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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am very happy to give that assurance. It is exemplary rather than fully inclusive.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, I am most grateful that the Minister will ensure that clear information is passed to those operating the regulations in what can be a fraught occasion for the applicant.
I come to the matter of penalties. These are considerable. If the person fails to turn up, a sanction will be imposed such as the withdrawal of income support, incapacity benefit and, to my astonishment, in regulation 11, bereavement benefit. Is it really proposed that, if someone fails to turn up for a job interview, they will have a bereavement benefit sanction imposed? That is a very strange proposition.
Before I turn to the points raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, could the Minister confirm a statement made on 5th of July by Mr Robin Cook in another place, that the situation now being envisaged will not affect existing claimants?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am happy to give that assurancebut not from a sedentary position.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, thank you. The Minister's speech gets shorter by the minute.
Finally, I turn to the lessons which can be derived from the ONE operation, originally known as the single gateway arrangement. The DSS' own report on the first effects seem to be disappointing. Only a minority of lone parents or sick and disabled clients opted to take part in the operation. In the pilot areas, respondents in the sick or disabled groups who had not taken part in ONE were more likely to be in work than participants. As the noble Earl pointed out, this finding is hard to explain. Perhaps they took part in the interview rather than finding employment.
There are no changes in the attitude or behaviour of those already in part-time work. Personal advisers were able to change a few participants' attitude but this was an exception to the many who did not feel work was an option. I will not read out all the resultsnoble Lords will know of thembut it does seem to suggest that this is a disappointing result and raises the question of whether the compulsion set out in these regulations is justified by the results so far achieved.
One point is unclear to me. In Schedule 1, there is a long list of postcodes subject to these regulations, plus Shropshire County Council and Telford & Wrekin District Council. Does this fill a gap in a previous pilot or is this a pilot area? Why will some places be covered by the regulations and others not? I have much sympathy with the view expressed by the noble Earl. I am glad he has provided the House with an opportunity to debate these matters as my noble friend, Mr Willetts, did in another place.
Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, has made some interesting points to which, no doubt, my noble friend will respond.
I do not know what the Minister thought of the speech by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, but he hit a large number of targets very accurately. I look forward to the Minister's reply. Some of the questions he posed were very relevant. Like other noble Lords, I welcome the Government's attempts to help disabled people to find work. Those able and willing to work deserve employment.
The Government's aim is a laudable one but very flawed. The paramount question we need to answer this evening is whether the Government are going the right way about it. We need to look first at fraud. I hope that there is not a hidden agenda, because the Office for National Statistics said that fraud involving incapacity benefit is non-existent, so we can put fraud entirely to one side.
If that is the case, what do the Government hope to gain by compulsion? The intention is to compel severely disabled people to attend for interview. They are threatened that benefits will be cut or withdrawn if they do not attend. I cannot believe that that is the right way to go about business; to threaten and compel severely disabled people must be counterproductive. Will anyone find a job more quickly when they are under the Government's threat? I do not think so. Moreover, some people will be so frightened that they
There is a popular misconception that manyperhaps mostdisabled people in wheelchairs want to work. That is far from being the case; and only 5 per cent of disabled people are in wheelchairs. I admire those who want and who seek work. However, as the noble Earl pointed out, many severely disabled people are not in wheelchairs. He referred to people with mental health problems and discussed various categories. I add to those categories: people with severe heart disease, those with multiple sclerosis and those with rheumatoid arthritis. Fancy bulldozing them into a situation in which they feel at bay and are forced to attend for an interview. Bringing people to the home does not solve the problem because having an official visitor at a person's home, especially if that person has mental health problems, can be a very traumatic experience. Either waycompelling people to go out or insisting that a visitor sees them at homethe situation can be terrifying for disabled people, especially those suffering from mental health problems.
Threatening those people to attend a compulsory interview involves a loss to everyone. It involves a loss to the disabled person, who will not necessarily take a job, and to the Government, who appear to be insensitive towards disabled people and to be brow-beating them. The objective is to help those people to get jobs. What is wrong with the voluntary system?
Why cannot disabled people be invited to discuss the situationand perhaps apply after thatwith people who can help, advise and guide them? In that respect, the Government have advanced a constructive proposal. I am sure that many disabled people will warmly welcome that. The purpose of the interviews is excellent and the Government should be commended on the arrangement. However, the compulsory element is simply unacceptable.
The Government's policy of exemptionsdeferments and waiversis not the answer because the situation is vague and indistinct. We do not know who gets waived. Who gets deferred? It is up to the local civil servants. If they are good people, that arrangement is fine and there will be no problem. But what if they are tough, intolerant or impatient people? The disabled person is in their hands. What the Government are going to do should be clearly in the public domain and the provisions should be mandatory. The Government should be frank and comprehensive in that regard. We need transparency of information in the public domain.
There is another serious flaw in the proposals. If and when disabled people go for an interview, there may, as the noble Earl indicated when he quoted Dennis Skinner, be no jobs. What will happen then? The Government imply that jobs are available, but we know full well that in many areas of the country there is significant unemployment. The area that I represented as a Member of ParliamentStoke-on-Trenthad terrible black spots. One may force,
Lay-offs are being announced every five minutes in the media. One cannot pick up a newspaper without reading that a few thousand people are being laid off here and that a few thousand people are being laid off there. With today's cut of 0.5 per cent, the Government are aware of the growing problem of unemployment, and they are trying to stimulate the economy. However, they intend to go ahead with their proposals, which will bulldoze severely disabled people. I simply do not think that that is on.
I hope that my noble friend can persuade the Secretary of State, who is a very enlightened man, to stop this nonsense of compulsion and threats. We should be able to say that we have a fine scheme; if it is voluntary we can win in every way. If the Government want to disseminate information about the centres, they can do so in many ways because many means are at their disposal. They can use the very considerable disability network, which can contact millions of people. There is no problem telling people what the situation is or encouraging them to take part. If the Government do that, they will be well on the way to success.
If, despite the eloquence of the noble Earl and of others, the Government bulldoze the proposal through Parliament (they probably will) and if they find that it is a disaster (I think that it will be) I can only hope that they will reconsider. If they do so at the last ditch, that will again be of benefit to themselves and disabled people. That is my plea. However, it may be too much to ask the Minister not to go ahead with the proposal and to drop the compulsory element.
Lord Layard: My Lords, my first point is that the aim of the regulations is clearit is to ensure that all disabled people and everyone else who is on the benefits know which jobs are open to them. Most of the people concerned are not severely disabled.
Secondly, no one will be forced to work. We should not muddy this issue with any other issue relating to tests; we are talking today not about tests but about the regulations. Their aim is simply to ensure that when people decide to claim benefit they make an informed choice about the alternatives that might be open to them. That seems to me to be eminent common sense. One could say in response to that argument that people should be free to choose whether to make an informed choice. In a sense, that is the issue that we need to discuss. I want to put two strong arguments in favour of the view that the proposed degree of compulsion is justified.
The first argument is that people easily become over-pessimistic. I should imagine that nearly all of us know disabled people who have been saved from despair by friends who prodded them to see the potential that was in them. It often takes an outside jolt to get people to see that things are not as bad as they seem. Such arguments, incidentally, have been equally
The second argument is that taxpayers' money is involved and that there is no sensible reason why conditions should not be attached, especially when the main beneficiaries are the class of clients themselves. It is very easy to take a defeatist view of the labour market. It has been said today that it can never offer much to whole classes of people. We used to take that view about the unemployed. Wemany apparently well-informed peopleused to say terrible things; we said that we were moving into a world involving the end of work, and so on.
Instead, experience has shown that in those countries where serious efforts have been made to mobilise the unemployed, large falls in unemployment have occurred. That has been the experience in Denmark, Holland and Britain, while countries such as France and Germany, which have had a more defeatist attitude to such things and have not made these kinds of efforts to mobilise unemployed people and to confront them with the fact that the world has more possibilities than they may have thought, unemployment has been far more persistent. I believe that the time has come, in this country, to provide more help to the other groups that depend upon benefit, and that is the reason for the regulations.
I also understand that no major disability group is objecting to these proposals. Perhaps the Minister can confirm the precise situation. Except perhaps in relation to the very severely disabled, I ask myself who is objecting to what appears to be a reasonable proposal. I believe that it is those who view these groups purely as victims.
Fundamentally, this proposal is about a different view of lifea more complicated view. We must get away from the pure victim view of such groups of people. We must recognise that there is potential in many disabled people that they themselves may not have realised they had. We must also recognise that we are doing them a service by helping them to see what in them can be married to situations in the outside world. That is what these regulations are about, and it would be tragic if they did not come into force.
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