Welfare Reform Bill

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Paul Rowen: I agree. As I said this morning, concerns have been raised about various aspects of the Bill and its overarching scope. It is important to place safeguards in the Bill so that it is clear to both the claimant and the personal adviser what is a just cause. It is reasonable that we should do that.
Amendment 51 would insert a provision about reasonable adjustments into schedule 1. We support the fact that more and more people who were previously consigned to incapacity benefit will be supported back into employment. However, there must be an onus on the employer to take into account that person’s needs. There have been circumstances in which someone has returned to work and found that the support that they were promised did not materialise. We believe that it is reasonable for someone not to continue an activity because of an employer’s failure to provide the support that was promised. That might happen because the employer did not, in all good faith, appreciate what the support might involve. If we are considering people with a fluctuating mental illness, it is difficult to prescribe the support that someone will need, because that will vary over time and due to circumstances. If an employer is not willing to accept that, it might be a reason why a person is unable to continue an activity. We believe that it is reasonable to accept that that can be a reason why a person has had to withdraw from an activity, which is why I tabled amendment 51.
Amendment 52 would insert into schedule 1 the words
“including that person’s mental health and any specific mental health needs that that person may have.”
Again, decisions to access sanctions against the claimant should take account of a person’s specific mental health needs. The Bill allows employment advisers to sanction claimants who have failed to comply with their requirements by withdrawing benefits. There needs to be a very specific safeguard to ensure that a person will not be penalised if they fail to comply because of a particular illness. That comes down to the fact that there needs to be an understanding of the fluctuating nature of mental illness and how although, in an ideal world, we can set up one set of circumstances, a person might need a totally different level of support two or three months down the line. We want to get some sort of commitment from the Government that if it is not possible to take account of mental illnesses that may affect someone’s ability to undertake tasks, there will not necessarily be a sanction and a loss of a benefit. We believe that that is the right way forward.
4.15 pm
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I shall speak in support of amendment 78 and new clause 5. Amendment 78 largely covers the same ground as that addressed by the hon. Member for Rochdale. It would insert into clause 8 a provision with regard to someone’s
“mental health and any specific mental health needs”.
Clause 8 is titled “Power to direct claimant to undertake specific work-related activity”. It specifically relates to the reasonableness of directions that may be given by the Secretary of State and says that, when judging whether such a direction is reasonable, the Secretary of State or someone acting on his behalf should take into account the person’s mental health or their mental health needs.
We tabled the amendment to probe the extent to which the Government’s regulations on work activity will adequately cover someone’s health requirements. It was also tabled specifically to consider the ability of Jobcentre Plus staff and to determine whether, following the training that they will get, they will have the skills necessary to take into account someone’s mental health needs themselves, or whether they would refer them to a professional who was able to do so. I should like some clarification on that.
Access to Work recently had its budget doubled, which we welcomed. The present Minister for disabled people, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford, and his predecessors have said that Access to Work is one of the Government’s best-kept secrets and that they do not want it to be so. New clause 5 might be a way to improve the situation.
Mr. McNulty: I would not necessarily include new clause 5 in what I am about to say, but, in essence, we are being asked to provide for things that are already provided for. We already have provisions to ensure that a person’s health is always considered, so there is no need for that to be prescribed in the Bill. We say clearly that a person’s circumstances have to be taken fully into account, and I am at a loss to know what definition of “person’s circumstances” would preclude a consideration of either physical or mental health.
It is important that the array of conditions is taken into account. However, I caution the hon. Member for Rochdale about—I hesitate to use the phrase “undue specificity” again—specifying what he requests in the Bill. People might feel good if they get those words into the Bill, but they would not do the individuals on whom the policy is focused any favours. Allowing the flexibility for a broad range of definitions of people’s circumstances to be put in regulations will afford the greatest possible breadth of definition. I am comfortable with the Bill as it stands, because we want that flexibility in regulation, not least because regulations can be adjusted far more easily than primary legislation. If we went down the road of undue specificity and put too much in the Bill, but later found that we had left something out, we would have to wait for another legislative vehicle before we could alter the primary legislation.
Paul Rowen indicated dissent.
Mr. McNulty: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that is a matter of fact, unless he wants a social security Bill every year, regardless of the circumstances, with all that would mean for what we are trying to do to reform and simplify this area. Things should be as straightforward as possible. There is broad consensus among Committee members about the need for flexibility, but we cannot have flexibility while we are trying to define such things in the Bill.
I accept the comments made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, East about mental illness, and I accept what others have said about having due regard to people’s experiences of domestic violence, or their need to help members of their family, and the barriers that such circumstances might present to work-related activities or any part of the journey. There are, quite deliberately, a host of personal circumstances that can and should be taken into account, but we do future users no favours by over-defining things.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean has recognised that we have doubled the Access to Work moneys. He will know that we are piloting flexibility around Access to Work—in London, in the first instance. I agree with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that it is one of our best-kept secrets, but going down the road of new clause 5 would be a tad impractical simply because it would be impossible to determine what reasonable adjustments someone might need until one knew what job they were going to do, so there is almost a circular deficiency to the argument. Do I accept that there should be some greater flexibility regarding Access to Work? Yes, I do, and we will look with interest at what the London pilot comes up with. For such a potentially vulnerable group, we should, in all practical circumstances, do what works. New clause 5 might create extra bureaucracy and add significant costs, so while the idea and sentiment behind it are certainly worth exploring, I would not put it in the Bill. I shall therefore rather tediously—I might change the record once or twice at a later stage—ask hon. Members not to press their amendments.
Paul Rowen: In saying that we are trying to over-specify, the Minister has not understood the problem. The Bill gives jobcentre staff huge powers, but does not specify the limits of those powers. We might get regulations that set some limits, but, if experience is anything to go by, much will be left to discretion. The amendments do not seek to prescribe the definition of mental health, a person’s circumstances in relation to mental illness, or the circumstances that might involve them having to leave employment. They say merely that those things should be accepted as just causes under the Bill. I make no apologies for tabling such amendments. In our view, recognising such things in the Bill would be a vital protection for vulnerable people.
We are not saying that the amendments would define everything—they would not. I fully accept that regulations will specify the circumstances under which mental illness will be accepted as a just cause, but it is dangerous not to include such provisions in the Bill.
Mr. McNulty: With the greatest respect, the hon. Gentleman is defining things. If he were to put something in the Bill that was separate from regulations, with all that that implies, it would prevail over all other personal circumstances. That is precisely why we need to leave things general and flexible, which would be in the interests of the vulnerable people whom the hon. Gentleman seeks to help.
Paul Rowen: I refer the Minister to amendment 47, which would provide for having regard to a person’s mental health. I accept that that regard will come from a health professional. The amendment would not define mental illness in the Bill, but say that that must be taken into account. Regulations can set out the conditions under which a mental health condition would be regarded. I would have thought that reference to advice from a mental health professional should be the way forward.
Mr. Harper: The hon. Gentleman and the Minister are talking at cross purposes. This discussion has been helpful because the Minister has been able to explain to the Committee the direction that will be taken when his officials draft the regulations and he introduces them. To that extent, it has been helpful that the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have tabled these amendments, because the Minister has been able to explain that mental health will be one of the important factors taken into account in the regulations. We are comfortable that that has been encompassed.
The Minister is right when he says that specifying in the Bill one set of circumstances, but not all of them, would create the danger of putting one ahead of the other, which I would not want. I would not want mental health needs to take precedence over other circumstances that might be equally important, and I think that that is how we square the circle.
Paul Rowen: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and we have tabled amendments that deal with other areas of concern. However, on this issue, it is worth pressing the amendment to a Division.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 9.
Division No. 1]
Mason, John
Rowen, Paul
Banks, Gordon
Jones, Helen
McKechin, Ann
McNulty, rh Mr. Tony
Munn, Meg
Plaskitt, Mr. James
Robertson, John
Shaw, Jonathan
Ussher, Kitty
Question accordingly negatived.
4.30 pm
Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I beg to move amendment 75, in clause 2, page 7, line 5, at end insert—
‘(aa) must be reasonable, having regard to whether the person has a learning disability and the nature of that learning disability;
(ab) must be reasonable, having regard to the adequacy of the support available to be provided to the person if they have a learning disability;’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 76, in clause 8, page 14, line 15, at end insert ‘; and
(d) must take into account—
(i) any misunderstanding of the requirements to participate owing to the nature of a participant’s learning disability, and
(ii) the adequacy of support provided to any participant with a learning disability to ensure they understood the requirements placed upon them.’.
Meg Munn: I am about to make the point that my right hon. Friend the Minister made quite well in relation to undue specificity by raising another area that I think is enormously important. I am doing it because I specifically want to probe that the relevant regulations will take into account the specific needs of people with a learning disability. I would also like to welcome, in some respects, the document, that the Minister has provided for us, on the use of regulation-making powers. Some of the issues that I am raising are set out within that, which is reassuring. I also want to note the helpful exchange which took place at the third sitting of the Committee with the Minister and his officials. I will not, therefore, be going over that ground.
However, I am seeking reassurance that the needs of people with learning disabilities will be properly taken into account when directions are given about work-related activity. Along with their needs, proper consideration should be given to their need for support, whether support is in place, and whether it is adequate to enable them to undertake that work-related activity.
I am very supportive of the concept of personalisation, although not the use of that term. It needs to mean helping people in the way that is most helpful to them. That is complex in regards to people with learning disabilities; it means recognising their capabilities, alongside areas where they need help. In responding to these amendments, can the Minister for the South East, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford give me the reassurance that personal adviser will indeed be properly trained to identify those issues, to make proper assessments and ensure that people with learning disabilities are only directed to work-related activities that are reasonable as far as their own particular circumstances are concerned, and that they get the appropriate support that that individual needs to undertake those activities.
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