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Amendment No. 47 would have unintended consequences for a wide range of functions beyond decision-making that leads to sanctions. Contractors would not be able to revise or supersede a decision to waive work-focused interviews where it was appropriate—for example, if interviews were waived because a customer expected to start work but subsequently did not.

Amendment No. 46 could still give scope for the contracting-out of decision-making that could lead to sanctions. This is because the functions of decisions leading to sanctions will be imposed under Clauses 10(1), 11(1) and 12(1) rather than under the clauses referred to in Amendment No. 46. As these amendments would not achieve their stated aim and would interfere more widely in Pathways and ESA operation, we cannot accept them. However, I will make a commitment to bring forward amendments at Third Reading to achieve the desired result of removing powers to contract out decision-making that will lead to sanctions.

I therefore hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment and return to this matter at Third Reading.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I am rather nonplussed, I must admit. I assume that when the Minister comes back at Third Reading his amendment will remove the powers under Clauses 10(1), 11(1) and 12(1). In other words, he will produce the right amendment to achieve what I was hoping to achieve with this one. There is no doubt that the contractors will have an integral part in advising the Secretary of State and his minions whether someone

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has fallen foul of the requirements of the contractors’ activities as far as ESA is concerned. That is the right way to go. However, as I said earlier, it is also right that he who pays the piper calls the tune. I anticipate that that is exactly what is going to happen in the noble Lord’s amendment at Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 47 not moved.]

Clause 19 [Relationship with statutory payments]:

Lord Taylor of Holbeach moved Amendment No. 48:

(a) an assessment is to be made to identify all statutory entitlements and allowances to which a claimant is entitled, (b) a claimant is to be notified of their statutory entitlements, and (c) a claimant is to be advised on how statutory entitlements may be claimed.”

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I suspect that I am rather timid in proposing a quick and simple probing amendment after all that. I am hoping that the Minister will be able to assure us that the Government are taking concrete steps to improve the current system of informing potential claimant customers of benefits to which they may be eligible. We have heard from many lobby groups that merely providing a rack of leaflets at the local job centre is not effective. The benefit system is far too complicated and obscure for that.

I was pleased to hear in Committee that the Government intend to update the scripts that are used at job centres to include information about where more benefit information on carer’s allowance or disability living allowance can be found. Is this all they intend to do? What about other related benefits? Do the Government have any intention of undertaking any disability awareness training so that the staff at job centres are able to identify potential claimant customers more accurately and assist them to maximise their entitlement? The Minister has given us an assurance that they will continue to consult claimant customers and representative groups about ways to improve benefit awareness at every stage of the ESA system. I hope they will give full consideration to any suggestions that arise as a result. I beg to move.

Lord Addington: My Lords, Amendment No. 48 seems remarkably familiar. I have used similar arguments since this came out. Ensuring that people get the right information about what they are entitled to has been very important for a long time. I hope that the Government can use the opportunity to give us further clarification on how this is going to happen. I support the amendment.

Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, let me see if I can give noble Lords the clarifications they wish in this area. The amendment seeks to create provisions

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which would allow regulations to specify that when people claim employment and support allowance an assessment is made of their other entitlements. They are then notified of any entitlements and advised how to claim them. It is only right that people should have full access to information and advice on the financial and other help available to them. The Department for Work and Pensions already provides extensive background information on the full range of benefits, statutory entitlements and how to go about claiming them. For example, where customers require quick or urgent advice they can contact their local office or call Jobcentre Plus Direct or their appropriate benefit delivery centre. Our wide range of literature is available in many locations and formats. For example, the Jobcentre Plus leaflet entitled A guide for disabled people, those with health conditions, and carers explains the support that is available to those people if they are unable to work, looking for work or not looking for work at the moment but may in the future. In addition, the customers home page of the Jobcentre Plus website signposts disabled customers to the specialist help available for disabled people; for example, Access to Work, Workstep or Remploy.

We acknowledge that there are many challenges associated with producing customer information. We have made much progress in rationalising our leaflets and the information on our websites and increasing its accuracy and availability. We are moving in the right direction but recognise that there is more to do. As the implementation of ESA progresses we will continue working with all stakeholders to ensure that this information gets to the right people at the right time and in the right way.

There is cross-government co-operation in this respect. The Disability and Carers Service is working with the Department of Health to improve the ways benefit advice about disability living allowance and attendance allowance can be delivered. This includes exploring the provision of benefit advice through the “information prescription” which the Department of Health will trial in England. We have also taken steps to improve the customer management system scripts. The department’s officials responsible for the system are in touch with Macmillan so that there may be a real opportunity for Macmillan’s aspirations for its service users to become a reality. I am sure noble Lords will agree that this is a positive move forward.

Jobcentre Plus is fortunate in that it is staffed by dedicated and hard-working staff who already do all they can to provide information at the right time to all those who contact it for help and advice. I am, therefore, not convinced that the power to provide for a statutory duty would add anything to the requirement that we already place on Jobcentre Plus. Accordingly, I hope that I have provided the comfort that the noble Lord requires and that he feels able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, before the Minister sits down I would like to intervene briefly in support of the amendment. This is a crucial amendment. I do not agree that putting it in the Bill and placing a statutory duty on the Government is

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nugatory and has no effect or is unnecessary. Psychologically, it is important that the personal advisers, who will come into play for the first time, have the ability to look at the whole picture, as well as some of the health-related and, I hope, biological, psychological and social measures behind some of these claimants and customers and—for the first time in 25 years in my certain experience and knowledge—have the ability to win the confidence of customers in a way that has never been done before.

I have personal experience of this. In a previous incarnation—admittedly a long time ago—I acted as a CAB personal adviser in the town of Hawick in south-east Scotland. I saw streams of customers or clients coming across from the DHSS office, as it then was, and I would tell them exactly the same thing as the officials across the other side of the high street had done. They were much more prepared to accept it from me because they believed that I was someone who was acting in their best interests, broadly defined.

If we get this right, personal advisers could play an extremely valuable role. One of the best ways to encourage people to come on down and talk sensibly and openly to personal advisers is the knowledge that someone sitting on the other side of the desk is going to do the best they can—become a personal friend and adviser and provide support, psychological and otherwise, in picking the customer’s or client’s way through the system. The amendment is a crucial part of enforcing that feeling of confidence that customers and clients will have.

Uptake rates are a continual problem; people are denied entitlements that the system would provide for them if only they knew the route to ask. We miss a trick here if we do not accept responsibility. The amendment may not contain the right approach; perhaps its wording or suggested procedure is not right. I say to the Minister with all the conviction that I can muster that if he is somehow able to invest personal advisers with the ability to say, “I am able to help you across a wide area”, people will come to them in a frame of mind that they would otherwise not have. In the Bill he is trying to change the psychology involved in this regard but he may be walking away from one of the best ways of getting assistance for the issue.

I absolutely support the amendment. If it is a probing amendment, that is fine. I hope that the Minister will go away and think carefully about how to encourage people to talk to personal advisers; we should introduce a provision during the Bill’s passage.

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Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I agree entirely that we should do all we can to ensure that our customers are made fully aware of all the benefits and opportunities that the system provides for them through support and benefit. That is very important and absolutely right. I outlined in my initial response to the amendment the things that are going on; in particular, changing the script—for those who reach us on the telephone—with prompts to encourage people towards certain benefits when the conversation

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suggests that that might be appropriate. We notify customers when we reach benefit decisions and when we make payments; a full range of information is provided. We recognise that there is more to be done. I suggest that this does not simply involve personal advisers; the first work-focus interview, with the personal adviser, is a key opportunity to explain to people the journey on which they are about to embark and some of the benefits and opportunities around that; that is important. However, that is not generally the first point of contact, which is made when people ring up. That system, too, needs to provide information; that is why we are looking at scripts and working with stakeholders to get those right.

All that the amendment says—this is why it does not achieve anything—is: “Regulations may provide that”. In a sense, the department already has the power to do all that is contained in the provisions that are then listed in the amendment. It is not helpful for that to be expressed in those terms.

We do not disagree about the importance of ensuring that people are appropriately and fully informed about entitlements and about what the system can provide; I simply do not think that the amendment takes us very far. I believe that it is a probing amendment in any event and hope that the noble Lord still feels able to withdraw it. I hope that we are agreed about where we should be on this issue.

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response to the probing amendment. Also, the House should be grateful for the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, who focused on what is essential to the Bill; that is—this is what makes it unique—the relationship between the personal adviser and the claimant customer. That is what gives the Bill its positive edge. I am very much reassured by the Minister’s response that there is a determination to ensure that this relationship is one whereby the claimant customer will be properly and fully advised on ways in which they could take forward their proper statutory benefits along with the opportunity to explore Pathways to Work, which the Bill provides for. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Thomas of Winchester moved Amendment No. 49:

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the Minister is in such a generous mood that I have hopes for the amendment. We have tabled this amendment again, having reflected on the debate in Grand Committee and after receiving further evidence from our advisory groups.



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First, I should say that we are talking not about full passporting of all benefits for those on ESA but about free prescriptions. Free prescriptions are available for other benefit claimants, and it seems bizarre that they are not necessarily going to be available for all low income ESA claimants, who are, by definition, in poor health. I must reiterate what I said in Grand Committee, which is that a MORI- commissioned survey five years ago showed that as many as 750,000 people were failing to get their prescriptions dispensed because they could not afford the charge.

It is worth taking a little time to examine what happens now. As things currently stand, those on the contributory strand of jobseeker’s allowance move across, after six months, to the income support JSA, so this group can access free prescriptions that way, but there is nothing similar in this Bill for those on the contributory strand of ESA. In general, looking at all those entitled to free prescriptions, there are those aged 60 and over; those aged under 16, or under 19 and in full-time education; those receiving income support or the guarantee credit of pension credit, or income-based JSA; and some are receiving working tax credit or child tax credit.

Another group that receives free prescriptions are pregnant women and those who have given birth in the past 12 months, regardless of their income, so there is a clear precedent for extending the exemption from prescription charges beyond those in receipt of income-based benefits. Is it not likely that ESA claimants will be just as much in need of an exemption from prescription costs—if not more so—than anyone in one of those categories? One very important question is whether or not the fact that claimants are unable to afford to pay for the prescriptions they need will be treated as having good cause in the event that they are unable to comply with the conditionality imposed on them. That question was not raised in Committee.

What we are asking for is some adjustment to the initial application for ESA to incorporate a suitable income test, the outcome of which could be passed to the Department of Health, which administers the exemptions system. There is some precedent for such a system and information-sharing between government departments in the liaison between the HM Revenue and Customs and the Department of Health on exemptions for tax credit claimants.

Does the Minister agree that this suggestion fits in with the Government’s aspiration to improve their service to their customers, or claimants, by using technology to share information between government departments?

In Grand Committee, the Minister spoke about the change to the system of pre-payment certificates from July this year, which is very welcome for those on low incomes. However, Citizens Advice client evidence suggests that awareness of both the pre-payment certificates and the low income scheme is poor. Some clients find out about the operation of these schemes only when they seek advice because they cannot afford their prescriptions or because they received a penalty for fraud as a result of claiming exemptions

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to which they wrongly believed they were entitled. The distinction in exemption entitlements between income-based and contributory-based benefits is often not obvious to claimants, especially as both may be paid at the same weekly rates. The amendment gives an opportunity to avoid carrying over into the new ESA regime the unfairness contained within the existing IB system by making all low-income ESA claimants exempt from prescription charges.

Making sure that ESA claimants are able to access medication prescribed for them should be central to the Government’s welfare reform agenda. The clear focus in ESA is to address people’s health problems so that they can be encouraged back to work. Its introduction strengthens the case for tackling this problem to ensure that efforts to improve condition management are not undermined. I beg to move.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, this subject has been covered more than once in previous stages of the Bill. I recall the Minister saying:

If the Government can change the expectation to an affirmation that they will offer the same access to the same benefits as are available to people on income support, I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, will be more than happy to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for tabling this amendment again and for giving us the opportunity to discuss the matter on Report.

The amendment seeks to probe our intentions for passported benefits within ESA. The noble Baroness also asked about the comparison between those on the contributory elements of both ESA and jobseeker's allowance. As I said previously, we understand the importance of income-related benefits to our customers, both for the income they provide in and of themselves and because they often also allow the customer to qualify for other benefits.

As I made clear in Committee, we expect to bring existing passporting rules into the income-related strand of employment and support allowance, allowing access to the same range of benefits as offered by income support. The range of support includes free prescriptions and remission from other NHS charges, such as optician and dental costs, benefits such as free school meals, school uniform grants and cold weather payments, milk tokens and vitamins for young children and expectant mothers. In addition, customers receiving the income-related strand of ESA will be passported on to the maximum level of housing benefit and council tax benefit. As noble Lords know, that can make a huge difference to the income of families, particularly those in greatest financial need.

Customers receiving only contributory benefit are not currently passported automatically, as we discussed, because the schemes in question are targeted support

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meant for those most in need, and entitlement to contributory benefits is not based on household income. However, someone on a low income who is in receipt of incapacity benefit or, in the future, contributory ESA, may still qualify for additional help through the low-income scheme. Noble Lords will understand, therefore, that there is no financial disadvantage regarding prescription charges between contributory jobseeker's allowance and employment and support allowance, as those on low income will qualify for help whether passported or otherwise.

We accept that this scheme requires additional forms to be completed and we recognise that that is an issue, but it provides valuable access to free prescriptions and is designed so that no one on a low income need be unable to afford prescriptions.

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Additionally, from 2004, people have been entitled to full remission of NHS charges on more generous terms. Previously, people were entitled to full help through this scheme only when their income was equal to, or less than, their statutory requirements. From 2004, people became entitled to full help if their income exceeded those requirements by up to 50 per cent of the prescription charge. This means that people whose income is only marginally above income support level are now entitled to full help.


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