New Clause 11

Welfare Reform Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 3rd March 2009.

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Claimants’ Charter and Employment Services Ombudsman

‘(1) Regulations under this section shall make provision for the extension of the powers of the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman under the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 (c. 13) to administer disputes between claimants and bodies exercising powers under this Act, with particular reference to the Claimants’ Charter as under subsection (2) below.

(2) Regulations under this section shall make provision for a Claimants’ Charter to set out the rights and duties of Claimants under the provisions of this Act.

(3) Regulations under this section must, in particular, make provision for the following—

(a) a copy of the Charter must be given to each claimant upon initial contact with providers exercising powers under this Act, together with information concerning the independent employment services ombudsman,

(b) claimants not in employment should not be forced to live below the poverty line which shall be defined in further Regulations under this section,

(c) claimants must be treated with dignity and respect by all providers exercising powers under this Act,

(d) claimants must not be subject to degrading or discriminatory treatment in all of their interactions with providers exercising powers under this Act,

(e) following initial contact with providers exercising powers under this Act claimants must be fully informed of, and provided with written confirmation of, the conditions of their benefit claim in addition to the consequences of failing to meet those conditions,

(f) provision of services by providers exercising powers under this Act must be timely and accurate,

(g) monitoring of claims by claimants under this Act shall be available via telephone services free of charge, if claimants have difficulties using telephone services they must be entitled to face-to-face services,

(h) claimants must have an opportunity to appeal against any decision under this Act leading to a reduction in benefits; clear advice to this end must be provided to the claimant before a sanction is applied,

(i) claimants are entitled to high-quality, individually tailored support and must be given access to services that will improve their ability to access decent work, including education, training, condition management and legal support in instances of employer discrimination,

(j) claimants must be made aware of, and advised on, all of the support for training, childcare and transport to interview costs they are entitled to by providers exercising powers under this Act,

(k) no claimant shall be required to participate in activity which would otherwise be a condition of benefit entitlement under this Act if appropriate childcare, or other reasonable support required to enable participation, is not available,

(l) no claimant shall be required to take part in an activity under this Act for which it would be reasonable to expect payment, unless they are in receipt of compensation for that activity in line with the National Minimum Wage, and

(m) claimants must be able to access free, independent and appropriate advice in relation to all aspects of the Act.’.—(Paul Rowen.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It is a pleasure to see you here in the flesh, Mr. Amess, as well as having you here in spirit this morning. Members will recall that on Second Reading, the Secretary of State, in answer to a point by another hon. Member, said that he would consider the idea of a claimant charter. He said:

“I am aware that the idea has been suggested by Gingerbread, as well as by my hon. Friend, and it has a lot of promise. We want to consider how we can make sure that it is not restrictive and does not become a lawyer’s charter. As I will argue, we want to move towards a more flexible system based on personalised conditionality. If we are to do so, we need to look at how individuals can know that they will be treated fairly.”——[Official Report, Welfare Reform Public Bill Committee, 27 January 2009; c. 182.]

That last statement from the Secretary of State is pertinent to the new clause which has been prepared in conjunction with the Disability Alliance, which includes Gingerbread, Citizens Advice and Child Poverty Action Group. With the new clause, we seek to set out clearly the rights and obligations of the jobcentre and the various private providers and voluntary organisations that work under contract with Jobcentre Plus. It would also set out clearly the claimant’s rights and responsibilities.

I am sure that the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform knows, from his time at the Home Office, that when people arrive in or leave the UK, they can see a clear charter on a board, at every Border and Immigration Agency entry point, setting out what the  agency will and will not do, and how someone who is dissatisfied with the service that it has provided can deal with those regrets. Many hon. Members feel that, given the groundbreaking nature of the Bill, a similar charter should be produced for claimants. Our probing new clause, with which we hope to establish how far the Government are prepared to consider these ideas, sets out our belief that claimants should be handed a copy of the charter at the first stage, at their first interview, so that they know what is involved. It should not matter whether they are dealing with Jobcentre Plus or an independent agency.

The second provision concerns an issue that we have discussed this morning—how any sanctions that are imposed might impinge on a claimant’s ability to subsist. We think it important to set out that sanctions should not force a person into a situation in which they or their family are unable to subsist. If that happens, the sanction system is not working.

The third provision is about being treated with dignity and respect. That is the kind of treatment that one should expect from JCP officers anyway, but such expectations are clearly stated in most charters. Again, the next provision states that claimants should not be subject to degrading or discriminatory treatment. During these debates, we have discussed how people with disabilities, and people with drug and alcohol problems, might be treated. The Minister has assured us that agendas will be personalised and will take account of such issues. If so, there should be no problem with stating up front that that should happen.

The next provision is about what should happen after the initial meeting and after the contract has been agreed. Once it has been set out what must happen in the next few weeks, which of the three categories the claimant might be put into, and what action is required, there should be a clear, written statement setting out what will happen next. A big and common complaint of people dealing with Government Departments is that it takes an age for paperwork and agreements to be dealt with; I am sure that other hon. Members have experienced that. What we are saying is that once someone is registered and an agreement has been made, they should be provided with timely and accurate information and benefits, so that they do not end up in the situation that currently occurs with benefits and other payments such as housing benefit, in which applicants are forced to take out crisis loans because of delays. Clearly, the system is not working if that situation arises.

The next provision is about monitoring the process. I know that it is common practice for Government Departments and bodies such as Jobcentre Plus to monitor and record phone calls. From my experience of dealing with such issues, recording such calls has made it possible to resolve disputes, so we want that to happen. One slight change is something that I feel strongly about—the use of 0845 numbers. Currently, people who need to phone up to get information about their benefits spend disproportionate amounts of money getting through. The Government are reviewing the use of freefone and 0845 numbers, but the new clause states that such phone calls should be free, so that exercising a claim or dealing with a query does not cost the claimant any money.

The next provision is about an appeal against a decision—when the claimant feels that the sanction or the agreement is unfair. Members of the Disability Alliance want the establishment of a separate employment services ombudsman, but we think that that would be a duplication. The parliamentary ombudsman’s remit has this year been extended to include health care issues, and when a claimant feels that they have been hard done by they should be able to go to the parliamentary ombudsman. She would be able to set out the situation clearly. The ombudsman would not deal with day-to-day issues; they would be dealt with through the internal appeals process.

I am sure that the Minister will agree with the next measure, which would ensure high-quality provision that was tailored to the individual’s needs. During the passage of the Bill, we have raised many concerns about the ability of JCP to deliver that high-quality, personalised service, so the charter should say clearly, “This is the level of service and this will take full account of your needs. If not, there is a process through which you can go in order to appeal.”

The next provision in the charter would deal with the issues surrounding someone who was involved in the process. Will there be adequate child care? On the issue of including lone parents, we have voiced concerns to ensure that there will be adequate child care with which the parent is happy, not something that the Department imposes. If the parent has to travel to an office, reasonable transport costs should be reimbursed, and the measure sets out provisions for any interview costs that might be incurred.

The next provision deals with the situation when appropriate child care or support is not in place. If the claimant is a carer, they should not be forced into undertaking an activity that prevents them from discharging their wider activities.

The next point, which the TUC raised in its submission, refers to the situation in which work experience becomes work. No one on work experience should substitute for a real worker. If they do, they should receive the going wage for that job. That is a reasonable point to build into a claim.

Finally, the claimant should be able to get free, independent and appropriate advice. If a claimant were involved in drugs or had a mental health problem, organisations such as Mind would be appropriate for the provision of independent advice to the claimant. It often does so already, and the claimant should get advice on where to go.

The provisions of the charter are not fixed. I hope that the Minister will accept the way in which the new clause has been introduced. Given the Secretary of State’s willingness to consider a charter, I hope that if the Minister is not able to accept the measure, he will advise us how it will be put on the statute book, so that we have a clear claimants charter that sets out those rights and responsibilities by Report stage or by the time the Bill completes its stages in both Houses and the scheme is in operation.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab) rose—

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Labour, Warwick and Leamington

There is a slight difference between us, Mr. Amess. I have listened carefully to the speech by the hon. Member for Rochdale, and it sounds as though he has presented us with something of a long wish list for a state of perfection right across the whole benefit system. What he has described is what many of us might, indeed, wish to see, but will he accept from me that in reality the benefit system works pretty well for the large majority of claimants who use it?

Although I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should always strive to improve the quality of service that we offer to claimants, I can see problems in the charter that he is proposing—for example, with workability, costs and the bureaucracy that would arise from several of his proposals. The main point to which I want to see if he will respond is, if we are going to seek to improve the benefit system by introducing a charter, does he accept that it should be half a charter? He seems to have written a charter that focuses on rights but says nothing at all about responsibilities. Although I wonder why he is proposing what is in the regulations list, if we look through his charter, it is not balanced by the responsibilities that exist in relation to claimants. If we are going to go down the road of having a charter, does he accept that both need to be set out?

I want to give some examples of where the hon. Gentleman would need to balance rights and responsibilities in the draft charter that he has presented. For example, why are paragraphs (c) and (d) of subsection (3) not balanced by an obligation on the part of claimants not to be abusive to jobcentre staff? In relation to paragraph (e), in which he talks about information, why does he not balance that with an obligation on applicants to provide all the relevant information to someone who has tried to process their benefit at the time they are seeking to do so? Why does he not balance paragraph (f) with an obligation on claimants to provide timely information to support their application, or balance paragraph (i) with a commitment to take up all the appropriate training and work-related courses to which one is directed? Why not balance paragraph (n) by a reference to following through all the relevant advice that is given? My main point is—I shall be grateful if the hon. Gentleman will respond to this—does he think that if there is to be a charter, it needs to cover both sides of the equation?

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to reply. I agree totally with the point he has made. I was careful in my remarks to say that the new clause was being proposed to stimulate discussion following the Secretary of State’s statement on Second Reading. I accept, as I said during my speech, that it is a matter of rights and responsibilities. I do not see my proposals as being written in tablets of stone. I hope that we can agree to take something away from the debate and come back at some future stage with a charter that has had input from a wide group of people and that does exactly what he is saying. Such a charter should set out not only the duties of the Department and providers, but the duty of the claimant. I have focused on the rights of the Department, the JCP and private providers because, in many respects, the Bill considerably changes the relationship between them.

The Bill sets out in great detail what the claimant can and cannot do. We have had much discussion about a personalised agenda, but the concerns we have raised throughout the progress of the Bill have been that the other side of the coin, of protecting the claimant to ensure that that level is delivered, is not set out in the Bill. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point—this new clause is not prescriptive, it is meant to stimulate discussion; I merely wanted to right the balance because clear duties and responsibilities are set out in the Bill for claimants, but not so explicitly for what JCP and its partners have to deliver. I have tabled this new clause to stimulate debate about that.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow North West

I wish to make a couple of points. Following on from my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington and the hon. Member for Rochdale, I have no problem with wish lists. Wish lists put forward ideas, and as such we hope that the people who put the law together will listen to them and put them on paper. That is how we make laws; they all come from somebody’s wish list somewhere down the line.

I would like to emphasise the point about those 0845 numbers. As somebody who has worked in the communications business all his life and as chair of the all-party communications group since 2002, I have come across many cases of people who have been ripped off by those numbers. It is important that the Minister allays my fears on this. It is a disgrace that any Government body would use 0845 numbers, particularly when calls from mobiles cost a lot more. The people we try to protect the most are the poor, who are the most inclined to have top-up mobiles. It therefore costs even more for them to phone those telephone numbers. I would look at that.

I would also be interested in using an ombudsman. I have some sympathy with the concept, which is a tried and tested structure to ensure that best practice is followed, empowering the people who are best placed to know how these services are used. The services that will be provided to empower people will come from various bodies. Surely, then, an ombudsman would be quite useful.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Minister of State (Employment and Welfare Reform; Minister for London), Department for Work and Pensions

Like the Secretary of State—Mr. Purnell, not Mr. Plaskitt—I have some sympathy with the notion of a customers charter or a claimants charter; whatever you wish to call it, I think it makes sense. I take issue with the point that the hon. Member for Rochdale raised about the lack of equivalent rights and responsibilities in the Bill for Jobcentre Plus. To be straight with the hon. Gentleman, that is a fatuous point—Jobcentre Plus has those rights and responsibilities as an organisation all the time. The way in which Jobcentre Plus should treat people—with dignity and other elements that people have suggested—has not changed because the focus of the policy has changed. People have an absolute right to expect that level of behaviour, respect and dignity from Jobcentre Plus, notwithstanding what is in this or any other Bill. We do not have to have a whole telephone book of what is expected of Jobcentre Plus because it should be expected in all circumstances anyway. I think that there are sufficient redress and appeal provisions in the Bill and in the wider context of how Jobcentre Plus conducts its business to resist the notion of an ombudsman being involved.

Hon. Members will know and understand that an ombudsman is not a dispute resolution process. The ombudsman role has always been to find either maladministration or that due process has been followed in any given circumstance. That is constantly a disappointment sometimes—if you can be constant sometimes—to my constituents when they go to the ombudsman because part of the brand is precisely that it is a dispute resolution process. It is not. You will have seen the responses from the ombudsmen and they are often detailed, tortuous, but very accurate about processes and whether due process was followed by a range of authorities. In order to enable them to slip into a whole array of areas involving individualised disputes and to seek to resolve those disputes, we would need to go back to the root legislation and change the whole focus and statutory footing of the ombudsman. I do not think that that is either appropriate or desirable, given that the redress of grievances is already suitably accounted for in the Bill and the way that Jobcentre Plus operates.

We have this tension. Our end game, with this Bill and everything else that we do, is to introduce as personalised and as supportive a provision for each individual as we possibly can—not just for those involved in welfare reform and the longer-term unemployed, towards whom the Bill is geared, but for all customers, all individuals, who present themselves to Jobcentre Plus.

The Committee will understand straight away how introducing the flexibility to afford Jobcentre Plus such personalisation would look strange next to a statutory and rather rigidly drawn charter of rights and responsibilities for each and every customer—there would be tension. I should resist a statutory provision. The new clause is unclear about whether, just because it is in the Bill, a claimants charter established through regulations would be advisory, statutory or somewhere in between. We have had seminars—we have more to come—with Disability Alliance and others to which the hon. Gentleman referred to look at how we can ensure that, whether this is called a claimants charter, a customers charter or whatever, people are absolutely clear about what they can expect from Jobcentre Plus. I am entirely with him about what people can expect from each programme and, more generally, from Jobcentre Plus, but I include the caveat that my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington suggested about the accompanying responsibilities that pertain.

It was interesting that the hon. Member for Rochdale prayed in aid my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his quotation about not being restrictive and not coming up with a lawyers charter, because the more I look at the terms of the hon. Gentleman’s new clause, the more they seem restrictive and, secondly, a lawyers charter. I do not doubt the good intent, but some provisions are narrowly drawn, while others are broadly drawn. We should not dwell on them unnecessarily, but proposed new paragraph (m) states that

“claimants must be able to access free, independent and appropriate advice in relation to all aspects of the Act.”

That is a fine aspiration, but why on earth should someone who has concerns about birth registration be entitled to access advice on every other aspect of the  Bill? Indeed, vice versa, someone who wanted to be clear about the automaticity of the pension credit pilot would, according to the proposal, have free licence to get as much information as they needed for any aspect of the Bill, even if it had nothing to do with them.

The hon. Gentleman cited the TUC in relation to one provision, yet he made no definition of “reasonable” in the provision involving

“activity under this Act for which it would be reasonable to expect payment”.

Given that there are a few shyster lawyers around, I am afraid that the word “reasonable” could blow a big hole in work trials, Access to Work, work experience and all the things that, by common consent, actually help claimants to stay very proximate to the labour market or to get a job. The provision would do the reverse of what the hon. Gentleman suggests.

I take the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West made about 0845 numbers, and I believe in the review. I am told—he can tell me later from his telecommunications and telephony experience—that the last nut to crack is 0845 numbers called from mobiles, rather than landlines, and that, with existing technology, one can either continue to offer that service or not—there is no third technological option whereby one can offer the service for free. However, we are exploring the issue, because I agree with the premise of the charter and my hon. Friend’s suggestion that, if people need access to information by phone—mobile or otherwise—from Jobcentre Plus, it should be free. Some customers have said that for routine, snappy information, such as the time of interview and so on, they would far rather receive a quick text. That makes perfect sense, but, by a literal interpretation of the charter, that could not happen, because it says that if they cannot obtain the service by telephone, with all that that implies about telephony being vocal, they can demand a face-to-face service. However, a little text would do, so we cannot draw the provision too narrowly.

I am absolutely with the hon. Gentleman in spirit, however, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney), the Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, is too. It is absolutely right that we should put out—far more readily than we have, because it is out there already—an overarching charter that states what customers or claimants, or whatever we want to call them, can and should expect in terms of behaviour, provision and service from Jobcentre Plus. Alongside it, there should be either programme-specific or more general approaches—probably both—covering responsibilities for claimants or customers. That is the way forward that we are trying to follow. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington makes very clear, that includes saying, “You will not being abusive or violent to Jobcentre Plus staff,” with all that that entails.

Although we are all broadly sympathetic, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the new clause. I know that the team has been contacted by the Disability Alliance, which was slightly concerned that the new clause would put more into legislation than the organisation had intended. It was worried that the new clause, if accepted, would push the Department away from its positive sentiment regarding of a charter.

As I say, I will furnish Committee with details. There is a forthcoming stakeholder seminar—God knows what we called these people before they became “stakeholders”; an awful word. It is a people seminar to discuss what should go in the overarching customers charter or citizens charter—good Lord, not John Major’s citizens charter! We are very much with the hon. Gentleman in spirit, but I ask that the proposal is not pursued in such a fashion.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Work and Pensions Minister 4:30 pm, 3rd March 2009

As I said, the purpose of the new clause was to stimulate discussion. I am particularly grateful for the Minister’s remarks and sentiments about 0845 numbers, because that is something that I know that the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West also feels strongly about. I look forward to the Department’s continuing work to establish rights and responsibilities through a charter. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.