[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

Damian Hinds: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I shall leave it hanging, so that the Minister can pluck it at the appropriate moment. All I would say is that the service industry is an enormous part of the economy. We all want to see growth in manufacturing, but services are a huge part of the economy in many of our constituencies. Getting work experience in that area is absolutely valuable in its own right.

The bemused e-mails that I have been receiving from my constituents say something along these lines: “I understand that the programme is voluntary. There are some advantages to the individual in taking part, but if, after a period of time—not on the first day but after a week or so—they just cease to turn up to work for no good reasons, there are adverse consequences.” It is

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called a work experience programme—I do not know about you, Mr Crausby, but that sounds an awful lot like an experience of work. I pay tribute to the firms that have taken part in the programme, particularly those that have stood firm and not given in. However, I also understand the nervousness of some of the firms that have issued statements expressing concerns.

We all welcome the new media campaigns with which we are pleased to communicate on a regular basis. As politicians, we also know that they are not always all that they purport to be. I am probably unusual on the Conservative Benches in being a Guardian reader. Perhaps I was the only Member present who was a little bemused, or amused, to read the helpful clarification in The Guardian that this right to work campaign was not run by a bunch of lefties because it contained not only the Socialist Workers party, but members of UK Uncut and the Occupy protest movement. I understand the nervousness of firms with quarterly results to deliver and daily revenues to monitor. We need a debate about how some of these campaigning organisations work and about their proper role in society.

Sheila Gilmore: I can say from my long political experience that if views that might be deemed extremist do not strike a chord with the public, they will simply sink. If some of the criticisms of this initiative, which have been raised in this House previously, had had no resonance with the public—

Damian Hinds: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. All credit to those organisations for creating a splash over the issue. However, I am afraid that they have done it by misleading the public and saying that young people are being forced into slave labour when that is absolutely not the case. This relates to what I was saying about the Opposition—I do not include the small number of Labour Members who have come here today. When their leader had an opportunity to debunk that theory and to put the record straight, he failed to do so. It was a great shame that we did not hear such a view from Labour, the party of work.

I know that we are short of time, but I should like to broaden my contribution to include work experience at school. Whenever employers give evidence on the Education Committee, on which I sit, they predictably complain about qualifications not doing what they say on the tin and about young people not being work ready. Work readiness is sometimes called employability skills, soft skills or, when the terminological obfuscation gets extreme, transferable non-cognitive skills. Essentially, what it means is all the stuff about dealing with other people—turning up to work on time, knowing the right way to dress, empathy with the customer, smiling and pride in a job well done. All those things can be partly developed through work experience. When we ask employers if the situation is getting worse, they often say that it is. We cannot demonstrate that it is getting worse. It may be just not getting better, but we are in the business of economic growth. To achieve economic growth, we need such things to be improving year on year.

We need a debate about the role and quality of work experience in schools. It may be that the two-week block in years 10 or 11 is an important part of that, but it does not seem to be doing the full job. With the rise in the participation age, I wonder whether moving the bulk of work experience into the sixth form might be more

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appropriate. It may well be that there is a role for both. I also hope that we can consider other ways of augmenting and bolstering that work experience. Perhaps we can have a more formal assessment of that young person’s performance in work experience that can count towards their future job prospects.

Tom Blenkinsop: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I suggest that we bring in that introduction to work experience at the options stage, when children at 14 and 15 are choosing their options for GCSEs, which usually indicate what career they might be going into.

Damian Hinds: I absolutely see that point. That is why I said that there could be a role for both. Even at the options stage, there is only an opportunity to see one employer, so it will not give a full range of career choices. We certainly need more firms to step up to the plate for school-age work experience. There are many myths about health and safety compliance and Criminal Records Bureau checks and so on. I hope the Government will turn their attention to encouraging more and more quality employers to get on board with that programme and offer more opportunities to young people.

There is a particular area in which school-age work experience can deliver huge benefits to our country. I am talking about work in the public sector, particularly in teaching. The Education Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into what makes a great teacher. One of the recurring themes is that everybody knows what a great teacher is because they have had one. They know it when they see it, but it is very difficult to predict in advance who is going to make a great teacher unless they are seen teaching. I hope we can encourage young people who are interested in teaching, particularly from the sixth form, to do teaching placements of one or two weeks in a school. By working alongside a QTS teacher, they will be able to develop their skills and decide whether teaching is right for them. Furthermore, qualified teachers will be able to assess whether they are well suited to the job.

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): Just this morning, I visited the charity City Year, which enables young people to volunteer for one year to work, unpaid, in local schools—Hackney schools in this particular instance. Some 86% of students who volunteer get a job after, largely as teachers.

Damian Hinds: That is a fascinating scheme. I am not familiar with it, but I will certainly look it up. As it transpires, that was the end of my remarks, so I will stop.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): I want to call the two Front-Benchers at 12.10 pm, so I would appreciate a very short contribution from Graham Evans.

12.7 pm

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): I will crack on with my very short contribution. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this very interesting debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) on securing it. He is a hard-working advocate for his constituents and deserves considerable credit for his work. Like his good self, I have a young family, so we both have a vested interest in this topic. I know first

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hand the importance of experiencing the world of work. I grew up on a council estate in Poynton and left my local state school with few qualifications. My first job was stacking shelves in the local Co-op. I went on to get a job working on nimrods at BAE Systems at Woodford. I was able to study at night school and build a successful career in manufacturing. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) talked about opportunities in manufacturing. Under Labour, between 1997 and 2010, the number of people employed in manufacturing halved. In 1997, manufacturing’s contribution to GDP was 22%. In 2010, it was 12%.

It is a great honour to represent the people of Weaver Vale. That would not have been possible if I had not been able to get my first experience of work. We all know how vital work experience is for young people. The previous Labour Government acknowledged that and used it as part of their new deal. The evidence is even clearer now. Statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions tell us that 50% of all participants on work experience schemes move off benefits within three months. Obviously, work experience schemes can be a key weapon in the fight against youth unemployment, but why is that fight so important?

As I have said in recent debates on apprenticeships, there is a significant correlation between the eastern expansion of the European Union and the increase in youth unemployment from 2004 onwards. Despite repeated warnings from the Conservative Opposition at that time, the Labour Government decided against having transitional immigration controls. The impact on youth unemployment has been dramatic.

If someone wants to understand why youth unemployment has become such a problem, they should put themselves in the shoes of a prospective employer. Are prospective employers going to pick a school leaver with zero work experience or training ahead of a 30-something migrant who has extensive work experience? Would they take on the risk, costs and effort to train young people who are lacking any sort of work experience, and who therefore have no way of demonstrating that they are reliable, instead of older migrants who are already trained and have a CV demonstrating a strong work ethic? So it is screamingly obvious why work experience schemes can help to tackle youth unemployment, and I am delighted that the Government recognise that and are spending £1 billion on the youth contract to create incentives for employers to create an extra 250,000 work experience places during the next three years.

Given some of the utter nonsense that has been spouted in recent weeks about these work experience schemes, it is important to remember that they are voluntary. Furthermore, people have an opportunity to try out the scheme first before giving a commitment. In addition, it is absolutely ridiculous to assert that businesses are exploiting young people and getting free labour. There are significant costs for businesses that are taking part: to arrange the placements, to train the people, to mentor them and to provide equipment and uniforms. Businesses that take part should be applauded, not attacked. So all Members should get behind the Work Experience scheme and the Government’s—

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Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): Order. I ask the Member to wind up quickly.

Graham Evans: I will finish quickly. A record 440,000 apprenticeships have been created this year alone. There has been £150 million of capital spending to support improved technical and vocational education. There are ambitions for at least 24 new colleges by 2014 and, of course, there are the fantastic education reforms. The future competiveness of our economy depends on these initiatives.

12.11 pm

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): I am grateful to you, Mr Crausby, for giving me this opportunity to speak. I also thank the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones), who has done us a great service by securing a debate on this very important topic.

The Government have got themselves into an extraordinary muddle over work experience. Labour supports work experience. It can be invaluable in reconnecting people with the labour market; it has been a part of labour market intervention since the 1970s; and it was a key feature of the success of the new deal. Unfortunately, however, the Government have got themselves into a terrible mess.

On 29 February, the Minister—in an attempt to extricate himself from that mess—announced a U-turn and that the “Work Experience” scheme was to be fully voluntary. Previously, he had said that it was a voluntary scheme; I suppose that his announcement on 29 February means that it really will be voluntary. However, his problem is that the letters that Jobcentre Plus staff sent out to claimants said something quite different. He was memorably confronted on “Channel 4 News” with a letter that had been sent out to somebody who was being told about a placement on a “Work Experience” scheme; the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) quite rightly said that there are other schemes, but in this case the placement was part of a “Work Experience” scheme. The letter said:

“You have been referred to the following Opportunity: retail assistant…If you cannot attend for any reason or if you stop claiming Jobseekers Allowance please contact this Jobcentre immediately. If without a good reason you fail to start, fail to go when expected or stop going...any future payments of Jobseekers Allowance could cease to be payable or could be payable at a lower rate.”

There is no point in claiming that the scheme is voluntary if Jobcentre Plus staff—staff in the Minister’s job centres—are telling people precisely the opposite.

Chris Grayling: Has it crossed the right hon. Gentleman’s mind that nobody would receive a letter unless they had volunteered?

Stephen Timms: Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what I suspect is the source of the confusion. It arises from the decision maker’s guide, which any Member of the House can read on the website for the Department for Work and Pensions. That guide says:

“JSA may not be payable or it may be payable at a reduced rate to claimants who are entitled to JSA and have...after being notified by an Employment Officer of a place on a Work Experience scheme, refused without good cause or failed to apply for it or to accept it when offered, or...neglected to avail themselves of a reasonable opportunity of a place on Work Experience.”

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A Jobcentre Plus adviser who is doing their job and looking at the official guidance discovers that that is what the guidance is—a clear description of a mandatory scheme.

It is no wonder, therefore, that Jobcentre Plus staff have been so confused and have contradicted what the Minister has said. Of course, as we know, a number of businesses also lost confidence in the scheme. But the muddle goes even further, because the DWP’s provider guidance for the Work programme says:

“Where you are providing support for JSA participants, which is work experience, you must mandate participants to this activity. This is to avoid the National Minimum Wage Regulations, which will apply if JSA participants are not mandated”.

The DWP was saying that until a few weeks ago, but that particular statement has now been deleted from the guidance on the website.

Therefore I want to ask the Minister three specific questions. First, now that there are no sanctions in work experience other than for gross misconduct, will he amend the decision maker’s guide? Secondly, how will he ensure that the policy is now implemented in line with what he has announced? Thirdly, what has changed in the legal position so that work experience no longer has to be mandated to “avoid”—to quote the guidance that was on his Department’s website—the national minimum wage rules?

The Work Experience scheme is too valuable to let this muddle continue. And as we have already heard in the debate, there are other schemes apart from the “Work Experience” scheme. In fact, Inclusion says that there are seven different current work experience schemes, which may be part of the reason for the muddle. At the time that some claimants are starting on the “Work Experience” scheme, others start on mandatory work activity, which was the scheme referred to by the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth. That may well be another source of the confusion. As the name of the mandatory work activity scheme suggests, it is not voluntary. It is designed for people who are a long way from the labour market and who have no experience of work or the work ethic. Placements are for a similar period to those in the Work Experience scheme, and they are sourced through private welfare-to-work providers. The total value of the contracts for mandatory work activity is £32 million. I have repeatedly asked the Minister to tell the House what the average cost of such a placement is, and various other details. He has repeatedly refused to answer those questions, claiming that it is “Commercial in Confidence” although heaven knows why.

Mr Marcus Jones: The right hon. Gentleman has talked a lot about “confusion”, but from where I sit in Westminster Hall today I am extremely confused about the position of his party in relation to the Government’s work experience programme. On the one hand he says that he supports work experience, but on the other he seems to be coming up with all sorts of “confusion” in his argument to try to get away from supporting that programme. Does his party support the current Government’s work experience programme and will he commit to supporting those employers that are doing a fantastic job in giving our young people this type of opportunity?

Stephen Timms: I very strongly support work experience and I strongly support the contribution of employers. However, what I regret and deprecate is the extraordinary

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muddle and confusion that the Government’s handling of the Work Experience scheme and the six other similar schemes has created.

On mandatory—[ Interruption. ] Time is running out and I want to give the Minister every chance to respond to these points, so let me just tell the House about one of my constituents. She was put on to mandatory work activity. She was not a long way from the labour market; indeed, after I inquired about her, she received a phone call to say that she should never have been put on mandatory work activity in the first place. The letter that was sent to her initially was a classic of incomprehensibility; I sent a copy of it to the Minister. It instructed her, a resident of east London, to go to an obscure Sheffield postcode, and it said that if she had any queries she should ring telephone number 000. Her placement was at a charity shop. When she arrived, there were 14 other people on mandatory work activity who had also been sent to the same charity shop to help out. There was nowhere near enough work to go round, although presumably all 15 of those people attracted a payment to the provider from the Minister’s Department.

Experiences such as that will not help anybody into work. I ask the Minister: what checks is he making on placements to mandatory work activity? In fact, does he know if his Department is being ripped off on a large scale, as the example that I just gave suggests? Also, why does he insist on secrecy about all of this, when the openness that is being promoted by the Cabinet Office would help to resolve all these problems? This Minister has some form on this. He has been officially rebuked for misusing statistics—I think more than any other Member of the House—including on three separate occasions since he has been a Minister. That is a pretty extraordinary record.

Chris Grayling: On a point of order, Mr Crausby. Is it in order to make allegations about another Member without giving details? I am certainly not aware of the issues that the right hon. Gentleman has just raised. He has made quite a serious comment about another Member. I have no knowledge of any such occasions since I have become a Minister.

Stephen Timms: I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the three occasions are all on the UK Statistics Authority’s website: first, data relating to the flexible new deal; secondly, data relating to worklessness statistics; and thirdly, data about benefit claims on the part of immigrants. The first and third of those were widely publicised at the time. I have the letter on the second in front of me. The Minister publishes statistics that he thinks advance his partisan case, but he refuses to publish straightforward, routine data that certainly should be in the public domain.

Chris Grayling: Further to that point of order, Mr Crausby. Since becoming a Minister I have not received, to the best of my knowledge, any communication from the UK Statistics Authority questioning any statistics that I have published. I want to place that on the record and ask whether it is in order for a shadow Minister to make an allegation of that kind.

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): That is not a point of order.

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Stephen Timms: I will gladly copy the letter from the UK Statistics Authority website for the Minister.

Work experience should have been straightforward and uncontroversial. It is valuable and we need more of it. Instead, we have had U-turns, public relations fiascos and even street protests. The Minister needs to clear up the confusion at Jobcentre Plus, level with us about mandatory work activity and embrace at last the open data initiative that was conceived by the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General so that everybody can judge for themselves the effectiveness of the schemes.

12.21 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Chris Grayling): We have just heard a clear example of why the Opposition have yet to adapt to opposition. In long years of opposition, we learned that there are times when one should simply accept that what the Government are doing is right. I am sorry to hear the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), for whom I normally have a high regard, misrepresenting the situation around any letters or communications that the Department has received from the UK Statistics Authority. I am also sorry that he is dancing on a sixpence to try to oppose something that he should support.

Mr Crausby, if you had told me three months ago that we would be dealing with protests against the work experience scheme, given all the difficult decisions that we are taking in the Department for Work and Pensions, I would have thought you were mad. Among all those difficult decisions, this is a positive programme that is designed to help. It is innocuous. It does what it says on the tin. It started as a result of a complaint that I personally received from the mother of a young woman who said, “My daughter has arranged a month’s work experience for herself and been told she will lose her benefits if she carries out that experience.” I regarded that as unacceptable, so we started to use the teams of people we have in Jobcentre Plus to look for opportunities for young people to do work experience, precisely because of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis). It is all well and good if someone comes from a prosperous background, but not everyone does. Helping young people find work experience opportunities is enormously important.

I will deal straight away with the issue raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore). I am afraid she needs to look in the mirror and ask the question about being a job snob. The row came about because of a computer error, which published an internal bulletin about a work experience placement at Tesco. Had it been Airbus, this would never have been a story, and the hon. Lady would not be complaining today. I commend Airbus for joining our scheme, along with many other manufacturers.

About 12 months ago, I met an older, former unemployed worker at an Asda store in Birmingham. He said: “I came here after years of unemployment. I got a job at the bottom level of the scale. A few months later, I was running a department with a staff of 20.” The job of running a high street retail branch—a big supermarket—can be a job that oversees a large staff in a business turning over tens of millions of pounds a year. In a large company such as Tesco, there are a vast range of

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opportunities in IT, HR, logistics, or community outreach. There was magnificent community work at Asda in my own constituency. There are all kinds of opportunities for someone to go in at the bottom and work their way up.

Let me explain to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East how the scheme works. Our advisers sit down with young people and talk about different career options. They ask them about the sectors that interest them, and find them—if we can—a placement in one of their preferred sectors. It is their choice. We listen to them and try to find the opportunity. Unfortunately, we cannot find opportunities for all the young people, because the scheme is over-subscribed. That is the nature of what we are trying to do. We expect them to turn up, if they have taken a placement from someone else; we expect them to fulfil the placement if they stay beyond the first week’s grace; and we expect them to behave themselves. It is the lightest-touch conditionality anywhere in the welfare system. We have listened to the employers—given all the brouhaha—and accepted that we would remove the attendance requirement. We still have sanctions in place for things such as racism in the workplace, theft in the workplace and abusive behaviour towards customers or fellow co-workers. Only about 200 out of 34,000 participants have been sanctioned.

The scheme was and will continue to be a voluntary scheme that is positive and beneficial. Some of the coverage—particularly the BBC’s—and wilful attempts to mislead were disgraceful. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) is absolutely right. The way in which this was covered was nothing short of disgraceful. The scheme is aimed at the under-24s. Putting people in their 40s on the TV was nonsensical and extremely poor-quality journalism. However, a small number of older people do get work experience placements: for example, long-term carers and people who have been out of the workplace for long periods for whom such experience is beneficial.

The right hon. Member for East Ham raised a variety of questions about letters and so forth. Of course, someone does not get a letter about the scheme unless they have volunteered to be on it. It is as simple and straightforward as that. I will tell the House a simple story, which was fed back to me by one of our Jobcentre Plus teams a couple of weeks ago. They were briefing a group of young people about the work experience scheme and opportunities. One of them—a young woman—said, “I don’t wanna do that. It’s slave labour.” Our staff said that they did not have to do or say anything at all, because the rest of the group turned on her and told her in no uncertain terms how important the opportunity was to them and how important it was that they all took part. By the time they had finished discussing it as a group, she was going to take part, too. There was no mandation from us, but mandation from her peers.

The scheme is positive. It is not about retailing. The tragic aspect to the debate is the absurd discussion about whether we should be helping young people get work experience places—of course we should. There should be no doubt about that. We are still not hearing, especially from the right hon. Member for East Ham, “This is a good scheme that we will back publicly. It is the right thing to do. We will continue it if we get back into Government.” All we hear is cavilling about this and that detail. Let us stand up and say, “We have a

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problem with youth unemployment. We need to do something about it. We will do something. We will all work together.” Every single one of us in this House, whether it is the right hon. Gentleman, me or any other Member here, could do a power of good for this scheme, Mr Crausby. Indeed, you could yourself, sir, in your constituency. We can talk to local employers and say, “Get involved.” This is a real way to help young people. It makes a difference. It is great. They go on into employment and many of them look back and say that it is the best thing that ever happened to them.

We do have mandatory programmes. The mandatory work activity programme gives our Jobcentre Plus advisers the discretion to refer someone whom they believe is struggling, not pulling their weight or having real difficulty in their work search to a month’s full-time activity. We do not mandate to go and work for private companies—they would not take it even if we did. The same is true of the Work programme. We cannot send people against their wishes to work for a big retailer.

Stephen Timms: Will the Minister give way?

Chris Grayling: I will not, because I have very little time.

Mandation in our system will apply to community benefit schemes and to nothing else. We are absolutely clear about that. It is the same for the Work programme. The work experience scheme is a good scheme, which must and will continue. It will now grow, because more people are coming forward to help—after all the publicity, ironically. The protesters are plain wrong. They are misguided. It is a tragedy that they are supported by the unions and Labour MPs, but we will not listen to them. We will listen to the young people who say, “This is the best thing that could happen to us.”

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Investigation of Suicides

12.30 pm

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): It is with delight that I appear before you, Mr Crausby, as I know that you take a particular interest in this matter. This debate has been prompted by my role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on suicide and self-harm prevention, and is based on the testimonies that I have heard from families bereaved by suicide. I will raise two key issues in the short time that I have. The first involves how police officers interact with bereaved families, and the second involves how suicides are investigated, most notably where the internet may be a factor. I will make eight clear requests for change, which I ask the Minister to consider.

Suicide is a tragedy for the individual who takes their own life, and it brings long-term distress for the family and friends left behind. For every suicide, six people close to the person who died—in England and Wales, that means 30,000 people each year—will experience a deep sense of grief. Families bereaved by suicide inevitably find themselves in direct contact with the authorities. In many cases, a knock at the door by a police officer informs them of what has happened.

Families touched by suicide can suffer a greater stigma than is attached to other forms of death, and they may avoid reaching out for support. They are vulnerable. As the Government’s draft suicide prevention strategy notes, family members are approximately two and a half times more likely to take their own life after the suicide of a close relative.

At a recent meeting of the all-party group, we considered bereavement. Many spoke about their initial contact with the authorities. I will share one statement:

“The police who dealt with my son immediately following his death were, as I would have expected, matter-of-fact but kind and sympathetic to the family. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for them to have to deal with a family like ours who are expressing a mixture of utter shock, bewilderment, hysteria, and sheer terror when a family member takes their own life. It happened late in the evening, and by the time the police had left around midnight, it was dark and cold and trying to get children to sleep, let alone ourselves, was impossible.

The following day, another policeman arrived to take statements. He again did his job well and with sympathy. However, I found the whole event very distressing, and it would have been very helpful if someone had been there—a trained counsellor—to help us through this process, to offer some comfort and attempt to give us some level of understanding as to what had just happened. As it was there was no one. No one gave us the ‘Help is at Hand’ booklet, no one gave us any numbers to call. Nothing.”

I recommend that the Minister read the work of Dr Sharon McDonnell, or at least that one of his team read it. She is at the university of Manchester and has researched how health professionals and police officers interact with bereaved families. For her PhD, she interviewed bereaved families, finding that eight out of nine participants informed by the police reported feeling distressed, traumatised and angry at how they had been informed. Dr McDonnell is seeking funding for further research in the area. I urge the Minister to discuss not only the changes that she has identified as necessary but how we can move forward and ensure that we change families’ experience.

None of the families with whom I have had contact ever received a copy of “Help is at Hand”. I would be interested to know whether the Minister is aware of the

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booklet to which I refer. It is a Department of Health document offering advice for those bereaved by suicide or other traumatic deaths. It includes contacts for support groups and covers practical matters such as the inquest procedure and methods for dealing with grief. Sadly, that invaluable resource is being wasted through patchy distribution and a lack of awareness.

Last year, when I took part in the police service parliamentary scheme with South Wales police, I was already aware of the expertise of officers across my constituency on the issue, and I take this opportunity to commend them. However, away from Bridgend, I was concerned by the lack of guidance that individual officers appeared to receive on how to deal with families and media inquiries. It left me wondering whether standard guidance and training for police officers exist or whether it is left to chance.

In the first instance, investigations of a death are steered by the murder investigation manual, which is employed for investigation into unexplained deaths. After criminality has been ruled out, the manual no longer applies. Apparently, it is left to local forces to produce their own guidance on investigating non-suspicious deaths.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on an important issue. On police investigations, is it not important that suicide should never be presumed but that a finding must be based on evidence? For a family, suicide is a traumatic experience. Police must therefore eliminate all other possibilities in their investigations.

Mrs Moon: It is vital that the police conduct a full inquiry, but they must be aware of the sensitivity of the issue and the risks associated if the inquiry presses too much on possible family engagement or involvement in the death. I will address that later in my speech, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

Once a suicide has been determined, it is important that the police reconnect with families to ensure that they are not left feeling that they have caused or been implicated in their relative’s death. Families have expressed a feeling of being on trial, and that feeling can resurface, particularly during the coronial process. They feel that they carry some guilt and responsibility for the death. That is the cause of the risk of trauma.

The House of Commons Library undertook research on my behalf into what guidance is available to police forces, but it drew a significant blank. Although I plan to meet the lead on the issue from the Association of Chief Police Officers, will the Minister examine how advice and guidance can be issued by the Home Office to bring consistency to the investigations carried out by police forces after a death has been recognised as suicide? Will he examine the training provided to police officers on the difficult role that they play in breaking the traumatic news of a death to families, the sensitivity of gathering information to further their inquiries and the need to provide support and information to the bereaved? In particular, will he ensure that all front-line police officers are made aware of “Help is at Hand” and that families access it as a matter of course?

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Families have also suggested that, in the event of a suicide, an immediate response plan should be put in place, bringing them into contact with someone with professional training to help them through the first few days and weeks and to give practical advice. As the first responders, the police often seem to be the trigger for generating such support. In addition, families propose that, in the first few days after a suicide, local agencies should work together to share information, agree lines of communication and ensure that lessons are learned. I can tell the Minister that it happens in my constituency, where it works extremely well and is very effective.

Australia leads the world on police and media communications after suicide. The all-party group heard from Professor Jane Pirkis, a leading expert in suicide research from Australia, about a programme called Mindframe designed to equip police officers with the necessary skills for dealing with the media. Officers are issued with a small card to keep in their wallet offering advice about appropriate language to use and how best to deal with media inquiries. It also highlights information to be passed to families, localised to individual police forces, about local and national support services. It is simple, but it ensures a high level of consistency, which we also need to achieve. Will the Minister look at Mindframe, with a view to adapting something similar for use by police forces in England and Wales?

Not only are the police often the first agency to be involved in a suicide, but police officers are more likely to have contact with people who are distressed and may go on to take their own lives. It is estimated that as many people see a police officer in the three months before their death as see a mental health professional in the 12 months before their death. Police officers are often the authority figures with whom the suicidal are in contact before their death; they are in contact with them more often than with any other professional. Will the Minister consider how police training can be used to build awareness of suicidal behaviour, so that officers are better equipped to recognise those at risk?

Social media such as Bebo and Facebook create an additional burden for bereaved families. Photographs posted on personal sites can often be accessed by journalists. I cannot begin to say how many families I have spoken to have been distressed when they saw photographs of their relative—often photographs that they have never seen before—printed without their knowledge or permission, often on the front page of a local newspaper. A few years ago, I worked with the Home Office to provide a simple telephone contact for each social network provider for police media teams to use to close access to individual sites. Will the Minister look at that again to ensure that police forces are aware of the process and that families can be advised of that service?

My second area of concern is about the investigation of suicides, in particular where the internet may have been a factor. In the past year, I have been contacted by several bereaved families, the majority of them parents who have lost a child. The communications follow a similar pattern. In the aftermath of a suicide, it becomes apparent that the individual may have used the internet to access information on the means and methods to take their own life. They may also have been offered encouragement to do so via internet sites. In all the cases brought to me, the police have decided not to investigate the individual’s computer. The reasons are

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varied, including the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, general privacy issues, time and money—the latter becoming a growing issue as police forces face budget constraints.

Without investigation, what may amount to criminal incitement to suicide is going undetected and unchallenged. Papyrus, a suicide prevention charity that works with bereaved families, is aware of 50 cases in which the internet played a significant part in a suicide. If the police do not routinely investigate websites explored by individuals before their suicides, we will never know the real scale of the problem or what the most dangerous websites are. If the police are unwilling to investigate, surely the full facts are not being presented to the coroner. We need national guidelines for such investigations and we need police forces to investigate computers and internet use as a matter of course where there is a suspected or known suicide. Will the Minister examine the 2000 Act to see whether any aspect of the Act is seen by police forces as a prevention to further investigation of computers? Will he issue clear guidance to police forces to ensure that, at the least, the history of internet use before death is examined and notified to the coroner? That is a small task, and for an expert it takes a matter of minutes. However, most families cannot do that for themselves.

I wish to end by thanking the many police officers who have been given the awful task of investigating suicides and who have been given the even worse task of notifying the families of those who have died. In securing this debate, I have aimed to bring greater clarity and consistency for police officers and families alike. We ask a difficult task of our police officers: to be able to go on dangerous streets, to tackle violent crime and drugs, and to be able to deal with people in a high state of distress and trauma. It is important that they are given the guidance and training to do so, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

12.44 pm

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on securing the debate. I pay tribute to her excellent work in the prevention of suicide through her role as chair of the all-party group on suicide and self-harm prevention. I am sure that her efforts have helped to keep the issue at the forefront of the political and public agenda. I am aware of her particular interest in such issues, following the spate of terrible deaths of young people in her constituency a few years ago. Every suicide is a tragic event, and it is hard to imagine how traumatic an experience it must be for the bereaved family and friends.

The Government take the issue seriously, and we are committed to suicide prevention. Last July, we published a consultation on preventing suicide in England, which set out a draft cross-departmental outcomes strategy to save lives. I understand that the Welsh Government have their own national action plan to reduce suicide and self-harm in Wales.

A whole range of factors come together to increase a person’s vulnerability to self-harm or suicide. The Government are committed to ensuring that the right support is in place for individuals who find themselves in such desperate situations. As part of a range of

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measures to reduce the suicide rate, the draft strategy highlighted the need for continuing to support the internet industry to remove content that encourages suicide and to provide ready access to suicide prevention services—a particular concern to the hon. Lady following the deaths in Bridgend.

The consultation ended on 11 October last year and received around 200 responses from a broad range of organisations and individuals. We are now considering all the responses received and intend to publish the final strategy later this year, so the hon. Lady’s intervention and list of suggestions are timely.

Turning to the role of the police, which is the specific topic that the hon. Lady has raised, it is important to set out the different but complementary roles of the police and coroners when there has been a sudden death. The coroner is an independent judicial officer who has a statutory duty to investigate every death where he or she has reason to suspect that it may have been violent, unnatural or of an unknown cause. The police have a duty to investigate all sudden deaths. They also act as coroners’ officers and are required to collect information and evidence that will enable the coroner to determine accurately the cause of death.

The police also have a core duty to establish whether a crime has been committed. Even when a death becomes no longer suspicious and appears explainable, they have an ongoing duty to assist the coroner by collecting and recording all available evidence for an inquest. Both the coroner and the police share the view that a suicide must never just be presumed, and they are diligent in their duty to establish unambiguous evidence that the deceased had intended to take his or her own life and to rule out other possibilities.

Training on how to deal with sudden deaths, including suicide, is mandatory for all police officers. Suicide is covered in training given to officers in a range of areas, including missing persons, coroners’ investigations and inquests and domestic abuse. Some forces have developed additional advice to police officers through local guidance or protocols on the investigation of sudden or unexplained death, including suicide.

It is the responsibility of the chief officer of each force to take appropriate steps to ensure that their staff receive appropriate training. They take that responsibility seriously and are alert to the need for their officers to behave with the utmost sensitivity and support when dealing with suicide. Nevertheless, I will certainly draw to the attention of the Association of Chief Police Officers the hon. Lady’s comments about the need for some kind of national guidance; about the booklet “Help is at Hand”, distribution of which she said is patchy; and about the Australian Mindframe programme that is issued to all police officers, about which I would certainly like to find out more.

We are in the process of setting up a professional body for policing, and this area is exactly the kind that that body would look at, because it is about standards in policing. We have to strike the right balance in deciding between what is appropriate to issue national guidance on and what is a matter for the police themselves to issue guidance on. That is consistent with our policy.

We want to hold the police accountable for the outcomes that they achieve, but to be less prescriptive in terms of Government direction about what they are doing. Our

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ambition is the same: to improve the service that the public receive. These are clearly very sensitive matters, and although it might not be appropriate to issue national Government guidance, that does not mean that it would be inappropriate for police guidance to be issued in the future by policing professional bodies. That is a matter that we can discuss and that I am open-minded about. I am conscious that we must be careful about adding to the burden of guidance.

The police coroner interface—the process by which a death is deemed not suspicious and is passed to the coroner, and through which evidence is shared—is important, as is the role of the police and other partners and organisations in supporting bereaved relatives. We accept that practice in those areas can vary across forces. That is why these issues are currently subject to discussion and review through a number of Government-led, cross-sector forums that want to improve the practice and investigations of sudden deaths and the support given to bereaved relatives. Representatives from ACPO are playing an active part in those discussions.

In November last year, the Government announced that they intend to proceed with the implementation of the office of the chief coroner, which will provide leadership and oversight of the coroner system. Once the chief coroner is in post, ACPO intends to meet him or her to indentify and discuss these cross-cutting issues. In addition, the Ministry of Justice plans to publish its charter for coroner services shortly. For the first time in the 800 years since the office of coroner was established, that will set out the standards of service that bereaved people can expect to receive and what they can do if they are not satisfied.

The other issue that the hon. Lady raised, which is obviously very serious, is that concerns have been expressed that the police should routinely examine the computers of suicide victims to determine whether they have received online encouragement to take their own lives. Any decision to access the computer of a person who has committed suicide rests with the relevant police force. I will come back to that, but it may be helpful if I first explain briefly the relevant provisions in law that have been simplified and modernised to reflect concerns about the misuse of the internet to promote suicide.

Under section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961, as amended by section 59 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, it is an offence to carry out an act capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide or attempted suicide of another person with the intention of so doing. The person committing the offence need not know the other person or even be able to identify them. Therefore, the author of a website promoting suicide and suicide methods may commit an offence if the website encourages or assists the suicide or attempted suicide of their readers and the author intends that the website will so encourage or assist them. Crucially, the law also allows that person to be prosecuted, irrespective of whether a suicide or attempted suicide takes place. Similarly, any person making a posting to an online chat room or a social networking site that intentionally encourages another person to commit or attempt to commit suicide may be guilty of offence.

The police can investigate those suspected of encouraging suicide by accessing the relevant computer and analysing the data on it after obtaining a warrant or an authorisation

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under the Police Act 1997 or RIPA, which the hon. Lady mentioned. Both routes would be authorised by senior police officers on the basis that the action is necessary and proportionate to detect a crime, including the crime of encouraging or assisting suicide. The 1997 Act authorisation would be necessary to open the computer and the RIPA authorisation would be necessary to examine the private information it contains. RIPA also permits the police to authorise the access of data from a communication service provider, including internet service providers, on the same basis to determine what sort of sites had been accessed or who had been in contact.

The decisions to take those actions would be a matter for the police. Neither the 1997 Act nor RIPA place any restriction on investigations into the use of the internet to encourage or assist suicide. In circumstances where the police believe that a suicide and content on the internet are linked, they might consider it appropriate to investigate the computer of the person who has committed suicide. As the hon. Lady knows, that can include the investigation of activity on social network sites, which have been thought to play a part in some incidents.

Any decision to access the computer of a person who has died following a suicide of course rests with the relevant police force. That must be done sensitively. If the bereaved family is not satisfied with the police’s actions, they can complain to the force directly. If they remain dissatisfied, they should raise any concerns with the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

The hon. Lady raised a separate issue about the role of social media following a suicide and the fact that it may be possible through social media for people to access information, including photographs, in a way that distresses the family. She mentioned that some kind of protocol to address that is already in existence. I am very happy to consider that matter and examine whether that protocol is being used effectively. I can understand that a social website through which photographs are shared and available when somebody is alive and perhaps happy may take on an entirely different complexion to the family of that person if a suicide occurs. Therefore, it is desirable to be able to ensure that information that was publicly available in different circumstances cannot be misused. I am happy to consider that matter and examine how we might work with the social media providers to ensure effective action in such circumstances.

I reiterate the Government’s commitment to preventing suicide, which requires co-ordination and contributions from public services and organisations, voluntary groups, the private sector and individuals. The forthcoming Government strategy will play an important part in helping to prevent vulnerable people from taking their own lives and in supporting those who have been bereaved following suicides. The Government are ensuring that we have a support framework in place, so that the right help is available to those who are at risk of suicide. Furthermore, the existing legal framework ensures that the police have sufficient powers to investigate sudden deaths and to support the work of the coroner.

I will ensure that we study the hon. Lady’s speech carefully, so that all the issues that she has raised are picked up, as we consider the publication of the strategy and the responses to it. If necessary, I will write to her to set out what more we think we might need to do. I certainly do not want her to think that I am not taking

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seriously her request that there should be national guidance in this respect, but I am conscious of the background of the burden of national guidance that has been coming from the Home Office on a range of matters. That is why the appropriate first step will be for me to discuss these issues with ACPO and find out what it believes is necessary by means of further doctrine and what it thinks the appropriate doctrine should be. The overall burden is something that concerns me; but equally, it is important to ensure proper practice.

Clearly, we will not prevent every tragedy. However, we can assure ourselves that we have done everything in our power, so that those with suicidal thoughts have somewhere to turn for support and bereaved families are treated with sensitivity by the police, who will leave no stone unturned in their pursuit of answers. I hope that that is an adequate response to the hon. Lady, given the seriousness of her concern about the matter, which I recognise.

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Secondary Ticketing

12.58 pm

Mike Weatherley (Hove) (Con): It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I believe that the free market is by far and away the best method by which to allocate resources effectively. Provided the often-quoted five criteria regarding the definition of perfect markets—identical product, all firms are price takers, all firms have a relatively small market share, perfect knowledge, and no barriers to entry or exit—are mostly met, the market should be left alone to do what it does best.

Consumers should have the ultimate say on how products are delivered and at what price. However, with live music and many other activities where a finite amount of tickets are available, there is a major perfect market imperfection. Music and other forms of creative expression are vital to the British economy—from earnings to employment—and for quality of life as well. The performing arts and sport sustain employment and tax revenues that benefit all our citizens. Some 1.5 million people are employed in the creative industries or in creative roles in other industries. Exports of services from the creative industries accounted for 10.6% of the UK’s exports of services, and there were an estimated 106,700 businesses in the creative industries, which represents 5.1% of all companies. British musical talent earned £139.6 million from overseas earnings in 2008. The top three earners, in order, were the Police, Iron Maiden and Coldplay. The Performing Rights Society for Music has said that Britain is the No. 1 home of musical talent in the world. In short, it is worth us all taking an interest in the continued prosperity of the creative industries.

There is, however, a blight that creams off revenues by exploiting an imperfect market and contributes nothing to the creative copyright holders, or indeed the venues and staff who put on events. The blight consists of those who profiteer by exploiting excess demand. In rapidly changing times in the internet world, what was previously considered quaint and not much of a problem, or indeed a possible service, has now been overtaken by industrial-scale activities at the touch of a button. Government have not kept up with the rapid pace of change.

David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that this is a drain not just on the musical industry, but on the Exchequer too?

Mike Weatherley: Absolutely. I agree—it is a drain on the Exchequer. Of course, some secondary ticketing organisations pay tax, but there is an amount of VAT and so on that is not necessarily reclaimed.

The issue is recognised by some of the music and sports industries’ leading names. The list of those who joined me to meet the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport last year reads like a “Who’s Who”: Melvin Benn, Festival Republic, who runs the Glastonbury and Reading festivals and is chairman of Wembley stadium; Harvey Goldsmith, legendary promoter of live events; Rod Smallwood, Phantom Music, manager of Iron Maiden; Ian McAndrew, Wildlife Entertainment, manager of the Arctic Monkeys; Anthony Addis, Brontone

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Management, manager of Muse and the Pogues; Emma Banks, Creative Artists Agency; John Jackson, K2 Agency and Sonisphere festival; Simon Davies, the Teenage Cancer Trust charity; James MacDougall, Sport and Recreation Alliance; Dan Fahey, Virtual Festivals; Neil Warnock and Geoff Meall, the Agency Group; Jeff Craft, X-ray Touring; Brian Message, ATC/Courtyard Management and Music Managers Forum; and Danny Newby, Big Green Coach. Those industry leaders have been joined by many others in recent months, including DJ Rob da Bank; Phil McIntyre, Phil McIntyre Entertainments; James Sandom of Supervision Management, who look after the Kaiser Chiefs; and Steve Parker of Live UK. That group cannot be called an isolated few—the industry is very concerned.

Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): I was surprised by the number of e-mails I received on this issue. Having heard that list, perhaps I should not have been. I received an e-mail from a constituent, Mr Sunderland from Larkfield. He said that a typical scenario is for tickets to go on sale on a Friday at 9 am, and by 9.10 am they are sold out. They are then listed on other websites at triple the face value, or even more, of the original tickets. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should be putting the fan, not the salesman, at the centre of the ticketing process for live music and other events?

Mike Weatherley: I could not agree more. I will come on to that point in a moment—it is on an industrial scale now. The intention of the person buying the ticket is important. If the intention is to make a profit, I argue that that is to the detriment of the industry.

It can be argued that there are occasions where intermediaries, such as agents, or, in this example, ticket touts, provide a supply and demand service. However, in the case of exceptional excess demand for a finite product, supply cannot be increased to match demand. With only a finite number of hours available to the performers, the free market falls down due to a restriction of supply. Ticket touts who take advantage of that market imperfection do nothing to add to our creative industries in terms of revenue and profits to those putting on the shows.

In addition to profit being driven into the hands of those who have done nothing to nurture and develop the product, there is the added consideration of who owns the product being performed. I hope that everyone listening to this debate will readily agree that a performance belongs to an artist, and that the artist has the right to be in control of the terms of that performance. Indeed, today the French Government have enacted a law stating specifically that. Any hon. Member who wishes to explore further why the protection of intellectual property rights is so important may wish to check out my “Rock the House” website, www.rockthehouse2012.com, which goes into that particular debate in some detail. The creative person should at all times be able to retain control of how the end product is produced, marketed and used.

I am well aware of the argument that artists realise the full value of the ticket sales, so who are they to complain if others also make a profit? That argument, however, falls down on three counts. First, there are

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many reasons why a business may wish to price at below full market value, such as market penetration and reward for loyalty. There is differential pricing in football stadiums; for example, in a young persons area where the club wishes to build a fan base. They could sell at a much higher rate, but choose to price market segment. The clubs would be disadvantaged if those young persons simply sold on their tickets for a profit—that would defeat the intention of a lower-priced ticket. I will come on to the Olympic example later.

Secondly, another reason would be to control the type of person attending—for example, crowd separation at football matches. That argument is well established in other areas, too. There are restrictions on who can buy certain properties, such as affordable housing units that cannot be bought by speculators and sold at an immediately higher value to someone not in the target housing audience. In addition, a band may wish to have a young crowd at the front of the stage, rather than people who can afford the premium pricing, which would not necessarily create the same atmosphere.

Thirdly, there is criminality relating to ticket forgeries and organised crime, which I will come on to later. I should point out at this point that I am not totally against the on-selling of tickets. There must be a mechanism that allows ticket buyers to recover the price of their ticket, and maybe make a small profit for their troubles, if they cannot attend. That could be done via a fan-to-fan website. That is an essential safeguard, but it is the intention when buying the ticket that is the most important consideration. We saw recently, with the debenture ticket holders story at the Royal Albert hall, that some were buying their debenture—or season ticket, if you prefer—with no intention of going to the shows, but because they were able to make a profit of 10 times the face value.

At the moment, with huge profits available for popular events, tickets are being purchased on an industrial scale, with no intention of going to the event itself. People up and down the country are contracted by ticket organisations—or are freelance themselves—that make it their job to sit at banks of computers to buy the maximum allocation of tickets at face value as soon as they go on sale. As we saw on the “Dispatches” programme a few weeks ago, some companies are willing to use their staff, and credit cards obtained for this specific purpose, to buy tickets and resell for a profit.

Before I move on, may I just address the issues brought up in the “Dispatches” programme? A lot of the focus of the programme was based on artists, promoters or venues holding tickets back and using free market mechanisms to sell tickets at an additional profit to the benefit of those putting on the concert or event. I see nothing wrong with that if it is done with the copyright holder’s permission. It seems that that was given, since it would appear that the promoter ticket allocation, for example, was in the contracts. That was known to all parties and is no different from premium pricing at the front end. It is simply a mechanism that reduces the risk to the artist on pricing, and shares that with those operating the system for them. Some artists grade their tickets from the outset at a higher premium value. We have heard about certain artists charging £1,000 for tickets in the front row. The mechanism on fan-to-fan

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websites is no different from that; it just uses the free market to set the price. What was wrong, as mentioned earlier, was where the secondary ticket seller was buying, via a network of intermediary operators, for the specific purpose of on-selling at a profit to them, not to the artist.

That brings me on to the Olympics. As is well known and accepted as a matter of principle, it is against the law to on-sell an Olympic ticket, whether at a profit or not—it must be sold back to the organiser. It strikes me as baffling that the Government accept this for a specific sporting event and promote strong enforcement, but are reluctant to take action for the benefit of our creative industries. Some 6.6 million Olympic tickets have been sold to the public, raising £527 million. That figure could have been much more, but the price was set and the Government seek to enforce it so it remains a “games for all”, and not just those who can pay the premium. Some 25% of tickets have been held back for other purposes, such as corporate sales and other premium pricing, but a decision was taken that 75% of the tickets should go to enthusiastic fans at a specific price below market value. The atmosphere inside the arena will benefit as a result, contributing to what I am sure will be a fantastic games.

The Home Secretary is so determined to crack down on touts, the fine was raised from £5,000 to £20,000. In May 2011, she said:

“The 2012 Games will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the Games on home soil. By increasing fines for touting we are sending a clear message to criminals…that it is not worth their while and they are not welcome.”

The police, under Operation Podium, have announced that every ticket tout caught will also be pursued to recover their assets, with no maximum limit to the amount that can be recovered. Additionally, internet companies such as eBay and Gumtree could also face action if they do not take immediate action, once notified of illegal activity.

The worry about the effects of ticket touting goes further. Detective Chief Inspector Nick Downing, in charge of Operation Podium, said:

“we have already seen the demand for Olympic tickets which gives criminals greater opportunity to run scams, sell non-existent tickets and even steal your personal and credit card details to use in other crimes…As soon as you allow things to go out of control, opportunities for criminals grow. And I do not want London to be associated with disappointment at finding out all the money paid out was to criminals and no tickets exist”.

That last point could have been echoed by any bank manager, who I am sure would worry about exactly the same thing.

Although examples that I have given show that extensive action is, and can be, taken to prevent ticket touting at the games, it only serves to highlight the lack of action taken against ticket touts at other events. Without legislation, artists are forced to think of innovative ways to prevent touts. Glastonbury, for example, uses a picture of every ticket holder and other events have insisted that people bring with them the credit card used to purchase tickets. But this fails in a number of ways, from the father wanting to give a present to his kids, to those who do not have a credit card or driving licence as proof of identification. Such approaches can also create problems with crowd surges before curtain-up: checking 10,000 IDs will add to entrance delays, which venues are not geared

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up to handle, and there are obvious safety concerns—and anyway, it adds to the Big Brother state, which surely we should avoid if we can.

I am pleased that the ticket sales for the games have gone well. The Olympics are inspirational in so many ways and I hope that the Minister will be inspired by the ticketing arrangements for the London games and use that inspiration to help all our creative industries and events that could benefit similarly from Government and police assistance.

Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): I know that the hon. Gentleman is probably just about to wind up, so I thank him for giving way. I wanted to listen to his speech in full and not interrupt along the way. He has made an excellent speech, as I would expect, because he is knowledgeable about this subject. With everything that he has said, and taking into account everything that he knows about what is going on, which “Dispatches” highlighted, does he think that the time has come for the Government to consider legislation, and not just say that the industry has to try to regulate itself?

Mike Weatherley: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and I applaud her efforts in this field, without which I would never have been alerted to the issue. I thank her for that. I agree and France does, too. As I said, France has gone live today with a law specifically about this form of ticket touting, which is along the lines of the hon. Lady’s private Member’s Bill, which although introduced did not get past the next stage.

I am not advocating that every ticketed event be subject to additional legislative support. Many artists and events will be happy for the secondary market to buy and sell their tickets, but those that wish to have protection should be able to apply for support under law, in the same way the Olympics did. If it is good enough for the world’s premier sporting event, it should be good enough for our creative industry, which is worth protecting before we lose the world-beating position Britain currently enjoys.

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that, whereas in days gone by people queued to buy tickets and paid cash, many tickets are now bought online via different means and that is another example of how the internet and online communication are moving at a pace? We should move to use that to help us to prevent the scenarios that he is outlining.

Mike Weatherley: I agree. Some 20 years ago, ticket touting at events was a quaint issue, but now it is on an industrial scale. We live in rapidly changing times. I agree that the internet is a huge game changer. The UK Government need to catch up.

It is worth noting, as I said earlier, that a secondary ticketing law goes live in France today. The French are leading the way, the Olympics demanded it, the music industry is begging for action and the fans certainly want it, but what is lacking is our Government’s grasp of the overwhelming evidence for action.

1.14 pm

The Minister for Sport and the Olympics (Hugh Robertson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mike Weatherley) and acknowledge, as other

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hon. Members have done, his expertise in this subject since he first came to Parliament and beforehand. Given that his speech was mainly about the music industry, I apologise for not being my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who is normally the Minister responsible for matters musical. For some reason—I suspect because of the Olympics—the responsibility for such matters lies in my portfolio.

I will deal with various points that my hon. Friend has made. First, I am aware that there has been a spike of interest about secondary market issues, following the recent edition of the “Dispatches” programme, which he mentioned. I take the points that he made. I gather that the Office of Fair Trading has been asked to investigate a number of allegations made in that programme. As a result, I am told that I am not in a position to comment further on those allegations at the moment.

Secondly, my hon. Friend mentioned the Olympics. Let us be clear that we did not introduce a ban on secondary ticketing because we in this country thought that the Olympics needed such protection. To be brutally honest with my hon. Friend, we did it because it was a requirement of the bid. The International Olympic Committee requires that. A country has to sign up to a number of things in that regard, not all of which are universally popular in this country—from Olympic-specific lanes onwards. The commitment to introduce the ban was made quite correctly by the previous Government, precisely because it was a requirement of the bid.

To be clear about the quote from the Home Secretary, which my hon. Friend quoted correctly, the fine was raised to that level and not a great deal higher—the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) was a member of the Committee that dealt with this matter—although an amendment was tabled to do just that, in response to specific police advice about the appropriate fine and the seriousness of the threat. The Home Secretary did not dream it up for policy reasons; she was responding to a recommendation from the police.

Mrs Hodgson: As the Minister mentioned, I was a member of the Committee that considered that matter. We took evidence from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who, when I questioned him, said that he had evidence that the criminal activity that he was citing with regard to the fine having to be quadrupled to £20,000 also existed across the whole ticketing market. I pressed him to give his thoughts on whether the legislation should be extended, but obviously he said that it was not his place to say so. However, he gave evidence that this was rife across the whole ticketing world.

Hugh Robertson: After the hon. Lady’s private Member’s Bill was introduced, I undertook some checks with both the Home Office and the wider security services. I have checked with both the Metropolitan Police and the wider security services, and without going into too much detail about the information that they have given me, I regret to say that those organisations have told me that they think that we have the balance about right. They have said that this is a moving threat.

It is fair to say—it came across clearly in Assistant Commissioner Allison’s evidence to the Committee—that this is a new and growing threat. It is reasonably easy,

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through Operation Podium, to nail that down for the Olympics. However, the organisations that I mentioned do not feel—I really have asked them about this—that there is sufficient evidence at the moment for them to tell the Home Office, “Our legislative offer is deficient in this regard; we want a ban across the piece.” The police have not said that and neither, yet, have the security services.

I have asked the security services this specific question every time that we receive a briefing about intelligence behind a large range of threats to the Olympic games. We always ask about Operation Podium and the influence of large-scale criminal gangs, and the rest, on the games. The security services are happy that the current fine is sufficient to deter that activity. They are making good progress in targeting those who have offended and taking down dummy websites that have sprung up all around the place offering tickets that they cannot supply—people send off money out of misguided enthusiasm, but find that the thing is a complete sham.

At no stage, however, has anyone said that the threat is sufficient to support a more general ban. I shall come on to that in a minute, but I have an open mind. When that Rubicon is crossed, we will need to look at the matter very carefully, but I think that I have covered the Olympic-specific points, about the bid requirement and last year’s London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (Amendment) Act 2011 being a response to a specific threat identified by the police and to a need for a higher penalty than the existing £5,000.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hove went through the range of opportunities open to event organisers, but I suspect that we are on slightly different sides of the argument. The Government are keen for event organisers to look at all the options currently available to them before we legislate, whether paperless tickets or photo IDs, although I recognise what he said about some of the shortcomings in given situations.

Mike Weatherley: I thank the Minister for a detailed reply. On that specific point, have the Government initiated any inquiries into alternatives, or are they waiting for the industry to come back to them?

Hugh Robertson: The short answer, following on from the meeting that my hon. Friend had with the Secretary of State a month or so ago, is that we are very much waiting for the industry to come back to us. It will not surprise my hon. Friend or the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West, who are assiduous campaigners on the issue, to know that every time that they campaign there is a counterblast from the other side—the secondary ticketing organisations, which do not want legislation for a number of reasons. Every time the matter is highlighted, we inevitably get a blast from the other side; but, as I say, we are keeping everything under review. We would like to explore the point made by another of my hon. Friends about whether the internet can be used more effectively to provide extra protection before we move to legislation.

Where does all that leave us? Personally, I have an open mind, but it is worth recording that the previous Government asked the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport to conduct an inquiry. The Committee included a wide range of different views but concluded, in about 2009, that there was no need for legislation at

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that stage. The previous Government also considered the matter and came back to it a number of times, because I think that it was a manifesto commitment of the new Labour Government back in 1997, as acknowledged by a number of my predecessors, with whom I have discussed the subject. They thought that the argument could be cut either way and that extra evidence would be needed to prove that large-scale criminality was taking place as a result of secondary ticketing.

The current Government have agreed with that approach until now, but I have an open mind. Purely in my own opinion, the moment that the security services or the police say that the activity is becoming a proxy for large-scale criminal activity and that large amounts of money are being laundered through the system, the case for legislation will become much easier to make. At the moment, the Government are satisfied to follow the recommendations of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and the approach of the previous Government, and not to advocate a more general ban.

Mike Weatherley: I understand the point about criminality, but what about the ownership of the performance? There has been no mention of that. Surely, performers owning their product is at the heart of our creative industries.

Hugh Robertson: Indeed it is, and intellectual property and all the rest are a hot topic at the moment. There is no point in my pretending that there is anything other than a range of views. Both parties include people who believe that secondary ticketing and exchange are a perfectly reasonable way for individuals to buy tickets. It is an open market and people should be allowed to do that. There are a range of views; but, for myself, although I always have to defend the Government’s line, I have a very open mind. I am perfectly happy for us to give guarantees to events with such a bid requirement—I have no ideological problem with that at all.

Mrs Hodgson: Following on from the point made by the hon. Member for Hove, I have had representations from people who consider that a ticket is nothing more than a receipt for access to an event. Some very clever people, including some studying law in university, are researching whether there is a case in law to find that selling on such a receipt is illegal. It is a ticket, but it is actually a receipt, to take part in an experience, and it is not something in and of itself.

Hugh Robertson: I am dangerously close to being out of my depth. I studied a little law at university, getting close to 30 years ago now, a bit more military law when I joined the Army and a little banking law 15 years or whatever ago, but I am not an expert. That is the first I have heard of that idea, but if someone is able to prove such a case legally, clearly the terms of the whole debate will be changed.

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At the moment, I have an open mind and am happy to grant the necessary exemptions if required by a bid, but as a Government we are not yet ready to move beyond that. If the case can be proved and a particularly strong one can be made about criminality, we are open to that.

Mike Weatherley: Will the Minister commit the Government to look at the French example to see why it was put into statute—going live today—and what the benefits or problems will be once it has gone live?

Hugh Robertson: I most certainly give my hon. Friend that undertaking. I had better tread carefully, but there are a lot of things that the French do differently throughout sport and the wider entertainment industry. For example, they have a betting law around image rights, so that sports bodies can gain money from the betting industry that they can reinvest in grass-roots sports—many of the bodies are keen on that. Other things they do not do: they do not have a national lottery, which keeps many of our sports and arts events going. I will, absolutely, look at the French example, although that is not to say that, if it is a success, we will necessarily incorporate it directly into practice.

Mrs Hodgson: I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way again, and I realise that we are operating a pincer movement on him at the moment. One of the responses that the Secretary of State gave at the meeting the hon. Member for Hove and I had with him was that the issue could be looked at again if market failure, and not only criminality, was demonstrated. The Minister mentioned the investigation by the OFT, which I wrote to following the “Dispatches” programme to ask it to look at market failure. He cannot go into such details perhaps, but I think that the OFT will find demonstrable market failure, so would the Government then look at this again?

Hugh Robertson: Absolutely. Personally, as the Minister responsible, I have an open mind, as I said. The OFT is another good example, because if its investigation were to demonstrate market failure, we would clearly have to look at the market, to analyse the failure and to see what can be done, if appropriate, to put things right. That would most certainly change the debate, as would a firm police or security services commitment that large amounts of money were now being laundered through the secondary market and that not having legislation was helping criminal gangs.

I shall try to wrap up my comments, given the time. The position remains that we have an open mind on secondary ticketing. We are happy to legislate for events with a bid requirement, but we do not think that there is yet an absolutely sound case for a more general ban. We will keep an open mind, however, and look at the case as the months progress.

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Work Capability Assessment

1.29 pm

Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): It is a pleasure, Mr Crausby, to serve under your chairmanship. I hope that the Minister is not tired of hearing from me this morning. During this debate on the employment and support allowance, and the independent review of the work capability assessment, I want to concentrate on the recommendations for new mental, intellectual and cognitive function descriptors, which is a fairly narrow part of the overall picture. Before the Minister jumps up to remind me, I am well aware that the work capability assessment was introduced by the previous Government, and I hope that I would say exactly the same now if my party were in power.

We must not forget that the issue is about people, such as my constituent with mental health problems who has twice scored nil points on a work capability assessment, and who was twice placed in a support group after appeal, having waited seven months and nine months respectively for those appeals. He is currently awaiting the outcome of his third assessment, and the stress of that has affected his recovery.

The issue is a narrow one, but with 35% of the people going through work capability assessments being recorded as having a mental or behavioural condition as their primary condition, it is the largest single group of employment and support allowance claimants, so it is of considerable significance. The Scottish Association for Mental Health, using Government data, says that 43.9% of incapacity benefit claimants who are undergoing reassessment have mental health problems, and in Scotland the figure is 46% of claimants. Getting the assessment right is critical.

In his first review in November 2010, Professor Harrington acknowledged that inadequacies in the descriptors for mental, intellectual and cognitive function were likely to play a substantial role in the high rate of successful appeals. In September 2010, three organisations—Mind, Mencap and the National Autistic Society—were asked to provide recommendations on refining the descriptors. They presented initial recommendations to an independent scrutiny group in December 2010, and both groups jointly submitted their report to the independent review in April 2011.

Following two written parliamentary questions and some initial reluctance to publish, the Minister was good enough to place a copy of the document in the Library on 1 December 2011. Professor Harrington endorsed the report and its recommendations in his second independent review, which was published in November 2011. Parallel with that, there was an internal review by the Department for Work and Pensions, and as a result the descriptors were changed in March 2011.

In the report prepared for Professor Harrington, the charities reaffirmed the importance of getting the descriptors right, and said:

“Some of the problems...are probably attributable to procedural or training factors. However...it is inconceivable that the descriptors do not contribute substantially to this unacceptably high error rate in decisions.”

It concluded that the internal review had not resolved the concerns, and it noted specifically that measuring just one of the relevant aspects of an applicant’s condition,

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or trying to include more than one aspect on a single linear scale are part of the problem. Although that makes the assessment quicker and easier to carry out, it fails to take account of the multiple features of impairment, and how they interact.

The document explains that the existing assessment does not take systematic and consistent account of the frequency of particular problems, or their severity. If a problem or difficulty is likely to occur infrequently, it could have a very different effect on potential for employment compared with the situation when the problem occurs several times a day.

How will the proposed new descriptors vary? First, the Department for Work and Pensions has been asked to consider reversing the previous reduction in the number of descriptors from 10 to seven. That was done in the internal review. The charities’ view is that by doing that

“Features which have been combined in this way represent separate impairments and…need to be considered separately to ensure a comprehensive assessment.”

Secondly, the proposed descriptors are multi-dimensional. Let me give a brief example:

“Michael experiences frequent spells of anxiety when he finds it…difficult to engage socially with almost all people. These episodes reoccur on average once a month, and tend to last for a few days at a time, after which Michael is usually able to bring them under control with some basic techniques from a short spell of cognitive behavioural therapy which his family paid for.”

It is considered that he is likely to score no points under the current descriptors, two of which relate to social contact. The first is:

“Engagement in social contact is always precluded due to difficulty relating to others or significant distress experienced by the individual”.

That covers engagement with anyone, and scores 15 points on the current descriptors. The second is:

“Engagement in social contact”—

with someone unfamiliar to the claimant—

“is always precluded due to difficulty relating to others or significant distress”.

The word “always” appears in both those current descriptors, and the report’s writers suggest that that is not taken into account in the complexity and difference in that individual’s situation.

Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that the problems tend to be compounded when people have to appeal, particularly as appeals require advocates who have some knowledge of mental health issues? They are few and far between, and services are stretched at the moment.

Sheila Gilmore: They are indeed, and the issues involve both the still considerable waiting times for appeal, and the fact that appeals may be specialised. We know that those who are represented have a different outcome from those who are not.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I am grateful to the hon. Lady not just for giving way, but for her persistence in pressing the issue, particularly in parliamentary questions to obtain information. A key recommendation in the Harrington review that relates to this debate and particularly the point she is making is that each and every assessment centre should have a

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mental, cognitive and intellectual champion. Only two assessment centres in Scotland have one, although all centres were supposed to have champions by this time last year. Does the hon. Lady share my concern about that?

Sheila Gilmore: I do share that concern, and the recommendation, which the Government indicated initially that they would accept, was that there would be such champions in all assessment centres. I appreciate that some centres are small and isolated, but two in the whole of Scotland is low, and it will be difficult for them to make a significant impression on the system.

Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab): A distressing case recently at my surgery was a constituent who was in tears and crying hysterically because she believed that she had been placed in the wrong work-related activity group. She is appealing, but the appeal process in Nottingham takes an average of 56 weeks. She is really struggling in that group—she is asked to carry out role play and interviews when she believes that she is in the wrong group. I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue, and hope that she will press the Minister to address my constituent’s case.

Sheila Gilmore: I thank my hon. Friend for her helpful intervention.

On the current descriptors, Michael would be unlikely to score any points. Because of the multi-dimensional nature of the proposed descriptors different aspects are looked at, including the severity of an applicant's difficulties with social engagement, the degree to which that varies between familiar and unfamiliar people, and how frequently that occurs. Those separate factors are scored, and are then multiplied together, with final points being allocated accordingly. The view in the report is that someone such as Michael would be expected to be awarded around nine points rather than none.

The purpose of the proposed descriptors is to account better for fluctuations in impairment that are commonplace in such illnesses, and the amount of support a person might need to overcome their impairment. They are structured in such a way that they could be used as the direct basis for the questions and would be better understood by the claimant.

Those were the recommendations in the report, but what about the Government’s response? As Professor Harrington made clear when he passed his report to the Government, he endorsed the proposals when writing his second review. To date, however, the Department for Work and Pensions has decided not to introduce the new descriptors, arguing either that there is insufficient evidence that the current descriptors are not working—that seems surprising given that that point was made in Professor Harrington’s first review and was accepted by the Government—or that the new ones would work better. In response, the Government said that the Department would “consider” a gold standard review that would take place in the first half of 2012.

The charities that are involved in these matters accept that more research is needed, but in the run-up to this debate they expressed their concern that no gold standard review has yet been initiated. Will the Minister confirm whether such a review will take place, and if so, when? Have DWP officials met with Professor Harrington, Mind, Mencap and the National Autistic Society regarding the establishment of such a review?

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The charities have also expressed concern that a number of civil servants on the employment and support allowance team have recently moved on and have not yet been replaced. As a result, the DWP claims to have insufficient staff to initiate the review. Will the Minister ensure that staff are allocated to the ESA team to carry out the gold standard review? If the DWP is unable to provide staff to carry out that review, the charities have suggested that such work could be contracted out to an independent organisation. If that were to happen, would the Minister accept the findings of that review?

The Government accepted a suggestion about revising the ESA50 questionnaire that people fill in when making an initial application, and the idea was to reconsider and adapt, although not change substantially, the wording of the existing descriptors. Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made on that?

More broadly, my fear is that the Minister might use the cover of the gold standard review to kick the proposals into the longish grass because looking at a better way of assessing mental, intellectual and cognitive functions would shine a light on the whole work capability assessment process. That was illustrated by the Minister’s response to an oral question from my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) on 24 October 2011. She asked whether the Government would be implementing the recommendations in the report and the Minister replied:

“The challenge facing us is that the recommendations will involve a complete change of the work capability assessment, not simply for mental health issues, but for physical issues, and is therefore a multi-year project. We are considering whether we can incorporate elements of the recommendations into the current approach much more quickly.”—[Official Report, 24 October 2011; Vol. 534, c. 8.]

Perhaps that is the crux of the matter. The Minister appears to be saying that a substantial change of approach is needed to the whole way that assessment is carried out for issues of physical as well as mental health. The longer the process takes, however, the more people are at risk of being wrongly assessed as fit for work, with all the stress and emotional turmoil that that causes. That is not a small matter for the DWP given the high rate of appeal and the cost and effort involved.

In conclusion, I urge the Minister to press on with the gold standard review for mental, intellectual and cognitive function. In doing so, however, he should not shy away from confronting the real issues that exist with other aspects of the work capability assessment.

1.44 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Chris Grayling): I have a sense of déjà-vu because the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) and I are continuing a debate, albeit on a different subject, from an hour ago.

Let me start by saying that it is of paramount importance to get right issues of mental health in the work capability assessment process. That is the most difficult challenge, because in many respects mental health can be the most intangible of the various areas that we need to assess when we seek to understand what people can and cannot do, and there are clearly many people with mental health problems who cannot possibly be expected to work. I do not have detailed knowledge of the case highlighted by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria

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De Piero), but people will appear in our surgeries saying that something is not fair or right, or that they are in the wrong group. Some people will genuinely believe that they cannot return to work, but that will not always be the case.

A few weeks ago, I sat with a woman in one of our Work programme centres. She had arrived having been mandated to the Work programme after 14 years off work with chronic depression, and she said that on the first day she was in tears, did not believe that she should be there and that she was protesting bitterly. I met her about eight weeks later, by which time she had started doing voluntary work in a charity shop and had begun to apply for jobs, and she said that that was the right thing to do after all. We will not always get it right, but we are taking some people down a path that can be right for them, even if they are reluctant to follow it at first.

Gloria De Piero: I accept what the Minister says, but does he agree that to decide whether someone is in the right group and has the right of appeal—which in itself acknowledges trial and error—56 weeks is too long?

Chris Grayling: I completely accept that, and we have started to reduce the backlog of cases. It is a big challenge, and we have put extra resources into the tribunal service for that. We have also tried to strengthen the reconsideration process in Jobcentre Plus, so that new medical evidence seldom appears at appeal stage. In his first report, Professor Harrington stated that one key reason why so many decisions were being overturned on appeal was that new evidence was appearing at appeal stage. We have tried hard, both at the start of the assessment process and the reconsideration stage, to ensure that such evidence is in place.

I ask the hon. Member for Edinburgh East to step back for a moment because it is tempting to take what the charities say at face value. Charities do good work and have long experience, but they do not always get it right and the internal review was the clearest example of that. I sat through meeting after meeting with the charities at which they said that we should not proceed with the internal review because it would lead to more people with mental health problems being found fit for work and that all the evidence suggested that it was the wrong thing to do.

Work had been done by the previous Government using the approach that the Department always takes to such matters, which is to take a batch of cases, put them through a new methodology and see what difference that makes. Our team of officials advised that, although there were fewer descriptors, the changes would lead to an increased number of mental health claimants in the support group. The charities protested and said, “That won’t happen; you’re wrong. That is not the case and you shouldn’t do it.” A few months later, however, that internal review led to an increased number of mental health patients in the support group. Indeed, the support group as a whole has got bigger. It is easy for groups that advocate change to existing systems to say, “We’ve got the experience; we’re right and you must do this,” but that is not always the case. It was certainly not the case for the internal review.

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Dr Whiteford: I should like to bring the Minister back to the first Harrington review, particularly recommendation 7. He has previously told Members, including myself, that those recommendations have been taken on board and implemented, but why has recommendation 7 not been implemented in Scotland?

Chris Grayling: In relation to mental health champions, let me explain some of the things that we have done for mental health patients. We have a pool of about 60 specialists who provide advice within the Atos network, and their skills are available to every centre, either in person or by phone. Professor Harrington has looked at how we implemented that change, and he praised it because he thinks that it was done well and effectively. We think that we have delivered that expertise, as does Professor Harrington who is an independent assessor and can say whether or not his recommendation has been implemented properly, which in his view it has been.

If I find evidence that we are not getting things right, we are open to change. As I have said from the start, this programme does not have a financial target and is about saving lives, not saving money. If we are successful in moving people back into work it will, of course, reduce the cost to the welfare state, but it will do so in a right and positive way that will help people such as the woman whom I described, who I hope will return, step by step, to the workplace. The alternative is for her to spend the rest of her life on benefits suffering from depression at home, and no one benefits from that.

That is the spirit in which we have approached all this. We tried very hard to ensure that we got it right with the internal review. There was no particular reason for me to implement the internal review. It was set up by the previous Government. The findings were put together by the previous Government. It would have been easy just to say no, but the advice was that it would increase the size of the support group, and that is what has happened. I regard that as a positive step. I always said, and said on a number of occasions in the House, that I was happy to see the dividing line between the work-related activity group and the support group move a bit in the direction of caution, because we are trying to get this right and I do not want people in the wrong place. There will never be a perfect system—I wish there would be—but we shall try to get this right.

I will move on to the recommendations of the work carried out by the charities. I commissioned that myself. I asked the charities to come back with recommended changes to the descriptors. I very much wanted, and do want, to get this right. The problem is straightforward: they did not actually do what they were asked to do. They were asked to make recommendations about further ways to improve the descriptors that would allow us further to ensure that the assessment process for people with mental health challenges was accurate, effective and reflected their needs and potential. That is not what happened.

The charities came back with a recommended system that would have involved tearing up the whole work capability assessment for mental, fluctuating and physical conditions and starting again from scratch, redoing all our computer systems and all the training for every member of staff in the entire network. That was not just a tweak; it was a comprehensive change to the whole

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thing, based on no actual evidence. The charities did not come forward with tangible evidence. They simply said, “We think it would work better this way.” They may or may not be right, but that is quite a big step to take just on the basis of a set of recommendations from a group of charities that had been proved wrong in the internal review process.

Sheila Gilmore: The recommendations from the charities were put to an independent scrutiny panel that had a large number of people with considerable expertise, so will the Minister agree that it is not true to say that they were simply the recommendations of a group of charities?

Chris Grayling: That is the case, but what we lack and what we intend now to get is hard evidence to determine whether this is right. Given that the charities were wrong the first time round, I am very reluctant to tear up the whole thing and redo all the computer systems—a vast amount of change; probably a two or three-year project—only to discover that that does not make a difference.

Alongside this, we have been doing work on fluctuating conditions. These are the two particularly challenging areas. Fluctuating conditions can represent a real challenge in the assessment process, because someone who is fine one day may not be fine the next. There are a range of fluctuating conditions and, again, I want to be careful to ensure that we get this as right as we can. In a moment, I will touch on some of the changes that we have made. I just want to explain first where the issue arises with the new set of recommendations.

The working group on fluctuating conditions reported at the end of last year. We intend this year to do that gold standard work, which in effect involves applying the new systems recommended by both groups to a set group of cases to understand what the difference would have been. If we discover that there is very little variation between what they are recommending and the existing system, there will be no point in changing it. If we discover big changes, we will want to understand why. I am perfectly open to making changes in the future if I think that that will make a significant difference. I will state again that we are not trying to force into work people who should not be there. We are not trying to get this wrong, but at the same time this is not about a simple change. It is not about introducing mental health champions throughout the network, improving the quality of the telephony process, ensuring that our staff are better trained or strengthening the reconsideration process. It is about tearing the whole thing up and starting again. That is quite a big step and a very long step to take.

We shall do the gold standard work. We have already done the initial scoping work. It is very important that that is completed. I am very open to making changes, but I will not make changes on the hoof without clear evidence that they will make a difference. The hard evidence that was there for the internal review, which I based my judgment on, proved to be right, whereas the external advice, based on what the charities thought, proved to be wrong, so we have to be very careful.

Sheila Gilmore: I thank the Minister for taking another intervention. Obviously, there have been many changes in the system and changes initiated after Harrington 1

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as well. Is there a reason why the Minister thinks that the change in the descriptors has resulted in more people being put into the support group?

Chris Grayling: The general view of the team who worked on the internal review was that the assessors were better placed with a broader base and less specific descriptors in relation to mental health. People should bear in mind that both the assessors and the subsequent tribunals and decision makers have to operate to a pretty tight template around the descriptors as set in law. By creating additional flexibility within the descriptors, we end up with more people being put into the support group than was previously the case, and that is indeed what happened.

I thought that there was good and sensible thinking in the way that the charities brought forward their ideas. We made some pretty rapid changes. We have continued to adapt the ESA50. We have adapted our training, so that some of the issues that they have highlighted are built more clearly into it. We have also invited all the charities—some have taken this up—to work with decision makers, to contribute to the training process for decision makers.

Probably the biggest change that we made to the whole process was to de-emphasise slightly the role of the assessment itself. One of the criticisms levelled at the whole WCA process before we took over was that it was much too formulaic, with far too little flexibility. Of course, one of the reasons for the appeals issue was that a vast amount of new evidence came forward only at the appeal stage. As a result of Professor Harrington’s report, we tried to create a more holistic process, so we actively ask people for evidence from their specialists up front.

Our decision makers have the discretion to look for additional evidence at the point at which they reach their view, based on the evidence that has been submitted by the individual themselves, the ESA50 and the outcome of the work capability assessment. Likewise, we now actively encourage people to supply new evidence at the reconsideration stage. It is now almost universally the case that we see most if not all of the evidence before it leaves Jobcentre Plus. That has to be the right thing to do.

We have tried to build the learning from the work done by the mental health group and by the fluctuating conditions group into the decision making that is already happening. We have not parked this on the sidelines and said that we will come back to it at a later date. I can explain my problem using the analogy that I used in the Select Committee. It is rather like taking one’s car in for a service. When we come back at the end of the day, it looks great. The people who did the service have done a brilliant job, but they have turned it into a boat. That is not a lot of use if we have to drive it on the road. That, in a nutshell, is the position that I am in. The charities made a recommendation. If they had recommended some tweaks to the descriptors, we would have done that by now, but they did not; they recommended a total transformation of the whole process, including redoing everything for physical health conditions as well—all the descriptors for them—a new scoring system and a new computer system. It would be and will be, if we do it, a monumental task.

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We are therefore putting together the mental health work and the fluctuating conditions work. We are looking at the consequences of the approach, through the gold standard review, in a way that the previous Government did, and rightly so. It involves taking a selection of cases, applying the new methodology and understanding what the difference would be. However, we are not sitting on our hands in the meantime. We are not just saying, “Well, that work has been done. Maybe we’ll get round to it at some point in the future.” We have used that as the basis for changes across the way that we interact with people through the assessment process, because we genuinely want to get it right.

I have said on many occasions that this is about helping people who are potentially able to return to work to do so. That is the right thing to do. We will not always get the decision making right, whatever we do. Even if we implement everything that the charities are recommending, we still will not have a system that is perfect in all circumstances. That is why we have the

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appeal process. We are not talking about putting people into a position whereby they are doing an activity that is damaging to them. We are, step by step, helping people to get back into a process whereby they can apply for jobs and get into work—sometimes quite gently.

Sheila Gilmore: Will the Minister clarify, if the gold standard review has now started, whether he has any anticipated time scale for its concluding?

Chris Grayling: I have not instantly, but it is certainly my intention that we will complete it within the next few months, as we said that we would. I think that it is necessary to understand the impact. Above all, I want to get this right. Our objective has only ever been to find the right number of people we can help back to work, not any number of people. That is a human goal, not a financial one.

Question put and agreed to.

1.59 pm

Sitting adjourned.