Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Earl Russell: Has the Minister ever known any bureaucratic power which was infallibly exercised?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: No. As I tried to explain earlier, that is precisely why anyone seeking to come for an interview would have three repeated contacts through letters or telephone calls. No one would lose benefit in this situation unless he had been personally contacted and was fully aware of the implications of his action. No benefit would be cut off by administrative error because no benefit would be cut off without personal contact having been made, based on home visits or the like. Although I cannot guarantee it, we have put in as much "belt and braces" as is conceivable or feasible under the present system.

Perhaps I may turn from the point about what people do not know and move on to deal with some of the points raised by my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley. The requirement to attend an interview is not an onerous one; indeed, we are talking about an interview which may last, say, an hour in the course of about a year. Those interviews will be arranged at times which fit in with a claimant's caring responsibilities. It can take place in the carer's home if that is appropriate. However, where it is not appropriate to expect someone to have a discussion with a personal adviser because, for example, the person being cared for is seriously ill, the interview can be deferred. My noble friend also asked about the training of staff. I can tell her that the Carers National Association is involved in the training of staff.

We are approaching the concept of the interview based on the "one" programme as an opportunity for people. We want them to learn about their entitlement

13 Jul 1999 : Column 231

to benefits; we want them to learn about support; and we want those carers who have come out of the labour market, and who may very quickly go back into it, to stay in contact with the labour market. However, we know that those who have had the least education, those who are most isolated and who have the most severe disabilities are those who have the least knowledge about their entitlements.

If we rely on people coming forward voluntarily, we know that those who are already well educated and sharp are able to come forward and that those who most need help do not. That is why we are embedding the benefit claim in the interview. But following that, once people are informed and can make informed choices, the choice is theirs. They have the freedom and the right to make that choice. In the light of that I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, will feel able to withdraw his amendments.

Lord Rix: Can the Minister assure me that the department will issue guidance on the service provided to full-time carers through the "one" process, and that guidance of a most detailed kind--as she said on the previous amendment--will be available for the offices taking part?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Guidance will be sent to personal advisers on how best to respond to all these situations--those of carers, severely disabled people and the like.

Lord Rix: Does that include guidance on home visits as an alternative to having to go to an office?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Yes, of course.

Lord Rix: With that assurance, and with the slight proviso that I feel I must consult again with the Disability Benefits Consortium, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 97:

Page 59, line 21, at end insert ("; and such regulations shall not have effect unless they have been laid in draft before, and approved by resolution of, each House of Parliament.")

The noble Earl said: The purpose of Amendment No. 97 is to use the affirmative procedure for regulations under Clause 52. It embodies a recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. That committee states in paragraph 11 of its report,

    "These are important new powers, and the Committee considers that wherever the Government's intention for the use of these powers is already certain, for example not requiring retired people to attend work-focused interviews, then this should be stated on the face of the Bill and not left to regulation. We also consider that the first instance of the use of these powers should be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure".

All governments have a good record on accepting the reports of that committee. The committee is a valuable servant of this Chamber. Indeed it has been suggested

13 Jul 1999 : Column 232

by people of some importance that what it does is so important it might well be imitated elsewhere. That is not for me to say, but it shows that its work is recognised and respected well beyond the confines of this Chamber. The fact that the committee has made this recommendation is itself a serious reason for this amendment.

Anyone who has heard this debate will, I think, understand that there are reasons for use of the affirmative procedure. We have found a good deal of uncertainty about the extent of the powers. We have found a good deal of room for dispute about the details of how the powers shall be exercised and a good deal of concern about the nature or extent of penalties. All these are matters which should properly be the concern of the Chamber. I admit that one must be wary about not applying the affirmative procedure to too many issues. We need to keep the affirmative procedure for occasions when there is likely to be a considerable body of people in the Chamber wanting to discuss the issue because it is of general concern and because the issues which it raises are extremely various. I think this debate has proved that that criterion is here wholly satisfied. Therefore the case for the affirmative procedure under the regulations under Clause 52 is a strong one.

We are having a new condition of benefit. How much change that will mean is a point which I think remains open to discovery. The discovery will in part come from seeing those regulations. It will concern everyone. If we are to tease out exactly what the meaning is, we need the issue brought forward in open Chamber where we can all have a look at it. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I was hoping that the noble Earl would feel able to withdraw this amendment because he has had a copy of the letter to the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee accepting its proposals. I can give a full answer if he likes but, given that the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee asked that the first set of regulations should be subject to an affirmative resolution procedure, we have written to the committee saying that we are happy to agree to that. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has received a copy of that letter, as has the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, I wonder whether, in the light of that, the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Buscombe: Before the Minister sits down, would she in those circumstances be prepared to publish the draft regulations to which this Bill refers prior to the Report stage?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I shall have to take advice on that but I would hope so.

Earl Russell: I think that I owe the Minister an apology. I think the Minister knows that the Chamber sat late last night. One o'clock in the morning is not the best time to start opening post; it does not make one particularly popular at home. I hope that under those circumstances the Minister will forgive me. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

13 Jul 1999 : Column 233

Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 98:

Page 59, line 21, at end insert--
("(1A) A work-focused interview for a person receiving or applying for or having applied for incapacity benefit, severe disablement allowance, or disability premia in income support shall only take place once the personal capability assessment provided for in section 171C of the Contributions and Benefits Act has been made.")

The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment, we ask simply for clarification as to the processes for assessing a claimant's ability to work or not, and the work-focused interview. In another place it was said that the two processes--the personal capability assessment and the work-focused interview--are separate but related. But how are they related? We believe that the personal capability assessment should be a prerequisite for a proper work-focused interview. I suggest that it would not make sense to have a work-focused interview before the capability assessment has been made. To have a capability assessment after a work-focused interview would be illogical and possibly an expensive waste of money. I beg to move.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: This amendment seeks to stipulate on the face of the Bill that claimants of incapacity benefit, severe disablement allowance and income support with a disability premium will all have their initial "one" interview deferred until after they have had a personal capability assessment (PCA).

I know that the relationship between the "one" service and the personal capability assessment was discussed at length in another place, and the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, has raised some of the same issues today. But, although I can appreciate the intentions behind the amendment, I do not believe that it would be right to accept it.

As the Committee knows, Clause 56 of the Bill replaces the current all-work test with the personal capability assessment. The all-work test determines whether people are incapable of work for the purposes of entitlement to incapacity benefits. The PCA will still do this, and the criteria for entitlement to benefit will remain the same. However, we want to add value to the assessment process, by using it to collect additional information about people's work-related capabilities.

The "one" service aims to help people from the outset of their claim, changing the culture of the benefit system. The earlier support is given, the more likely people are to focus on planning a route to a fuller life, and the less likely they are to be left stranded on benefit, often against their wishes. That is why we feel it is important for as many people as possible to have an interview immediately at the point of claim.

However, as I say, for most people, taking part in an interview is not an onerous requirement--we are not requiring anyone to do anything unreasonable. The interview is not a test of eligibility for benefit. The PCA is a medical test which achieves that. The "one" interviews, on the other hand, will offer practical and welfare-related support, and a chance to talk about whether any work or training would be appropriate. They give us a chance to show what help we can offer. For these reasons, I do not believe that it would be right

13 Jul 1999 : Column 234

to automatically defer the initial "one" interview until after the PCA. This would also run counter to the aim of the "one" service to treat people as individuals. It is important to bear in mind the range of disabilities, circumstances and barriers to work that affect claimants of incapacity benefits. In addition, the nature, stage and progress of their condition may be quite different. For example, some people come onto incapacity benefit after spending up to six months on statutory sick pay, and some come straight on to IB at the start of their illness or disability. Many people may, therefore, benefit from an interview at the outset of their claim.

Of course, as I have said several times--I must be boring the Committee--we recognise that for some people an immediate interview would not be appropriate. For example, it would not be appropriate for us to interview immediately someone in the early stages of recovering from a major operation. However, the decision to defer the interview will always be made on the basis of individual circumstances. We have always made it clear that we will respond to people's needs in a sensitive way, but we do not believe that it would be right automatically to waive or defer the interview for specific groups.

As I said, we believe that the interviews and the advice and support of a personal adviser are helpful. We want the interviews to be positive. It would be quite wrong for certain groups of people who could benefit from getting that help to have to wait, often several months, until a PCA comes through. I therefore urge the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

7 p.m.

Baroness Buscombe: I thank the Minister for that explanation. However, I may not have entirely understood it. What happens if a claimant attends a work-focused interview and then, at that interview, is found to be incapable of work?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page