Welfare Reform Bill

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Mr. Clappison: The Minister is doing a good job of giving an explanation of this. I invite his attention and, perhaps appropriately, his reflection, because it raises legal issues, on another aspect of this. That is the possible liability of the external provider to a claimant where the external provider may have been negligent in discharging his duties to the claimant. Would this serve to exclude the Secretary of State from liability for the same negligence where the external provider had been negligent to the claimant? While the claimant may have an action against the external provider, issues could arise if the external provider, through any circumstances, came to be in a position to be unable to meet any claim that was brought against him by the claimant. In those circumstances, would the claimant have a right of action against the Secretary of State, or does this serve to exclude it?
Mr. McNulty: Just to add to the confusion, I am told by this magical process that enlightens Ministers every now and then that the claimant, even in those circumstances, would sue the Secretary of State, who, because of the interplay between subsections (7) and (8), could then go on to sue the provider.
I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has afforded me time to reflect on these matters, but I think that the original position that I presented of subsections (7) and (8) and their interplay being a clumsy way of making sure that the Secretary of State is still afforded appropriate contractual rights under contract law for those bits that have been contracted out. I believe that the circularity still endures—I will get back to the Committee if that is not the case—the duties lie with the Secretary of State. The circumstances described by the hon. Gentleman would mean, I think, that the individual would sue the Secretary of State and if there was any scope to, not least because of the existence of the part we are referring to, that would afford the Secretary of State the ability to sue the provider.
Mr. Harper: The Minister has said several times that this is a clumsy way of achieving this particular outcome. Is there a particular reason why it has been done like this, or is there some elegant way of achieving this that has somehow escaped him?
Mr. McNulty: In my limited experience of this place, I have rarely found that English law will go for an elegant route when a clumsy route could take precedence.
Mr. Clappison: I am grateful to the Minister for his words. I was not trying to engage in any guessing game. My purpose was to raise a reasonable question for further reflection. The Minister has approached the matter in a reasonable way. I invite him to go away and reflect on it further. I am particularly thinking of the position of the claimant and the rights that they may have when they have suffered from negligence. On the basis that the Minister has said that he will reflect on this, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Entitlement to jobseeker’s allowance without seeking employment etc
Amendment proposed: 62, in clause 3, page 10, line 17, at end insert—
‘(8) The prescribed description of person under subsection (4)(c) above shall include any person with dependent children who has claimed benefit in the previous 12 months following an incident of domestic violence provided that the claimant is able to produce such evidence as may be required by the Secretary of State to establish that the relationship was caused to permanently break down before the end of that period as a result of domestic violence, as under United Kingdom Immigration Rule 289A.’.—(Paul Rowen.)
The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 9.
Division No. 2]
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.
Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 1 agreed to.
Clauses 4 to 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 7

Abolition of income support
Paul Rowen: I beg to move amendment 43, in clause 7, page 13, line 12, after ‘effect’ insert,
‘following the presentation of a report concerning income support; and, such an order may not be made unless a draft of a statutory instrument containing the order has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.’.
Clause 7 deals with the abolition of income support and is part of the Government’s long-term commitment to simplifying benefits. The clause grants the Secretary of State the power to abolish income support. In moving amendment 43, I am seeking to require him to present both a statutory instrument and report regulations that can be fully debated by both Houses before such a decision is taken. The question is why I am making such a request. As hon. Members are aware, income support as it currently stands is still available. It is a remaining benefit for carers, lone parents and women in the later stages of pregnancy. It is not subject to labour market conditions.
The Government have previously confirmed that carers will be entitled to continue to claim income support until there is a clear and detailed plan for the long-term reform of the benefits available to carers. We seek to probe the Government’s intentions for this clause, as we should not grant a wide-ranging power to abolish income support without first having in place a replacement allowance that has been properly debated. Something that pervades the Bill far too much is the granting of sweeping powers to the Secretary of State without any detailed reference to conditionality and without any redress or support for affected groups.
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The amendment would mean that before income support was abolished—a power that the clause grants to the Secretary of State—there should be full discussion and agreement in both Houses of Parliament about the replacement allowance. It would clearly be wrong for ESA, as it is currently constituted, to be the replacement allowance. For example, under ESA, when someone is required to attend a meeting, that meeting cannot be deferred, but can be waived, and that is not a statutory measure.
We need to see the Government’s proposals in writing before income support can be abolished. I hope, and believe, that we can all agree a way forward that would provide carers with a better benefit and recognise the tremendous work that they do. Under the Bill, however, there could be a blanket abolition of income support before it had been replaced, and we should afford people the protection of a requirement that Parliament must approve any replacement before the Secretary of State may exercise the power to abolish it.
Mr. McNulty: The hon. Gentleman is right, but for the wrong reasons. He is wrong to suggest that the power is sweeping, as it is a single power to abolish a particular benefit, but he is right to say that there are issues to consider, including carers and the timing of such abolition. That is why we have made it clear that we would not introduce an order to abolish that benefit until there were no longer any groups that required it. That seems terribly straightforward; one would not abolish a benefit while people still required it. We have made it very clear that in proposing to abolish income support, we do not propose that people who get it should receive any less money or should be subject to requirements such as that they must look for work. The intention is to simplify and streamline the system without making it any less sensitive to people’s needs, and clause 7 does that appropriately. This measure, and other laws in regulation and statute, will prevail as people move off income support and on to other benefits.
For the same reason, I do not agree that there is any value in requiring a separate report, as the amendment suggests. By the time that such a report was produced, it would be very clear what arrangements had been made for each group of income support recipients, because we would not introduce an order until we were in that position. Also, there will probably be further consultation on at least some groups—certainly on carers—as I mentioned earlier. Any report would therefore simply be a formality saying that there were no longer any recipients of income support and that we were going to abolish it. That would be a complete waste of everyone’s time and would do no more than confirm something that would be apparent from a cursory reading of the relevant order.
The hon. Gentleman can and should be assured that there is no secret agenda to rush towards the abolition of income support without dealing with those extant groups that still require it, and no order will be forthcoming until we are at a stage when there are no recipients of a benefit that we seek to abolish.
Paul Rowen: Is the Minister prepared to give an assurance that the replacement for income support for carers will be debated through consideration of regulations, and that if a new law has to be introduced, there will be an opportunity for proper scrutiny? It is all right saying that there will not be anyone claiming the benefit, but if there will be no opportunity to discuss the replacement benefit, what I am seeking through the amendment should be accepted.
Mr. McNulty: In the strictest sense, there will not be a replacement benefit. What we are trying to do for carers in the way that I described earlier is to look radically at the whole approach to supporting them, including with regard to benefits, across the whole of the Government including, crucially, on social care.
I shall not give the hon. Gentleman an assurance about proper scrutiny without his defining what “proper” means in that context. At the very least, there will be plenty of scope for scrutiny through the Social Security Advisory Commission, at the least through the negative procedure, and potentially through the affirmative procedure. I am sure that there will be other times and opportunities when we will report in more detail for such scrutiny. As has been suggested, the importance of the role of carers in this country is far too important for the situation to be otherwise.
Paul Rowen: I am not totally happy with the Minister’s commitment, but we will see what happens. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 2 agreed to.
Clause 8 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 9

Claimants dependent on drugs etc.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Harper: I wish to speak about several issues relating to this aspect of the Bill. At the beginning, it is worth saying that my party supports the proposals in the Bill for a treatment allowance. That came out clearly in the evidence sessions, but I say it again for avoidance of doubt because the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform has recently stated the opposite by rather mischievously taking a very short quotation from the former shadow Secretary of State and missing out important words that completely changed the meaning of the sentence.
I am making my remarks by way of ensuring that the proposals are properly questioned. Also, I want them to be successful, but I have some doubts, which are based on feedback about whether they will work from sensible practitioners in this area from whom we did not hear during the evidence sessions.
Claimants who are dependent on drugs are a real problem. The Minister highlighted a real issue, and I know from my own constituents, from people I have spoken to throughout the country and from the clear reaction of members on both sides of the Committee when we were listening to some of the evidence that it is an issue for all Members. For some, it is a problem in their constituencies.
The first thing that is worth discussing is treatment capacity, which came up a great deal during the evidence session. This is one of the areas that I want Ministers to clarify. When the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform was asked about it, we were talking about the number of problem drug users who were on benefits. The number that was floating around was 240,000. A concern was expressed about whether the capacity would be available if a significant number of those people were captured by the proposals and referred to drug treatment services. I think that I am accurately paraphrasing the Minister by saying that he pointed out that, in the initial stages, the focus would be on only heroin and crack users, because that was where the biggest problem was, so the whole drug problem would not be tackled.
However, if we consider the numbers concerned, there are approximately 330,000 problem drug users in England—they are the heroin or crack addicts. Two thirds of them are on benefits, but only half of those on benefits are accessing drug treatment. It seems that even if the Department focuses on the heroin and crack addicts who the Minister states are the priority, there are 267,000 problem drug users. Even if a relatively small percentage of those were to be dealt with each year, that would represent a significant increase in the number of users accessing drug treatment. I am not convinced that there will be the capacity to provide that treatment. There would be nothing worse than using the powers in the Bill to persuade or cajole benefit claimants to access treatment only to find that that treatment was not available. That would not help anyone at all.
Another issue is the extent to which Jobcentre Plus advisers are the right people to be involved in this process. That partly concerns their skills and the training that they will have, but it also concerns the nature of the organisations that are best placed to engage with problem drug users.
I have received feedback from Turning Point, which runs a programme in Wales that helps some of these problem drug users to get back into work. The information that they gave to the Government’s consultation was that because Jobcentre Plus is a statutory body that handles the day-to-day delivery of benefits, in the minds of claimants, the disclosure of personal information such as the use of problem drugs to a Jobcentre Plus adviser would be implicitly linked to whether or not they got those benefits.
From the experience of Turning Point, a non-statutory body would engage with those users more successfully. For users who were parents, concerns would be linked not only with getting their benefits, but with whether a disclosure of problem drug use might lead to such a thing as their children being removed by social services. It believed that the likelihood of people making a disclosure to an independent adviser would be much greater than that happening to a statutory body responsible for benefit payments. Its experience from its progress2work operations was that its workers were referring people who were not previously known to treatment providers or known to be problem drug users. When the Minister thinks about how this programme will be implemented, it will be worth bearing in mind the extent to which Jobcentre Plus advisers would be engaged in it, or whether a significant proportion of this work could be more effective if it was delivered by a third party.
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There are also some concerns about data protection. The clause contains proposals for information sharing between Jobcentre Plus and law enforcement agencies. Although the Bill contains safeguards to protect individuals from criminal liability as a result of the disclosures they make, there are still concerns about how that information is secured and transferred. The Minister will be aware, both from his previous roles and in his current one, about the importance of data security. It would be helpful if he covered some of those issues in his response.
I have already mentioned the resources issues. We will see if the Minister can outline some of those. I should particularly like to understand what the Department thinks the likely outcome of this part of the Bill will be, including estimates of how many people will be referred to a provider in first few years and how well the programme will work.
Specifically, picking up the issue I mentioned in respect of Wales, I have data from Cardiff, which is effective as of this month, showing that the next person on the waiting list for a methadone prescription from the community addiction unit in the Vale of Glamorgan, for example, has been on the list since March 2008. That person has been waiting nearly a year for drug treatment. More than 500 people are on the waiting list in Cardiff. There is a fast-track system, but at the moment that is only for pregnant women. Conversely, the drug intervention programme has no waiting list, but all prospective clients must have been involved in the criminal justice system. There is clearly a resource issue there. Those involved in the criminal justice system can get treatment immediately, as it right and proper, but those who are not involved in the criminal justice system appear to be waiting for a significant period. Clearly, even if the Minister is comfortable about how this scheme will work in England, there are issues in the devolved parts of the UK that Ministers need to take into account when rolling it out.
I have covered the issues that I wanted to raise. We are supportive of the proposals. I am not challenging the nature of the proposals but I want to ensure that the Minister has thought through the details and the implementation and that they are as successful as we all wish them to be.
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