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Baroness Darcy (de Knayth): My Lords, I support the amendment so clearly moved by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, and in particular Amendments Nos. 31A and 31B. I understand that at present appeals take about 26 weeks. Therefore, a person would have to show what steps he was taking in actively seeking work for each of those 26 weeks.
We have had much discussion about reasonableness, relative or otherwise, on another amendment. Does the Minister consider it reasonable that someone who may ultimately win his appeal and may be judged incapable of work should have to go through those steps for 26 weeks?
Earl Russell: My Lords, there was a dreadful sting in the last sentence of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen. He faced the Minister with an alternative which seems to me perfectly fair: either procure the hearing of appeals within four weeks or concede the amendment. It is a perfectly fair alternative. I should have thought that accepting the amendment was the easier of the two.
I ask the Minister to spare a thought for the employment officers with 150,000 people of limited capacity formerly on invalidity benefit coming at them. I should imagine that it is rather worse than being a Minister with 150,000 amendments coming at him.
There is bound to be a good deal of confusion. During that confusion there is bound to be hardship. That hardship will fall on people of limited capacity who will not be able to deal with it well. The amendment acts as
Perhaps I may ask the Minister to consider a political point. The Secretary of Stateno lesshas frequently warned (most recently in the Daily Mail of 8th March) about the amount of agitation and protest that he sees coming down the line on the subject of incapacity benefit. I have no idea whether the Secretary of State is right; he may well be. He is concerned, he says, about whether the Government will be able to hold the line against the protest. If the Government wanted to hold the line, I should have thought they would find themselves much better placed to do so if they could show that they had made some manageable limited concessions to meet the problem and, what is more, that they had done so in response to an amendment moved from their own Benches.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, the noble Earl invites me to consider what it would be like if 150,000 amendments came at only one Minister. There are two of us here and it feels a little as if 75,000 are coming at each of us. I am happy to say that I ducked out of the one that was conducted in Latin, which was perhaps just as well.
My noble friend Lord Swinfen has returned to matters which he addressed in Committee on a number of occasions. I notice that he has moved his place a little and is directly behind me. I suppose that prevents my giving him a look of a certain kind occasionally without making it too obvious by turning right roundonly physically. However, I understand the concerns he has raised and those of other noble Lords about the position of disabled people who may suffer hardship if an allowance is withdrawn in the circumstances we are discussing here. The Government intend to make provision in two ways for disabled people through the list of vulnerable groups who can have access to hardship payments.
First, as my noble friend accepted, we will allow access to payments for claimants who have a disability premium. The award of the premium recognises that the claimant has a significant disability which means that he may be vulnerable to hardship. The second provision we are making is that any claimant who does not qualify for the premium but who has a serious medical condition which could mean that the withdrawal of funds had particularly serious effects for his health will also be able to have access to payments.
I believe that the second provision should address many of my noble friend's anxieties. Many claimants may place restrictions of one kind or another on their availability as a result of a medical condition. In many cases those may be minor in nature, as in the example chosen by the noble Earl, Lord Russellwho is always good for examples. He suggested that someone with rather poor eyesight would not be likely to succeed in a job as a look-out. However, that person's general health may still be good and he would be perfectly capable of a range of work. I therefore believe that the conditions
My noble friend asked how I would define "serious medical condition", for hardship purposes. We wish to allow the adjudication officers discretion to consider individual circumstances and therefore we do not propose to set out a list of specific conditions which could exclude some claimants and not take account of the severity of the condition. We have in mind that an adjudication officer will be able to award hardship payments to claimants who have conditions which mean that they have special needs relating to the condition and that they are particularly vulnerable to hardship. For example, a person with diabetes might need to maintain a particular diet. We are still considering the details of the arrangements which will be set out in regulations and we are happy to consider the views of my noble friend and other noble Lords which have been expressed on the matter.
Perhaps I may turn to Amendments Nos. 31A and 31B. We debated the same issues at an earlier stage, so I understand what is behind my noble friend's amendments. Like other amendments, they seek to recognise that people who have a disability deserve special consideration. I have given the House assurances many times that we have taken the needs of people with disabilities into account in drawing up the labour market rules for JSA. I am a little disappointed to have to do so again, but I am happy to lay out what the special considerations are.
The way the system will work is that people who are found capable of work under the all-work test will equally be capable of work for JSA. I believe I made that clear on a number of occasions. Those who wish to appeal against the IB decision can claim JSA, pending the outcome of the appeal, if they make themselves available for work and look for work. In addition, provision has been made for those who do not wish to make themselves available for work pending their appeal. Existing IB claimants, those in receipt of severe disability allowance and others who have been incapacitated for 28 weeks by 12th April 1995, will be able to get their full income support personal allowance pending their appeal if found capable at their first all-work test. Any other person who first claims IB on or after 13th April 1995 can also claim income support pending the appeal. In the second case, the personal allowance will be reduced by 20 per cent. because we do not believe it reasonable to pay the full rate of income support for people who do not satisfy the normal conditions of entitlement.
The first priority of jobseekers is to find employment. To that end it is vital that all jobseekers are available for and actively seeking employment. My noble friend's amendments would mean that certain people who have been found capable of work under the all-work test would not have to fulfil the actively seeking employment condition. I realise that the amendments are aimed at those who are contesting the decision that they are capable of work. I am sympathetic to the situation
At an earlier stage of the examination of the Bill, my noble friend Lord Swinfen expressed the view that people who are awaiting an appeal should not have to take steps to find work when they may never be regarded as being capable of work. I realise that some of those who appeal against the IB decision will be successful in doing so. But it is equally true that some will not. Rather than waiving the requirement to be actively seeking employment, I think it better to enable the rules to respond sensitively to each person who finds himself or herself in this situation.
Let me explain again how JSA will be geared to fitting in with the needs and capabilities of people with mental and physical disabilities. Of course, I recognise that some claimantswhether or not they are contesting a decision on IBwill have a condition that may affect their job prospects. We intend to carry forward the current provisions in unemployment benefit and income support which allow a person to place restrictions on the nature, hours, rate of remuneration, locality or other condition of employment which he is prepared to accept where those restrictions are reasonable in view of his condition. In other words, such claimants who are appealing against an IB decision will have to be available for employment only to the extent that their condition permits. In addition Clause 7(2) (b) of the Bill enables regulations to provide for certain circumstances to be taken into account in satisfying the actively seeking employment condition. Such circumstances will have to be taken into account in determining whether a person is taking such steps as he can reasonably be expected to take in order to have the best prospects of securing employment. The Bill lists physical and mental limitations as relevant circumstances. I can give an explicit assurance that we shall make regulations which cover these circumstances.
I also remind noble Lords that if a claimant or partner would be entitled to a disability premium or has an underlying medical condition which would put them at risk, payment of JSA can be made at any time that hardship can be demonstrated, even when the claimant is not actively seeking work.
As I have said many times, we shall also continue to offer people with physical and mental conditions all the general and specialist facilities which the Employment Service has at its disposal. Putting this all together, I trust it can be seen that we shall offer a sensitive and helpful environment to all those on JSA who have a mental or physical condition whether or not they are appealing against an IB decision.
I hope that my noble friend will accept that we recognise the difficulties encountered by people with disabilities. I have spoken at some length because I believe it is an important subject and I know that my noble friend and other noble Lords feel strongly about it. I hope that what I have said will persuade those who are deeply interested in the subject that we have taken into account and given consideration to the special needs
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