Clause 23

– in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 am on 26th February 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Contracting out functions under Jobseekers Act 1995

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

I beg to move amendment 67, in clause 23, page 33, line 3, at end insert—

‘(d) shall specify the level of training required to meet the needs of claimants with mental and/or physical disabilities,

(e) shall specify the level of training required to meet the needs of claimants with caring responsibilities,

(f) shall specify the level of training required to meet the needs of claimants with drug dependency and alcohol issues,

(g) shall specify the level of training required to meet the needs of claimants who are lone parents with dependant children, and

(h) shall specify the level of training required to meet the needs of claimants who are lone parents and have been victims of domestic violence.’.

In many respects, clause 23 is at the heart of the Government’s programme to contract out a range of services that are currently provided by JCP staff. When considering what happens when those contracts are made, it is very important that the staff who are employed by the various organisations have the right levels of qualifications. The amendment seeks to ensure that a level of training is provided so that the staff can meet the needs of the different claimants. Those claimants  can include people with mental or physical disabilities, with caring responsibilities, with issues of drug and alcohol dependency, and lone parents with dependent children and lone parents who may have been subject to domestic violence. Those are some of the sorts of clients that JCP staff currently deal with. If, as is envisaged in this clause, a large number of functions will be transferred to other organisations, we believe that it is very important that a level of training is provided for staff.

Let me refer Members to the briefing that has been prepared by Rethink, an organisation that deals with mental health issues. The organisation quotes the research of the Department for Work and Pensions that suggests that even with pathways regimes, existing personal advisers admit that they lack knowledge and understanding of mental health issues. It states:

“Mental health issues (including depression, suicide and self harm)...were particular areas (Incapacity benefit personal advisers (IBPAs)) reported having difficulties with. IBPAs did not feel their initial training had prepared them for working with these kinds of customers.”

It also states that

“12 per cent. of people with mental illness report being...discriminated against by Jobcentre Plus staff”.

There is already an issue about the level of training of existing JCP staff. If more of the functions of JCP staff are to be given to a new organisation—that is an integral part of the Bill—it is imperative that a level of training is specified when the contracts are let. I appreciate that under the clause those organisations will not be able to impose sanctions; that still remains the responsibility of JCP staff. Nevertheless, if someone presents themselves to those staff with a particular illness it is important that the personal advisers dealing with them have the right level of training.

Rethink has provided an example of a personal adviser referring someone with a diagnosis of personality disorder and a history of mental health problems to a condition management programme for people experiencing chronic back pain. That is an example of something that has happened with existing staff. Many people with mental health problems feel insecure and discriminated against. If we are to extend the provision and increase widely the number of staff involved in such programmes, they should receive the appropriate training. However, that is not specified in the Bill. Obviously, that would be worked out when the contract is let and an agreement is made. It is important that the Department for Work and Pensions appreciates that there are issues to address in this area. We hope that the Minister feels able to reassure us that this sort of issue will be taken on board as the schemes are rolled out.

A

I refer in particular to people who suffer from severe and enduring mental illness. Far from the picture exhibited in the media and press. These sufferers are not obtaining the treatment and care which they need and deserve, and fall into the penal system when they should be in the NHS specialist departments of psychiatry. Much of the funding which was allocated to mental illness has been diverted to other means. This has resulted in more such patients being unable to access this treatment and care. In some cases it has led to tragedies, either of suicide or even murder. It has certainly put a great deal of pressure on family carers. The Benefits system itself has been far too complicated for them to access their meager entitlement as disabled people. The Home Office quoted me some time ago that 11% of prisoners were suffering from schizophrenia. this is digraceful in what is supposed to be a civilised Society. Many of these severely ill people are homeless. Many families are unable to cope with the patient andhis/her illness.
There is far too little rehabilitation for these patients, and many are unable to work in the open market. Should you, Sir, and any of your colleagues wish to understand the condition better, I refer you to www.schizophreniawatch, an excellent help, but not sufficient to support all the patients and their carers. Thank you for your attention. Alix Cull.

Submitted by Alix Cull Read 2 more annotations

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Minister of State (Employment and Welfare Reform; Minister for London), Department for Work and Pensions 9:45 am, 26th February 2009

The hon. Gentleman raises some fair points, with which I have some sympathy, but his amendment highlights the dangers of trying to write commercial contracts into a Bill. Not least because he has used “shall” rather than “may,” he is saying that under the clause any contract, regardless of its content, should include

“the level of training required to meet the needs of claimants” with mental health or drug dependency problems and all the other things he mentions. He is saying that every  single contract made under powers allowed in the clause must specify the level of training for all those various areas, regardless of whether it is appropriate.

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the need for providers to have appropriately trained staff, where it is deemed necessary to deliver the contract effectively. That will be adequately covered in the contracts, which will stipulate that the providers should not discriminate against any customer on the grounds of disability, whatever it is. We will ask bidders to describe any relevant skills that they have to enable them to address the specific needs of and barriers faced by their customers. We will ask about the specific information on the roles relating to, and the qualifications and experience required for, each post that are needed to deliver the provision, given the nature of the contract and the focus on the client group.

The procurement process will have requirements within terms and conditions of contracts for contractors to satisfy themselves that their employees are suitable in all respects to deliver the programme. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the vulnerable groups mentioned will all be given adequate protection. The contractors’ employees will possess the relevant skills, training and experience to enable them to deliver the provision effectively and address the specific needs of their customers and the barriers to work that they face.

When we use the powers in clause 23 to contract out functions, we will take steps to ensure that contractual employees are properly trained and equipped to deliver the programme.

It is quite right and proper that the perfectly reasonable concerns that we have discussed are matters for a specific contract, that it is for a specific provider to deliver a specific service and that such things should not be set out in the Bill. In that context, and having taken on board the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, I ask him to withdraw the amendment for the reasons that I have outlined.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

Amendment 67 was a probing amendment, and I am satisfied by the Minister’s assurances. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 24 to 27 ordered to stand part of the Bill.