Welfare Reform Bill
Private Members’ Business
2:00 am

Photo of Eileen Bell

Eileen Bell (Speaker)

The Business Committee has agreed to allow two hours for the debate. The Member who is proposing the motion has 15 minutes to speak, with 15 minutes for the winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have a maximum of 10 minutes.

Photo of John O'Dowd

John O'Dowd (Sinn Féin)

I beg to move

That this Assembly expresses deep concern about the implications of the Welfare Reform Bill, particularly the introduction of a new coercive regime into benefit administration, and its impact on a number of vulnerable groups, including neurological patients.

I will speak in favour of the motion, but as the day goes on, I may speak in favour of the amendment. Given that the amendment is in the flavour of the motion, I will not speak against it. However, the difference between the motion and the amendment is a technicality that we might clear up as the debate proceeds.

The Welfare Reform Bill was introduced in the British House of Commons in July 2006 and has been carried into the 2006-07 session. The British Government intend to extend the Bill to the North by way of a welfare reform Order — that is, government by undemocratic direction.

The Bill has five main components, but the provisions that we will debate attract the most public attention. First is the introduction of a new style of benefit — the employment and support allowance (ESA) — that is to replace incapacity benefit. The main tenets of that benefit are that during the 13 weeks after first making a claim, claimants will be assessed and placed in one of two groups. Group one, which is the work-related activity group, is for those who are capable of participating in work-focused interviews and activities. Group two, which is the support group, is for those who have been assessed as severely functionally limited — that is a rather regrettable term. People who are in that group will not have to participate in such work-focused activities, but they can choose to do so.

During those first 13 weeks, all new claimants will receive a basic award while their assessment is completed. It is unclear how that assessment will be carried out in the North. In England, private companies are to be used. However, lobby groups in England are uncovering already some disquieting revelations about those very companies. Claimants in the support group will be entitled to an additional support component payment, which is likely to be higher than that that is given to those who are in the work-related activity group.

Each claimant in the work-related activity group — this is a bit technical, but we will get through it — will have to agree an action plan with their personal adviser. It is not clear what qualifications, if any, are required of personal advisers. In fact, a personal adviser to someone who has severe and complex medical needs may have no medical background whatever.

If a claimant is unable to attend an interview without good cause, a sanction will be imposed. “Good cause” has not been defined, but it appears that the caseworker will determine what is “good cause”. However, as I have said, that caseworker may not have any knowledge of neurological, mental or physical health conditions.

Although today’s debate focuses on the provisions that relate to changes in incapacity benefit, the Bill also proposes changes to several other areas, including housing benefit and council-tax relief in England.

When translated to here, it will mean that when new Labour refers to welfare reform, it means possible cuts in housing benefit and rates relief and a possible increase in taxation.

We are debating the implications of the Bill on vulnerable groups, including neurological patients, people with multiple sclerosis (MS), brain injuries, epilepsy and many other complaints. It will also include people with mental-health issues and those restricted by a physical disability. The Bill will force, coerce and bully such people into compulsory participation in a practice that might see unqualified civil servants making medical decisions about people with complex health and medical issues.

The practice of compulsory participation for such claimants with complex health problems in work-related activity groups is inappropriate in principle, given the fluctuating, and at times unpredictable, nature of some of those health problems. The Bill attempts to cover up the practice of forcing people with complex health and medical needs back to work as an alternative therapy — a crude form of the “work-never-killed-anyone” analysis. The Department for Work and Pensions in Britain, which administers the Pathways to Work pilot scheme, admits that its therapists are unfamiliar with neurological conditions.

Are we being told that the section of the local Social Security Agency that deals with incapacity benefit, which will undoubtedly enact the Welfare Reform Bill here, is bursting at the seams with neurological experts? I think not. The Social Security Agency is not qualified in that regard.

Photo of Sammy Wilson

Sammy Wilson (DUP)

The Minister in England has made it clear that there will be extensive training for staff and that he is happy for voluntary groups with expertise in identifying mental-health problems to be involved in that training. Does that not assure the Member that at least some people with expertise from interested groups will be helping the staff who will be making the decisions?

Photo of John O'Dowd

John O'Dowd (Sinn Féin)

The Member is correct; the Minister made such a statement. However, are we to say that civil servants working in the Social Security Agency or other Departments that administer benefits will be trained to be psychologists or neurologists?

Photo of Fra McCann

Fra McCann (Sinn Féin)

Does Mr O’Dowd recall a similar exercise that was carried out four or five years ago? People on long-term benefits, including those who were severely disabled, mentally ill and those with a whole range of medical disabilities, were asked to come to a benefit office only to find that the staff were unqualified. Many of those people found that their benefits were suspended through no fault of their own. Does the Member agree that there is a very strong possibility that, regardless of the level of training, lay people will be working in a medical environment, which will have a knock-on effect right across the community?

Photo of John O'Dowd

John O'Dowd (Sinn Féin)

I do agree. It is also clear that there is no regulatory body for therapists. Any voluntary group can set itself up with therapists and be introduced into the system, and that is unfair. Indeed, the Bill refers to “alternative medical treatments”. The Department for Work and Pensions in England is not the Department of Health; the Department for Social Development (DSD) is not the Department of Health here. The DSD is not qualified to hand out treatment. Treatment is not offered by GPs or consultants or by the Department of Health, but by someone appointed by a Department with no medical or health knowledge. Patients are told that, if they do not adhere to advice given by unqualified individuals, their benefits will be cut.

Vulnerable people in our society have been placed in an impossible position, and those with mental-health issues are being put under added pressure. Proposals of conditionality may result in undue pressure being put on claimants to sign up to inappropriate or unachievable action plans rather than risk a reduction in their benefits.

Pilot schemes in Britain have already thrown up cases of vulnerable people being forced into jobs and scenarios that they were not ready for, and, more importantly, for which they were not given any form of proper support and guidance.

The British Government tell us that the main principle of the Welfare Reform Bill is to support and encourage more people in receipt of incapacity benefits to move into employment, where they are able to do so. No one can argue with that; unfortunately, the Bill’s remaining 264 clauses are more to do with reducing the cost of incapacity benefit than a structured and properly managed plan for a return to work.

The Bill does not address the reluctance of employers to accept potential new employees whose records show long-term receipt of incapacity benefit. It does nothing to remove the physical and mental obstacles placed in the way of people who wish to come off incapacity benefits and return to work. Recent statistics confirm that fewer than 40% of employers would hire someone with a mental illness, with 70% stating that to employ someone with schizophrenia would either be impossible or very difficult.

There is little point in encouraging people towards work if employers are unwilling to employ them. Furthermore, encountering such prejudice or discrimination can have a devastating effect on the mental health of an individual who has successfully come off benefits only to have to return to those benefits in a worse state of health. The vast majority of people with disabilities, mental-health issues and neurological conditions want to play their part in the workforce. Some, due to their conditions, may not be able to do so. We should recognise that and legislate for those circumstances in a compassionate manner.

The Government must take further action to reduce the stigma and discrimination faced by people with mental-health problems. Only last week, Rethink (NI) launched a campaign on the steps of Stormont, calling on people to rethink their attitudes to mental health. However, the Government have not played their role, particularly in eradicating prejudices among employers.

People with the conditions that I have described have been to the forefront of campaigning against the discriminatory employment practices that excluded them. They want to remove the barriers to employment; the Government have a duty to act. The Welfare Reform Bill is not about ensuring that those people can play their part in the workforce in a properly structured and managed fashion: it is about forcing people into jobs that may well have a detrimental effect on their health and well-being.

What is required? For a start, we need an Assembly and an Executive to prevent the Welfare Reform Bill becoming reality. Another good starting point would be the enactment of legislation based on the desire to help people back to work, not simply to save money. We must remove the barriers to employment for people with mental-health difficulties and physical and neurological conditions, and make proper provision for those who — we must accept — may not be able to return to work.

Any review of individual cases should be carried out by properly qualified doctors and medical teams — not civil servants or private companies, as is proposed in the English Bill. Most of all, people should be treated with dignity. Rather than brand them as spongers, any review of the welfare system should ensure that people with mental-health difficulties, disabilities or neurological conditions are made to feel valued. I ask the House to support the motion.

Photo of Dolores Kelly

I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after “groups” and insert

“, especially those people with mental ill health.”

The SDLP’s amendment is not intended to dilute the motion, but to clarify the impact that the Welfare Reform Bill will have on people with mental ill health. The original motion, in specifying neurological patients, was somewhat confusing, as the definition of a neurological patient is wide-ranging in its medical interpretation. However, I thank the Member for Upper Bann Mr O’Dowd for expanding on that in his contribution.

The Welfare Reform Bill introduces the employment and support allowance (ESA), which will replace incapacity benefit. The vast majority of ESA claimants will have to take part in work-focused and work-related activities in order to obtain the full rate of benefit. People assessed as severely functionally limited will not have to attend interviews or engage in specified activities to receive the full rate of benefit. This latter group is known as a support group. However, there are concerns that this mechanism will deny people with severe and enduring mental-health conditions opportunities for supported employment.

2:15 am
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Sammy Wilson (DUP)

Would the Member not accept that the current system does just that? It stigmatises people by implying that those on incapacity benefit are incapable of work. Even though nine out of 10 people go on to incapacity benefit hoping to get back to work, of those who stay on it for two years or more, most stay on it until they retire or die. The real stigma is being presented by the current system, not the one proposed.

Photo of Dolores Kelly

I thank the Member for his point. The SDLP is not opposed to welfare reform. We share the view of many leading charities and others that people who abuse the system must be rooted out. They deprive our society of much needed funding for schools and hospitals and give genuine claimants a bad name.

In setting out the case for reform, the Green Paper states that:

“Ensuring citizens have the right to enter the world of work is a fundamental responsibility of any modern government.”

The SDLP has long recognised the social injustice that is inflicted by the poverty trap of benefit dependency. The fact that one child in three continues to live in poverty must be a key challenge for a restored Assembly to tackle.

The SDLP welcomes the opportunities for employ­ment in the North presented by the Irish Government in its National Development Plan, much of which mirrors ideas and strategies of the SDLP’s ‘North South Makes Sense’ campaign. However, the motion rightly calls on the House to express deep concern at the implications of the Welfare Reform Bill, a view shared by many leading non-governmental organisations which advocate on behalf of those with disabilities and mental ill-health, including the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

People with mental-health problems are one of the most excluded groups in society. According to the social exclusion unit, only 24% of adults with mental-health problems are in work, which is the lowest employment rate of any of the main groups of disabled people. Added to that, fewer than four in 10 employers say that they would recruit someone with a mental-health problem. Employers are key to the success of welfare reform, but there is nothing in the Bill to encourage them, or ensure that they play as full a role as possible in helping people to move from benefit to work and remain there. Tax incentives could provide such encouragement.

The SDLP is also concerned that staff assessing an individual’s capability to work do not have appropriate training in mental health to assess people for employ­ment and support allowance, and for supporting people into work. The Bill has no proposals to increase training for support staff who will have to make important decisions on a person’s suitability, nor is there any cross-reference to the role that allied health professionals, especially occupational therapists, could play in making such assessments.

Members know about the current inadequate provision of staff and the long waiting lists. Given the key role of occupational therapists in the rehabilitation of people with mental ill health, this will place increased demands on an already overstretched resource. There is no sign of Government joined-up thinking here.

The use of sanctions is a major cause for concern. If claimants do not comply with the conditionality criteria, which are: attend work-focused interviews; attend work-focused health-related assessments; and engage in work-related activities, they risk losing up to 25% of their benefit right away. Unemployment, and the ensuing financial hardship, is a contributing factor to mental ill health, with increased stress and anxiety, loss of self-esteem and depression.

Photo of Pat Ramsey

Currently, there is no the right of appeal in respect of ESA in the Bill. The Member referred to the support groups who are concerned about the fear and anxiety that people, particularly those with mental-health problems, will have as a result of these customer-unfriendly forms that they will have to complete. Will the Member support the call for the retention of the independent appeals service?

Photo of Dolores Kelly

I thank the Member for his intervention, and I support his call. The right of appeal is a fundamental concern that many organisations have expressed about the Bill.

The threat to remove benefit without putting proper support in place can only be seen as punitive. There are insufficient guarantees that the right support will be available, and there are not enough vocational training rehabilitation facilities available at accessible locations in Northern Ireland. The community and voluntary sector fights the good fight to fill the gaps, but it has to continuously chase European funding or seek the crumbs from the table of health and social services.

The Welfare Reform Bill is long on regulation but short on evidence-based approaches. There are no guarantees that the staff who will be the decision-makers have the appropriate training and skills, or that the doctors who conduct the medical reviews have the time or even the specialist mental-health training to do so. In the past, doctors were put under pressure to put people onto incapacity benefit in order to reduce the unemployment statistics; now there is a new form of social definition of medical incapacity in order to push doctors the other way.

More needs to be done to seek the support and co-operation of potential employers as the key, and the right of appeal is limited.

Madam Speaker, I support the amendment to the motion and will take advice later on how neurological patients can also be included in it.

Photo of Nigel Dodds

Nigel Dodds (DUP)

This is an important piece of legislation, which has already gone through the legislative process in the House of Commons.

First, the Northern Ireland Assembly decided that there would be parity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom in welfare, benefits and social security legislation. It took that very sensible decision on a consensual basis because the consequences of not implementing parity would be too awful to contemplate. It would create a financial black hole, and the resources of the Department of Finance and Personnel would be taken up almost exclusively in trying to deal with differences between here and the rest of the United Kingdom.

It would cause considerable inconvenience and disadvantage to all communities here in trying to access entitlements compared to the rest of the country. It would have a devastating impact on the ability and ease of people to move freely between different parts of the United Kingdom and to move, live and work elsewhere. Northern Ireland would have to have new and different computer systems and different admin­istrative arrangements, which would cost a fortune.

Parity was the right thing to do then, and it is the right thing to do now. Any future devolved Administration that does not go down that path would be playing into the hands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Her Majesty’s Treasury, who would be delighted if Northern Ireland were to go its own way on benefits and social security. Breaking parity would give them the opportunity to consider a great many other issues for a financial package for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Sammy Wilson

Sammy Wilson (DUP)

Does the Member see any irony in the fact that Members opposite, especially Sinn Féin Members, suggest that we should go our own way? Those same Members would violently and vehemently oppose the regionalisation of public-sector pay, for example, but have no difficulty with the regionalisation of public benefits.

Photo of Nigel Dodds

Nigel Dodds (DUP)

The Member is quite right to point out that dichotomy.

In a debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly, an Alliance Party Member proposed that we should increase pensions by £5 per pensioner. We do not need a debate in the House to get consensus that £5 is not enough and that we need to increase it by far more. However, when it was pointed out that the cost would have to come out of our own resources, no one could say where the hundreds of millions of pounds should come from.

The principle of parity is well established; it has been in existence for the social security arrangements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland for decades, and it should continue.

However, it is right and proper that, as the legislation proceeds, Northern Ireland Ministers, whether direct rule or devolved, should express their views to their colleagues about the arrangements that should apply to all our citizens for social security benefits. The same applies to provision in the Bill for incapacity benefit claimants.

The principle has been enunciated that there should be support for those who cannot work and encourage­ment for those who can and wish to return to work. No artificial barriers should be put in their way, and the system should try to make it worthwhile for those who can work to do so.

Statistics show that the difficulty with the current system is that many of those who go onto incapacity benefit stay on it for many years. At first, claimants do not believe that they will be on benefit for an extended period, but circumstances force them to stay on it. Throughout the country, over half of those on incapacity benefit have been on it for over five years. That compares to 43% in 1997; so the number on long-term incapacity benefit is rising. The number of under-25-year-olds on incapacity benefit has risen by 71%, almost three quarters, since 1997.

I talk about these and other issues in my constituency advice surgery with many people. I am sure that other Members do likewise. What many people want is to have support when it is needed, but to be able to move forward when they feel they can. The present system does not provide that flexibility.

Photo of Pat Ramsey

Does the Member not accept that support groups are genuinely concerned that the main focus of the Welfare Reform Bill is on a reduction of benefit costs rather than on helping those with chronic medical problems?

Photo of Nigel Dodds

Nigel Dodds (DUP)

I will come to that point. I have already said that while the DUP generally supports the principle of parity, there are issues to be addressed. People are concerned. The issue mentioned is the capacity of advisers to recognise those suffering from mental illness. That point, raised by organisations and charities, is important and needs to be firmly addressed. Over 40% of benefit claimants suffer from mental-health problems. If secondary mental-health effects are included, that number rises to two out of every three claimants. That is very important. It is essential that advisers are properly trained and equipped, and that they get the input and assistance that my hon Friend Mr Wilson, the Member for East Antrim, referred to. My party will push strongly for that.

I am concerned about other aspects of the Bill too. It is unnecessarily complicated. The new employment and support allowance will create six levels or categories into which claimants will fall. Trying to explain to claimants how the benefit system works is already complicated. However, under this proposed legislation, distinction will be made between non-contributory claimants who fail to go to work-focused interviews; contributory claimants who fail to go to work-focused interviews; non-contributory claimants who receive the work-related activity component; contributory claimants who receive that component; those deemed to have limited capability to work who will receive the support component; and severely disabled who currently receive the disablement allowance. It is extremely complicated. One can predict a rise in the number of complaints to constituency offices and other agencies because of that.

These concerns are well-founded, and there needs to be much more information provided. The Bill should have been streamlined. The intent behind it is good, but it is unnecessarily complex, and there are potential pitfalls. I could have made many other points.

The approach of simply sitting back and doing nothing fails the people who are most in need of support and help. I am concerned about parties that simply take the attitude that the Welfare Reform Bill is no good and that the Assembly should ditch it. Parties must be extremely careful — I have not heard the proposal of a single alternative that would not cost millions of pounds by breaking the parity principle and thereby taking money away from those who need it, namely claimants and others who need that support. Parties must focus on the work that needs to be done, particularly on training and information. Some of the proposals that have been made today concern me.

2:30 am
Photo of Danny Kennedy

Danny Kennedy (UUP)

This is an important debate — and obviously many of my party colleagues share that view.

[Laughter.]

At least the Marie-Céleste was staffed.

I have no doubt that my colleagues are elsewhere in the Building or in their constituencies, undermining the efforts of those Members who are here. It is —

[Interruption.]

Photo of Danny Kennedy

Danny Kennedy (UUP)

If Members want more time to interrupt me further, that is fine.

The Welfare Reform Bill that is currently going through Parliament will not apply to Northern Ireland. I understand that a separate Order in Council will be made for Northern Ireland, which will be based on the provisions of that Bill. Although the Ulster Unionist Party is concerned that Northern Ireland has the highest rates of economic inactivity in the UK, those rates are comparable with some regions in Great Britain. It is doubtful that the Welfare Reform Bill will address that problem, and pilot schemes in Great Britain have had little impact on the levels of economic inactivity.

A range of mental-health charities and interest groups have criticised the Bill. However, the charities, and the Ulster Unionist Party, are more supportive of those elements of the Bill that seek to empower claimants to return to work. In February 2006, some 112,996 people were claiming incapacity benefits, and 169,691 were claiming disability living allowance in Northern Ireland. Therefore, the Bill affects a considerable number of people.

Rethink, a leading national mental-health charity, has welcomed the provision of more support for people on incapacity benefit because many people with severe mental illness want to work, but have been left without the necessary help and support to do so.

However, Rethink is concerned about the Bill’s proposals to disqualify people from benefit or reduce their benefit on certain grounds. Claimants’ benefits could be reduced if they do not attend a work-focused interview or undertake work-related activity without good cause. Jobcentre Plus staff do not know enough about severe mental illness to make judgements about whether someone fails to attend for no good reason or because of a serious deterioration in their condition. That could lead to those on low incomes having their benefits cut unfairly.

Rethink is also concerned about proposals that would effectively disqualify from entitlement to benefit anyone who behaves in an improper fashion or fails to take medical advice for no good reason. The treatment of severe mental illness is often a case of trial and error, and medication often causes severe side effects. If someone stopped or reduced their medication because of such severe side effects, would that be considered a good reason? What would happen if someone disagreed with a psychiatrist’s diagnosis or tried complementary therapy instead? Those are the aspects of concern to Rethink.

Under the Pathways to Work rollout many people may require support to work that they have never been offered before. The provision of cognitive behavioural therapy, which is woefully inadequate throughout the NHS, is particularly welcome. However, Rethink is concerned by early research findings commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions, which states that:

“there is no statistically significant evidence that the policy has any impact on those who report having one health problem that is mental illness.”

The Department for Work and Pensions needs to think more widely about the sort of support that could work for people with mental illness and should consult with service users and carers.

The Government have not taken enough action to reduce the prejudice and real discrimination of employers. There is little point in pushing people towards work if employers are prejudiced against giving jobs to people with severe mental illness. Fewer than 40% of employers say that they would employ someone with mental illness. Some 75% of employers have said that employing someone with schizophrenia would be impossible or very difficult. The Work and Pensions Committee said that the Government’s action on employers was “wholly inadequate”. It still is. New Zealand spends 25 times more per head of population than the UK Government on anti-stigma campaigns. We need to challenge the stigma of mental illness if we are going to help people get back to work.

Overall the Welfare Reform Bill focuses on supporting more people into work, and that is a welcome aim. Thirty-five percent of people with long-term mental-health issues, who are economically inactive, would like to get back to work, as compared to 28% of people with other health problems. People with mental-health issues are often keen and willing to return to work but lack the support to be able to achieve that goal. Many proposals in the Bill demonstrate a greater awareness of the needs of people with mental-health issues. However, additional thought needs to be given to the practical outworking of the Bill and the allocation of resources for appropriate training as necessary. That is to ensure that those with mental-health issues are not stigmatised or penalised by lack of understanding on the part of personal advisers or other professionals involved in the assessment of their ability to participate in compulsory activities. With those brief observations, provided helpfully by someone else, I give broad assent to the motion. [Laughter.]

Photo of Kieran McCarthy

Kieran McCarthy (Alliance)

I support the motion. The Bill, although containing many real concerns for a lot of people, aims to support more people back into work, and that has to be welcomed. Members recognise the wishes of many people — particularly those with mental-health issues — to get back into work, but they lack the support to be able to achieve that. Many proposals in the Bill demonstrate a greater awareness of the needs of people with mental-health issues. More thought is required on the practical outworking of the Bill and the allocation of funds for the necessary training. That will ensure that those with mental-health issues are not stigmatised or penalised — as has already been mentioned by other Members — by a lack of understanding on the part of the professionals involved in the assessment of their ability to participate in compulsory activities.

As the Alliance Party’s health spokesperson, I have worries that the people already burdened by ill health will find the contents of the Welfare Reform Bill to be an added concern and possibly a disincentive for them to offer themselves once again for employment.

It appears that the Bill will introduce a new coercive benefit-administration regime. I am apprehensive that vulnerable neurological patients will be forced either into work when they are still unfit or they will find themselves on lower benefits.

I am also concerned about the proposed large-scale involvement of private-sector companies, some of which have an established record of incompetence in respect of patients who have long-term mental-health problems. The proposals in the Bill are underpinned by the new ESA, which will replace incapacity benefit and income support that is paid on the grounds of incapacity for new claimants.

Photo of Pat Ramsey

There is a worry that those private companies will be more interested in profits than in the welfare of the customers whom they are supposed to be looking after. Does the Member agree that if private companies are to be involved in any part of the proposed welfare reform, that involvement should be in education and training only?

Photo of Kieran McCarthy

Kieran McCarthy (Alliance)

I agree with Mr Ramsey. That is a concern, and, as I said earlier, the private companies’ record of incompetence in relation to patients who have long-term mental illness is clear.

It is likely that the majority of claimants will have to take part in work-focused interviews and work-related activities in order to qualify for the full benefit rate. The Bill also obliges a claimant to show good cause for having failed to attend a work-focused interview. The explanation for that failure must be given within five days of the day on which the interview was to take place. That timescale is too short and should be increased.

Other aspects of the Bill must also be addressed. The Alliance Party supports the motion and the amendment, and I hope that the powers that be reconsider the real effects that the Welfare Reform Bill may have on many of our constituents.

Photo of Sammy Wilson

Sammy Wilson (DUP)

As the Member for North Belfast Nigel Dodds stated, the DUP supports the Welfare Reform Bill. It does so for good reason: the Bill aims to move people away from benefits and into opportunities for work. When many people who get incapacity benefit first receive it, they state that they do not wish to remain on it.

Economic prosperity in Northern Ireland has been rising over the past number of years, but certain groups have been left behind. I am sure that Members will have witnessed that in their advice centres. Such groups may comprise those people who find themselves on benefits because they have been deemed incapable of working. The situation is black and white: either one can work, or one is incapable of working. There is no recognition or help for the people who want to work, would like the opportunity to work or would like support to get them back to work, but who, due to their incapacity, have been deemed incapable of working. Those people either qualify for benefit and live in poverty — because the benefit is insufficient to give them a decent standard of living, as I am sure all Members accept — or they have to work. There is no in-between.

One important benefit of the Welfare Reform Bill is that it opens up opportunities for those people. However, when the term “welfare reform” is used or when there is an indication that there might be a change in how benefits are assessed, Sinn Féin and, to a lesser extent, the SDLP have a knee-jerk reaction that implies that change must be bad in some way.

Photo of Dolores Kelly

I said that the SDLP welcomes and supports welfare reform. That was not a knee-jerk reaction. The SDLP has stated its concerns about the impact and implications of some of the measures in the Bill, and about some of the glaring gaps. The SDLP is supported in those observations by many leading charities, including such a strong advocate as the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

2:45 am
Photo of Sammy Wilson

Sammy Wilson (DUP)

When the Member’s support for the Bill is hedged about with so many qualifications, one must ask whether she really supports the Bill or wants the best of both worlds. On one hand, she supports it because she wants to see disabled people lifted out of poverty; on the other, she finds a thousand reasons to oppose it. She cannot have it both ways. As the hon Member for North Belfast Mr Dodds said, there are concerns, but the general principle should be supported if Members genuinely wish those who are regarded as disadvantaged to be lifted out of poverty.

There will always be this sort of left-wing, knee-jerk reaction from Sinn Féin. One can only hope that Sinn Féin’s rhetoric will be diluted when it is faced with real choices. The former Minister of Education embraced wholeheartedly the private finance initiatives and PPP schemes that he had ranted and raved and railed against before becoming Minister.

If Members do not go down the road of parity as outlined by Mr Dodds, benefit claimants and others in Northern Ireland will arrive at a position of inequality with the rest of the United Kingdom. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, would love that, because it would reduce the subvention to Northern Ireland.

It is clear from surveys that many people on incapacity benefit would love the opportunity to go back to work. Some would not be able to go back immediately, and would need support and advice on what work would be available to them: hence the personal capability assessments, the work-focused interviews and the support that would be required once they were employed. Members are right to be concerned that that underpinning support must be of good quality and do the job that it is designed for. I have no difficulty with questions being asked about that or with seeking to ensure that if that is what is promised in the Bill, then that is what is delivered on the ground. Those issues should be the focus of Members’ concerns. We should not dismiss the Bill as something that will hurt or disadvantage people who currently receive incapacity benefit.

The other big issue that must be addressed has not been mentioned so far. It is one thing to say that we should support people and put them back into work. That is the supply side of the equation. However, the demand side of the equation must also be addressed. Will there be sufficient demand from employers to facilitate those people? I have checked with officials, and I understand that the Pathways to Work programme in Northern Ireland concentrates on public-sector employers. It is important that there be a variety of options, and Members must find a way to encourage the voluntary and private sectors to provide places for people to move from receiving benefits into work.

Some of the arguments that have been advanced in the debate are illogical. The logic of what the Member for Strangford Mr McCarthy said escapes me: a Bill that is designed to encourage and, indeed, force people to present themselves for a personal capability assessment, go for work-focused interviews and, if they are not in a support group, eventually go into work, would be a disincentive for people to offer themselves for work. It is not a case of people offering themselves for work; the case is that those who should and could be in a position to help people back into work must do so. People will simply not have the option of whether to do that or not.

According to surveys, nine out of 10 people who are on long-term benefits do not want or intend to stay in that position. They want to get back to work. However, they become stigmatised and end up being victims of the system. Their doctors, who may not make an assessment of their capabilities, simply keep on writing lines for them. Therefore, those people stay in a position where they eventually become dependent and hooked on the benefits system. As a result, 90% of those people are still on benefits when they reach retirement age or death. Apart from the waste of economic potential, that is also a waste of people’s lives.

It is also a disadvantage to those people because it keeps them on benefits, on low incomes and in poverty rather than opening the door to productive employment and opportunities for better-paid work. For that reason, I support the Bill. Rather than focusing on people’s incapacity and inability to work, and thereby stigmatising them, the Bill allows their capabilities to be assessed and offers them opportunities. That is a much better deal than the current system. Although there may be issues about how that might be administered, it is a good principle that, in the long term, will benefit those who are disadvantaged.

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Kathy Stanton (Sinn Féin)

Go raibh maith agat. I support the motion that was tabled by my colleague. I want to reassure Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson that the motion is not a knee-jerk reaction. Mr O’Dowd has explained that it does not seek to abolish the Welfare Reform Bill but, rather, questions whether the right structures and mechanisms are in place to ensure that when party offices are inundated, Members can do more than just empathise with people: they can give them a better quality of life.

The Bill does not recognise the major problem of employers’ attitudes towards people with long-term health problems or impairments. One of the main barriers to returning to work for people who have a history of mental illness is the attitude of potential employers. Last year, NICVA’s (Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action) proposals for an anti-poverty strategy urged the Government to tackle the problem of economic inactivity, which is when people are not working and are defined as being unemployed. Few people realise that there are 500,000 people in that category in the North. The issue is far removed from whether people who have a history of mental distress are unwilling to work: it is of greater concern that employers do not want to employ those people who do want to work. It is a concern that there is nothing in the Bill to oblige or, at least, to encourage employers to play as full a role as possible to assist citizens to move from benefits to work with built-in safeguards, flexible measures and policies to ensure that when people make that move, they will not lose out on benefits and other provisions during periods when they are unable to work.

It is right to give people every help and encouragement to return to work. Many people need advice and assistance, particularly those who have mental health problems.

In my constituency of North Belfast I have had to deal with vulnerable families who were not advised that once they received compensation following the murder or killing of a loved one, they would no longer be entitled to benefits. Many of those constituents had been on prescribed medication or other substances — [Interruption.]

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Eileen Bell (Speaker)

Will Members please listen to what is being said or at least conduct their conversations outside the Chamber?

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Kathy Stanton (Sinn Féin)

Many of those constituents were on prescribed medication or other substances to deal with their pain and suffering, and many have no memory of where and on what the compensation was spent. Those constituents did not receive the adequate services or professional help that they should have after experiencing trauma. The lack of available expertise has meant that, years down the line, their mental health has deteriorated and they now face the further distress of having their benefits cut because they received compensation some years earlier.

At the same time, employers have been reluctant to employ people who have been unable to work for extended periods through sickness. It is in employers’ interests to recognise that such people have many talents that employers can use. Sinn Féin believes that employers should welcome people with disabilities rather than discriminate against them. The party also believes that the Bill should provide safeguards and flexible policies to ensure that the most vulnerable will not be discriminated against.

I wrote to the Minister about part III of the Bill, which deals with benefit fraud. People are frightened and being placed under unnecessary stress because of the terminology used in the threatening letters that they receive. Issuing such letters contradicts Government policy, which is to ensure benefit take-up, particularly among the elderly. However, it is the elderly who are most intimidated by those campaigns, which are probably adding to the number of deaths of older people over the winter.

We must get the process right in the first place. However, Sinn Féin does not believe that this Bill is the right approach — vulnerable people should not be left with what may be an inadequate process. We must ensure that flexibility is key in any policy: measures must be in place so that those with serious illnesses who want to return to work can do so without fearing that their benefits will be stopped or docked should their health deteriorate.

Go raibh míle maith agat.

Photo of Mary Bradley

Although the Bill may be a welcome progression for some people with mental-health problems, it could be the cause of yet more difficulties and uphill struggles for many others. For many genuine mental-health patients, the prospect of a day’s work or of simply re-entering a working environment is an additional stress that could be detrimental to whatever balance they have achieved through their medication.

The mental-health sufferer who is willing to try to re-enter the workplace may feel obliged to return to work in order to comply with the Department’s regulations — no matter whether or not that is the intention of the regulations — rather than face interviews with staff who have no knowledge, training or experience in working with people who suffer from mental-health issues.

Once in the workplace, those suffering from mental health problems can find themselves unable to cope with the daily pressures, but, by that stage, it is too late. Only appropriate and suitably qualified personnel should decide whether patients are ready and able to re-enter the workforce — those decisions cannot be left to administrators. We cannot, and should not, allow another crisis similar to that created by the DLA system, whereby pen-pushers make decisions while ignoring medical and professional opinions. Patients are left to flounder and the decisions are reviewed, appealed and, occasionally, justly reinstated. All the relevant management and staff in the workforce must be suitably trained to facilitate and encourage the mental-health sufferer in order to build a firm foundation that can be improved upon.

It is time for the Government to channel their energies into improving the delivery of services and programmes for mental-health sufferers. I have worked in the mental-health field for more than 20 years, and I have witnessed at first hand how resources, funding and staffing have always been at the bottom of the scale when it comes to budget allocation.

3:00 am
Photo of Pat Ramsey

The Member will be aware that the personal capability assessment (PCA) — formerly known as the all-work test — uses a points system and asks questions under the heading of mental health. One question specifically asks people whether they are:

“scared or anxious that work would bring back or worsen … illness.”

If people answer yes, that will contribute to the number of points that they receive. I agree with what the hon Member has said, and claimants and support groups are worried about the circumstances that she describes, where people’s respect and dignity will be lost. The Welfare Reform Bill does not inform people that they will be dealing primarily with mental illness and trying to help that. We know the number of people who have been killed during the Troubles, and we also know that many people suffered physical injuries. However, we do not know the level of psychological damage and trauma that has been suffered by many thousands of people. Those people are caught in a trap. I suggest to the Member, and to my unionist colleagues, that we support welfare reform but not if it strips the customer of respect and dignity.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Mary Bradley

I thank the Member for his intervention.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Wells] in the Chair)

I do not want to think that we are now being forced into finding a quick fix for a problem that has been largely ignored for many years. Unfortunately for the Government, we can no longer use drugs to deal with the issue of mental health, as has been the case in the past. Therein lies the problem that we face.

Today, Members did not oppose the Bill; rather, we all shared our concerns about its contents. The sharing of concerns can only be good for this place.

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Lord Morrow (DUP)

I welcome the aims and objectives of the Bill. I congratulate Danny Kennedy on being able to marshal some UUP Members. At one stage, he was very lonely and looked a wee bit forlorn.

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Sammy Wilson (DUP)

The Members found the debate so significant that they were not here for his speech.

[Laughter.]

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Danny Kennedy (UUP)

I am happy to confirm that, at the end of my speech, all other Members looked unhappy and forlorn.

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Lord Morrow (DUP)

At least the Member can console himself that he did not have Back-Benchers sniping behind his back.

Mr Dodds has injected a dose of reality into the debate. Mr O’Dowd came out with that phrase that we hear ad infinitum, that if the Assembly were back, we could all do wonderful things. Mr Dodds reminded us that this is a parity issue about which the Assembly could do precious little. It is the responsibility of any Assembly to highlight issues and to speak on behalf of people, especially those who live on the margins. I have spent the best years of my life as a public representative, trying to improve the lot of those who live on the margins. Therefore, I consider the Welfare Reform Bill to be essential, and I welcome its aims and objectives. I hope that the Bill is enacted, because simply talking about its objectives is not enough.

I am glad that Mr McCarthy, a gentleman whom I hold in very high regard, is in the Chamber. When I was Minister for Social Development, I remember vividly taking some flak when I turned down the Alliance Party’s suggestion that all pensions be increased by £5. That was a laudable suggestion, but Mr McCarthy came to agree with me that it was a ridiculous suggestion because it could never be achieved. Northern Ireland has a block grant and that fell outside our allotment; it was a parity issue and could not be done. I was pleased to learn that Mr McCarthy now accepts that fact.

Incidentally, that has nothing to do with what I wish to say. I shall move on to more substantive matters.

According to paragraph 9 of the executive summary of the Green Paper on welfare reform from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), ‘A new deal for welfare: Empowering people to work’, the Bill’s objectives are to:

“reduce by 1 million the number on incapacity benefits; help 300,000 lone parents into work; and increase by 1 million the number of older workers.”

I am sure that Members have already noticed it, but it is worth recording that paragraph 1 of chapter 4, which is titled “Helping older workers”, states:

“By 2024, an estimated 50 per cent of the adult population will be over the age of 50, due to the combination of increased life expectancy and low birth rates. But although people are living longer than ever before, they are spending a relatively lower proportion of their lives in work than previous generations. Unemployment among people over 50 is low, but inactivity is high and many people leave work early due to ill health.”

That is important to note. As I look around the Chamber, I suspect that we will all be considered older workers by 2024. Mr Shannon is nodding in approval; it includes him, anyway.

All political parties should be seeking to get more adults into employment. The number of people not working represents a huge problem for the local economy. While the Government have been pursuing Pathways to Work and seeking to reform the welfare system, the Conservative Party has suggested the so-called “payment by results” method. It is claimed that that policy could transform the benefits system by getting one million people who are on incapacity benefit back to work.

The Government have already called in private providers to help such people find work. At present, the providers get a payment up front, plus a larger sum when a person has been in work for 13 weeks. However, that only applies to new claimants. More than 2·6 million people who are already on incapacity benefit — an estimated one million of whom want to get off it and into work — have been sadly ignored. The Govern­ment have overspent elsewhere, and those people are low on the priority list.

The Tories’ “payment by results” approach would remove the up-front payment to the provider and increase the amount payable once the claimant is in sustained work. The cash cost would be matched to the benefit savings, so no net outlay would be involved and the benefit savings would be so great that an increased payout would be worth it. Not only would shifting one million people or more back into work provide social and economic benefits, but it would institute a model of risk transfer to the private, community or voluntary sectors that could be used elsewhere in the benefits system.

The problems surrounding benefit fraud have already been highlighted. There can be no better illustration of benefit fraud than the case last week of Paul Appleby from Nottinghamshire, who was sentenced to 10 months in prison at Nottingham Crown Court after being found guilty of benefit fraud in December. What had he done? He claimed to have been crippled for some 13 years, before being pictured participating in marathons. He even completed the 2005 London marathon in a time of three hours and 37 minutes.

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Lord Morrow (DUP)

That is where the Member is wrong.

At the same time, Mr Appleby was claiming that he needed round-the-clock care, a wheelchair, two walking sticks and a walking frame. Since March 1994, that gentleman had been granted the highest rate of DLA for life, yet he could run marathons and do many other things besides.

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Lord Morrow (DUP)

Investigators were stunned to find video coverage of that claimant taking part in road races. He was so fit that he joined an athletics club in 2001, after his back condition improved, illegally pocketing more than £22,300 over the following five years.

I raise that case because it is imperative that people who are genuinely entitled to benefits receive them. That £22,300 should have been directed to those in need who truly deserved it. I welcome the drive to catch benefit fraudsters and to ensure that the money that they have been claiming is directed to those who really need it. The unfortunate gentleman to whom I referred is going to have some time for reflection, as Mr Kennedy said. I suspect that there may be other such cases of abuse of the benefits system in this country and on the mainland. That abuse must be tackled.

One element of the Government’s proposals that should be broadly welcomed is the commitment that repeat benefit-fraud offenders will lose their entitle­ment to assistance. I believe that they should lose that entitlement for ever. Stringent steps should be taken to ensure that an example is made of those who abuse the system — that will be the best deterrent to those who might be encouraged to go down the road of benefit fraud. There is much more that could and should be said, but my time is up. I agree with the principles behind the Welfare Reform Bill.

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Jim Wells (DUP)

The Member who was due to speak next is Mr Copeland. However, because he was not present in the Chamber throughout Lord Morrow’s speech, he is not entitled to speak at this time. Mr Copeland will be permitted to speak later. I therefore call Mr Francie Brolly.

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Francie Brolly (Sinn Féin)

Go raibh míle maith agat. I assume that my job is to sum up the debate thus far, at least on behalf of my party. We are somewhat short-staffed.

Sinn Féin cannot support the amendment — not because we are opposed to it in principle, but because we believe that it would have been better as an addition at the end of the original motion. As presented, the amendment would, in effect, delete reference to neurological patients. The proposer of the motion, Mr O’Dowd, said in his speech that vulnerable groups include people with mental-health issues. Fundamentally, we are not in disagreement on that matter.

Mr O’Dowd provided a rundown on the replacing of the old system of disability benefit with the new two-pronged work-related activity and support-group method of classifying those who are, more or less, incapacitated. He mentioned the fact that, for the first 13 weeks, claimants will receive a basic allowance to sustain them until their cases are assessed. Mr O’Dowd also expressed some concern about the qualifications of personal advisers to do the job that is expected of them, particularly in the care of people who suffer from mental-health difficulties. It has been claimed that money would be set aside to train those advisers, but their job is still very difficult for a layperson, however well trained. If any of us had such difficulties, we would expect to see a qualified doctor.

Sanctions are a difficult issue, but Sinn Féin certainly does not regard them as appropriate at times. The imposition of sanctions is a way of forcing people back to work. The concept of compulsion was mentioned during the debate; however, people who are weak due to health difficulties might find it difficult to stand up against being compelled to go to work. I think that we would describe that as slightly indiscriminate.

Mr McCann intervened to express concern about laypeople or civil servants having the kinds of responsi­bilities that this Bill will give them. Dolores Kelly talked about parts of the Bill and about the historic dependence on benefits that there is in this part of Ireland due mainly, of course, to the lack of employ­ment that, for historic reasons, there has been in certain areas. The reluctance of employers to employ mentally ill people was also mentioned. It is difficult for these people to integrate themselves into the workforce because of stigma, discrimination and sometimes even fear.

Sanctions have been mentioned repeatedly. One of the points that was made was that they do not take account of the fluctuating, unsteady nature of mental illness. On one day a person can be quite happy to go to work or attend a tribunal, yet on another they would just not be mentally fit to do so. It appears that there may be a presumption against incapacity benefit, rather than the presumption in favour of it that we had before.

Mr Dodds spoke about the difficulty that there would be if the Bill going through Parliament at West­minster was not accepted here — there would be problems with cost and difficulties with the system here. He also mentioned the important statistic that the number of people over the age of 25 who are receiving incapacity benefit has risen dramatically, for whatever reason.

Mr Ramsey intervened to say that while the stated aim of this Bill is to get people back to work, there is a strong element of penny-pinching. Mr Kennedy spoke again about the provisions of the British Parliament applying here, and he mentioned the names of a good number of mental-health charities and support groups that have expressed concern about this legislation, not least about non-attendance at work-focused interviews resulting in the reduction of benefits. Again, that does not take into account how the condition of a mentally ill person can change from day to day.

A question was also raised about whether, in fact, getting mentally ill people back to work is necessarily beneficial to their condition, and there is no evidence to show that it is. Perhaps at times it is anything but beneficial. Mr McCarthy welcomed getting ill people back to work. That is what we would like to see, all things being equal. He also mentioned the importance of promoting understanding of mental illness among the general population. We are much better at that than we used to be. We accept and deal with people in a much more politically correct way than we used to. These people should obviously be helped to assimilate into workplaces as well as into society in general. Mr McCarthy also warned about the possibility of this rather stern system forcing people back to work who are not fit for it, and that is likely to happen.

There was general concern about certain aspects of the Bill. Mr Sammy Wilson was very concerned about Sinn Féin’s attitude to the Bill, although he was probably more concerned about Sinn Féin than about its Members remarks. However, he commented that we can either take it or leave. If it is going to be made legislation for this part of Ireland, we either take it or leave it and we really should not express any opinions critical of it. He may have a point.

I am afraid that I ran out of paper at that stage, so I must apologise for giving short shrift to the Members who spoke later in the debate. I must, of course, give Kathy Stanton some time. She raised the interesting point that people who receive compensation in tragic circumstances are precluded from accessing benefits. Perhaps that should be looked at: should such insurance payments interfere with people’s entitlements in the normal course of events? She also pointed out that the condition of people who are ill can change from day to day.

Mary Bradley, a former mental-health worker, was critical of funding for the mentally ill, whether it is hospital funding, care funding or, as in this case, benefit funding. She felt that, over the years, mentally ill people and those with chronic health problems have not received the attention that they were due. Mr Morrow was not convinced that a local Assembly would do any better than the very clever people in England who know more about these things than we do.

That is about all that I have to say, except that —

3:15 am
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Jim Wells (DUP)

Order. There seems to have been some confusion. The Member’s party indicated that Mr O’Dowd was going to make the winding-up speech, and therefore 15 minutes was allocated to him. We are not at that stage yet; there are other Members who have still to speak. Mr Brolly, unfortunately, will have to be restricted to 10 minutes. I propose to call several other Members to speak, and then Mr Alban Maginness, who will have 10 minutes to wind up on the amendment. After that, Mr O’Dowd can formally wind up the debate — he does not have to take 15 minutes. The indication that we received was that Mr O’Dowd was going to make the winding-up speech, and therefore we put Mr Brolly ahead of other Members. There is no way around this; we have to go by Standing Orders. Therefore, Mr Brolly’s time is up.

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Francie Brolly (Sinn Féin)

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I just want to assure the House that the best was yet to come.

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Jim Wells (DUP)

I suggest that you hand the rest of your speech to Mr O’Dowd and let him conclude your remarks.

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Jim Shannon (DUP)

As of February 2006, there were 113,000 people in the Province claiming incapacity benefit, 170,000 claiming disability living allowance, just over 100,000 on income support, and some 63,000 claiming attendance allowance. Unemployment in the Province has fallen by 2% in the past quarter, with a decrease over a year of just under 1,000 people claiming jobseeker’s allowance. Northern Ireland has the lowest unemployment rate in the UK and a decline in the rate of those being awarded certain benefits. Why are we being presented with a Welfare Reform Bill that would  scrap the old system, and bring in new terms and conditions that are dubious, to say the least?

Ther’s nae point in lettin oan that tha sistam we hae noo is purfect, am that ther er naen whau disnae tak guid o’ tha provishun o’ tha benefits. But iver aw we er seein deep doon checks an far mare stronger missures tae complete afore tha award.

Tha Weelfaer Refoarm Bill maks — amangst mony ither changes — provishun fer a new benefit, tha employmentan suppoart allooance (ASA) fer the tak iver fae tha incapacity benefit. This wull bring tha gither baith allooances an will meen as weel, a means tested allooance, whuch is a mixtur o’ incum suppoart, an incapacity benefits. This is missured by a persn haein a capability fer woark but is limited by ther fisical er mental conditshun that it wudnae be reasonable fer tae expect theim tae woark.

There is no point in pretending that the current system is perfect and that no one is taking advantage of the benefits system. There are now more in-depth checks and more stringent criteria to fulfil before benefits are received. The Welfare Reform Bill makes — among many other changes —provision for a new benefit, the employment and support allowance, to replace incapacity benefit. ESA will incorporate a contributory and a means-tested allowance — a mixture of income support and incapacity benefit — which is assessed by a person’s physical or mental position, and it is not reasonable to require him to work.

The assessment of a person’s capability to work will take place over an initial 13-week assessment phase and will include an assessment as to whether that person has the ability to work in work-related activity, thereby making him more useful to society as a whole. Such people will then claim benefits depending on whether they have been assessed as entitled to the “support component” or “limited capacity for work-related activity”. If those who are assessing such people find that they have the ability to return to employment, their benefits can be topped up by attending training, trials and interviews and agreeing action plans. Claimants who refuse to take part in such assessments can have their benefits sanctioned and reduced to the basic level.

What happens to a man, with three children, suffering severe depression after an accident? His wounds have healed, but he is left with crippling depression. Getting out of bed to take a test judged by strangers is nearly impossible. His body has healed, but his mind still reels. That man will be penalised by having his benefits reduced. He is still in the same situation and still has three children to feed, but he cannot do that on lower benefits and so the ruthless cycle continues.

It is aa fact kent personally by maesel that in tha caes o’ heed injury, its aa lang process o’ rehabilitation, aa process whuch is frustratin an lang drawn oot, an cannae be rushed.

Aa maun whau hiss’ abilities yin dae, caun loas theim tha nixt. An laek aa waen hiss’ tae larn ivery step an actshun agin.

This process shud nae be rushed in a effirt tae git benefits, which is whut is scarinly an in aw proabability sumthin that is used as aa carrut tae push sumyin awa abin ther capabilities, tae ther detriment in tha lang rin.

People who suffer head injuries face a long process of rehabilitation, and I have personal experience of this. That process is frustrating and drawn out, but it cannot be rushed. A man can possess abilities one day and can lose them the next in a split second, and, like a child, has to learn every step and action again. That learning process should not be rushed just to gain a top-up in benefits. Frighteningly, and in all probability, a top-up in benefits is something that could be used as a carrot to push people beyond their capabilities, which would be to their detriment in the long run.

Pathways to Work was piloted in 2003 in an attempt to help those claiming incapacity benefit to return to work. It is a laudable idea if it is used merely as a tool aimed to assist those who have the desire and ability to get back to work. However, there is a fear that it could be a way of forcing those physically or mentally unable to return to work into the position in which they must work to feed their children, even if their health is weak.

The area of mental health is precarious in any society, but it is especially so in the Province and other places bombarded by terrorism — as we have been for the past 30 years. There are those among us who have witnessed unspeakable horrors, been traumatised, lost loved ones and never recovered, and there are those who still mourn. Northern Ireland has a high rate of mental-health problems, and all of those issues make it a lot more understandable to those who try to under­stand. However, given that there are some who only see figures, there is a fear that the people who suffer will be disregarded and overlooked.

It is feared that there will never be a test that could adequately and accurately determine someone’s ability to be involved in the working world.

The Northern Ireland Neurological Charities Alliance (NINCA), a coalition of groups that support people with MS, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy and many other conditions, has stated its fear of the impact that the legislation will have on the groups it represents, and rightly so.

We have a duty to protect the vulnerable, not to put them through more heartache than they already suffer. Employment is an important factor. What businessman would employ someone whom they knew to have been seriously unwell and who, in all likelihood, is not fully recovered from their illness? Who would employ someone who is being pushed into work before they are able to do a job adequately or who may be unreliable because of a medical problem? Not many businesses can take such risks on such uncertainties. What happens when no one can employ that person? Will that affect the benefit top-up system?

There are too many uncertainties in the proposed legislation. How can a person’s mental ability or capability to work be accurately tested? How can we assess whether a person cannot face the workplace or is merely avoiding employment? How do we find the perfect placements that help someone along rather than trail them backwards? How can it be ensured that a workplace environment is suitable for the delicacies of a particular individual? It can never be fair to force a person with mental-health problems back into society when he or she is not ready.

In no way do I accept that people cannot ever recover from mental illness or brain injuries. I am all too aware of the steep road that must be climbed, step by excruciating step. For the state to strong-arm their way in this matter will only load more stress and unhappiness onto sufferers and their families. As it stands, the Province’s neurological and mental health care provision is inadequate. There are no centres of excellence, no real aftercare system, and little help for the wounded and their families. We cannot heap yet more stress and tension on them by exposing them to yet more pressure.

This attempt to integrate people into society is, indeed, noble and will be worthwhile, if enacted in the right spirit and at the right time. However, I do not believe that the Welfare Reform Bill provides an adequate framework for that task. Such a sensitive issue should not be tackled in this manner, and we must do all that we can to protect not only the vulnerable, but their husbands, wives and children.

We want people to be working and doing their bit, and we want fewer families to be dependent on the state. We want to get people on benefits who are capable of work into satisfying jobs, but not at the sacrifice of the health of those who are truly unable to work again yet who are being pushed into doing so. As Members of this Assembly, we must make it very clear that that is unacceptable.

3:30 am
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Michael Copeland (UUP)

Mr Deputy Speaker, I apologise for my absence for Mr Shannon’s contribution. As you may be aware, there were several bomb scares in Belfast and in my constituency this afternoon. I was called away from the House, but I am pleased to say that the bomb scares were hoaxes. Nevertheless, this afternoon’s events serve a salutary warning to Members of what happened in our past and what, God forbid, our future may hold.

I must admit that, before I became an elected representative, I held certain views about those in receipt of what are euphemistically called benefits. Those views were based on little knowledge and a degree of social prejudice. However, working in my constituency office over the past few years has put faces to what I previously judged as mere statistics. For a family to be required to get — in some people’s views — something for nothing is a difficult and bitter pill to swallow.

I have had difficulty in completing disability living allowance forms on behalf of constituents because the forms run to 30 or 40 pages.

I have seen cases where two people are ostensibly in the same circumstances, but whose entitlement to the benefit appears to be based, not on their circumstances, but on their ability to fill in the form. I have seen, as have most Members, what I consider to be borderline cases, or people who should not be entitled to the benefit, in receipt of it, while genuine cases are denied it.

A society is judged properly not on how it treats the majority of its citizens, but on how it deals with those who are least able to look after themselves.

Photo of John Dallat

Does the Member agree that, while there has been much emphasis on fraud in today’s debate, precious little has been said about the millions of pounds that go unclaimed every year. That is money to which people at the lowest end of the social spectrum are entitled. Given that the Government have Big Brother computers to catch people who commit the most minor offences, they seem still to have no capability to discover people who are missing out on millions of pounds of benefits every year.

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Michael Copeland (UUP)

I agree with the Member, and that leads me to a specific case that came to my attention on Saturday. A young man — he is 25; that is young compared to me — earns £85 a week from part-time work. He acquired his home of 14 years through living with his grandfather — the tenancy was transferred to him on his grandfather’s death. His income of £85 a week caused him difficulty with paying his rent, and he fell into arrears of £347. He was taken to court by the Housing Executive and appears to be facing eviction. He has received a bill for about 90% of the rent that he owed. However, owing to the cost of his court case, the bill may as well be for £1 million, because he does not have the wherewithal to pay it. Unless I can intervene, it is likely that he will be forced from his home. He will become another statistic, another blip and another difficulty for another Department.

All legislation, whether it has its root here or in Westminster, is designed to deal with the norm, or standard, of the greater number of cases, but it impacts on individual people and families. The Welfare Reform Bill that is making its way through Parliament in Westminster will not apply to Northern Ireland. Fair enough. However, a separate Order in Council will be made for Northern Ireland based on the provisions of the GB Bill. I am not sure that all the heart-rending, tears and angst that we display today will account for anything, because the decision will be made in another place.

The benefits system was designed when children in this country had no shoes, little food and died from cholera because of unclean water. Society has moved on, and some people see benefits as a replacement for work and income. That cannot be sustained. Any legislation must strike a balance between satisfying the needs of those who are able to provide from their taxes to develop a society in which they are proud to live and assisting those who cannot look after themselves.

Specific mention has been made of those who suffer from what is described as mental illness. That encompasses many conditions, some of which, such as extreme tiredness or depression, are thought by some not to exist. I have seen people who are depressed, and those conditions exist. The system is so complex and convoluted that even those who are entitled to benefits sometimes give up their claim.

The young man whom I referred to earns £85 a week — only just the minimum wage. Substantial numbers of people in my constituency earn less than the minimum wage.

I have no doubt that the man on £85 a week may be entitled to support from the state. However, access to it, and the ability to enquire without being fobbed off, is not available to him.

An enormous number of people view the receipt of state benefits as charity. They live in fear of what they call the “workhouse”, something that is long gone. There is a pride that comes from work and being able to pay your own way.

If legislation does not level out the humps and hollows, give access and entitlement to those who are entitled and take whatever steps are possible to prevent abuse of the system, it is not worth the paper it is written on. I appeal to those who are bringing forward this legislation, particularly those who represent Northern Ireland in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords, to consider all legislation in terms of the citizens it will affect, rather than its impact on the state or its bottom-line cost.

The building blocks of all of this, that each and every one of us in this Chamber should accept and fight for as equals, are the rights of the people who sent us here — whether they voted for us or not.

Some Members:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Alban Maginness

One of the greatest achievements in the post-war era, certainly in western Europe, was the establishment of what is now called the European social model. It is based on social democratic principles, so that everyone in society is protected, and there is social security so that those who are vulnerable, or disadvantaged, are given an opportunity at least to maintain their existence and to live as full a life as possible.

The creation of the welfare state, in particular in Britain by the Labour Government in 1945, was an amazing achievement and should be precious to us all. It is certainly precious to us in the SDLP. We will rightly defend that achievement, because it has given the whole of our community some sense of social security when otherwise they would be undermined. Therefore, it is important for the SDLP as a political party to emphasise that.

That does not mean that the SDLP is opposed to the reform of the social security system or the welfare state. We accept the need for reform. All processes and systems need to be reviewed from time to time. However, the basic principle of protecting people, especially vulnerable people, must be affirmed. This House should affirm it.

The SDLP amendment simply emphasises the need to protect sufferers of mental illness. Forty one per cent of incapacity benefit claimants in Northern Ireland suffer from mental illness. The SDLP has put forward this amendment to safeguard their interests. It is not incompatible with Mr O’Dowd’s motion. Members are all grateful to him for bringing it to the attention of this House today, and are supportive of the motion, which expresses deep concern for the implications of the Welfare Reform Bill. The SDLP is not opposed to that Bill, but the party certainly has deep concerns about some aspects of it.

Mr Dodds, in a clear and forensic contribution, emphasised the importance of parity. My party accepts that there should be parity as a sensible concomitant of the social security system in Northern Ireland. There is consensus in the House that parity should be maintained to protect the integrity of that system. It will help and protect everyone in our society. The SDLP is against neither parity nor welfare reform.

Mr Wilson came into the House today with his verbal shotgun and fired a few rounds across these Benches. He is an expert marksman; of that there is no doubt. Unfortunately, he hit the wrong targets. He expected the SDLP and Sinn Féin to be opposed to the Welfare Reform Bill, but we are not opposed to the Bill or to reform.

I was slightly concerned by some of the comments made by Members on the Benches opposite, particularly the DUP Benches. They overemphasised welfare fraud, made scapegoats of people, and stressed scrounging and exploitation of the system. The vast majority of claimants are decent and in need, and they must be supported. As Mr Dallat emphasised, many who are entitled do not claim. Those unclaimed benefits substantially outweigh the claims that fraudulently exploit the system. Members on this side of the House emphasise the importance of need; we certainly do not approve of greedy people exploiting the system. There is human weakness everywhere in society; greed is one aspect of that, and from time to time it will manifest itself.

Jim Shannon was right, in his compassionate speech, to emphasise the needs of those suffering from mental illness. Recovery from that condition is a steep hill to climb, and we must be compassionate. My colleague Mrs Kelly stressed that those who suffer from such illnesses will become concerned, anxious and fearful if a new system seeks to coerce them into employment at a time when they are unable to enjoy work or be productive.

It is important that Members take note of what has been said by the various charities and organisations. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned that, in certain circumstances, those suffering from mental illness can become fearful and anxious; they are easily put under great pressure. It has emphasised to Parliament the importance of protecting the mentally ill, and it speaks with real authority. It acknowledges the benefit of reform, but also sees the downside of forcing people into employment in circumstances where they cannot cope. Members should heed that timely warning from such an authoritative body.

MIND, the organisation for those suffering from mental health, has emphasised that the conditionality requirements under the new legislation could be too onerous. It is important to emphasise that point in the House today. MIND and the Mental Health Foundation also highlight the fact that employers discriminate against people who suffer from mental illness. A survey indicated that 18% of employers would not employ anyone suffering, or recovering from, mental-health illnesses. That statistic serves as a timely warning to every Member, because if those people are to return to employment, a market in which they are welcome must be created.

It has been a good debate in which Members from all sides of the House have stressed important points: we should be caring and considerate; we are not against change; and compassion is an important element of any new welfare system. The system must not be bureaucratic and complex; rather, it must meet people’s needs. By applying common sense instead of bureaucracy, the noble goals of bringing people back into the workplace and meeting the needs of the vulnerable in society can be achieved.

Photo of John O'Dowd

John O'Dowd (Sinn Féin)

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am reminded of another occasion in the Assembly: did I, or did I not, indicate that mine was to be the winding-up speech? I do not think that there should be any further statements from the 12 apostles of the DUP. However, we never know what they will do: they may release a statement on something.

The debate is important, because Sinn Féin is trying to ensure that a system is in place to enable those who are currently on incapacity benefit, and capable of returning to work, to do so. Some Members on the Benches opposite said that they agreed with the principle of the Welfare Reform Bill. However, at this stage, simply agreeing with the principle of the Bill is not enough. The question now is whether Members agree with all the Bill’s 264 clauses, many of which lobbying and advocate groups for the most vulnerable in society have described as coercive. Many of the clauses would force people back to work.

Mr Morrow spoke at length about a case of benefit fraud in which the guy involved was an athlete, and so on, and so forth. I left the Chamber to find my notes, because I too can cite a case — of a young, single mother of two young children, who has severe mental-health problems. She took part in a pilot scheme in England, under which she was left with the impression that she had to return to work. She duly did so and lasted a week. She lost her job, left home, abandoning her two children, and became homeless — all because she was under the impression that she had failed and had to find work. That case represents the opposite extreme of the misuse of so-called welfare reform.

The Bill is wrong, because it is not concerned with encouraging people to return to work: it is a money-saving exercise designed to slash the number of people on incapacity benefit. Had the Bill been properly thought out, there would be adequately resourced systems and professionally trained and qualified client advisers — as opposed to civil servants being trained to do the jobs of professional medics — and cases such as the one that I have just outlined would not have happened.

Photo of Lord  Morrow

Lord Morrow (DUP)

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am slightly confused: is the Member deeply concerned about the implications of the Bill or opposed to it?

Photo of Barry McElduff

Barry McElduff (Sinn Féin)

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Was that a point of order?

[Laughter.]

Photo of John O'Dowd

John O'Dowd (Sinn Féin)

I will not respond to a point of order if it is not a point of order. As Mr Morrow keeps telling Members, the ruling of the Speaker is final.

Everybody agrees that we need a system that encourages and allows people to return to work. However, that system should not penalise people for being mentally ill, for suffering from a disability or for having a neurological condition. The Welfare Reform Bill that is now passing through the British House of Lords does not have that scope. I welcome the comments of Jim Shannon, who also raised deep concerns about the Bill.

The amendment is, without doubt, well intentioned. There was a mix-up that could have been resolved if we had had a chance to talk to the SDLP beforehand. However, were my party to support the amendment, the words “including neurological patients” would be eradicated from the motion, to be replaced with “especially those people with mental ill health”.

The mental ill-health lobby’s voice has been well heard through the lobbying that has been done this afternoon. Members could include those suffering from mental ill health under “vulnerable groups” in the text of the motion, as we could those with neurological illnesses. I accept that the amendment was made in good faith. However, history will not record it that way. This is one of those cases in which we are damned if we do and damned if we do not. Members will have to see how the vote goes.

(Madam Speaker in the Chair)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 25; Noes 10.

Ayes

Billy Armstrong, Mary Bradley, Wilson Clyde, Robert Coulter, John Dallat, Diane Dodds, Nigel Dodds, Jeffrey Donaldson, Mark Durkan, Alex Easton, Tom Elliott, Sean Farren, Tommy Gallagher, Derek Hussey, Dolores Kelly, Danny Kennedy, Alban Maginness, Nelson McCausland, Lord Morrow, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Pat Ramsey, Margaret Ritchie, Jim Shannon, Peter Weir.

Tellers for the Ayes: John Dallat and Margaret Ritchie.

Noes

Francie Brolly, Fra McCann, Barry McElduff, Martin McGuinness, Mitchel McLaughlin, Francie Molloy, John O’Dowd, Sue Ramsey, Caitriona Ruane, Kathy Stanton.

Tellers for the Noes: Fra McCann and Kathy Stanton.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly expresses deep concern about the implications of the Welfare Reform Bill, particularly the introduction of a new coercive regime into benefit administration, and its impact on a number of vulnerable groups, especially those people with mental ill health.

Adjourned at 4.10 pm.