My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for raising this matter and giving us a chance to debate again an extremely important issue. It gives me an opportunity to make an announcement that will go some way towards addressing the concerns raised by noble Lords.
The amendment provides a new power to disregard payments received and to ensure that activity undertaken as part of the service-user involvement would not be taken into account in calculating benefit entitlement or payments. The Government recognise the importance and value of encouraging participation in public life and in learning new skills, gaining experience and building confidence. Service-user involvement involves many of the skills and activities in which people routinely engage in everyday employment. Indeed, that could count as part of a person's work-related activity when a requirement is introduced in time.
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, asked me to define "work-related activity". I refer him to Clause 12(7) of the Bill, where it is defined in a wide manner:
"In this Part, 'work-related activity', in relation to a person, means activity which makes it more likely that the person will obtain or remain in work or be able to do so".
That point has been touched on by a number of speakers. I was interested in what the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, said about using the foundation trust as an opportunity for people to job-share, to help them to gain confidence and to get closer to employment.
We are aware of the concerns that have been raised about how current benefit rules can make it difficult to ensure service-user involvement. However, we believe that, in relation to receiving benefits to participate in such activity, the benefit rules provide a fair balance between encouraging participation and creating the correct work incentives, while also protecting the public purse.
It is important to remember that encouraging people to work, build skills and increase their confidence is the foundation on which ESA is built. Our goal is to help as many people as possible to leave benefit dependency and to support themselves through work, with all the advantages that that brings. As part of this process, we recognise that part-time work can be important to well-being and to developing self-worth, and that it can act as a stepping stone to sustained work off benefits. That is why we have the permitted work rules in incapacity benefit. We think that they serve an important purpose, so we plan to bring them forward to ESA customers. These rules aim to act as a valuable gateway into the world of work and give claimants the opportunity to explore what kind of work is right for them. Moreover, the permitted work rules are generous and, combined with the voluntary work rules, provide customers with a wide range of opportunities to try out work for themselves.
We have been looking for more flexible ways of helping people to take up opportunities and to increase their options without fear of their benefits being removed straightaway. One of the advantages of introducing a new, unified benefit is that it provides the opportunity to peel back the complex layers and rebuild, making improvements where we can. We have looked in particular at how the permitted work higher limit, which generally applies only to the contributory benefit, could help more people to try out work. As a result, I can announce today that, within ESA, we will be aligning the existing permitted work higher earnings limit between the contributory and income-related elements of the benefit. This will be a significant step in addressing the issues raised. Anyone claiming ESA will be able to earn up to £86 per week for up to 52 weeks, without it affecting their benefit entitlement. This is an important change, which will provide many more people with the opportunity to realise their aspirations. I am sure that noble Lords will join me in welcoming the change.
To illustrate the overall impact of the change and how it will be of benefit to many more people, your Lordships may find it helpful if I provide an example. A customer who is receiving income-related ESA would be able to carry out permitted work for up to 16 hours and earn up to £86 per week for up to 52 weeks—that is, at existing rates. Currently, a man in similar circumstances on income support would have his benefit removed pound for pound for anything over £20 that he earns. That is a substantial change. At week 40, let us say, the customer's self-esteem and health are such that he feels able to move into sustained full-time work, safe in the knowledge that he will be protected by the generous linking rules and supported not only by his regular wage but by the tax credits system and the return-to-work credit, which provides a generous £40 per week of additional support for 52 weeks if earnings are below £15,000.
We want to encourage participation in public life and it is right that people should be given the opportunity to help themselves whenever they can. That is why we have recently changed the guidance on applying the incapacity-for-work test to emphasise that, when people take part in service-user involvement, they should not automatically be sent for a reassessment. A reassessment should be done only where there are specific reasons for believing that the work that a customer is doing demonstrates that they no longer satisfy the conditions of entitlement to the benefit. We intend that similar guidance will apply to ESA in future.
We also believe that people should not be allowed to keep all their benefits while undertaking work or receiving remuneration for other activities, such as paid service-user involvement. That is subject to the rules that I have just outlined. There is an important balance to be struck between income from working in and representing the community, and avoiding duplicate provision from the public purse.
A number of specific points were raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, referred to service-user activities not being paid work. We do not agree that that is a helpful distinction. Service-user involvement involves many of the skills and activities in which people routinely engage in their everyday employment. In creating any distinction, we would be dismissing the value of service-user engagement in helping disabled people to feel confidence and to develop skills that will help them to find other types of work. As such, service-user involvement could count as part of a person's work-related activity.