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Public Bill Committee Debates
Welfare Reform Bill

Welfare Reform Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen:Mr. Jim Hood, Mr. David Amess
Banks, Gordon (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab)
Baron, Mr. John (Billericay) (Con)
Clappison, Mr. James (Hertsmere) (Con)
Harper, Mr. Mark (Forest of Dean) (Con)
Howell, John (Henley) (Con)
Jones, Helen (Warrington, North) (Lab)
Lilley, Mr. Peter (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
McKechin, Ann (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland)
McNulty, Mr. Tony (Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform)
Mason, John (Glasgow, East) (SNP)
Munn, Meg (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op)
Plaskitt, Mr. James (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
Robertson, John (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab)
Rowen, Paul (Rochdale) (LD)
Shaw, Jonathan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)
Ussher, Kitty (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)
Liam Laurence Smyth, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 24 February 2009


[Mr. Jim Hood in the Chair]

Welfare Reform Bill

Clause 2

Work-related activity: income support claimants and partners of claimants
Amendment proposed (this day): 11, in clause 2, page 6, line 12, leave out “in prescribed circumstances”.—(Mr. Clappison.)
4 pm
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following: amendment 91, in clause 2, page 6, line 29, after “which”, insert
“the person is willing to undertake and which”.
Amendment 92, in clause 2, page 6, line 30, at end insert—
“( ) an action plan shall include details of any sanction that can be applied under the Act if the person, without good cause, fails to comply with any of the activities in the action plan.”.
Amendment 84, in clause 2, page 6, line 31, leave out “may” and insert “shall”.
Amendment 85, in clause 2, page 6, line 32, after first “the”, insert “reasonable”.
Amendment 86, in clause 2, page 6, line 34, leave out paragraph (a).
Amendment 93, in schedule 1, page 54, line 45, at end insert—
“An action plan shall include details of any sanction that can be applied under the Act if the person, without good cause, fails to comply with any of the activities in the action plan.”.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Having had an opportunity to reflect carefully, I find that the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Rochdale are even more defective than I first thought, but I will confine myself to my original intervention. Liberal Democrat amendment 84 is going about things the wrong way round. Instead of saying that regulations “may” make provision for reconsideration and setting out the circumstances in which that will take place so that everyone knows what those circumstances are and there is clarity, and so that the claimant, in particular, knows what the circumstances are, the amendment would do away with that—and just about do away with paragraphs (a) to (e) of subsection (5)—because it would make it mandatory to have reconsideration. It would merely require that reconsideration shall take place at “the reasonable request” of the claimant without saying what amounts to reasonable. That seems to be the worst of all worlds.
Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD) rose—
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot intervene on a Member making an intervention.
Mr. Clappison: I was making a short intervention.
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Tony McNulty): I had much of the lunch break to reflect on the matter, and I broadly agree that the Liberal Democrat amendment, although I do not doubt its good intentions, would not achieve anything remotely similar to that described by the hon. Member for Rochdale when he spoke to it. It is perverse and would require mandatory reconsideration. Even if the adviser and the individual were as happy with each other as they could be, there would have to be reconsideration, which does not make much sense. The problem is worse than the hon. Member for Hertsmere suggested because putting in the word “reasonable” and agreeing to an action plan with all the terms on the side of the individual, and then saying further that any sanctions must already be agreed by the individual would, by accident or design, water down conditionality to the point of perversity and would offer nothing of substance to the Bill.
Paul Rowen: Does the Minister accept that the Government made much in the Green and White Papers about personalised conditionality and a personalised agenda? Does he agree that lack of a legal right for a claimant to have their case reconsidered runs totally contrary to that? The Bill has 86 provisions for which regulations will specify what will be implemented. Does he accept that what might be defined as a reasonable request for reconsideration could be subject to yet more regulations?
Mr. McNulty: No. The hon. Gentleman misses the point, and the import of “made” versus “shall”. He would condemn everyone to reconsideration whether or not that was requested. We have said collectively until we are blue in the face that this is about rights as well as responsibilities, and about individuals establishing a relationship with their personal adviser that is in their mutual best interests. The direction is not one way, with imposition from the Jobcentre Plus personal adviser, nor is it one way in the other direction. Although it seems that using the word “made” would be radically different from using “shall”, I concur with the hon. Member for Hertsmere that that would not achieve what the hon. Member for Rochdale wants. The hon. Member for Rochdale can reconsider the matter and try to come up with something that gets to where he wants to be, but his amendment does not do that.
Given that interplay, I say as gently as possible that amendment 11, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Hertsmere, also would not do that. The amendment would remove the words “in prescribed circumstances”, but the prescribed circumstances do not refer to the individual, the relationship or anything that we have discussed. They refer to the prescription of those from the wider population of lone parents to whom the circumstances refer. I do not understand what the amendment would achieve.
Mr. Clappison: The purpose of the amendment is not to take out the power to prescribe circumstances, but merely to elicit information from the Government about how they propose to use this power. As such, it is a probing amendment.
Mr. McNulty: None the less, the amendment would not achieve what I think the hon. Gentleman wants it to achieve. I accept that the amendment is probing, but the prescribed circumstances refer specifically to individuals, and the thrust of the amendment is to make mandatory on all lone parents, regardless of their circumstances, a conditionality regime to which, as we discussed this morning, we are quite deliberately referring only specific subsets. This is almost Freud gone mad. Anyone with children would be caught, without prescription, under the clause as the hon. Gentleman would amend it, including those with young babies. I do not think that that is what he intends. We had this discussion in our previous sitting and I would ask that amendment 11, probing or otherwise, be withdrawn, and that the Committee gently ignores the others.
Mr. Clappison: I am happy to accede to the Minister’s request. I hope that I made it sufficiently clear that amendment 11 was a probing amendment. We are not trying to take this out of the Bill; we wanted either to elicit more information or to speed the process along. With that in mind, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Paul Rowen: I beg to move amendment 47, in clause 2, page 7, line 5, after ‘circumstances’, insert
‘including regard to that person’s mental health and any specific mental health needs that person may have’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 50, in schedule 1, page 53, line 30, after ‘failure’, insert
‘including demonstrating that failure was caused by a long-term or fluctuating mental health problem’.
Amendment 51, in schedule 1, page 59, line 18, at end insert
‘and circumstances where it can be demonstrated that a person has left employment voluntarily because of an employer’s failure to make reasonable adjustments concerning their mental health problems.’.
Amendment 52, in schedule 1, page 60, line 39, after ‘account’, insert
‘, including that person’s mental health and any specific mental health needs that person may have’.
Amendment 78, in clause 8, page 14, line 11, at end insert
‘including regard to that person’s mental health and any specific mental health needs that person may have.’.
Amendment 87, in clause 24, page 34, line 28, after ‘cause’, insert
‘(which shall include situations where the failure was caused by a long-term or fluctuating mental health problem)’.
New clause 5—Entitlement to tailored employment and career support
‘(1) All new ESA claimants and existing Incapacity Benefit claimants who are migrated to ESA, who have a diagnosed mental health problem which impacts on their ability to undertake work, will be entitled to an assessment carried out by, or linked to, Access to Work to determine what reasonable adjustments may improve the likelihood of retention should they find employment. This assessment must be carried out before the claimant may be compelled to undertake any compulsory work-related activity.
(2) The assessment will include evidence gathering from agencies responsible for a person’s employment support and for the provision of health services where appropriate and must include at least one interview with the claimant themselves.
Paul Rowen: I wish to speak to amendments 47, 50, 51 and 52, all of which I tabled. They deal with certain categories of people with mental health needs.
Any direction relating to specific work-related activity should take account of a person’s mental health and concurrent needs. This relates to our issues with the qualifications of Jobcentre Plus staff and the way in which they will make directions when making decisions regarding work-related activity. Employment advisers should take a person’s mental health into account when drawing up action plans or programmes of activity, and amendment 47 has been designed to protect claimants with mental health problems from being asked to undertake an activity that might be harmful to their health.
Amendment 50 relates to schedule 1. Although we had this discussion earlier, it is clear that mental health illnesses fluctuate for many people. It would be wrong if an individual’s fluctuating mental health was not treated as a good cause for not attending a work-focused interview. We wish to put protection for people in that position in the Bill. Were such a person to fail to attend an interview, one of the good causes accepted without argument should be that that person has a fluctuating mental health illness—we think that that is reasonable. We would expect the personal adviser to accept that and thus not to consider applying sanctions.
John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): Although I anticipate that the Minister will say that we cannot put anything extra in the Bill to cover issues such as mental health, because there are so many other things that we could put in, does the hon. Gentleman agree that health and mental health issues are really worth underlining in the Bill?
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