Motion to Take Note

Part of Employment and Support Allowance (Transitional Provisions, Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit) (Existing Awards) Regulations 2010 – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 20th July 2010.

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Photo of Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Chair, Information Committee (Lords) 5:30 pm, 20th July 2010

My Lords, I am delighted to follow my noble friend. I declare an interest: as my colleagues may know, I am a non-executive, non-remunerated director of the Wise Group in Glasgow.

My noble friend Lady Thomas has an eagle eye for finding statutory instruments and Orders in Council which are of serious significance. Her experience in both the Merits Committee and now in the Delegated Powers Committee serves the House well and we are in her debt. These are important regulations. My spies, of whom there are many, tell me that, technically, they are legally ambiguous. If I did not know the noble Lords, Lord McKenzie and Lord Knight, as well as I do, I would think that this was a deliberate Labour spoiling tactic to leave a gremlin in the system to subvert the confidence of the incoming coalition Government. However, that is a quite unqualified and undignified accusation and I make it only in passing.

There are some technical ambiguities in the regulations. This serves to demonstrate how important it is to simplify some of these systems. If the professionals dealing with these regulations cannot make up their minds whether or not they are clear, I do not know who can.

I wish to make one or two brief points about the significance of the long-term implications of these regulations. I am an unqualified supporter of Professor Paul Gregg's personalised conditionality concept. During the course of the Welfare Reform Bill last year, colleagues will have heard me expound this theory. Professor Gregg rightly captures the deal we will be offering people in future. Yes, there will be conditionality and people will have to be responsible for their actions, but the deal has another side to it: there will be a tailored, sensitive conditionality over which they will have a voice and which they will be able to help mould and shape for their own personal circumstances. That is the offer. The offer has two sides to it, both of which are important.

These orders should not to be considered in the context of the panic caused by the deficit-reduction problems that we face right now, because I hope that this system will sustain the support that we give to people in these circumstances not just for the three years of the next comprehensive spending period but for five, 10 or 15 years. If it works and can be made to work well and sensitively, it will serve us in the long term. Therefore, the regulations should not necessarily be shaded or influenced too much by the financial circumstances that immediately face us, although they are significant.

We need to be realistic about how many people we can expect to help in the short term. If we manage to get upwards of 1 million people back into remunerative work where they have some prospects of job retention and progression, it would be a marvellous success. If expectations are too high, particularly if they are driven by the perception of cuts and not of progressive policy changes, we will be in some trouble. We need to be realistic about what we can achieve. We shall get a better policy outcome in delivery if we do that.

We should work with the willing. Jobcentre Plus staff at the front line know this. I agree with my noble friend: everybody in Jobcentre Plus offices that I visit is in the front line. The only people in the back are the managers; perhaps we can get rid of some of them in order to support the front-line staff. The only people who are backstage are the big cheeses; it is the front-line people whom we are trying to support. We need to work with the willing. It is clear from my work in the Wise Group that there are people who are anxious and positively engaged in trying to get back to work. If you can have success with some of them early on, the word spreads and you get positive feedback. People then say, "Well, if it's worked for my next-door neighbour, then I hope it can work for me".

There is a spatial dimension to this problem. That is nothing new. Anybody who has studied these policies in the past understands that labour market conditions in Reading are different from those in Merthyr Tydfil or downtown Liverpool. When the policy is rolled out from October, and subsequently when it is rolled out nationally from February, that needs to be borne in mind. For the reasons that I gave earlier, conditionality must be sensitively applied in favour of the client as often as possible.

I am therefore confident that there can be a coherent policy. The direction of travel is absolutely right. Both Front Benches have made as much progress as they reasonably can. It is a very difficult area, and it is made more difficult by the financial circumstances, but it is the right thing to do. However, we need a coherent, long-term policy. We should think about a single working-age benefit. It is hard to get from where we are now to there; it will take time; but we should do nothing that gets in the way of that and makes it more difficult.

My noble friend spoke about providers. I think that some providers believe that the quality of the medical personnel who do the medical examinations which inform this process could be better. The decision-makers who take forward that work-it is crucial work for the individuals that it affects-need to have some responsibility for making sure that the quality of the medical reports is consistently good. If it is not, there needs to be something in the system that gives them the ability to say to Atos or their line managers, "I'm really not comfortable with the medical evidence that I am getting that informs my decisions". That is an important piece of the business model that needs in the implementation to be carefully considered. I know that my noble friend is aware of it and I am confident that he is on the case. I hope that he will do everything that he can to make sure that those decision-makers get the best information so that they can make the best decisions possible.

The explanations given to people on incapacity benefit when they are first contacted, and subsequently when the policy is rolled out after February, need to be clear. I hope that the quality of the offer that is being made-I hope that it is an offer because as I said it is personalised and conditional-will be explained to them. The responsibilities that they have are different. Some of them fall foul of those responsibilities because they do not know what they are. In the past, that has been because some of the letters and communication strategies that have been used have been opaque. If you are confronting this situation for the first time and are in a vulnerable household, the last thing you need is ambiguity about what you are facing. We need to be crystal clear about what we now require-because "require" is the only verb that can be used in this new situation.

Also, from a provider point of view, there is a lot of concern about people who leave the system. There are people who should not have been in the system in the first place, but an estimated 30 per cent will exit the system. American experience suggests that a lot of those people become destitute, and that is not in anyone's interests. In America you can move to the next-door state and start again. You cannot do that in the United Kingdom so we need some follow-through to make sure that people are not being dumped. The object of this policy is not to dump people: it is to apply it to people who are properly eligible. If my noble friend could give me some assurances about that I would be grateful.

This is not just about people getting people into sustainable jobs. I am pleased that we are talking about what I would consider to be sustainable jobs and not just jobs for 13 weeks, which was never sustainable under the old system. We are making progress in that direction, but we need to talk about job retention and advancement as well. We must not lose sight of that. We need to be able to say to people that, even if they are getting ready for work and nearer the labour market, this is all about giving them work experience from which they can benefit. Therefore, as my American colleagues all say, they start with any job, move to a better job and then on to a career. They are being offered an ABC system. That is part of the offer. If we can do that, and it is possible with the proper back-up, support and implementation of the policy, then this is a win-win situation for everyone.

I am certain that my noble friend on the Front Bench is having all sorts of frayed conversations with the Treasury. I would like to strengthen his arm-his hand, rather, because strengthening your arm is to do with drinking. To strengthen the hand is a Quaker concept which I understand is more beneficial to everybody. I hope that he will hold out. If this policy is to work, there will be a degree of invest to save across the broader policy front. If he does not win support from his colleagues in that direction, even if the policy is absolutely 100 per cent, with the best will in the world, he may still fail because we cannot do this if there is absolutely no money to give people the opportunity to train themselves off benefit and into work, which is the idea behind the policy.