Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Amos: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for their support for this order. I believe that the focus on poverty in the Cotonou Agreement is particularly important. I shall try to address each of the questions raised in turn.

My noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington asked about cost estimates. I can assure him that Cotonou is not funded from the budget, but it will be administered using normal Commission procedures and capacities. In that regard I am sure that my noble friend will be pleased to learn that we have been working very hard to improve the procedures in respect of EU aid. A streamlined implementation structure has been established in Brussels. But completing the reorganisation overseas will take several years. We have also been looking at management systems and procedures which have begun to improve. For example, a new framework for country strategies and simplified procurement procedures have been put in place. I know that my noble friend is often very concerned about bureaucracy within Brussels.

The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, asked me in particular about corruption. That matter was raised in our discussions on the International Development Bill and again yesterday in another place at the Bill's Second Reading. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development said, in response to a question from the Opposition,

That remains our position.

8 Nov 2001 : Column 326

The noble Baroness also asked about the CAP. I confirm that the Government are working to secure fundamental reform of that policy so that it moves away from subsidies which encourage excessive production and towards those that support rural development and the environment. It is especially important for the development objectives of the United Kingdom that reform is achieved as soon as possible.

The noble Baroness also asked about the "Everything But Arms" initiative. The Government believe that that is important to help the world's poorest countries. But we also recognise that non-LDC ACP countries will need to adjust to the change, as the noble Baroness so rightly said, particularly in their production of sugar and rice. We shall work to ensure that the multilateral and other bilateral donors assist with the costs of adjustment including through the Cotonou arrangements.

As regards the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and the WTO, we continue to believe that the launch of a new multilateral round would result in significant benefits for developing countries. The noble Lord may be aware that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development announced a package of £20 million in assistance to developing countries to help them to use the round to negotiate effectively as part of our commitment to the development round. We are working very hard to improve the participation of LDCs in the WTO through our capacity building projects.

The final question from the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, concerned the role of non-state actors. As the noble Lord said, the new agreement provides an enhanced role for non-state actors. They should be consulted on the EC's country support strategies and involved in their implementation. They should also receive capacity-building support. We are committed to ensuring that that happens, because it is vital if non-state actors from the ACP who represent all of society are to play a full role.

I hope that, with those explanations, we may proceed with the order. I commend it to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Social Security (Jobcentres Plus Interviews) Regulations 2001

4.51 p.m.

Earl Russell rose to move, That this House invites Her Majesty's Government to withdraw the regulations (S.I. 2001/3210) laid before the House on 26th September and to lay amended regulations which insert the words "or death bed" after the word "funeral" in Regulation 13(h).

The noble Earl said: My Lords, there are two Motions on the Order Paper—one Motion to resolve and one Prayer to annul the regulations. I hasten to reassure the House that I propose to make only one speech—unless the Minister positively wants more.

8 Nov 2001 : Column 327

E.M. Forster was quite right: it is the tragedy of life that one gets what one wants. However, for the moment, I propose to make only one speech.

The regulations introduce compulsory work-focused interviews for those who claim incapacity benefit and several other medical-related benefits. I shall deal first with the Motion, because it deals with a limited point and is simple and, I hope, clear. It addresses regulation 13(h). That regulation sets out what shall be taken as good cause for not attending a work-focused interview. Properly, the regulations provide for attending a funeral being good cause for not attending an interview. I propose to add, after funeral, the words "or death bed".

That is not a fanciful example; it is based on an actual case discovered by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and included in its report, "Benefits and Work", published by Janet Albeson in 1997. The case concerned a woman whose husband was dying of a brain haemorrhage. She spent a week in hospital attending his death bed and was deprived of jobseeker's allowance on the grounds that she was not actively seeking work because she had not made a job application during that period. I am not especially surprised that she had not.

I do not believe that that was the intention behind the legislation. I do not believe that it is the intention of this Government. I do not believe that it was the intention of their predecessors, Mr Portillo and Mr Lilley, who introduced the Jobseekers Act 1995. I am open to correction, but I believe that that is a classic case of the law of unintended consequences. In that case, it led to a particularly harsh application, which I hope will not happen again.

When the report was published, the case was still subject to appeal. I have not been able to discover what happened since, but, as the Minister well knows, one loses benefit pending appeal. As one cannot hang one's stomach on a sky-hook, one suffers considerable hardship in the meantime. This is a case in which the Government could, without any loss of face—without even any change in policy—clarify their intention so as to avoid such hardship in future.

If the present trend towards ever more secondary legislation continues, it will be necessary to deal with the question of how we deal with the one regulation that is not right among a group of others that are. The Motion is non-fatal: were it to be carried in a Division, it would not force the Government to do anything. However, I hope that the Government see fit to take the opportunity, which I offer them, to change something that has produced an injustice that I am convinced that they did not intend.

The regulations give rise to wider issues. They have a good objective: to help people with disabilities into work where there is work that suits them. That objective is shared in all quarters of the House, but the Government are pursuing it with a wrong diagnosis and inappropriate means.

Discussing these regulations in another place, Mr. Alistair Darling said:

8 Nov 2001 : Column 328

    "The total case load of incapacity benefit is far too high".—[Official Report, Commons, 25/10/01; col. 473.]

I have given the Minister's office notice—slightly belatedly, for which I apologise—that I should like to know: what is Mr. Darling's evidence for that proposition? As far as I can see, that is a matter of hypothesis.

I suspect that the answer I shall receive will be, once again, a reference to how many people were referred to incapacity benefit before the 1995 Act. If I receive that answer, first, that is a long time ago. Many of those people may not now be of working age.

Secondly—this is important for the whole of our discussion—we need to understand that the link between illness and unemployment is two way. Unemployment may well lead to illness as well as being a consequence of illness. That is fairly well universally medically accepted. It was originally proposed by the Black report and sustained by the Acheson report and a detailed analysis of unemployment and illness by constituency. The fact that constituencies with the highest unemployment have the most incapacity benefit may be perfectly well be evidence that despair is not good for health.

We are all familiar with the phenomenon of an animal that pines when given no hope. I am not certain that human beings can claim to be any different. If the Secretary of State has any good reason for knowing something different, I should like to know it. The Secretary of State talks about history lessons, and says that if we are to have history lessons, let them be complete. I agree. The medical evidence should be included in that.

The regulations will have the wrong effect: they will not get more people into work; they will not help people find work that they can do. If we consider what has happened under ONE—what used, in far-off days, to be called the single gateway—those who have attended compulsory interviews are less likely to be in work than those who have not. That is the finding of the Department of Social Security's research report No. 126. The department comments that that finding is not easy to explain. I hope that I can help. The finding is confirmed by the new deal for lone parents: again, those who have attended the compulsory interview are less likely to be in work than those who have not. We are dealing here with the effect of fear, which is a genuine medical phenomenon.

Several conditions that result in people receiving incapacity benefit are objectively exacerbated by fear. Mental illness is frequently one; back pain is another; asthma is a third and irritable bowel and similar disorders are a fourth. If we make people frightened—we underestimate at our peril the extent to which contact with a bureaucracy bearing a big stick is likely to frighten claimants—we may worsen their health. Getting people with medical disadvantages to do what they are capable of doing depends heavily on making them feel safe.

A long time ago, when my wife had had an operation on her knee, she was on crutches for two weeks. On the day on which she came off crutches, the

8 Nov 2001 : Column 329

hospital tested her, and asked her to walk along a straight line. The staff put on an expression of great alarm and said, "Something's wrong. You're not limping". When challenged, they explained that almost everyone who came off crutches limped out of habit because they were afraid of the risk of doing otherwise. That was a case where fear was not present. If we want to get more people with disabilities into work, we need to produce more cases such as that where fear is not present. In my opinion, compulsory interviews are approaching the matter in exactly the wrong way.

The Minister will say, quite rightly, that home visits are available for those who find difficulty in going to a place to be tested. However, I agree with the remark made by Mrs Browning in another place that for many people, especially elderly people, home visits may be traumatic. In fact, my wife is dealing with one such case at the moment. It concerns a lady who will not let anyone into her house because she is not fit to clean it, and she dare not let anyone see what has happened to the house as a result. Consequently, all attempts at help must take place by telephone and that produces a great deal of extra work. I do not believe that that case is unique.

The second reason why I believe that this is a mistaken approach is that it is a mistaken test. The Minister knows that the test for incapacity benefit works so badly that more people who are found unfit for work than are found fit for work actually obtain work. NACAB's report on the matter, An Unfit Test, is entirely to the point.

When the test is conducted by the Government—that is, by the Benefits Agency Medical Service—rather than by the applicant's own doctor, there is a genuine possibility that there will be a conflict of interest. Before the Minister denies that, I shall ask her whether she can give me a categoric assurance that those who conduct the tests will not be subject to any targets whatever as to the number of people whom they find unfit for benefit and therefore fit for work.

There are also considerable administrative problems in relation to the conduct of the test. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, was going to draw attention to that last Tuesday but he had other fish to fry. I know that the noble Lord has many fish to fry, but I hope that he will return to that fish because it needs frying. A great deal of trouble is caused in trying to carry out tests to a time limit. A great deal of trouble is also caused by doctors demanding fees for medical opinion from people on benefits. Those matters need to be put right before any more is done.

In addition, are there jobs for those who are threatened with loss of benefit? Some of them do not get jobs because they face systematic discrimination. Others do not get them because, just as there are lands which God forgot, so there are lands which Mammon forgot. A good many of the people who claim incapacity benefit live in those lands. Mr Dennis Skinner in another place said—I paraphrase—that these provisions may work in some places but it is impossible to make them work here. That applies to

8 Nov 2001 : Column 330

many of the cases in which most people are on incapacity benefit. It brings us back to the link between unemployment and illness.

I turn to my final point. Since yesterday, secondary legislation has become even more topical than usual. We are threatened with the possibility of being able to delay such legislation only for three months. But the trouble is that, if that comes about, the Government will be put under a constant temptation to bring in more and more provisions by secondary rather than by primary legislation. Originally we expected these regulations to be dealt with by primary legislation, but that did not happen. There is no clear dividing line about what is fit for secondary and what is fit for primary legislation.

Nothing that I say should for one moment be taken to indicate any softening of my Benches' hostility to this proposal or of our determination to fight it to the very last gasp. However, should it go through under the Parliament Act, we would need as a companion to it legislation along the lines of the Donoughmore report of 1932, setting out limits as to what can be done by secondary legislation and what must require primary legislation. Whenever those limits are brought in, they must include depriving people of benefit.

I am opposed to capital punishment. It is my opinion that depriving people totally of the means of subsistence is capable of becoming a form of capital punishment by the back door. I know that the Minister regards that opinion as hysterical, absurd and erroneous. It is possible that she is right. When she gives me one scrap of evidence in favour of her view to that effect, I shall give it every possible consideration. She has not yet done so. Meanwhile, I believe that we are facing a situation in which the power of secondary legislation is increasing, has increased and should be diminished. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House invites Her Majesty's Government to withdraw the regulations (S.I. 2001/3210) laid before the House on 26th September and to lay amended regulations which insert the words "or death bed" after the word "funeral" in Regulation 13(h).—(Earl Russell.)

5 p.m.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I begin by taking up the point made by the noble Earl in his concluding remarks. In the Queen's Speech in June, the Government pledged to introduce a Bill to tighten up the rules for claimants of disability benefit. At that time, we were told that the benefit would be paid only for fixed periods and that we should expect a big increase in the number of medical tests. But, of course, we were expecting the matter to be dealt with in a Bill. Indeed, it was clear from what the Minister said back in July that she expected these matters to appear in a Bill. Of course, such a Bill would have been amendable and debatable in considerable detail.

Instead of that, the matter before us is in the form of regulations. As the noble Earl rightly pointed out, if the proposals put forward by the Government yesterday in relation to reforming your Lordships' House were to be carried out, we should no longer

8 Nov 2001 : Column 331

have the right to vote against secondary legislation; we should have only the power of delay. Personally, I regard that as a most serious matter. However, that is not the situation now.

None the less, we on this side of the House have been very restrained in the extent to which we have voted against statutory instruments. Indeed, as the noble Baroness says, so was the party opposite when it was in opposition. It seems quite extraordinary that the Government should now come forward with this proposal when, in fact, the present measure is used only on matters of the very greatest importance.

The situation surrounding the regulations that we are debating is somewhat strange. As I said, they were originally mentioned in the Queen's Speech. Subsequently, on 4th July, at a breakfast meeting the Secretary of State made a number of proposals which I believe suggested—certainly the spin which was reflected in the press suggested—that there would somehow be a crackdown on people who were obtaining disability benefit but had not been tested adequately to ensure that they were still entitled to that benefit.

That caused a considerable and understandable uproar among many people concerned with these issues. The Prime Minister bowled in on the same afternoon in support of his Secretary of State, saying,

    "the proposals made today on incapacity benefit by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions are entirely sensible and justified. It cannot be right that we have a situation in which people coming on to incapacity benefit will be paid on average about £4,000 a year for, say, 10, 15 or 20 years, with no one ever checking whether they have recovered from their injuries and are able to work".—[Official Report, Commons, 4/7/01; col. 254.]

In contrast, the noble Baroness, speaking, I believe, on the same day, pointed out that there was no question of MoT tests being introduced and that incapacity benefit claimants already underwent a review process. Some faced checks after six months. I hope that the noble Baroness has drawn her remarks to the attention of the Prime Minister because I do not believe that the furore which he and the Secretary of State caused reflected the reality of the situation. As I understand it, and as the noble Baroness pointed out, the situation is that a fairly regular series of checks have been carried out so far as concerns entitlement to benefit. The matter then moved on and the Government, having decided on a crackdown, engaged in a series of climb-downs. My sound bite was not intentional. All the best sound bites are spontaneous.

In a memorandum, the Secretary of State said that the regulations would not change the categories exempt from medical testing and would not result in claims being time-limited. So we moved to a situation where there would be a Bill covering these regulations. In July, we were then told that there would not be a Bill, it would be in regulations, in September that there would not be a fixed period and in October that there would be no additional medical tests. All we were left with was the compulsory work-focused interview that we are discussing today.

8 Nov 2001 : Column 332

I ask the noble Baroness what else will be in the welfare Bill in the circumstances I have described, or is there yet to be a welfare Bill of the kind mentioned in the Queen's Speech?

The noble Earl raised important points concerning the detail of these regulations which, as the House knows, are not amendable. The noble Earl was particularly concerned in his other Motion—being debated with the main Motion—that the words "on death bed" should be inserted after the word "funeral". It should perhaps be the other way around. The good cause provision (regulation 13) sets out a range of issues to be taken into account in determining whether a person has shown good cause for failure to attend an interview. This is important because if they fail to show good cause, they will suffer considerable penalties. While the prelude to this clause says these are the things which should be included in the considerations, inevitably it will be the case that those operating the system will look down the list and say, "You don't qualify because you're not on the list".

The Minister should make it clear to people operating this system that this list is not exclusive. It is possible to have other reasons why a person may be unable to attend an interview and there may be good cause why they are unable to do so. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that the department's officials will be clear that this list in the regulations will not to be treated as the only reasons why good cause can be shown.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page