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Lord Addington: My Lords, in response to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Layard, I hope that he is aware that in referring to the potential of disabled people one must always discount the lucky and the brilliant.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham): My Lords, as always, I have listened with great interest to the points that have been made this evening. However, I did not always recognise the regulationsI hope noble Lords will take this in the spirit in which it is intendedfrom some of the
Perhaps I should state what these regulations concern and what they do not concern. They are about, first, extending and providing equality of access to the support available to help people into work, people who previously have been routinely denied that access; secondly, routinely writing off from work the 4 million people who claim benefits that are covered by these regulations; thirdly, ensuring security for those who cannot work; fourthly, treating people as individuals; and, fifthly, improving the service for those who visit the new, integrated Jobcentre Plus offices.
My noble friend Lord Ashley is absolutely right that there is a belief that fraud is widespread. However, these regulations are not concerned with that; nor are they about changing the current medical testing arrangements; changing the current categories of cases exempt from medical testing; time-limiting benefits; or forcing people into work. I wholeheartedly believe, as my noble friend Lord Layard said, that they are about opportunity and not threat.
These regulations provide for everyone of working age, not just disabled people, who makes a new or a repeat claim to income support, incapacity benefit, severe disablement allowance, invalid care allowance and other benefits at a Jobcentre Plus office from 22nd October to take part, where appropriate, in work-focussed interviews at the start of their claim, and periodically throughout their claim, as a condition of claiming and receiving benefit.
We have always been clear that we must be sensitive to the different circumstances that people face. So there are provisions in these regulations to waive the interview where it would clearly be of no assistance; for example, when someone is very ill or severely disabled and has no prospect of being able to work.
However, people exempt from medical testingthey amount to 25 per cent of IB claimantswill not have their interviews waived automatically. People cope with disabilities differently, and these regulations are about treating people as individuals, not as members of a category. All disabled people are entitled to help, information, advice, opportunities associated with rehabilitation, training, work and benefits. Blind people, for example, are exempt from personal capability assessment. They are automatically passported on to IB and yet 51 per cent of blind people are in work. Equally, some people with substantial learning difficulties can be exempt, and yet 24 per cent of such people already work.
The noble Earl asked whether we were saying, as he appeared to indicate from the comments made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, that the numbers on incapacity benefit were too high. My right honourable friend was not saying that people were wrongly coming onto the benefit. I repeat, as my noble friend Lord Ashley has said, that there is no evidence of fraud or impropriety, but I believe, as I am sure that
Earl Russell: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I was aware that that was her view of the matter. Can she give the House any evidence for believing that that view of the matter is the correct view?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I would certainly expect the members of the Disability Rights Commission, who have made that statement, to have the kind of expertise that I do not haveI suspect that the noble Earl also does not have such expertisebut all the evidence that is coming through the commission and the Employers Forum on Disability, and like, appears to support that contention.
I am sure that the noble Earl will agree with this next point. Sickness, painful conditions and often mental health problems, rather than disability itself, are the main barriers to work. There is much evidence to show that disabled people, as my noble friend Lord Ashley has told the House on more than one occasion, particularly if they have an orthopaedic conditionnot necessarily conditions associated with mental health or sicknessare often better attenders at work and more reliable performers in work than non-disabled people. Some of the sickness records of absences from work confirm that.
We know that many disabled people could work if they were given the relevant work aids. In addition, any decision to take up the help that is available is for the individual to make. It would remain entirely voluntary. Of course, in practice many people exempt from medical testing will also have their interviews waived because of the seriousness of their illness; for example, someone with a severe mental illness, which significantly affects moods or behaviour and restricts social interaction, or someone with a severely deteriorating illness.
The regulations also enable an interview to be postponed if it were not appropriate at the time; for example, when someone is distressed following a bereavement, at the death bed of a close relative or in hospital. Where it is appropriate for a person to attend an interview, it will normally take place at the local office. If that is inconvenient, it could take place at home. Taxi fares and so on will be made available and, of course, a friend may accompany a person to an interview or be present at an interview, as the letter makes clear. The letter is positive and helpful. I have copies here if any noble Lord would like to read it.
In the case of someone who failed to attend an interview and did not contact the office to defer it because, as in the case that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, gave, he or she was with a close relative who may have been in a coma following a car accident, that would be accepted as good cause. Normally, I would expect a person to inform the office that they could not attend the interview, in which case it would be deferred to a time when they could attend. If they did not inform the office until after the event, it would count as good cause.
I regret the case mentioned by the noble Earl. That was one case in 1997. I read that report and did not find any other cases like that. It may be that it was an individual example of bad practice, which one sincerely regrets. Certainly, all the guidance and training of staff should ensure that such inappropriate behaviour does not continue. Based on our experience of one pilot and 15,000 cases, there have been only seven sanctions in the period April 2000 to September 2001. As noble Lords are aware, the sanction itself is very light.
Behind this debate is the point raised by my noble friend Lord Layard; namely, whether such interviews, which are information-based, not work-based, should be compulsory. My noble friend Lord Ashley pleaded with his usual eloquence that they should be voluntary. They already are voluntary and do not work. I am a convert on the subject. Like my noble friend Lord Ashley and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, five years ago I favoured only voluntary interviews because of the very language and images of threat that my noble friend deplored. I no longer believe that. I believe that people do not know what they do not know and we have a duty of empowerment.
Even John Stuart Millif I may bat this back to the noble Earl, Lord Russellbelieved that compulsory education was a prerequisite for informed choice. The philosopher John Stuart Mill insisted that even in the most liberal states education was the prerequisite for choices to be made. For example, how many lone parents who are currently on income support know that if they go to work they will have a rollover of two weeks' benefit to help them bridge the gap? If they do not know that, of course they will be frightened to take risks; if they do, they are more confident when the time is right to enter work. I hope that the noble Earl shares my views.
The success of these changes depends on Jobcentre Plus staff, which is why we have increased staffing. Staff have had elaborate training. With the help of the disability organisations, particular attention has been paid to disability awareness training. I hope, therefore, that those who receive that advice accept that it is tailored to their needs.
We have opened the offices and are delivering a radically improved service. I have visited a couple of these superb offices. They are colourful, welcoming, comfortable and stylish. Small packets of biscuits and drinks are thrown in. Physically, they appear to be similar to the business section of some airport executive lounges that I have visited. I do not believe that that comparison is as wild as it may seem. I encourage noble Lords, including above all my noble friend, to visit them. They are the kinds of offices that I would wish every benefit claimant, client and customer to be able to experience. Nothing less than that is good enough. All of those offices are compliant with the DDA and have signing interpreters and material in Braille and audio-tape. Customers will be able to have appointments in one working day. One blind man was hugely complimentary about the new offices. He said that they had the most comfortable seats in which he had ever sat, and promptly fell asleep.
The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, said that these were fraught occasions. If he visits these offices and sees the rapport and relationship between staff and clients I do not believe that he will come away feeling that these are fraught occasions. They are positive, constructive, warm and helpful. People go away with the image of themselves and their capacity enhanced, which is what we want.
We know that the majority of lone parents want to work; they tell us so. We believe, and the DRC tells us, that up to 1 million disabled people want to work. We want them to have the best possible physical environment, training staff and knowledge to make choices and enter work as and when they are ready to do so. It is precisely because we value the skills and contribution of lone parents and disabled people that we want to empower them to come into work as and when they are ready to do so, with knowledge about their benefit entitlement, back-to-work support and the "best buy" calculation. As a result, they and we shall benefit. I commend the regulations to the House.
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