'(1) Members of the support group wishing to participate in work-focused interviews may do so on a voluntary basis.
(2) The Secretary of State may by regulation define—
(a) the maximum numbers of interviews they may attend,
(b) circumstances in which participation in one or more interviews is not a condition of entitlement to the full amount payable under the employment and support allowance.'.— [Mr. Ruffley.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
No. 3, page 8, line 1, leave out clause 10.
No. 58, in clause 10, page 8, line 6, at end insert 'and
(c) not in the assessment phase of a claim for an employment and support allowance,'.
No. 116, page 8, line 9, at end insert—
'(1A) Such an assessment may not take place earlier than 2 weeks after the assessments to determine limited capability for work or limited capability of work-related activity.'.
No. 57, page 8, line 18, at end insert
'in accordance with the choice and requirements of such a person'.
No. 1, page 8, line 21, leave out paragraph (f).
No. 2, page 8, line 32, leave out subsection (3).
No. 87, in clause 12, page 11, line 22, at end insert—
'(j) for notifying a person not subject to a requirement to undertake work-related activity that he may participate in work-related activity on a voluntary basis.'.
No. 4, in clause 15, page 13, line 5, leave out '10' and insert '11'.
New clause 7 relates to an extremely important group of individuals: those in the support group, who will enjoy the benefits of the new allowance. They are the most severely in need. They are quite separate from those in the employment group who, under the assessment in clause 9, are judged to be capable of work-related activity—not so support group members. However, even though, under the Bill, support group members are not under any obligation to undertake work-related activity, in a far-sighted and welcome way Ministers have made it clear that support group members may be able to volunteer for work-related activity and all the support and resourcing that comes with the undertaking of work-related activity.
We all agree that there will be a fair number of volunteers from the support group who wish to avail themselves of the opportunity to undertake work-related activity. We know that because so many surveys, which Members on both sides of the House buy into, suggest that in the region of 1 million of the 2.7 million fellow citizens who are on incapacity benefit would like to work. They are desirous of working, and wish to make a contribution and to be better off for the benefit of themselves and their families. They want to exercise personal responsibility, which is part of the Government's agenda, allied with rights. We buy into that on the Conservative Benches as well and we are fully supportive of it. Those people want to get better. They want to get work-ready. We in the House should do everything that we can to help them. That is the purport of the new clause.
The new clause provides that support group members should not be subject to the conditions that are imposed on employment group members who undertake work-related activity. There is a reason for that. It is entirely likely that a member of the support group will have severe and challenging conditions—by definition, more so than a member of the employment group. They might have fluctuating conditions. They might have quite a good week after they have volunteered. Things could be going swimmingly. They would be able to tick off securing their first work-focused interview. We hope that they would be enjoying the experience. However—as we discussed in great detail in Committee—with many fluctuating conditions, a claimant can have one really good week followed by one really dreadful week when, through no fault of their own, they are completely unable to face up to or engage in work or even the prospect of work.
In that situation, we do not want someone in the support group who is doing something that they are not obliged to do—volunteering for a work-focused interview and, by extension, work-related activity—to be penalised because they have a bad week and are unable to satisfy the conditions of the work-focused interview. Perhaps they do not turn up on time, or do not turn up at all—again, through no fault of their own. We do not want someone to have their benefits docked or reduced in those circumstances, and I am sure that Ministers do not want that to happen, but that is implicit in the sanctioning regime in the Bill.
There is a hint that sanctions—benefit docking—might be a disincentive to those in the support group when it comes to volunteering in the first place. Many surveys—one from Capability Scotland has been cited many times—show that at least one in two disabled people do not want to engage in work-related activity out of sheer fear that their entire disability benefits package might be reduced if they show any level of functionality greater than has been previously judged.
New clause 7 would allow us to go the extra mile by ensuring that the fear of volunteering for work-related activity that a member of a support group might have, even though he or she would be under no obligation so to do under the Bill, would not put him or her off. Such people should not fear that they would be subject to a sanction if they showed some capability at a work-focused interview but were not able to keep that capability up—because of a fluctuating condition, for example—because they were unable to turn up and do the full raft of work-focused interviews.
When we discussed the matter in Committee, the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform was alive to the situation, which arises logically from the Bill's drafting. He observed—we have no reason to doubt these figures—that only about 1 per cent. of claimants under the pathways to work pilots have been subject to sanctions. Nevertheless, 1 per cent. of the big number of 2.7 million citizens could represent a lot of sanctioning, with some 25,000 people affected. We must remember that some of the people who could be sanctioned will have children. The Minister says that about one in six incapacity benefit claimants have children in their household. We have touched on the fact that sanctioning might not be terribly good news for families around the poverty line and we have all agreed that we would not want child poverty to be exacerbated by a sanction regime that kicked in to dock benefit and thus made a household poorer.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that build-up. I think that he slightly misses the point about the sanctioning regime and the difference between the support group and the employment group. It was made absolutely explicit in Committee—it is explicit in the Bill—that if a person in a support group voluntarily went into work-related activity, his or her employment and support allowance could not be sanctioned.
I agree with the hon. Lady on many things, but I must disagree with her last observation. The purport of new clause 7 is to put in the Bill the very protection that she says is already in place. That protection is not in place. I will explain why I think that she is in error, although I will be happy to allow her to intervene, if she does not agree with what I say.
In Committee, the Minister said that there were safeguards. He made it clear on more than one occasion that page 6 of the draft regulations with which he furnished the Committee referred to safeguards before a sanction was imposed. The problem that I have with that—Natascha Engel probably should also think that this is a problem—is that the text says:
"The majority of safeguards are not set out in regulations".
The safeguards are not set out in not only the Bill, but the regulations. The document continues by saying that the safeguards
"are in operational guidance to ensure that where necessary they can be adapted if evidence suggests that they are not effectively protecting people".
Page 6 of the document to which the Minister referred many times upstairs says that the safeguards are not in the Bill, or even in regulations, but in operational guidance.
When the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire made her intervention, she was probably referring to the assurances that were given in Committee about the way in which a volunteer from a support group could not be sanctioned. However, I am afraid that the Minister uncharacteristically missed the point in Committee when he said that in such circumstances it would be quite possible under the sanctioning regime for the sanction—the benefit docking—to be nil. However, that still is not good enough, because it implies that an individual from a support group who has volunteered falls under the sanctioning regime.
The Minister also said that support group members who volunteered would have a right of appeal, which presupposes that they would be mired in the sanctioning regime. Such people would get rung up and would need to show good cause. They would have to go through all the rigmarole of arguing the toss about why, under the hypothetical example that I cited, they were not able to turn up for the full raft of work-focused interviews because their fluctuating condition meant that they were okay one week, but not so good in subsequent weeks, which was why they had not satisfied the requirements of the officials handling their case.
Let me make two brief points. First, the hon. Gentleman's comments presuppose that a work-focused interview would be mandatory for a person in a support group, which is not the case. Secondly, the sanction could not happen without a movement from the support group to the employment group. Without such a movement, all the points raised by the hon. Gentleman are completely irrelevant.
We will have to agree to disagree on this. The hon. Lady is a vigorous and vibrant debater, and I leave it to outside groups to decide who is right. The advice that I have received from many of those who represent with great distinction the interests of those on incapacity benefit and the disability lobby says that there is enough ambiguity in the way in which the Bill is drafted for it to be useful for new clause 7 to be included, which is precisely why I am moving it.
I thought that I had said this, but I will have to repeat it: those in the support group are under no mandatory obligation. They are volunteers. However, if those people make the decision to enter into the spirit of the regime that operates for those in the employment group, it is not clear that they will be free from sanctions and the sanction procedure. It is not good enough for the hon. Lady and her colleagues to say that there is a right of appeal. There is no doubt that an individual with a fluctuating condition who was a volunteer from a support group, even though he or she had no obligation to volunteer, could say, "I've got good cause because I have bipolar disorder and had a really bad week, so I missed a lot of the work-focused interviews." New clause 7 would make it explicit that a person in such circumstances would not have to show good cause within five days—let us remember, there is a five-day period in which to show good cause, although the time for appeal under most benefits is a month—or make a case in an appeal.
We are arguing for crystal-clear clarity. I do not hesitate for a minute in saying that I hope that the hon. Lady is right that, in practice, those who volunteer from the support group will never be sanctioned. The chances are that it is 99 per cent. certain that they will not be sanctioned. However, I do not want to see such people having to go through the rigmarole of having a nil sanction against them or going through an appeal.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which is why I support the new clause. He is not saying that it is not clear in the Bill that the support group is exempt from the sanctioning regime—that is clear. However, the Bill is unclear about whether people who volunteer from the support group to engage in work-related activity might be seen to be leaving the support group, with the result that they could be subjected to a sanctioning regime. That would cause people significant worry, which is why new clause 7 would be of benefit.
The hon. Gentleman has just repeated what I said earlier. Of course, people in the support group would not be subject to the sanctioning regime, because they would be free from any requirement to undertake work-related activity. However, if those people were to volunteer to do work-related activity, it would be possible, under the Bill, that they would be subject to sanctions. That is absolutely clear.
My hon. Friend Natascha Engel does not need me to support her—she spoke most vigorously in Committee—but perhaps I can come to her aid. I ask Mr. Ruffley to reflect on what he says in the context of clause 11(1)(b), which specifically excludes any
"member of the support group".
Throughout our proceedings he has been on top of the detail of the Bill in a way that is very effective but, uncharacteristically, in his comments on this group of amendments he seems to have ignored a specific guarantee and protection in clause 11(1)(b).
Of course I remember that we discussed the matter in Committee, but we did not get the assurances that we sought. If a member of the support group is involved in the work-related activity regime, the point is certainly arguable, and that is why we make the argument that we do.
Under amendment No. 87, which is in my name and in the name of Government Members, there is a requirement to notify people of their right to volunteer. It is important to ensure that members of the support group, who are under no obligation to undertake work-related activity, have the clear right to be notified and told that they may undertake such activity, and so receive all the resourcing and help that goes with it. In those circumstances, notification is symbolically important; it underscores the fact that the Government and the law-makers in Parliament understand that those in the support group are valued and can get access to more support and help, as a result of undertaking work-related activity—and they are in the support group because the test says that they are so severely challenged by their condition that they are under no obligation at all to undertake work-related activity. Many things come with such activity, including cognitive behaviour therapy and the options outlined in the "choices" package in the pathways to work programme.
In the context of that right to notification, I hope that the language used will be temperate, and that we will not fall into the trap of using some of the standard letter language included in correspondence sent to claimants in pathways to work pilot areas. It is worth putting on record once again, on Report, a letter, sent by officials, that was drawn to my attention and the attention of my hon. Friends by Mind and the Child Poverty Action Group. It said:
"As your advisor, I need to meet with you to discuss how we can improve your chances of finding work, now or in the future. We want to make sure that you are getting the right support...It is important that you attend and participate in this interview. If you do not, your benefit may be affected."
Outside groups found that language unfortunate. They suggested that it might make unhappy or unsettle claimants who might not want to be reminded too forcefully that their benefit might be docked.
Someone who is under no obligation to take part in work-focused interviews because they are in the support group should be notified in a manner, and using language, that makes it crystal clear that they have a right to volunteer. The notification should set out the support available and make it clear that the person is not part of a sanctioning regime. They should not be told, "You're part of a sanctioning regime, but don't worry, because you've got a right of appeal and there'll be a 'nil benefit docking' decision." It should be absolutely clear that if such a person wants to participate in work-related activity there is no possibility of any sanction applying, especially as elsewhere in the Bill sanctions apply to everyone who does work-related activity.
Two Liberal Democrat amendments in the group seek to delete clause 10, and I would like to put on record my party's feeling about them. The deletion of that clause might lead to wholesale chaos in the way in which assessments are managed at present. In addition, we should have regard to what the Minister said in Committee about the genuine potential need to hold three assessments—the initial limited capability for work test, the test for work-related activity under clause 9, and the health-related assessment for those who are in the employment group under clause 10. All three assessments could be required for those in the employment group. That would seem to involve a high level of complexity, or perhaps even duplication, and we debated the matter in Committee.
Although I do not support the amendments, the logic of deleting clause 10 is presumably that the clause 10 assessment could then be folded into a clause 9 assessment, which would simplify matters and lead to a maximum of two assessments, rather than three, which is what we are faced with for some in the employment group. However, Danny Alexander will flesh out his thinking later.
The fact that too many assessments are required is part of a bigger debate, which needs to be flagged up. Examples are legion of constituents of ours who have had to visit a medical centre to be assessed for a claim for incapacity benefit, and who have had to go there again for a disability living allowance assessment, and perhaps yet again for industrial injuries disablement benefit. It must be possible for Ministers and officials to continue their work to see how the benefit process can be streamlined and simplified. That is in the interests of the customer, first and foremost, but it is also in the interests of good government and the efficient dispatch of Government business. I commend to the House the amendments in my name and in the name of my hon. Friends.
I wish to speak in favour of amendment No. 116, which stands in my name and those of hon. Friends. In view of the remarks of Mr. Ruffley, with which, in general philosophical terms, I totally agree, it might seem perverse that I should move an amendment proposing a time gap between the medical assessment and the work-focused health-related assessment, but I do so for good reasons.
First, I understand that the Government have been flexible and thoughtful in their approach to the subject. In Committee, the Under-Secretary, Mrs. McGuire said, in response to various concerns that were put to her, that the Government's preference was for the assessment to take place directly after the medical assessment, but that the Government were prepared to consider whether that was appropriate. Indeed, holding both assessments on the same day would be more efficient, and it would minimise the need for travel, among other things. Those are sensible and practical observations, but unfortunately they fly in the face of what many organisations involved in the subject believe, and they fly in the face, too, of the experiences that many of us have encountered in our advice surgeries.
In that context, I pray in aid the strong reservations of Citizens Advice, which is, after all, a sort of second arm in respect of many of the issues that we come across in our constituency surgeries. Many of the problems that I deal with in Blackpool are referred to me from Citizens Advice, and vice versa. The briefing that it issued to Members says that it feels that the separation of the timing of the medical assessments and the work-focused health-related assessment was vital because the two assessments have very different purposes. It goes on to say that in the former the claimant is trying to prove eligibility for the ESA in general, and in the latter assessing work a person could do with the right support is apparently intended only for those allocated to the employment-related activity component. Furthermore, decisions on which component of ESA a claimant qualifies for will not yet have been made, and there is a risk that some people who are later allocated to the support component will have needlessly undergone an additional assessment.
Those points are strengthened by the briefings that Members received from the Disability Rights Commission policy manager and the policy group of the Disability Benefits Consortium, which expresses strong concern about the timing of the medical assessment and the work/health assessment:
"Currently, it is envisaged that the latter will take place either immediately after, or very shortly after, the former. We believe that this is unworkable."
It is incumbent on everyone, not least the Government, whom I praise for incorporating many of the groups' recommendations, to reflect further on those issues. We should consider the human factor, as people are concerned about putting themselves forward for interview, which is a big step for them. I am not a psychologist, but it is a moot point whether it is better to obey the old principle of getting university finals out of the way in a short period and have a double whammy under the proposals or give people breathing space.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that there is genuine concern about the natural justice of such decision making and, indeed, confirmation of decisions? If one interview has taken place and a decision maker, who may not have conducted the interview, makes a decision, all subsequent interviews depend on the outcome and/or any appeal. It would be logical to follow due process and ensure that those operations were discrete, but I acknowledge that that could impose further stress on the claimant.
In his usual balanced and fair way, the hon. Gentleman puts his finger on the dilemma. Of course, that is a danger, but it is outweighed by the points that he made earlier.
We must be mindful of the way in which people approach such things. The medical assessment and the work-focused health-related assessment are very different things in the minds of the people who undergo them. The first involves getting over a particular hurdle or being seen in a particular context, but the second is a much more refining process. The Disability Benefits Consortium says:
"Asking people to make such a shift in their thinking will almost certainly lead to a high number of incorrect decisions and assessments being made."
The two-week period to which amendment No. 116 refers was suggested by NACAB. It is not set in stone—it is an issue for discussion—but I urge the Government to reconsider the principle of separating those two interviews.
Turning briefly to new clause 7 and amendment No. 87, which was tabled by my hon. Friend Roger Berry, there were strong disagreements about the obligations on members of the support group. There is a broader issue at stake, and it is captured better by the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend than by new clause 7. It is an issue not just for members of the support group but for people who have been on incapacity benefit for a long time and wish to participate in such a process. I am passionate about the matter, and I was naturally interested in the exchange about whose constituency had the most IB claimants. John Penrose referred to seaside towns, and my Blackpool constituency has the 15th highest number of IB claimants. People scratch their heads and wonder why that should be the case, but in Blackpool many claimants with medical conditions imported their IB eligibility from former industrial areas. Many claimants in my constituency worked in the mining industry, and came to Blackpool in the 1980s and 1990s, so they have been on IB for 10 or 15 years.
The philosophy of the Government's reforms is to give a sense of empowerment and openness to such people. I strongly urge the Minister to make more explicit in the Bill the fact that they should be given priority if they wish to opt in. They should not be excluded. I accept that if we wish to achieve quicker results that group will be more difficult to deal with, but it is important, not simply because of my constituents' personal circumstances but because a broader issue is at stake, that they should be kept in the frame.
I am always happy to act in the service of the House.
This is an important group of amendments. I support new clause 7, which makes explicit the importance of the support group having equal access to the support offered by pathways to work—a matter to which I shall return. Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4, which I tabled with my hon. Friends, as well as amendments Nos. 57, 58 and 116 to some extent, reflect on the appropriateness of the conditionality regime and the way in which it should apply to work-focused health-related assessments. Amendment No. 3, which would delete clause 10, is a probing amendment, designed to elicit a wider debate about those assessments and the regime in which they operate. Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 4 relate to specific aspects of the clause and deal with concerns about timing, the conditionality regime and sanctions.
As the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds said, and as the Minister made clear in Committee, there is a justification for some form of work-focused health-related assessment, which tries to do something different. However, there are tricky issues, as the hon. Member for Blackpool, South suggested, such as the appropriate timing and format of those assessments. There are arguments on both sides. The hon. Member for Blackpool, South advanced an argument for a delay, which might be appropriate for some people, but I am more sympathetic to amendment No. 87, which gives discretion to claimants and imposes a requirement on the Department or the company operating on its behalf to consult claimants on the timing of the assessment. It is important to stress that that assessment tries to do something quite different from the assessment of limited capability for work and the assessment of limited capability for work-related activity. Both those assessments are about determining entitlement to benefit. Again, as hon. Members remarked, having two assessments might seem confusing, although the Minister reassured the Committee that the process would be seamless.
None the less, a work-focused health-related assessment which is designed to be more positive and tries to understand what health interventions might be appropriate to help someone get back into work, and which immediately follows the two assessments dealing with entitlement to benefit may well cause the problems that have been described. Equally, for claimants in constituencies such as mine, where the nearest assessment centre might be 70 or 80 miles away from their home, requiring two journeys to that centre within a period of two weeks raises the problem identified by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds.
In that context, I return to an idea that I suggested in Committee—that in the longer term the Department should consider enabling more of a core assessment. At least part of the medical assessment process for incapacity benefit or employment support or allowance, as it will be, is similar to that which might be used for disability living allowance and for industrial injuries disablement benefit, for example.
If it were possible to develop some sort of core assessment, that might offer claimants greater convenience, as opposed to what I have experienced in my constituency, when individuals are required to go to the same assessment centre three times in three weeks for similar but slightly different assessments for different benefits. That seems an unnecessarily burdensome system as it applies to some of the most vulnerable people in society, particularly those who may, in the end, qualify for the support group. I do not think a hard and fast two-week period is right. Empowering claimants to make a judgment for themselves about what would be most appropriate in the circumstances is a more sensible way forward.
There is one outstanding issue that arose in Committee and has not been adequately addressed by Ministers in relation to work-focused health-related assessments—the technical but important matter of the timing of those assessments, and how that relates to the application of sanctions. If, for example, someone takes part in their assessment for limited capability for work-related activity and believes that they should be in the support group, but the assessment finds otherwise and on that basis they refuse to take part in the work-focused health-related assessment, my understanding of what the Minister told the Committee is that although the decision would not be made until it had gone to the decision maker to check that the process had been followed properly, in practice the sanction could be backdated.
In principle, that person could be subject to sanctions for not taking part in the work-focused health-related assessment, which followed immediately from the assessment for limited capability for work-related activity, which followed immediately from the assessment for benefit entitlement, even though the decision about their entitlement to benefit had not at that time been taken. That is a technical but serious issue, which I hope the Minister will clarify.
It is important to realise that the decision-maker is so called because he makes the decision. If the personal capability assessment is challenged, it will be referred to the decision maker to make a decision. I do not think it is possible for the sanction to be backdated to when the personal capability assessment was originally made.
I am grateful for that intervention. The Minister was not as clear as that in Committee. If he endorses those remarks in full, that will provide the reassurance that I seek and represent progress on our interchanges in Committee. Timing, decision making and sanctions, and how they apply are all important aspects of the work-focused health-related assessment that need to be resolved, as is the issue of appeals and how those apply.
With reference to new clause 7, it is important that members of the support group be informed of their entitlement to take advantage of the support that is available through the pathways to work system. For reasons slightly different from those advanced by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds, it is important that new clause 7 be supported. It makes it clear that people from the support group can volunteer to take part in the support group pathways to work, without thereby giving up their membership of the support group. It may be a technical point but it is an important clarification to make it clear to those people, as the Minister said, that there is no possibility of sanctions being imposed, even if they then choose to take part in work-related activity and so on.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most important reasons for making it explicit in the Bill that members of the support group should be entitled to volunteer for work-related activity is the concern that many people have about the financing of the pathways roll-out? If the funding for the pathways roll-out is indeed 40 per cent. less per head than it was for the pilot programmes, there is a risk of claimants or customers whom it would be an expensive option to look after receiving second-best treatment. That is why writing it into the Bill that people in the support group are entitled to volunteer for the benefits of the pathways rollout is extremely important.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman includes among his many qualities that of being a clairvoyant, but he introduces the point that I intended to address. He raises an important issue. It has been made clear on all sides that there is a general wish that any claimant of employment support allowance, whether a member of the support group or of the work-related activity group, should be able to benefit from the support that is available under pathways to work. However, there is a dilemma that needs to be crystallised so that the Minister has a chance to respond to it.
If the burden of the new clause and the other amendments in this group is that the entitlement to take part in pathways to work should be made more explicit, it must also be clear that the support being discussed is available. I do not think I had a satisfactory answer from the Minister in Committee, if I may say so. The question is whether the commitment of funding to enable the scale and extent of pathways to work support that is hinted at by the amendments and by the Bill is available in practice.
Calculations that I have made suggest that in the pathways to work pilot areas the average cost of providing support was £571 per claimant. Given that the Government have allocated only £360 million to the rollout of pathways to work and to other aspects of the Bill, such as the IT systems required for the new employment support allowance, that would suggest that it is proposed to spend less then £327 per claimant in the rollout. For new claimants alone, the level of resources will not be adequate to provide the same degree of service as has been provided in the pathways to work pilots, which are widely agreed to have been successful.
I am concerned that unless we get some clear answers from the Minister about where the resources will come from to allow an adequate level of support through pathways to work so that, for example, all those who may be members of a support group can volunteer freely and of their own volition to take part in pathways to work, in the knowledge that support is available to them, the Bill could end up raising and then dashing the hopes of those people. All of us would wish to avoid that state of affairs. The lack of funding and of financial resource for the rollout of pathways to work, if it is to be extended to all claimants, including those in the support group, is a major weakness in the Government's proposal. I hope the Minister will take the opportunity to reassure the House that he has an answer to that.
I rise to speak to amendments Nos. 57 and 58, which stand in my name and that of my hon. Friend Roger Berry.
There has been much talk, speculation and, frankly, mischief-making about the funding available under the pathways to work programme when it is rolled out nationally. I recommend that people read the report by the Work and Pensions Committee, which is an excellent piece of work that nails those ideas. I am concerned about the suggested figure of 1 per cent. as regards sanctions under the pathways to work pilots. My memory is that up to June last year, after two and a half years of the operation of the pilots, 36 people had been sanctioned. That is way below 1 per cent.—it is not even 0.1 per cent. or 0.01 per cent. That reflects the way in which the pilots have been run and the fact that they are the model for the future. Members of the Work and Pensions Committee visited many of the pilots, where it was staggering to see how people had had their eyes opened to opportunities that had been denied them, sometimes for decades. We should also remember—this in no way denigrates any incapacity benefit claimant—that many people in work with similar conditions to claimants have had opportunities to find ways through those difficulties that have been denied to too many other people for too long.
Amendment No. 57 would give an individual required to take the work-focused health-related assessment some choice as to when it takes place. There are all sorts of reasons why that would be a positive move. I have a great of sympathy with the argument that it is a seamless process if the claimant has the personal capability assessment and then goes straight on to the work-focused health-related assessment, as the vast majority of people would probably prefer. There should, however, still be room for some choice. I should say that when the amendments were tabled it was not clear that the medical assessor will give the claimant an indication of their recommendation at the PCA. That is a welcome step forward. There will always be cases where it is crystal clear that the claimant should be in one or other of the two defined groups, but in those grey areas in the middle a fine judgment will eventually lie with the decision maker. Other factors will come into play for people who may be on medication, have child care responsibilities, or are unable to fit in two assessments in one day.
When the reorganisation of the assessment centres was proposed a couple of years ago, the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend Mrs. McGuire, did a sterling job—forgive the pun—by listening to concerns expressed by Members on both sides of the House. Some people will still have a long way to go for an assessment, but the layout of the centres is now far better than what was originally proposed. However, there are still difficulties. In metropolitan areas with off-peak bus fare schemes, lots of people want to travel after 9.30 am and need to get back home before 3.30 pm. Introducing an element of choice as to when the claimant takes the work-focused health-related assessment would be beneficial and would address the lack of confidence felt by those in the disability community about the Government's commitment to the process.
On amendment No. 58, there is still some confusion about when the sanction applies, despite the words of my colleague on the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Natascha Engel. As I understand it, the PCA and the work-focused health-related assessment take place in the first 13 weeks after a claim has been made and determine entitlement to a benefit from 13 weeks onwards, so the claimant gets a decision on a future benefit. Failure to do the work-focused health-related assessment can lead to a retrospective sanction after week 13 in terms of a benefit to which the person may still not know that they are definitely entitled. If the PCA and the medical assessor say, "I'm not quite sure—I think you're borderline", that person then has to make a decision on whether to take the work-focused health-related assessment straight away or take their chances and subsequently launch an appeal. Where does that leave everybody? We have heard many times today that 50 per cent. of appeals are successful, but we should bear in mind that not all refusals go to appeal and that the 50 per cent. success rate relates only to those that do. The figure is still too high, which gives rise to questions about the review process. If the system is to work properly, we need to take that element out of the equation as far as possible and get down to virtually zero appeals.
For clarity's sake, people should have the choice of delaying the second part of the assessment pending the decision on the PCA so that they can see whether they have been judged eligible for the basic entitlement before they become subject to sanctions. That bureaucratic mismatch requires clarification. I hope that the Minister can reassure me, because we do not want the good work that has been done to be spoiled unnecessarily.
I rise in support of new clause 7, to which I have attached my name.
The earlier part of the discussion, which got quite heated at times, related to benefits, to which any sanctions would normally be applied. When I raised the possibility of sanctions with the Minister in Standing Committee on
"Those are entirely fair points. The first of the hon. Gentleman's two points is captured by clause 11(1)(b) on the basis of any sanctions."—[ Official Report, Standing Committee A,
I think that that was an attempt to reassure me, although he was less explicit on the second point, to which I shall return in a moment. It is pretty clear that somebody in the support group will not be sanctioned because they have refused to participate in a work-related activity interview, but that does not quite answer the point. As several hon. Members have said, there is uncertainty about situations where membership of the support group has not been confirmed because the second interview has not yet been formally decided.
There is an underlying and greater concern further down the track. If somebody on the support group decides that they would like to volunteer, perhaps because they are finding their current position increasingly uncomfortable, they may fear that their application for a work-focused interview could trigger a reconsideration of their position under clause 9 as regards suitability for work-related activity.
I was tapping my feet and gritting my teeth earlier because it is not clear whether someone from the support group volunteering to have a work-focused interview, the outcome of which was positive, would trigger some sort of mechanism. If it did not, it would certainly enter the mind of the person who was considering attending a work-focused interview that it might trigger an event.
That is the nature of my concern. There is an underlying fear that, if people who have been put, for objective reasons, on the support group—neither we nor the Minister want to write them off; that is not the accusation—volunteer, people may judge that as an admission of not needing to be on the support group, ergo they should lose their entitlement to benefits or enter the sanctions regime.
Other points that I raised in Committee about the available resources are worth rehearsing—indeed, other hon. Members have done so. It remains my fear that, if resources are tightened for reasons beyond the control of the current Minister or, to be balanced, of the Administration, there may not be enough money to go round and the people in the support group would be the first to be cut out because they might not be perceived as cost-effective.
A subsidiary concern, which Danny Alexander mentioned, relates to contractors. If the contract is not well written, there may be an incentive to drop the hard cases because they are expensive.
It is not without significance that new clause 7 is co-signed by John McDonnell, who convenes the Public and Commercial Services Union group in the House. There are wider concerns—perhaps political or subliminal—about the treatment of people on employment support allowance and those in the support group. Just as the PCS worries about two-tier work forces, I am sure that clients and claimants will worry about the possibility of different treatment and lack of access to facilities, especially resources, if they are in the support group rather than in the employment group. There is an even wider concern about equal handling from day to day and a worry that the Government or the system will write people off as if the easiest and simplest thing to do is park them in the support group on a reasonable benefit but with no expectation of change.
My hon. Friend Mr. Hunt spoke movingly about the matter earlier when he reminded everyone that we are not writing people off. Options and facilities—perhaps new technology—may come along and enable people to work in ways in which we have not imagined in the past to be practical.
Of course, it is no kindness to claimants if they hammer on a door every day and say that they want a work-focused interview. The new clause would confine interviews to a reasonable number. We should not validate people's hopeless quests but we should not treat people as hopeless cases and they should always have the option of work-focused interviews and availing themselves of support.
It is not only a matter of the claimants and their rights but of the Government's attitude. In a wider context, some of my hon. Friends have expressed concern, which I share, that, in matters of social policy—be it related to child poverty or handling disability or incapacity issues—the Government will be tempted to go for the low-hanging fruit; the people whom they can most obviously motivate to get off benefit and back into work. That is the easy part of the task, but, if we are interested in social cohesion, we should ensure that everybody is part of the system, that it is open to them and that nobody, however difficult the condition and however long the period on benefit, is written off or given any signal that the game is not worth the effort.
I am pleased to follow Mr. Boswell, with whom I enjoyed serving in Committee. Many of the points that have been raised hark back to those that were made at length in Committee.
I want to speak against new clause 7. Despite the immense consensus in Committee, we are in serious danger of getting our legislative knickers in a twist. The new clause overdoes things and would achieve exactly the opposite of what we are trying to do, given that we all agree that the current system is inadequate to deal with the needs of those who are on incapacity benefit.
As Mr. Ruffley said, the majority of people on incapacity benefit want to go back to work. The Government are trying to facilitate exactly that in the Bill. They are doing that by establishing a support group and an employment group. The support group has that name because we are not trying to write off people on incapacity benefit who will receive employment support allowance.
The support group will recognise and address the variety of different health needs, disabilities and fluctuating circumstances in which people find themselves. We also want to support people in the group not simply to remain in it for ever but to try to get work or engage in some sort of work-related activity. New clause 7 goes against the spirit of that and undermines everything that we are trying to achieve in creating the support group.
We are attempting, through new clause 7, to untwist the Government's knickers by making it clear that people in the support group can ask for a work-focused interview without risking being drawn into the rigmarole of leaving the group. I am, therefore, not sure what the hon. Lady's concern about the new clause is.
I am worried and feel as if I am banging my head against a wall—perhaps I am not being sufficiently clear. There are two groups—the support group and the employment group. Those in the support group cannot have their employment support allowance stopped, docked or sanctioned. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds explicitly stated that he understood that financial support given to those in the support group cannot be stopped. Expressing a desire to participate in work-focused interviews or work-related activity will be backed in the support group, but those are only two of many options available to those in the group.
We all agree that the purpose of the Bill is not to write anyone off. We also agree that different groups have different needs, which is the reason for establishing the support group and the work-related activity group. However, if we are not to write anyone off, surely that means that people in the support group—those with the most needs—must also have the opportunity to move away from benefit and engage in work. All that the new clause does is include in the Bill what is written in the explanatory notes, which state that people in the support group should be able to volunteer for work-related activity. The Opposition—and, indeed, many disability groups—fear that the Government's strong resistance to including that in the Bill suggests that they may not put their money where their mouth is and give people in the support group the opportunity and necessary resources to participate in work-related activity.
Again, I feel as if I am banging my head against a wall. I believe that the hon. Gentleman's point is already explicit in the Bill, as is the difference between the two groups. I am deeply frustrated tonight—and have been throughout the Bill's passage so far—that that has not been accepted. I feel strongly that it is important, given the differences in the needs of those in the support group, to leave flexible whether they remain in that group for the rest of their working lives or move out of it into other activities. Personal advisers will work with those in the support group—indeed, there will be constant work with them—unlike the position today for those on incapacity benefit.
The flexibility and personalisation of the support for those in the group is fundamental to the success of the Bill. New clause 7 not only undermines the ethos of that but removes all the flexibility for people to move into the work-related group or stay in the support group, if that is what they need.
I agree with other hon. Members about the importance of the language that we use—a matter discussed at great length in Committee. However, I do not believe that the language used in the letters that are sent out during and after the assessment process to individual claimants, customers or whatever we want to call them is an appropriate matter for inclusion in the Bill. I would absolutely reject that proposal.
I had not intended to speak to new clause 7, because I thought that it was self-evident that it made a lot of sense and that it would create a clear pathway for people in the support group who choose, of their own accord, to go for a work-focused interview. Much of this debate has been about choice, and Mr. Marsden mentioned empowerment. It is clear that there are a lot of pressures on people in society today, and the greatest cause of unhappiness, stress and mental health issues such as depression is the feeling that one's life is out of one's control.
There are 6 billion people on the planet, and 60 million people in the UK. There are very few identical twins. In a support group, there will be people with a positive frame of mind who, even though their PCA has suggested that they should remain in the group, will decide that they want to go through that door and take the opportunity to have a work-focused interview—as part of their own re-focusing of their life and their own positivity—without risking that action triggering a reassessment.
Someone in a support group might decide that, because they were in a positive frame of mind and feeling good, they were going to go for a work-focused interview. However, they would be hesitant and nervous in case their being successful and being deemed to be okay to take some form of work might trigger a recalculation or reassessment of their entitlement to be in the support group. That would be a natural worry. It would be a hard-hearted, pig-headed person who would not acknowledge that people in the group might have such concerns.
I want to ask the Minister a couple of questions on this matter. Where in the Bill does it state explicitly that someone in a support group has a right or entitlement to a work-focused interview? I am not asking about the principle of the support group, in which a person will be worked with to realise their potential. It is incredibly unlikely that any Government process, regulation or set of assessment criteria can prejudge the exact state of being of an individual in a support group for a particular period of time. We are all unique. We each have our unique needs, wants, desires and physical and mental attributes, as well as positive and negative outlooks on life. No system could capture every variation of those qualities. There will be a small group of people who might want to take the step away from the support group to try a work-focused interview, and my concern is that the Bill does not state explicitly how they can do that outside of taking the pre-allocated steps set down by the support group.
My second question relates to clause 11(1)(b). It has been suggested that this provision will somehow close down all the uncertainty about someone voluntarily going for a work-focused interview. I have read the clause about 10 times, and I have scanned the Bill again—I read it 20 or 30 times in Committee—and I do not think that the measure shuts off any of those concerns. The paragraph states that regulations can be made purely for the work-focused interview, but it does not close off all the other avenues in relation to someone who might be successful in their interview but who is still technically a member of the support group. It is not clear from the Bill that other sanctions or regulations would not be applied to them.
In spite of my slightly agitated remarks today, I very much support the principle behind the Bill. It is a wonderful thing that we are looking at the capacity to work, so why not put these measures into the Bill? Let us open the door so that people can make the choice to have a work-focused interview without worrying that they might be risking triggering a whole new set of regulations.
I have pleasure in responding to this very productive and, on most occasions, constructive debate. Opposition Members have spoken from a sedentary position about angry exchanges during our conversation on this group of amendments. However, for the record and for the benefit of the many people who will read our debate, I do not think that anyone would describe this conversation as anything other than reasonable and relatively well informed. When it came to my intervention on Mr. Ruffley, not only did I intervene but, with your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I intervened at some length to enable him to find his reference point in the Bill. That is far from an angry intervention or exchange. That is help and assistance to inform the debate.
The nearest that we came to an angry exchange was when Mr. Hammond, again from a sedentary position, chuntered about the resources to enable the fulfilment of the provisions of the Bill. We have said repeatedly that we will fund the national roll-out of pathways using a similar model to the one that already exists across 40 per cent. of the country. It is a bit rich for those who voted against every penny of the money invested to enable that 40 per cent. roll-out of pathways now to say that it is not enough. Their argument at the time of the vote in the House was not that the funding was not enough; it was that they were against every single penny of the investment. That is a matter of public record in Hansard and in the votes of the House.
I agreed with the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds about our communications. He made an entirely fair point, as have others, about the nature of our communications with our customers, particularly those with a mental health illness or a learning disability. That is why we are finding ways to consult those with mental health illnesses and others about how we can improve our communications with those client groups. When we have an additional set of responsibilities, along with rights, it is important that we get the tone and content of our communications exactly right. The one proviso is that it is difficult to construct a legally based letter in gentle prose in every circumstance, so there will still be aspects of these communications that seem difficult or impenetrable to some people, but that is because it is necessary to set out certain legal responsibilities.
The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds has, throughout these proceedings, shown himself to be well informed, connected to the issues and phenomenally well briefed on the detail that he has brought to his observations in Committee and, thus far, today. Unusually, however, the main burden of his argument on clause 11(1)(b) is based on a misunderstanding of the Bill. There is a power to sanction only those on whom the requirement can be imposed, and because of clause 11(1)(b), that does not apply to members of a support group. There is no power to sanction anyone in the support group. That is explicit in the Bill, and it will be explicit in how the Act operates, and in how advisers and decision-makers, both in the public and private and voluntary sector, operate. I hope that that provides reassurance.
Let me confirm to the House that, as I said in Committee, someone's well intentioned desire and determination to volunteer would not change their entitlement to be in the support group; only a change in their medical circumstances or condition and a new PCA would do that.
That goes to the heart of the concerns that some Members have expressed. Can the Minister give an absolute assurance that the mere fact that someone in the support group has volunteered to participate in a work-focused interview will in no circumstances be treated by the official system as grounds for reopening the case, under clause 9, as to whether such a person should be in the support group?
The answer is yes—I do not think that I can be clearer than that.
Adam Afriyie asked about our approach. In pathways areas, interviews and support are provided, where appropriate, to customers who volunteer by virtue of section 2 of the Employment and Training Act 1973. The number of interviews is not capped at an arbitrary level. I believe that the approach taken in pathways and in future under the ESA is entirely right. That is the legal basis on which we rest our ability to encourage and support people to volunteer. Thus far, in the roll-out of pathways, that approach has been effective, and it will continue to be appropriate.
With regard to new clause 7 moved by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds and supported by his hon. Friends, to provide interviews to all members of the support group under any circumstances would be wholly wrong. There will be situations in which that is not appropriate, such as when an interview would be detrimental to the customer's health and safety. I do not want to require staff to conduct interviews in such circumstances. Setting a maximum number of interviews as has been suggested would not be appropriate. It would be wrong for the Bill to impose a legal responsibility to guarantee the right of volunteering for work-focused interviews. In some circumstances, because of the nature of the customer, that could be detrimental to the customer's health, and it would be inappropriate, for health and safety reasons, to ask Jobcentre Plus or private and voluntary sector staff to conduct such interviews. Therefore, the right approach is to allow volunteering under the 1973 Act. It would be wrong, however, to guarantee in the Bill the right of every customer, regardless of their circumstances or health condition, to a work-focused interview.
Will the Minister confirm that he has just said that if someone in the support group volunteers to take part in a work-focused interview, and the Government decide that it is inappropriate for that person to do so, that person will not be able to volunteer for a work-focused interview?
It would not, of course, be the Government, a Minister such as myself or any politician who would take that decision. Medical evidence and advice and the views of personal advisers would determine that it was not appropriate or in the interests of the person concerned to volunteer for such an interview. The example that I used earlier was of someone who had an aneurysm—a point of weakness near the brain. Such a person might say that they wished to volunteer, but the medical advice would be that that was not appropriate at the time, but that help to get treatment, perhaps an operation and other medical support might enable them to volunteer later. That is an entirely sensible and sensitive approach to this progressive policy, and new clause 7 would undermine that.
Amendment No. 87 refers to the provision of information to those in the support group about their ability to volunteer for work-related activity. I hope that I can provide additional reassurance in that regard. Currently, in pathways to work areas, all new customers, including those exempt from the requirement to take part in interviews, are, where appropriate, provided with a package of information on the support on offer. Furthermore, where appropriate, a personal adviser explains in a telephone call the access to provision in more detail. We are building on that approach through the questionnaire accompanying the invitation to tender for provider-led pathways areas, which specifically asks how the provider will ensure consistent delivery to mandatory and voluntary customers. That is clear in the key criteria set out in documentation to prime contractors, which has been placed in the Library of the House.
When the employment and support allowance is introduced, we will continue to provide information about opportunities for appropriate voluntary participation to all customers. As always, we need to work to improve those communications, to which I have alluded. Again, we will provide the information to support group customers under the Employment and Training Act 1973. We already use the existing power in that Act to do that for the exempt group in pathways areas.
In relation to amendment No. 3 tabled by Danny Alexander, the work-focused health-related assessment is a key element of our aim to provide people with the support that they need to move from dependency on benefits and into work. I acknowledge that the amendment is probing, so I will not be as critical as I would have been were he seeking to divide the House on it. Such an amendment, which would remove the work-focused health-related assessment in its entirety, would morph the refined PCA back into the IB kind of PCA. I accept that a legitimate conversation is to be had about when the work-focused health-related assessment should take place, although not about whether it should take place in principle.
On the points made by my hon. Friends the hon. Members for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), for Kingswood (Roger Berry), and for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden), we will pilot the work-focused health-related assessment during 2007, and we have listened to the concerns raised in the debate. As we said in Committee, our preference is for the medical assessment and work-focused health-related assessment to take place on the same visit, as part of a process in which the customer makes one visit. That is convenient for the customer. Again, only having the medical assessment would mimic the worst parts of the current IB PCA. The work-focused health-related assessment focuses on what a person can still do in the world of work and what medical intervention and support is appropriate, which is a much more progressive approach. We have listened to the points made by my hon. Friends, however, and we will reflect further on how we operate that in practice, so that we can support our customers in the most progressive manner.
The amendment tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, North and for Kingswood, which was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South, would give the customer the opportunity to decide the time and place of the interviews. I think that the amendment refers to giving the right to all customers in all circumstances to decide that, which is not an idea to which we are attracted. We will discuss further, in relation to draft regulations to be provided, how, when a customer's health dictates that it is appropriate, the customer can say, with supporting medical evidence, that their medical condition would make travel to an assessment centre inappropriate, and that they would prefer heath professionals or those carrying out the health assessment and the work-focused health-related assessment to come to their home. In some circumstances, that would be more effective, and we will seek to reflect that in draft regulations. We will be happy to discuss that with my hon. Friends.
On amendments Nos. 1 and 2 tabled by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey and Mr. Laws, we know that people on benefits can quickly lose their motivation and confidence. We do not want such people to miss out on the work-focused health-related assessment, which is why we are mandating people to take part or face sanctions for failing to do so without good cause. We will ensure that people with mental health problems are not penalised without contact having first been made with them or their carers.
On sanctions, I wish to confirm the points made by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey and disputed by my hon. Friend Natascha Engel about the backdating of sanctions. We will never sanction in the assessment phase. Nor will we reclaim retrospectively money already paid to the customer in the assessment phase.
I hope that that reassures the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. I also hope that my comments have encouraged my hon. Friends not to press their amendments to a vote, and have given some reassurance to Conservative Members supporting new clause 7.
There is no power to sanction the support group in the Bill, and there will be no such power in the guidance or in operation. We will not seek to impose a sanction on any member of the support group for volunteering to participate in an interview. A changed PCA, not the act of volunteering, would remove someone from the group.
I agree with one thing that the Minister said: in his opening remarks, he observed that I had been phenomenally well briefed throughout our proceedings. I am less sure that I agree with his other observations.
I will keep my remarks brief. The fact remains that there has been no misunderstanding among Conservative Members about the purport of new clause 7. For reasons adduced by my hon. Friend Mr. Boswell and, in a powerful speech, by my hon. Friend Adam Afriyie, it is perfectly clear what the new clause does. It gives comfort and reassurance to members of the support group who wish to do the right thing and volunteer to take part in work-focused interviews leading—we hope—to work-related activity. No such provision appears in the Bill.
The matter needs clarification. That is what is behind the new clause, and it is in that spirit alone that I wish to press the new clause to a Division.