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 5:45 pm on 20th July 2010.

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Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Labour 5:45 pm, 20th July 2010

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, for tabling this Motion, which has allowed for an excellent debate. It also allows me to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, that the regulations are not some kind of incendiary device planted by me and my noble friend Lord McKenzie to cause the Minister a problem.

The situation in which I find myself is slightly odd. This is my first time at this Dispatch Box scrutinising the legislative work of the noble Lord, Lord Freud, but I am afraid that it is not a chance to show my great forensic skills in unpicking the inadequacies of the regulations. That is, of course, because the regulations were inspired by the previous Government's White Paper, which was written by the Minister before he jumped ship and joined the other side. They were then signed in March by my friend Jonathan Shaw, when he was working with me as a Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions. Therefore, the Labour Government's regulations are now being tabled by the Tory Minister who inspired them when he was a Labour adviser. As the shadow Labour Minister, I can assure your Lordships that I am not opposing the regulations.

Instead, I want to ask the Minister a series of questions, similar to those raised by the noble Lords and the noble Baroness who have already spoken, about the policy context in which these regulations will now operate. That context has changed with a change of Government, in particular with the introduction of the work programme. The basis of the regulations, which we fully support, is that we should move people in incapacity benefit through a work capability assessment to then decide which sort of employment support allowance they should be on or whether they are fit for work and can go straight on to jobseeker's allowance. I assume that, under the work programme, this would determine not only the level of benefit but also what support people would receive under the work programme. The contractors under the programme would then be paid on the basis of the numbers that they would get into work.

The first set of questions then arises. If you go through the assessment and are moved on to JSA, you suffer a benefit cut after a transition period, as set out in the order. The theory is that then you will be helped into work. However, given that, according to the impact assessment, 93 per cent of incapacity benefit customers have been on the benefit for over a year, what assessment has the Minister made of the numbers who will go into work, given their distance from the labour market? Has he allowed for a worsening labour market? Will he not listen to the Social Security Advisory Committee and wait until recovery in the labour market is secure?

I know that the right honourable Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, predicted that due to his Budget more than 2 million jobs would be created in the private sector in the next five years, but the OECD said two weeks ago that it expected the UK recovery to be,

"too muted to result in strong job creation".

The OECD also said that Labour's active labour market strategy had prevented unemployment from rising as rapidly as in previous recessions, and said:

"While the large fiscal deficit makes it essential to focus on cost-effective programmes and target the most disadvantaged groups, labour market policies should remain adequately funded. In this context, it may also be of concern that the new Budget ends funding for two crisis measures, namely, the Future Jobs Fund and the Six Month Offer".

So it looks as if government action will make things more difficult for disadvantaged groups in the labour market because of the ending of those programmes.

Has the Minister convinced the Treasury that the market is able to raise the finance for the work programme, given that it is paid by results in a highly uncertain labour market? What assessment has he made of the impact on those communities, particularly former mining communities, where there is a high concentration of incapacity benefit claimants? Will those areas get special help as £25 per week is cut from many people's benefit?

What is the Minister's analysis of how the saving of £1 billion in the impact assessment will be drawn geographically? Has he then looked at how that will relate to the over £1 billion of additional savings in a few years' time shown in the Budget through changes to the disability living allowance? Will those DLA claimants be protected under this order?

I have a few other concerns about how things are being planned in practical terms, especially given the Government's fiscal position. First, the order is dependent on contractors being able to carry out the assessments, and a number of important points have been raised about these. I am pleased that the Government are so supportive of the changes for those going through chemotherapy, which we agreed before we left office, that they re-announced them in their Written Statement. I hope that they are also sticking with the changes that we were making for sufferers of ME.

Can we go further to meet the concerns of those with mental illness, especially given the worries faced by these individuals following the Government's announcement of the ending of primary care trusts and the consequent breakup of the NHS? Has the Minister considered automatically moving those with complex mental and physical illnesses straight on to the appropriate ESA without an assessment, to relieve them of the concerns of going through such an assessment?

There is one other worry regarding assessments, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord German. When I was a DWP Minister a few months ago, there was only one contractor capable of doing this work-Atos Origin. Does the Minister share my concern that that contractor is already struggling to do the current amount of work on time? What is he doing to get more contractors into that market? Can he guarantee that the capacity will be there, especially to meet the needs of the Treasury in scoring the savings on this programme and the DLA cuts? Perhaps the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, was right to call for a review.

Like the noble Lord, Lord German, I worry about appeals. The Tribunals Service is already overloaded, as we have heard from the noble Lord's speech. This work will mushroom under the programme and the DLA changes. Has the Minister agreed with the Treasury and the Justice Ministry that the budget for the Tribunals Service will be protected so that he can guarantee a service? Otherwise, people will wait an age for their appeal and remain on the higher benefit, and the Treasury will not get its savings.

Will the Minister give us an update on how the extra work for Jobcentre Plus and its contractors, referred to in paragraph 10.2 of the Explanatory Notes, will be delivered and paid for? Is there new money for this? Is it contracted?

That work would currently be part of Pathways. In government, we found that in the end that programme was disappointing, after such a good start in the pilot phases. It showed no extra gain from using the private sector over Jobcentre Plus. Does this cause the Minister to pause and wonder whether the backdoor privatisation of Jobcentre Plus embodied in the work programme will work? Does he agree with our conclusion that we need to ensure that those who are moved straight to jobseeker's allowance should get extra help, given that their health may not be perfect and their distance from the labour market may be significant? Will this be priced into the work programme? Will this in turn include specialist help for those with mental illness, as was so brilliantly provided by the mental health co-ordinators in Jobcentre Plus who were put in following the work of Carol Black? Will the access to work programme continue so that we can ease the ways into work for some of those customers?

I am sorry to ask so many questions-I note that the Minister was scribbling away frantically and I hope that he can answer them. I suspect that he may not be able to answer them all, but those that he cannot need an answer. I urge him, and those listening on his behalf, to ensure that, if he cannot answer them now he does so in writing and places a copy in the Library.