Motion to Take Note
Employment and Support Allowance (Transitional Provisions, Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit) (Existing Awards) Regulations 2010
Lord German (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I also rise to support my noble friends in welcoming the intention and general thrust of these regulations and changes. Supporting incapacity benefit claimants into work and making sure that people are on the right benefit with the right level of support is obviously the correct thing to do. There is no doubt either about the significance of these regulations. About 1.5 million people in our country will be affected and some of them are the most vulnerable in our society. The issues that I want to comment on, therefore, are not about the principle but about the process of migration-"it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it".
There are two outcomes that I am sure my noble friend the Minister will wish to avoid-the unexpected and the unintended. The unexpected might be failure somewhere in the process of change-perhaps a blockage in the appeals process or a group of vulnerable people who are marginalised by the whole process. Since it is unexpected, all you can do is ensure that the system is as robust as possible and that everything is in place before it migrates and is therefore able to withstand the shocks. The unintended consequences, however, can be guarded against more easily. For that we look to the reports of the Merits Committee and the Social Security Advisory Committee. They have produced a clear, evidence-based set of reports, which should help to steer the Government through the maze that is the migration process.
As I know from the dates given on the SSAC report and the Government response, it appears that the response is from the previous Government. I therefore offer a brief analogy to my noble friend the Minister, based on my experience. I took over a ministerial portfolio in Wales; one month beforehand, the previous Minister from another party in a coalition had thrown the switch on a new computerised payment system for farmers. The system was intended to surpass anything else in the past; it was all-singing and all-dancing, and introduced a new payment structure. Needless to say, it went terribly wrong in year one but was corrected and became an exemplar system in year two. I shouldered a large part of the anguish of the claimants while my predecessor escaped without a scratch. I hope that our noble friend will benefit in coming out of this without a scratch.
This is a new Government. I know that my noble friend the Minister can reassure me that the system as now designed is robust enough to deal with the unintended and the unexpected, but perhaps he can indicate where the changes have been made since taking office. After all, we would naturally expect a new Government to have a new approach in issues of this sort.
One critical factor on which I want to question the Minister is the success of the migration process by the quality of the assessments made by the healthcare contractors. I am concerned that we have only a single contractor, Atos Healthcare. While I appreciate the need for a tight contract, is it right that there should be a monopolistic provider? Surely some competition would create a better dynamic and improve the quality? Perhaps my noble friend could tell your Lordships' House whether the contract was already complete when he took office and what room for manoeuvring Government he has in this matter.
My second area of concern is about the number of appeals. Between April 2009 and March 2010, the ESA appeal numbers quadrupled. Between April and June 2009, there were 10,100 appeals; between July and September 2009, the number had risen to 29,000, and by March of this year there were 46,500 appeals, which is 126,800 appeals in one year. That represents more than 37 per cent of all appeals for all benefits, and nearly double that of attendance and disability allowance appeals. Equally worrying is the fact that 40 per cent of appeals that went to hearing were successful, with many thousands more successfully dealt with without the need for a hearing. The previous Government's response was that joint working on this was under way. Could my noble friend update your Lordships' House on the current number of appeals and what conclusions he draws from the very large numbers going to appeal as well as the implications of that on the migration programme?
The third area that I wish to probe is certainty on a number of the conclusions and recommendations of the SSAC. First, there are concerns about the work capability assessment. The independent external review of the workings of the WCA is reporting its first findings later this year. I would be grateful if my noble friend would reassure me that this review will be available and in place in time to influence any changes before the migration process begins in earnest. Furthermore, I wish to probe levels of awareness. There is an enormous communications challenge here, and the Government's response in the documents is to work to develop and test the communication strategy and state that it is ongoing.
As my noble friend has just said, many clients will find the migration process threatening and will be very wary of making mistakes. Some of them are in hard-to-reach groups, for whom traditional personal letters may be ineffective, either by virtue of the language used or by the simple fact that they may not be read either at all or accurately. I commend to the Minister the use of the third sector in making sure that the messages that you want to send are sent out widely, as well as the use of other forms of communication, preferably ones that are not concentrated on the written word in personal letters.
The next area on which I want to ask the Minister for clarification is taxation and tax credits, which my noble friend mentioned. The response in the documents is that the Government will consider further the taxation and tax credit position on migration to the ESA. Will the Minister give us an update on where we are with that?
The SSAC lays out its preferred option of delaying the migration, but it also helpfully lists seven criteria that it feels should be achieved if the Government are not minded to slow down implementation. The first is a six-month trial. The Minister has indicated that the process will start in October and be rolled out properly in February. Could the period be expanded slightly if the external evaluation were to give us some clues as to where improvements could be made? Improvements could be made in a number of areas, including the quality of the WCA, to which my noble friend referred. We do not know where we are with tax and tax credit protection. That information needs to be updated for your Lordships' House. The next consideration is the customer information strategy. If we are to secure the confidence of those who will be engaged in this process, we need a robust strategy that we know will be read and understood. The whole area of targeting support-segmenting the cohort, as it is described-is also crucial. We need more information on that. The next criterion is special treatment for IB clients who are exempt from the PCA. The final point concerns the comprehensive evaluation programme. When you are engaged in such a massive change affecting so many people, you need to be able to evaluate what has happened rapidly so that you can make changes in a dynamic way as the process goes on. I would be grateful if the Minister could indicate where we are with these criteria.
As I said at the outset, the purpose and direction of travel are right. There is certainly a need to boost confidence and to develop personal motivation in this client group. We must not write anyone off and we must provide for the most vulnerable. That is, crucially, why we have to get this process right.