Welfare Reform Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:52 pm on 29th January 2007.

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Photo of Lord Morris of Manchester Lord Morris of Manchester Labour 5:52 pm, 29th January 2007

My Lords, this is a profoundly important debate for people among the most needful in Britain today—one in which I have interests to declare both as the first Minister for Disabled People and a serial legislator on their problems, needs and rights. Interestingly, the debate takes place very close to the date, 37 years ago, when your Lordships' House gave a Second Reading to my Private Member's Bill that became the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. My friends—then, as now—the noble Baronesses, Lady Masham and Lady Darcy de Knayth, made their maiden speeches.

As they know well, all our current disability benefits are founded on legislation promoted during my years as Minister for Disabled People from 1974 to 1979: incapacity benefit; the non-contributory invalidity pension, often described as the severe disablement allowance; the mobility allowance; the disabled housewives' allowance; and the carers' allowance—all of them were aimed at reducing the socially handicapping effects of disability. Thus I have a deep personal interest in the Bill.

In legislating both as a private Member and a Minister, my priorities have consistently embraced that of seeking to secure for disabled people the employment opportunities needed to end their dependence on social security payments and to achieve the independence and dignity of becoming taxpayers. My approach this afternoon will be informed by that priority.

The Bill has the potential to bring considerable benefit to hundreds of thousands of disabled people now in danger of drifting away from the world of employment due to the failure of others to understand their needs. Crucially, it offers rehabilitation and work-focused support to help to simplify the life-changing transition that appropriate employment opportunities can bestow, and is further evidence of the Government's commitment to bringing disabled people more into the mainstream of social life by providing support appropriate to their needs in achieving and retaining the right to work.

I am delighted that my noble friend Lord McKenzie is promoting the measure. He has made an excellent start in his new ministerial role, and I wish him well. As he will know, concerns have been expressed by disabled people and their organisations about a range of issues, some of which I shall touch on today; but, meanwhile, his presence itself vouchsafes careful consideration of their concerns, as does the involvement and input of Anne McGuire as the Minister for Disabled People. She has an admirable record of achievement and an abiding commitment to do the right thing by long-term sick and disabled people.

One of the issues that disability organisations have raised is their concern about the Bill's proposals for engaging with employers. The new benefit that it proposes—the Employment and Support Allowance, or ESA—would place conditionality on people in receipt of the work-related activity component to attend work-focused interviews and undertake agreed work-related activities. This contrasts sharply with the absence of measures for tackling employers' resistance to employing disabled people. That resistance is real, as the Disability Rights Commission and the UK Disabled People's Council have emphatically made clear. The DWP's own report—No. 202—says that nine out of 10 employers think that employing a person with impaired vision would be either difficult or impossible. But it is of double concern that employers are not only resistant to employing disabled people; they are also unaware of the extent of support available to them in employing a disabled person. As of now, 74 per cent of employers are not aware of the Access to Work scheme and its support for meeting extra costs when employing a disabled person. So they still perceive disabled people as potentially expensive to employ, with scant help available from the Government.

Turning from employers back to claimants of ESA, it is instructive to look at the proposals for payment of the allowance to people who are seriously ill and/or disabled through cancer treatment. As Macmillan Cancer Support has shown, they can be forced to attend work-focused interviews because of the way in which Jobcentre Plus uses its discretionary powers. Macmillan welcomes the Government's recognition in Committee on the Bill in the House of Commons that it would be wrong to treat people undergoing treatment that in itself has very severe disabling side-effects as capable of work-related activity.

As of now, receiving radiotherapy and non-invasive forms of chemotherapy are not protected from conditionality via inclusion in the support group which, in Macmillan's view, must be changed. It insists that the best way to stop people who are physically ill and/or disabled through cancer treatment being pressured to attend work-focused interviews is to include all patients undergoing active cancer treatment and the terminally ill in the support group.

Cancer poverty is a particular problem for people of working age and their families. Macmillan's research shows that of those aged 55 or under, seven out of 10 households suffer a loss in income averaging 50 per cent following a cancer diagnosis, making disability benefits extremely important to them.

Yet a great many people with cancer miss out because they are unaware of benefits to which they are entitled. As the National Audit Office has reported, 77 per cent of cancer patients are not given information about financial support, while Jobcentre Plus staff rarely inform them of disability benefits administered by the Disability and Carers Service. Indeed, the scripts used in Jobcentre Plus call centres do not include any prompts to give information about disability benefits.

In summary, Macmillan wants the agency's scripts improved so that claimants know about all their benefit entitlements, together with measures to ensure that the focus is more strongly on improving take-up. The charity wants Jobcentre Plus routinely to refer claimants to sources of guidance, information and advice, such as the DWP's own benefits inquiry line, as well as disability awareness training for front-line staff.

If we are to fulfil the admirable aspiration of helping a million more disabled people into work during the next decade, we must urgently challenge unfounded concerns about employing disabled people and make strongly renewed efforts to publicise the help available to employers.

Parliamentary replies state that the DWP spends £320,000 a year on marketing and publicising its disability services and programmes, of which, such is their number, the sum available for publicising Access to Work is small. For many disability organisations, this explains why the department's message is not reaching most employers. They feel, too, that a Bill such as this could have something to say on the key role of ministries other than the DWP, such as the Department of Trade and Industry, in putting together a cross-departmental strategy for countering employers' concerns about taking on disabled people. Moreover, they say that without such a strategy,

"there must be serious concern about achieving the aim of getting a million disabled people off benefits and into work".

The Commons Public Accounts Committee report on DWP support for disabled people states:

"In 2004—05, the Department for Work and Pensions spent around £320 million funding a number of programmes and schemes to help disabled people find and stay in employment. However, they reach only a minority—160,000—of those who could potentially benefit".

Unsurprisingly, this prompts disability organisations to query the adequacy of the £360 million promised to roll out Pathways to Work nationally when, as we have seen, the £320 million spent on funding other programmes reached only 160,000 people; perhaps my noble friend could have that seemingly well founded concern looked into urgently.

I turn very briefly now to some other points worthy of attention. The first concerns the Bill's title. It surprises many disabled people that the word "welfare" is itself in the Short Title when the emphasis in this policy area is on rights, not on "welfarism". Why, I am asked, is the measure not called the "Disabled Persons Employment and Support Bill"?

A further point raised with me by their organisations is that disabled people should be more protected against the popular assumption that fraudulent claiming of disability benefits is rampant whereas, to take just one example, at 0.1 per cent, the rate of fraudulent claims for incapacity benefit is the lowest for any major benefit. The much bigger problem here is low take-up by entitled people.

Finally, I am asked also to press the issue of sanctions as dealt with in the Bill. The DWP's analysis last year of the Pathways pilot areas showed the number of sanctions imposed on claimants to be about 0.4 per cent of all benefit starts in Pathways. Is the department convinced that this finding justifies the Bill's significant powers of sanction, given the widely accepted figure of 1 million disabled people who want to work but are left waiting for the right help and support to enable them to do so? It is put to me:

"We clearly have the carrot in the form of the help and support being offered, but do we really need a stick in the form of sanctions when so many disabled people crave the right to work?".

I know my noble friend will not be able to respond today to all of the points raised with him in the debate, but I hope that he will at least have time to say more in his winding-up speech about engaging with employers to promote the support available to them and challenge negative attitudes about employing disabled people. No Bill that I have known in all my years in Parliament was incapable of being improved by constructive scrutiny and I hope the points I have raised today will help to ensure the Bill's emergence from parliamentary scrutiny as one that disability organisations, employers and all the departments involved can accept as well worth speeding to the statute book. I wish my noble friend all success.