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My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lady Hollins. I hope that I will not repeat too much of what has been said. I refer the House to the register and my declaration of an interest as President of the National Autistic Society.
I want to focus on the change to the work-related activity group ESA. One group of people has not been mentioned at all so far: the support group, who have been independently assessed and deemed not to have to apply for paid work, and the WRAG group, as we shall call them. For a year, they are required to attend interviews—they are not just left alone, they must attend interviews—but the activity side of it is meant to involve getting back into work. We have heard from across the House today: from the noble Lord, Lord Patel, speaking very knowledgably about cancer patients; from the noble Lord, Lord Layard, speaking about mental health; and from my noble friend, who spoke about learning disability. In that very large WRAG group are a considerable number of people on the autistic spectrum. I pay tribute to the Minister for the interest he has shown in and the time he has devoted to the problem of getting people on the autistic spectrum into paid work. I know that he cares about this issue and has put a lot of time into it since becoming a Minister. I hope he will not think me presumptuous when I say that, to judge by our conversations about this, he knows just how difficult that is.
The point about people on the autistic spectrum is that I know of no other group with disabilities who are so passionate about wanting to take their place in society and become independent, even if it is only working on a part-time basis. They are passionate about wanting to earn some money and be just like everybody else. This is not a group of shirkers or people who are “working” the system. It is not just children who are being newly diagnosed with autism; a lot of quite mature adults are still being diagnosed with it, very often because crisis points develop. I wonder what it is about people on the autistic spectrum which means that in 2017, they will be deemed to live on £30 a week less than the group who have been independently assessed as currently unable to work because of their disability or illness.
The impact assessment, which has been referred to today, is available in the Printed Paper Office. It says that the reduction in the WRAG level of payment will,
“remove the financial incentives that could otherwise discourage claimants from taking steps back to work”.
That is printed in a government document. I have to say to my noble friend Lord Freud that I am disgusted with those words. I am disgusted that they were repeated down the other end and I hope that when my noble friend speaks, he will not in any way pray in aid that concept. We have heard about people such as cancer patients and many people with behavioural problems, autism or mental health problems—and people with complex problems whose disability is often a mixture of more than one of those. Those are very difficult people to help back into work. It is not always impossible but it is difficult. Where is the evidence for that statement in the impact assessment? What evidence have the
Government identified from the people in the current WRAG group, who have already been independently assessed and put into the group? What is it about them that has given the Government sufficient evidence to change a policy in such a dramatic way? In 2017, this will almost certainly affect that whole raft of people we have heard about today, whether they are cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or people newly diagnosed on the autistic spectrum.
I have a feeling that the reason why the Government have gone in this direction is not as obvious as the Treasury putting the DWP’s arm up behind its back and saying, “This is what you are going to do”. Everybody who has served as a Minister will sympathise with my noble friend Lord Freud, because we all know the Treasury’s ability in the art of arm-wrestling. However, the Government need to take a clear look at how they see disability, and to look first of all at the individual. It is quite striking that disability issues, and the Office for Disability Issues, are placed within the DWP—the Minister’s own department. That is considered the right place for them to be. Can the Minister perhaps share with the House in due course what exactly the Office for Disability Issues does? Is it looking across the piece and beyond that important point about getting people into employment, which I do not disagree with? My noble friend will know that I have banged on his door many times to talk about getting disabled people back into work, or into work for the first time. But what is the Office for Disability Issues meant to do?
If we are concerned about disability, surely we are interested in the individual in a holistic way—not just their employment opportunities but the help they receive, their well-being, their housing, their ability to take their place in society and their social environment. Surely that covers almost every piece of legislation dealt with by almost every government department. I wonder whether placing that responsibility in the DWP has made it become narrow and channelled. Perhaps it fails to look outwards at what the real, day-to-day living needs of disabled people are across the piece, particularly those with complex disabilities whom it is not so easy to get into work.
I have been so impressed by companies such as BT, which has made it its mission actively to employ people with mental health conditions. It has done a fantastic job. Right the way through that company’s culture, it now actively looks to employ people with mental health conditions. I have been impressed by what I have seen in some areas regarding the employment of people on the autistic spectrum, but it is patchy. It is hit and miss, unco-ordinated and not really as serious as it should be. I do not in any way hold my noble friend Lord Freud personally responsible, but I do believe that the Government have lost their way in making assumptions about people with disabilities and generalising about what living with a disability really means.