Clause 2

Part of Welfare Reform Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 24th February 2009.

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Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Disabled People; Minister for the South East), Department for Work and Pensions 4:30 pm, 24th February 2009

I welcome my hon. Friend’s amendments.

Following on from the previous set of amendments regarding people with a mental health issue, we are now talking about people with a learning disability. It is quite right that this Committee probes and asks questions about particular people for whom we want to ensure that we provide the support. We do not want to be in a position where people are unduly penalised for the wrong reason because someone, in working with them, misses their particular condition or is not particularly sympathetic. I am thus grateful for the opportunity to hopefully provide some words of reassurance to the Committee and to those following our proceedings.

We will set out provisions. There will be a thorough set of provisions in place to protect people with learning disabilities. That will ensure that the claimant understands the requirement of them and it will provide safeguards—if it emerges later that the claimant has misunderstood the requirement. A direction can only be issued as a last resort and must be suitable and achievable for the individual concerned. That is especially important if someone has a learning disability and requires specific support in order to undertake it.

As further reassurance for Members on this point, I have set the safeguards around making sure that the requirements of a person with a learning disability are  appropriate. Jobcentre Plus advisers have a thorough training in dealing with customers with a range of diverse health conditions, including learning disability. Advisers working with employment and support allowance claimants are also provided with specialist advice from Department of Work and Pensions doctors, about the kinds of activities that would be appropriate for a person to undertake through the work-focused, health-related assessment.

Advisers working with employment and support allowance claimants are also provided with specialist advice from Department of Work and Pensions doctors, about the kinds of activities that would be appropriate for a person to undertake through the work-focused, health-related assessment. This assessment is completed as part of the medical assessment process at the start of the ESA claim. Every customer has the right to be accompanied to interviews by a carer or an advocate, to help them interpret and understand the advice and requirements being set out to them. It is also an important point that we would expect personal advisers, when assessing someone, to suggest or ask the individual if they wanted to bring along an advocate, a carer or adviser, if the personal adviser thought that individual would benefit in terms of understanding what was required.

As stated in both clauses 2 and 8, any direction to an activity would have to be reasonable, and must have regard for a person’s circumstances. Therefore, any activity that is directed by the adviser has to be appropriate to their capabilities and the circumstances in which they find themselves. If, for any reason, the claimant was directed into an activity which was felt to be inappropriate, or where they had not understood the requirements fully, the claimant could ask for the direction to be reconsidered. Again, I can anticipate my hon. Friend thinking “well, how would they know that this activity was inappropriate?” I refer back to the previous set of amendments which we discussed and say we are piloting these proposals. It is important that we review them and have regard, particularly, for people with learning disabilities, to make sure that they have the support and understand what we are trying to do to assist them.

All members of the Committee will endorse the sentiment I expressed in earlier remarks—we want to see a transformation. There is a pool of talent among people with learning disabilities who want to get a job, and we want to help them. It is reasonable for us to say that we need people to engage with us in order to make that possible. My hon. Friend will know that if someone is on ESA, then they obviously have had an assessment and support, but there are those people on JSA, where perhaps the learning disability will not be so profound—someone could miss that particular issue. We will keep that under review but we believe there are safeguards built in.

I do not think, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform has said, that it is appropriate to have such detail on the face of the Bill. We will—as he has said and I will say—provide that in regulations. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley has found the document commissioned by my right hon. Friend helpful. Indeed, we hope all Committee members do. We do not want to stipulate support because, as we say, it is about tailoring to individual needs. I hope I can send a very clear signal  about what the Government’s intention is, to help these particular people in finding employment—not having a punitive regime, that actually trips people up, rather than one that assists people to engage with someone. Ultimately, that is what we want. The sanction will be there, but we do not anticipate it being used a great deal. Certainly, from the pilots and the pathways to work programme it was used very infrequently. However, it does provide, in the right circumstances, a carrot-shaped stick in order for some people to engage.