Clause 2 — Work-related activity: income support claimants and partners of claimants

Food Labelling Regulations (Amendment) – in the House of Commons at 8:30 pm on 17th March 2009.

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Amendment proposed: 35, page 4, line 22 , at end insert—

'(A1) This section does not apply in the case of a single parent with a child under five years of age.'.— (Mr. Clappison.)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The House divided: Ayes 217, Noes 260.

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Division number 76 Food Labelling Regulations (Amendment) — Clause 2 — Work-related activity: income support claimants and partners of claimants

Aye: 215 MPs

No: 259 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Abstained: 1 MP

Abstaineds: A-Z by last name

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Question accordingly negatived.

Third Reading.

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Before I call the Secretary of State, may I inform the House that Mr. Speaker has not selected the amendment in the name of Mr. Field?

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Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions 9:04 pm, 17th March 2009

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I thank Members from all parts of the House for the scrutiny that they have given the Bill as it has gone through its Commons stages. Genuine concerns have been raised on all sides, and it is a better Bill as a consequence of that scrutiny. I thank the members of the Select Committee, who did such a good job of scrutinising the Bill, as well as the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend Mr. Rooney. It is important that I thank in particular my hon. Friend John Robertson, who has done exactly what a Labour MP should do. [Interruption.] He is rushing to his seat. His amendment on the disability living allowance for blind people encapsulates the principle of the Bill, which is about more help for people who need it most. We believe that disabled people should have exactly the same rights in life as anybody else.

I thank not only my hon. Friend, but the coalition that made this possible, including the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Sir John Butterfill; we should recognise that he played an important part. I also thank in particular my right hon. Friends the Members for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) and for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) and my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) and for Kingswood (Roger Berry). They have argued long and hard for the measure, which is not only right but has commanded support on both sides of the House.

I say that—it was, however, hard to tell from the speech made by Mr. Harper what the Conservative party's position was. When there are spending decisions to be taken about millionaires, its view is clear. However, when it came to working out what it thought about giving extra help to people who are disabled and blind, it had to wait for a Labour Government to show the way. Frankly, that will be noticed not just by blind people but by anybody who cares about social justice in this country.

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Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

In the last debate, it was difficult to spot any reference by Her Majesty's Government to when the new commitment to fund the higher-rate mobility component would kick in. What year will that funding commitment arrive and is the Secretary of State happy with the definition of "blind" put forward by the RNIB?

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Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I pay tribute to the fact that the hon. Gentleman raised that issue at oral questions yesterday. Yes, the definition is the same as that suggested by the RNIB, and we are committed to introducing the measure from April 2011; I hope that I have given him the clear information that he is after.

Finally, I thank my ministerial team, who have done such a fantastic job in taking the Bill through, and both Opposition Front Benchers; the debates have been courteous even when we have disagreed.

The Government believe in the welfare state. It embodies the conviction that we are more than just self-interested individuals, that there is such a thing as society and that we judge the moral value of a society by how it treats its poorest citizens. The Bill is aimed squarely at that principle. It rests on a belief in the dignity of work—a belief that work will always be the best route out of poverty, the best way for people to achieve their aspirations and the best hope that the next generation will do better than the last. That vision underpins the reforms. It is a vision of a supportive welfare state to help people to overcome the barriers in their way, but an active welfare state to make sure that as many people as can overcome those barriers do so.

The Bill takes forward the work done by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who started this process when he was Employment Minister and I was Pensions Minister. His proposals are coming in as we speak and are making a big difference to people all around the country. They establish further in legislation the principle that virtually everyone on benefits should be doing something in return for them and that those people should prepare themselves for work in a way that is appropriate for them.

By contrast, the Opposition have proved tonight that they are simply not serious about welfare reform. They still believe that the welfare state is the problem rather than the solution to people's problems. They have shown tonight that they have no positive vision for the reform of the welfare state and that they want not to change lives with welfare, but to play politics with it. There were months of tough talk on welfare and of stigmatising people in the national papers, but when the time came to take real action, they failed the test that their leader set for these reforms.

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Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I will tell the hon. Gentleman; I will quote to him what the Leader of the Opposition said when these proposals were published:

"the government should know that if they have a problem with their back benchers then the Conservative Party under my leadership will do the right thing and will back them up and make sure we reform welfare properly."

When we published the Green Paper, when we published the White Paper and on Second Reading, the Conservatives stood at that Dispatch Box and said that they would support our proposals. But tonight, this Bill and these proposals have not gone through with Conservative support; they have gone through despite the Conservatives. They voted against the proposals that we have just put forward—proposals that were supported by David Freud and by Mr. Duncan Smith. The Opposition cannot say that they believe in welfare reform, but when it comes to the test, vote against those very proposals.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am not quite sure where the right hon. Gentleman has been this evening because he obviously has not been listening to the debate. I point out to him that had it not been for our support, the Government would have lost the vote on amendment 11—an amendment to wreck this Bill tabled by Labour Back Benchers.

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Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions

That is simply not correct because I was here. The right hon. Lady was not in the Chamber. I have been here for the last two hours, and she is simply wrong to say that.

This Bill has gone through despite the opposition of Her Majesty's Opposition and it has gone through as a Labour Bill. They said that it would go through only with their support; it has gone through despite their opposition. That shows that they are not serious about welfare reform. From tonight onward, we will hear no more about them fixing the broken society and we will hear no more about them making greater savings on the welfare state than this Government, because when it came to the crunch, they were not prepared to support welfare reform. That will be noticed all around the country.

The Bill has been passed with Labour votes for one simple reason: we believe in the values of the welfare state. We believe that by reforming the welfare state we can better achieve those values, and we know that doing nothing, which is what the Opposition propose, would mean condemning too many people to being trapped on benefits, just as they were under the previous Tory Government.

The principle that virtually everyone should be on a journey back to work is so simple that it seems self-evident. There are those for whom a job is not appropriate right now—people with very young children, those with caring responsibilities or those with the most serious illnesses or disabilities—and the exact same pattern of conditionality will continue to apply to them. However, for the vast majority of our population, work is clearly preferable to being unemployed, so we will provide greater support for people to get into work. For example, we pay thousands of pounds to lone parents as a premium, on top of their pay, when they go back into work.

We should expect people to take up support because we know that if it is a matter of people simply volunteering for it, fewer people will take it up and fewer lives will be changed. That expectation—matching support with the responsibility to take it up—is nothing new. It was in the National Insurance Act 1911, it was reinforced in Beveridge's report and it was enacted by the 1945 Labour Government, who believed that the state should in no way stifle responsibility.

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Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

I am listening carefully to what the Secretary of State is saying. Why did he not support the amendment tabled by one of his own Back Benchers that would have ensured that lone parents received the same additional premium that employment and support allowance claimants get for undertaking work for their benefits?

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Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Those people actually receive a greater premium. They receive £40 if they are outside London and £60 if they are in London. They get thousands of pounds—they get housing benefit run-ons and they get up to £300 in support to cover things such as buying a suit for an interview and travel to that interview. Support for lone parents has been completely transformed since this Government came to power.

There has never been anything left-wing about leaving people to a lifetime on benefits, which is why the Bill will ensure that people have every chance of getting back into work, but with an obligation to take up that support as well. The same principle is true of disabled people. They should have the same rights as everybody else, and the same right to work as anybody else. At the moment, society discriminates against people by not giving them the same chance to work, and the Bill is a big step towards putting that right by giving disabled people the right to have control over the support that they get. If they are happy with the support that they get from the state, they are fine to continue with it, but with the right to have control over that support, they will be able to decide how they can spend that money.

Exactly the same principle underpins why problem drug users will be expected to take up treatment, instead of just putting money into the pockets of drug dealers—a policy that, again, the Opposition sought to oppose.

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Photo of Mike Wood Mike Wood Labour, Batley and Spen

Will the Secretary of State make it clear whether he thinks that the amount of treatment necessary is actually available?

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Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Yes, I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. We will ensure that we pilot the scheme in areas that are able to provide that treatment. If it were not available, that would be a good reason for that conditionality not to be applied, but we intend to pilot the scheme in areas where we are assured that that is absolutely possible.

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Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

Does the Secretary of State agree that some of the money that is to be cut from benefits to drug dealers—I mean drug addicts—would in fact not have gone to drug dealers but would have been spent on food for the children of drug addicts, and that those children will now suffer?

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Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The hon. Gentleman's Freudian slip is exactly the problem. If we do not help people to get clean from drugs, the money will go into the pockets of drug dealers. That in no way helps children. The Scottish National party lives on a completely different planet. It somehow thinks that if we give benefits to parents who are on drugs, that money will get to the children. The way to help children is to ensure that we give people every support and incentive to get clean so that they can give their children more money. Even at this late stage, the SNP should reconsider its position on that. We are clear that, if the SNP Government will not work with us to address serious drug taking, we will work with councils in Scotland to ensure that children can get exactly that help.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Has the Secretary of State considered the extent to which forced treatment, whereby patients are threatened with sanctions if they do not accept it, is compatible with the new NHS constitution?

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Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Yes, we absolutely have. We work closely with the Department of Health and we are not forcing people to take treatment. We are forcing them to ensure that they turn up to an interview to discuss their personal action plan and take steps to address their drug problem. That is absolutely consistent with the principles not just of the NHS constitution but of the medical profession. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

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Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

Will the Secretary of State consider Essex as one of the pilot areas and continue to focus on creating more residential places for rehabilitation treatment? On a wider note, I congratulate the Government on listening and on delivering the Bill, which will take us a step forward. Does he accept that there is still more work to do on removing benefit traps to work—the reduction of council tax and the loss of housing benefit? We still have much more work to do on that.

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Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions

I am very happy to consider whether Essex would be a good candidate, and I would be happy for the hon. Gentleman to make a representation on that.

The proposals in the Bill are right because they will give people more help to get back into work. We should be thinking not just about people who are on the JSA account but about lone parents and those who are sick and disabled. If we did not take the proposals forward now, as some people have suggested, that would mean less help for the people who are furthest away from the labour market. That is precisely the mistake that was made in the past, and we will not repeat it.

In this Third Reading debate so far, it has been interesting to see the irritation among those on the Opposition Front Bench at my accusation that the Opposition are opposing the Bill. The facts are absolutely clear. When asked about the drugs proposals, the predecessor of Mrs. May said that

"We should just apply the current rules", and that the proposals were window dressing. When the proposals to take passports and driving licences away from people who do not live up to their responsibilities went to the other place, the Conservatives ensured that it did not go through. Tonight, when asked whether they would support the reforms in the Bill, having said that they would do so, they voted against them. They are not serious about welfare, and tonight the whole country can see that.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am grateful to the Secretary of State. It was not entirely clear whether he had finished his speech with that peroration. He talks a lot about comments that he claims were made in the past. In fact, his reference to the comments on the drugs issue of my predecessor, my hon. Friend Chris Grayling, is wrong, as I pointed out on Second Reading. However, he has so far not cited a single occasion when we have shown opposition to the Bill. How many times did we vote against the Government on the Bill in Committee?

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Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions

The right hon. Lady's party has just voted against it in the last Division. I do not know what planet she is on—it is quite extraordinary. The test of whether the Opposition support the Bill is whether they vote for it. How could it be less complicated? Her party's leader said that the Bill would go through only with the Opposition's support. They tried to have a political strategy of having their cake and eating it, but it has exploded in her face and that of and her leader. They oppose the welfare reform proposals. When we pointed out that they were opposing treatment for people who are addicted to drugs, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell said in the Daily Express on Thursday 11 December—I can quote the article if the right hon. Lady wants—that we were "window dressing" and that we should simply "apply the current rules". When we outlined what the Opposition were effectively opposing, they beat a retreat because they were embarrassed. When we pointed out that they opposed ensuring that passports and driving licences could be taken away from deadbeat dads, they were embarrassed and ran away from that position. Tonight, they were not clever enough to work out that their political strategy would expose the fact that they are not serious about welfare reform. That is what we conclude from the debate.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 9:20 pm, 17th March 2009

I join the Secretary of State in thanking all those who were involved in the Bill's passage and all those who contributed to the debates, especially hon. Members who served on the Public Bill Committee—I think that the Secretary of State meant the Public Bill Committee when he referred to the Select Committee—and, in particular, my hon. Friends the Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), who took the Bill through the Committee. The Committee Chairmen who provided guidance are also due our thanks, as are other members of the Committee, including my right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley and my hon. Friend John Howell. The Committee examined the Bill in detail and produced what I hope and believe will be a workable measure.

Ministers have heard many arguments during the Bill's passage and they appear to have listened to some. The cross-party co-operation in Committee and this evening is commendable and further proof of the strength of feeling in the Chamber about the issues. However, the measure has been introduced in difficult circumstances: the country is in the grip of severe recession and many have questioned whether now is the time to reform our welfare system. We believe that now is absolutely the time for reform and that the recession makes that more, not less urgent. I said that to the Secretary of State on Second Reading. I also said that he was right to press ahead and that we would support the Government, as we have done.

I told the Secretary of State that we would help drive welfare reform because it is right for the country. I assured him that Conservative Members would support the Bill. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State mutters, "You've just voted against it." I pointed out in my intervention on him that, without our votes on the wrecking amendment that Labour Back Benchers tabled, the Government would have lost. The opposition to the Bill has come from the Labour party, not the Opposition.

The Secretary of State's speech on Third Reading was a sign of the Government's desperation. He related a complete fiction about the Opposition's attitude to welfare reform and the Bill. He has created a new principle for debate in the House: if one tables an amendment to a specific clause in a measure, one obviously opposes the whole Bill. That is interesting, given the number of Government amendments that are normally tabled to Bills. He is establishing a ridiculous principle because he is desperate to try to prove that we do not support the Government on welfare reform.

The Secretary of State is wrong—I pointed that out in a point of order yesterday. We all know what Ministers do: they think that if they say something often enough, everybody will miss the fact that they are wrong and start to believe that it is correct. I put it firmly on the record again—as I did on Second Reading and as my hon. Friends did in Committee—that we support welfare reform and the Bill.

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Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Does the right hon. Lady acknowledge that her party leader called the proposal shameful and will she say how she voted in the last Division?

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I did indeed vote in the last Division, and in favour of an amendment to the Bill which we moved. However, as I have said, if the Secretary of State is pretending that anybody who votes for an amendment to a Bill is voting against the Bill, he has created a dangerous precedent for the Government in relation to their amendments to future Bills. That is a sign of complete desperation from the Government, because the Secretary of State cannot accept that we support him on this Bill and that the opposition to it comes not from the Conservative party, but from his Labour Back Benchers.

There have been issues on which we have pressed the Government to go further. For example, we would have liked them to go further on the right for disabled people to have control over the services that are provided for them. Sadly, the Secretary of State is not going far enough on that, which I suspect is an issue to which we shall return in future debates on the Bill.

Many of the provisions in the Secretary of State's Bill can be traced back to the Conservative party manifesto in the 2001 general election. Our "Britain Works" proposals advocated paying

"private contractors a fee to take an unemployed person on, and a success fee if they find them a job."

We set out in our manifesto eight years ago the steps that we thought were necessary for welfare reform. The Government have finally come round to our proposals, although it is rather too late for many thousands of people.

The Government had the opportunity to take on welfare reform earlier. Mr. Field was asked to "think the unthinkable". Unfortunately, the Labour Government were not prepared to adopt the unthinkable. The right hon. Gentleman, who is well respected across the House for the work that he puts in and for his knowledge and expertise, came forward with proposals, but the Government were not willing to accept them. The Government shied away from welfare reform at every previous opportunity that they had. We are grateful to them for introducing the Bill now, because it is better late than never for the thousands of people whose lives have been blighted as a result of the Government's unwillingness to grasp the nettle earlier.

We welcome the Government's commitment on a disability living allowance for blind people. I am sorry about the tone taken on that issue by the Secretary of State. My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean, the shadow Minister for disabled people, has always made it clear that if the Government found the money, we would support them. I note that the Minister for disabled people said in the Chamber yesterday that the Government could not find the money and that they would not be able to go ahead, but today they have suddenly found it.

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Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Disabled People; Minister for the South East), Department for Work and Pensions

For clarification, I did not say what the right hon. Lady says I did. She should read the transcript of the remarks of Mr. Harper in Committee. He said nothing about the upper rate of DLA.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I suggest that the Minister looks at Hansard to see what he said yesterday, because he did indeed refer to the fact that he was not able to give a commitment at that stage and that he had not found the money. He referred to the Chancellor of the Exchequer walking in and said that he perhaps would now be able to find the money. However, he has not confirmed that he has found the money today. I also note that the timetable for the introduction of the new proposal in 2011 means that it will fall to a Conservative Government to introduce it.

There is one issue in particular to do with welfare reform and the benefits system that I wish to raise with the Secretary of State. It has been raised previously in debate and I hope that he will consider it. He will know that many women who are fleeing violent relationships rely on income support to fund a stay in a refuge, a place of safety where they can escape abuse. Refuges and other experts have expressed concern that moving lone parents whose youngest child is 12—in future the age will be seven—on to jobseeker's allowance, which we broadly support, will unintentionally hurt victims of domestic violence.

Asking a woman who has just fled a violent relationship to go out and search for work immediately is not appropriate. Last December, we proposed a period of grace of three months, during which time women who are housed in refuges following domestic violence will not be required to seek work in order to qualify for jobseeker's allowance. The mothers of around 3,000 children could be affected, so I hope that the Government will address the issue. Indeed, I will happily give way to the Secretary of State if he says that he will.

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Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions

We believe that that is already the case, but I can definitely give the right hon. Lady that reassurance. We would have said that on Report if the matter had come up, but it did not.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that intervention. This is an important issue, and I shall certainly be making sure that his commitment today is followed through. That will be important to many women who are fleeing from domestic violence.

Much common ground has been covered during the Bill's passage through the House, and the debate has been insightful and informative. On issues as emotive as these, there is bound to be passionate disagreement, however. Although I have not supported the arguments put forward by John McDonnell and those Labour Members who supported his position on the Bill, no one could doubt their commitment to their cause.

Welfare reform is important, and it is necessary for us to ensure that we have a welfare system that not only supports those in need but encourages people to get into the workplace, because we firmly believe that work is the best route out of poverty. We face difficult times in the recession, but we believe that welfare reform is needed now more than it has been previously. It is a great pity that this reform is not already in place. The Government had the opportunity to introduce it several years ago, but they flunked it. They dithered, and they were not prepared to go ahead with it. They have now brought forward this Bill, however, and we support it; I am happy to support its Third Reading.

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Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 9:31 pm, 17th March 2009

The Bill has two redeeming features. One is the additional powers and control that disabled people will have over services. We were unable to talk about those measures today, but we welcome them none the less. The second is the additional support for blind people that has been added to the Bill this evening, and which we also very much welcome. Without those two redeeming features, we would have had no hesitation in opposing what is otherwise a nasty Bill. The Committee did its best to scrutinise the Bill, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend Paul Rowen for his work in that regard. However, the remainder of the Bill is a very worrying piece of legislation.

We were just about to get on to the provisions for people with drug addictions, but we did not do so because we again ran out of time. I hope, however, that our noble Friends in another place will have been looking in on our debates and will perform the scrutiny that—notwithstanding the efforts of my hon. Friend and others—we were unable to do in this House. The provisions for people with drug addictions are profoundly flawed.

The serious addiction problem that we have today is the Secretary of State's addiction to cheap headlines, to talking tough and to yet more welfare crackdowns. What have we had this evening? We have had deadbeat dads, money going to drug dealers and all the rest of it. Behind all the rhetoric, however, we find ineffective policy and, for all the talk, the plans for people with drug addictions are profoundly worrying. The Government have admitted, for example, that people with a serious drug habit who are on £60 a week jobseeker's allowance will clearly be involved in crime, because they cannot feed themselves and their drug habit on £60 a week.

The Government's answer to such people is to threaten to take their money away unless they accept forced treatment. The Secretary of State said that no one was being forced to do anything and, of course, they are welcome to say no if they want to have their money taken away. The Government are breaching an important principle here. The Secretary of State is a thoughtful man, and it is rather disturbing that he has blinded himself to the principle that we do not force people to take treatment. He said that they would simply have to come in for a conversation and an appraisal, but if the appraisal found that treatment was appropriate and the individual did not accept that—or, more realistically, if they accepted it but were unable to stick to it because of the chaotic lifestyle that many of these people lead—they would face the threat of their money being taken away.

I have a simple question for the Secretary of State. Assuming that these powers are ever used, what does he think would happen next? Let us suppose that the arrangements were not 100 per cent. successful, and that some people failed to meet the conditions and were sanctioned under the powers in the Bill. What does he think would happen next? Does he think that those people would come to their senses and snap out of it and that all would be well? Or might they find some other way of getting money? Is that really what we want?

There is far too much stick in the Bill, and not nearly enough incentives. The Government have pilot programmes for people with drug problems, and they have proved effective. However, they have been based on incentives and encouragement, and on getting alongside people, not on threatening them. The Bill is riddled with new threats and new incursions into people's liberties, which we do not support. There are new provisions for taking away passports and driving licences, for example. That can already be done now, but the Government want to be able to do it without reference to a court. Their lordships threw that proposal out last time, and I hope that they will do so again.

There are also new sanctions for people who have not committed an offence, but who might have accepted a caution because they did not want the hassle of a court case. They will now be able to have their money taken off them more readily, as will people who fail to make it to interviews. That is not to mention the change to the social fund, which we did not even get round to discussing, whereby the Government originally threatened to impose store card rates of interest on people. They then backed off, but we do not know what they are going to do; we have no idea. This Bill is riddled with provisions that give Ministers an excuse for tough talk, but the policies that lie behind that talk are often ineffective.

On Report, John McDonnell mentioned something that the Ministry of Justice had done. It is interesting to note that the ministry is responsible for evidence, but when it tried out a benefit sanction for people who did not keep their community orders, it said, after several years of trying the scheme, that the evidence showed that it did not work. The ministry stopped the scheme, but the Department for Work and Pensions does not stop doing things when they do not work; it just talks tougher and passes another piece of legislation without waiting to see whether the last one has worked.

Let me now put a prediction on the record: the drug addict provisions will run for a couple of years, and then there will be a report. The policies should be carried out only if subject to an affirmative resolution, but the Government will press ahead with them simply on account of their dogma of talking tough. They will not want to sound as if they are not talking tough, so they will press on.

As I have said, if it were not for the redeeming features of the Bill, it would give my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale and me the greatest pleasure to oppose what is a fundamentally nasty Bill. The redeeming features are the provisions for disabled people and the new provisions for blind people, which we will not oppose. However, I hope that our noble Friends in the other place will do a lot to take out the fundamentally illiberal and ineffective proposals that run all the way through the Bill.

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Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead 9:36 pm, 17th March 2009

I am grateful to be called to speak in this debate. It seems that I might be the only Member who wants to vote against the Bill. Perhaps I can explain to the House and to my constituents why I find myself in that position, at a time when a genuine radical heads the Department for Work and Pensions and his team is committed to reform. Why am I unhappy that we are going through this dance in trying to put this reform programme on the statute book?

For different reasons, I agree with the concluding comments of Steve Webb—I doubt whether much of this Bill will ever see the light of day. If we had introduced it in our first Parliament—I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was probably too young to vote then, let alone lead the team—we would have lived up to our manifesto declarations and hopes for reforming the welfare state, not just because we were in favour of reform but because we wanted to look at where the new stresses were as society evolved and to share the risks and costs.

This Bill was hatched and drafted when we all—or at least most of us—believed that there would be no end to the boom. That is why we agreed to the reforms of Jobcentre Plus, why we agreed to reductions in numbers, why we voted through reductions in staff. However, the world that our constituents now confront is a very different world from the one we thought this Bill might apply to. It is a world in which unemployment is already beginning to rise, and to rise fast. If we last another year before the general election, I hope that any Bill we introduce will be relevant to the welfare reform issues that our constituents face.

I hope that I am the last Member to deny that some, maybe many, people should be more actively reintroduced to the work routine, or whatever the current jargon is. However, there have always been some people, even at the height of the boom, who wanted work but could not find it. Many of our constituents now hitting the dole queues might have worked their whole lives since leaving school and have paid 10, 20, 30 or 40 years of contributions. When they go to register, however, they find not just that they might be offered only a couple of minutes with Jobcentre Plus staff, who are now so pressed to get through the queues of people, but that they have to elbow their way between people who have never paid taxes and who have never contributed to the national insurance scheme, yet who will draw exactly the same as they will, notwithstanding their 10, 20, 30 or 40 years of paying contributions. Those constituents do not believe that the Bill meets their needs for welfare reform.

Last Friday we discussed one aspect of what welfare reform should be about: redundancy payments. Should not people who have worked hard and whose jobs are snatched from them expect to receive more compensation, so that the landing is not as tough as it would otherwise be? Should there not be a benefits system that supports people who have worked in the past—for whom work is part of their DNA—rather than putting them through the mill that we are creating, involving yet more sanctions and more doubt about whether people genuinely want to seek work?

Given my track record, I doubt that many of my constituents think I am not tough enough on the group who do not genuinely want to seek work. However, the Bill totally ignores the new poor: people who are already registering at jobcentres and who are desperate for work, scrambling for jobs, and willing to downsize in terms of the jobs and the wage packets that they accept because they think that work is so important. What does the Bill offer them? It offers them nothing. That is why I think that tonight has been a charade when it comes to establishing whether someone is a welfare reformer.

We could divide on Third Reading. We could vote against this measure. We could say that it does not in any way meet the requirements of our constituents. However, we are not going to do that. We are going to disappear into the night without a vote. I hope that before the year is out, when the unemployment totals reach unimaginable proportions, the House will get serious about welfare reform; but I think that when it does, we will not hear much about today's debate.

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Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party, Glasgow East 9:42 pm, 17th March 2009

We have seen a major U-turn by the Government. We welcome the increase in disability living allowance for people with sight problems, and for that single reason we will not vote against the Bill. However, I believe that it is a deeply flawed Bill, and, indeed, a Tory Bill with Labour window-dressing. Last July, during the Glasgow, East by-election, I said that there was no real difference between Labour and the Conservatives, and it seems to me that the Bill proves that fact.

There are some good things in the Bill, and we are happy to welcome them. The basic concept of enabling everyone who can work to do so is a good one, but it does require work to be available. Are the Government doing enough to create jobs? I do not think so. They could have used the money from the VAT cut to pay for capital projects, but they did not. They could have given borrowing powers to Scotland and Wales, but that has not happened, although it would have increased the number of jobs.

This seems a strange time to introduce such a Bill. If the underlying aim is to move people into work, how does that tie in with there being fewer and fewer jobs? We hear that there are 10 applicants for every job. If the Government are pushing one way to get people into work and the real world is pushing the other way—pushing people out of work—who will be caught in the middle? Surely it will be the ordinary, vulnerable people.

No one referred to claimants on drugs today, but I should have liked to discuss them, because they constitute one of the clearest examples of vulnerable people being hit by the Government. If we cut the benefits of people on drugs, what will happen to their children? What will happen to their families? Do we expect elderly grandparents on limited means to supply their food? Do we pressurise the parents to resort to crime—as has been mentioned—or do we expect the children to go without food?

It is easy for us in this place to become detached from reality. We have good salaries and umpteen eating places. The other week, however, a constituent came to my office who, for various reasons, had not eaten for three days that week. I do not think that that is acceptable in 2009, and I fear that the Bill will make matters worse.

We took evidence in Committee, and I asked about what would happen to the kids of drug addicts if the parents' benefits were cut. One charity that supported conditionality could not answer that question. In Committee, the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform said that the ideas about what would happen were fatuous and vacuous. He has been using such words quite a lot recently, and his resorting to personal attacks shows that his argument is weak.

We have devolved Governments nowadays, and there is nothing wrong with trying different approaches in different places. By all means, we can use England as a guinea pig for this, but we will watch and we will learn, and we will see what we want to do in our country. I do not think there is any need to get all hot and bothered because Scotland will not do things exactly the same as England. Let us have a constructive relationship between our countries. Let us not start fights with each other when we do not need to. [Laughter.] I will repeat that, as some Members might not have caught what I said: let us not start fights when we do not need to. We believe that access to treatment should be based on clinical need, not receipt of benefits. The Scottish Government are spending £29.5 million on tackling drug misuse this year and have been widely praised by experts in the drugs field.

Conditionality might work in certain circumstances, but it requires that people receive extra over the minimum benefits, so that that extra might be conditional and might be taken away. However, I believe the benefit level is so low at the moment that we cannot justifiably take any of it away.

Both in this Chamber and in Committee, we have been assured by Ministers that jobcentres will individualise and personalise their support and requirements for each individual. Do we believe that? There are superb individuals working in jobcentres, but is it possible for such a huge grinding bureaucracy truly to be concerned about the individual? Just this week, I learned of a taxi driver who had been off sick. Because of a pension, he is getting only £5.16 per week in benefits, but he has been called in for a medical assessment. What will the medical assessment cost? How is that possibly personal care? The Secretary of State may be well intentioned and give assurances in this Chamber, but is the legislation going to be applied in a harsh and draconian way?

I promised my constituents that I would judge issues at Westminster by how they affected the gap between rich and poor. In this recession, we see top bankers who have virtually destroyed their banks and half the economy walking away with knighthoods and handsome pensions. In this Bill, we see those at the bottom of society being squeezed more and more. There is something wrong with that.

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Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Just on a point of accuracy, Mr. Speaker, since you ask me. In her opening remarks Mrs. May said that new clause 1 would have passed with Conservative votes. I just want to put it on the record that that is not accurate; if all Conservative MPs had voted for new clause 1, the vote would have been 247 for the Government and 225 against. Therefore, she is wrong on that.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Minister (Women), Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I actually said that there were 85 votes against amendment 11, and that without Conservative support it would have gone through.

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Photo of James Purnell James Purnell Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker, and to correct myself—

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Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Order. No, the right hon. Lady has put the matter on the record, and we will end it at that.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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