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Earl Russell: Perhaps I can assist the Minister. We should not get hung up on arguments about whether people want one thing or another. There are all sorts of people. I understand the Minister's argument about the giving of opportunity. That is not at issue. But many people are afraid of the loss of benefits. If the Minister could consider the possibility of distinguishing between attending the interview and the penalty for not doing so, she might find that there is a way forward on a number of these amendments.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: We went through that in detail a while ago. Anyone receiving a benefit must make a claim for that benefit. In future, that benefit will be embedded in an interview; full stop. It does not mean that, following that interview, those who have a disability will have to do anything further. However, the interview is part of the process of obtaining that benefit.

Lord Rix: I am delighted with the assurances given by the Minister in regard to severely disabled people and how they will be affected by guidelines to be issued, also for those who will seek to have advocates present. I am delighted that detailed guidelines will be offered on both subjects. With that in mind I have the greatest pleasure in begging leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Rix moved Amendment No. 96:

Page 59, line 16, after ("benefit") insert (", save where a person has caring commitments of thirty five hours per week or more")

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 96 concerns caring commitments. The Government are clearly interested in getting carers into paid employment as soon as it becomes feasible once their caring commitments have come to an end. The work-focused interview--perhaps it should be called the "work-focused, benefits-focused interview"--is designed to get individuals thinking about their skills, training requirements and employment aspirations in

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advance so that they are in a strong position to find work when their circumstances change. That is a sensible strategy for the economy, and indeed for some carers who find that welfare ends abruptly when their caring responsibilities come to an end.

But the Government also hope to encourage some carers to consider the option of part-time work concomitant with their caring responsibilities. Again, that is not inconceivable for some carers who may find scope for work during periods when the disabled child or adult is away from home, at school, college or a day centre. Combining employment and caring responsibilities should make carers at least marginally better off, even though typically carers work in low-skilled, low-paid positions just to make ends meet.

However, caution must be exercised to ensure that it is not taken for granted that carers can plug a perceived gap in their daily routine with paid employment. Invalid care allowance recipients are, by definition, working 35 hours a week or more. To what other group doing socially useful work would any government dare to say, "Since you are only working 35 hours per week, you should be doing another job as well"? My primary concern is for carers who will never be able to combine caring and work and are likely to spend their lifetime as carers, most notably lifelong, full-time carers of people with severe disabilities. Their contribution to society cannot be underestimated. They already do a full-time job. They save the Treasury millions of pounds in care costs and deserve, as I am sure Members of the Committee recognise, unquestioning support.

At Second Reading I offered the illustration of the difficulties that a work-focused interview might present to a full-time carer, so I need not go over old ground. None the less, it is important to emphasise that some carers will start off and continue to be full-time carers over a lifetime. A person who gives birth in their twenties to a child with profound physical and intellectual disabilities may have 40 years of full-time caring ahead. A work-focused interview is not likely to be appropriate or convenient, either now or in the future, for people in those circumstances.

Amendment No. 104 is consequential on Amendment No. 96. Invalid care allowance recipients, by definition, have caring responsibilities of 35 hours per week or more, as I said, and therefore should be excluded from the provisions of this Bill which prescribe that full entitlement to benefit should be conditional on participation in work-focused interviews. I am not advocating a passive welfare state. I do not believe that faceless bureaucracies benefit carers any more than any other client group. By all means provide full-time carers with the opportunity to have a discussion with a personal adviser to chat about benefits and so forth, but do not coerce them into doing so with the sting of benefit withdrawals or reduction. I beg to move.

Lord Addington: Very briefly, the tone of the noble Lord's speech is one to which I hope the Minister can respond favourably. An interview to see how the state system can help a person to enhance their lives is

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something which people will happily attend. But the idea of withdrawal of benefits is something that will probably sting these people very hard.

Baroness Pitkeathley: I have some sympathy with these amendments. If I had the temerity to correct the noble Lord, Lord Rix, I would say that carers save the Treasury billions, not millions of pounds. I also have sympathy with his view that not all carers wish to work or can possibly be expected to work.

However, it is important to understand that for many carers the offer of an interview, especially an appointment with a personal adviser, could be of benefit, particularly as carers constantly say that nobody recognises their position or takes any notice of their difficulties. But that will depend entirely on how the interview is conducted and on the skills and training of the personal adviser--a course we have already been round several times this afternoon.

First, there is the issue of how the carer can get away to the interview if it is to be conducted somewhere other than home; and if it is to be conducted at home, how will it be conducted in private and in a confidential manner? While the mass of strategy for carers has put extra work and money into respite care for carers, there is no doubt that many carers still suffer the difficulties of having no break from their caring. Even when arrangements have been made for a carer to attend an interview, the unexpected always happens.

As a carers' national association we are committed to enabling carers to speak up for themselves in meetings with Ministers, at conferences, with the media and so forth, but we always know that we have to have not one carer scheduled to do that, but at least two because the unexpected will happen and the carer will not be able to fulfil the commitment even when all the arrangements have been made, perhaps because of an unexpected worsening of the condition of the person for whom they are caring, or a simple refusal to accept the substitute care. I look forward to having the Minister's assurances that the personal advisers will be trained specifically in these particular issues to help people not only as regards work-focused arrangements but also to help them to gain access to other sources of information and other services.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Rix: Perhaps I may underline a statement made by the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley. I once went to Manchester to see our people in what was then our PRMH, now PIMD (profound intellectual multiple disability project), which is a Mencap project. It was taking place in Piper Hill School, Manchester. There was an exhibition of work for profoundly multiply disabled young people and middle-aged people.

Therefore, I totally support the idea that meaningful support from an interview for mothers, fathers or carers generally may be of the greatest possible use. At that function, I was horrified to see a man of 34 in a wheelchair with a profound multiple-intellectual impairment whose mother told me that she had never

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received full benefits until she came to our project in Manchester after 34 years. Up to then, the best she had ever achieved were nappies for his incontinence.

Baroness Buscombe: I support this amendment. What the noble Lord, Lord Rix, has just said amplifies the need for it. It has the effect of removing compulsion from the work-focused interview for carers. That means that for these groups the receipt of benefit will not be conditional on participation in a work-focused interview. It is important to stress that this amendment does not exclude people in this category from the interview process, thereby ensuring that in principle an interview is available for any claimant who might think they would benefit from it.

The amendment protects the income of the most overworked carers, if I may put it so strongly, looking after children or disabled or elderly adults. We in the Disability Benefits Consortium lend full support to Amendments Nos. 96 and 104. If implemented properly, personal adviser interviews could provide benefit claimants with much needed information and assistance. For that reason, we would not want to see anyone denied an interview if they believe it appropriate.

However, there are some people with caring responsibilities for whom an interview is simply inappropriate given their personal circumstances and their existing caring commitments. It is also important that benefit income should not be put at risk for people in this group because they have particular problems in attending interviews, for example, at times specified by the Benefits Agency.

For some carers, day and night care-work and little sleep leave no possibility of paid employment or, may I suggest, even socialising. Research by Mencap reveals that over 40 per cent of carers of people with learning disabilities have not had an evening out in the past six months. Some carers normally get fewer than three hours sleep a night; others are having to cope with a norm of six hours of washing clothes and bed linen in addition to attending to personal care. Therefore, I believe that it is unrealistic and insensitive to penalise carers by reducing or taking away what is often their only source of income because their commitment to care-work makes it impossible to honour an interview commitment with the Benefits Agency.

The Government's affirmation of the work of carers in the recently announced National Carers Strategy could well be undermined if carers are required to justify their role in the Government's drive towards getting people off benefit and into paid employment.

Compulsory work-focused interviews for carers are inconsistent with the Prime Minister's view that carers are,

    "the unsung heroes of British life".

In his foreword to the National Carers Strategy the Prime Minister claimed that:

    "What carers do should be properly recognised and properly supported--and the Government should play its part".

This amendment also safeguards the benefit of claimants who have responsibility for children below school age. That gives lone parents and families the

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choice of looking after children without placing a requirement on them to discuss taking up work. The Disability Benefits Consortium is concerned by the statistics of the Benefits Agency which reveal that many children live in families whose single source of income is social security. It is particularly concerned about the position of low-income families caring for disabled children. To sanction benefits on account of non-attendance at an interview, even for a short period, could have a detrimental effect on the child. Indeed, it may well be the case that arranging suitable childcare is problematic, particularly for the parents of disabled children, and that missing an interview is unavoidable. Therefore, we speak in support of these amendments.

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