum wage.

In knowing what works to help people back to work, the Government must go further to tackle the great inequalities that still exist. Those inequalities hold people back, excluding them from the labour market and disadvantaging them and their communities at the same time. For many in my constituency, there has been a clear recognition over recent years through the new deal that paid work is the best route out of poverty. At the same time, however, too many people believe that there is a right to a life on benefits. I shudder to think how much talent is being wasted in our communities because of the belief that benefits will see people through life.

During the’80s and early’90s, I was employed in the manufacturing sector. The company that employed me was like many others and there came periods when it had to downsize. Of course, one of the first groups to be approached was people over the age of 50. An offer of early retirement along with an enhanced severance package was the order of the day. Many people seized that opportunity, but I was disappointed by the fact that when I bumped into many of those ex-colleagues not many weeks or months afterwards they told me that they had quickly moved on to incapacity benefit. They were fit, healthy individuals, albeit that they were in their early to mid-50s, but suddenly they had become unfit for work and were on incapacity benefit. That trend went on for far too long.

I also recognise that there are those who, for one reason or another, find themselves unable to continue in employment, more often than not because of a medical condition. Changes that we have made to replace incapacity benefit with employment and support allowance for new claimants is the way to ensure that those individuals get the opportunity to develop their talents and use their skills by returning to the workplace, albeit perhaps in an entirely new and different role. However, it is important that, in accordance with the Gregg review model, we do not force those who are on employment and support allowance, and attending interviews with pathways to work providers and developing a personalised plan to get back to health and into work, to apply for or take any specific jobs.

I want to consider the issue of drugs, which has been mentioned, and those who are hooked on drugs. Drugs are undoubtedly a scourge of modern society, I suspect in each and every community represented in this House. I welcome the new system for drug users on benefits, with the provision of tailored support to help them get off drugs and to move into work. I do not underestimate the challenge. Drug users will have the chance to turn their lives around, and in return they will be expected to take up that support so that the benefits help them
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overcome the problem rather than finding their way into the pockets of drug dealers. I suspect that that system might well come with significant costs.

Part 3 of the Bill deals with child maintenance, and Members from all parties will at some time have dealt with extremely difficult child support cases and individuals in arrears, as I mentioned in my intervention on the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb). It became frustrating to me very early on in my present role to see individuals in arrears who were living way beyond their means, running not just one or two cars but sometimes three or four, and having numerous holidays throughout the year. Something was seriously wrong.

I understand that, as one of my constituents suggested to me, there will be anxiety that authority is being taken away from the courts and placed in the hands of civil servants, although we all recognise that the courts process has held things up and has not helped. I would even go so far as to say that had the court system worked, we would never have had a Child Support Agency. The CSA would never have existed if the courts had been fair and equitable in each and every case they handled. If there were two identical cases, one in Dover and one in Dundee, how could the courts have come up with totally different results? The CSA exists, in my view, simply because the courts never worked properly in the first place.

These have been called difficult and unprecedented economic times. We have heard from the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) about the meeting with the Scottish colleges that he and I attended yesterday along with other colleagues. Further education colleges are potentially the one growth area as people will be looking to upskill and retrain and to seek other varieties of support, but the 16-hour rule could drive people away from colleges. I hope that that can be considered in Committee, if possible.

I want to mention another matter that has been mentioned this afternoon, which is not in the Bill. It was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who asked the Secretary of State about those who are partially sighted or blind. They have fought shoulder to shoulder with the Royal National Institute of Blind People for a higher rate mobility component of disability living allowance. I took a small delegation of Back-Bench Labour colleagues to meet the Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) when she was the Minister with responsibility for disabled people. It is a matter of equality, social inclusion, employment and independence in family life.

In the limited time that I have left, I want to give an example of that equality. It involves a lady called Jenny, who was 52, visually impaired and a volunteer worker for a disability support group made up of people with physical disabilities. Jenny could not get to work without a lift from a colleague with physical disabilities who drove his own car. She says:

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In discussions with Ministers and officials at the Department for Work and Pensions, representatives of the Royal National Institute of Blind People and other colleagues have agreed that the principle that we must do something to help people like Jenny is right. The Bill is about getting disabled people and people who are partially sighted and blind into employment, and I hope that the Minister can find some clause to which measures to help such people can be attached. When he winds up, I hope that he can give us a glimmer of hope that the Bill can be used to make what would be a vast difference to so many people.

8.30 pm

Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): This Bill will help put people who are out of work and on benefit, or who belong to other hard-to-reach groups such as single parents or drug abusers, on a path that will help us navigate through the present economic downturn and into the future. It does not want to leave anyone behind.

In his 1942 report, Lord Beveridge, who for a time was the chairman of the corporation of Newton Aycliffe in my constituency, wrote that most people

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