Clause 13 - Employment and support allowance: work-related activity component

Welfare Reform and Work Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark 2:00 pm, 13th October 2015

I beg to move amendment 139, in clause 13,  page 14,  line 21, at end insert—

‘(5A) The Secretary of State must make provision for additional personalised and specialist employment support in connection with subsections (1) to (3).

(5B) The Secretary of State must issue guidance on the following—

(a) the forms of personalised and specialist employment support;

(b) the means by which a diverse market of suppliers for personalised and specialist employment support can be developed in local areas; and

(c) information for local authorities seeking to improve local disability employment rates.’

To provide additional specialist employment support for disabled people.

I thank all Members for their understanding earlier and apologise for the interruption to our business, which was due to some sad family news.

Amendment 139 would require the Secretary of State to make provision for additional personalised and specialist employment support for disabled people. As we have heard previously in the Committee, the Government’s ambition of halving the disability employment gap is welcome, but it represents a not insignificant challenge and much more detail is needed for Committee members to be able to scrutinise how itis to be achieved. It is unclear from the Bill how Ministers intend practically to narrow the disability employment gap.

Of course, we operate in the context of what has happened in the past five years in particular, when we have seen the number of disability employment advisers at Jobcentre Plus drop; the number of disabled people supported by Access to Work, in particular, fall; work capability assessments being delayed or made inaccurately; and a lower percentage of working-age disabled people actually supported into work. We have a Work programme that has not had the highest success rate in ensuring that disabled people go on into employment. Many disabled people can and want to work, but face significant barriers to entering and staying in work. That is why specialist employment support is crucial, and this amendment is aimed at securing information from Ministers to ensure that that is delivered and is effective.

The Committee heard a great deal from witnesses about the kind of employment support that would be effective, the improvements that are needed and the lack of support that disabled people currently feel able to access. We have heard from the Minister that the Government plan to invest in additional employment support for disabled people, starting at £60 million a year from 2016-17 and rising to £100 million a year by 2021. That is positive and welcome, but it is important to understand how it will be used and how its efficacy will be measured. As yet we have heard no detail on how that investment will be directed or implemented, or how many people it is designed to support.

There are also concerns in the disability sector about whether that money will be used for Disability Confident, because of the lack of transparency about how Disability Confident is measured, and whether it is just a means of attracting employers to events or is genuinely about focusing on job outcomes for disabled people. I hope that the Minister will have the opportunity today to set out how the Government intend to develop the support programme and what it will look like in practice.

We know that disabled people trying to find, enter and stay in work face a number of barriers. They can include a lack of suitable and vacant jobs, poor attitudes from potential employers towards hiring disabled people and a lack of appropriate support to enter the workplace. However, current back-to-work support for disabled people simply is not delivering. The work capability assessment does not accurately determine the support that disabled people need; it is more of a medically focused assessment process and does not relate to disabled people’s real experience of trying to find work and, in particular, stay in work. Specialist support to assist with finding and staying in work is essential, and the amendment is designed to help secure that.

There is also concern that existing employment support is misfiring and is ineffective. To provide some detail, job outcomes for disabled people on the Work programme are only 7.7% for those entering employment support allowance, and just 3.9% for those moving from incapacity benefit on to employment support allowance. Furthermore, the specialist Work Choice programme is ineffectively targeted and offers support only to a very small number of disabled people, and I should say that the figures I have just used are the Department’s own figures. A recent evaluation of the Work programme by the Department found that disabled people were more likely than other groups to say they had not received support, which is surprising given that there is meant to be dedicated support. Those who had received support were less likely to say that it was helpful.

Both programmes come to an end in 2017, and the amendment gives the Minister another opportunity to outline what support will be available in practice from then. What plans do the Government have to re-evaluate those programmes and the type of support they offer? What improvements do they have planned?

There is particular concern among disabled people and disability organisations—I refer particularly to the briefing I have received from the disability organisation Scope—about what the quantitative changes to employment and support allowance could mean in relation to conditionality. I do not think any Member would want to find a disabled person coming to their surgery having  experienced sanctions, unable to access any benefit as a result of the changes and without sufficient employment support.

Written evidence to the Committee has called for employment support to be tailored to the needs of the individual, joined up with wider public services and more reflective of local labour markets. Specialist providers have the expertise to respond directly to specific barriers to work that disabled people experience. If the Minister has not already visited, I certainly recommend that she sees the Royal National Institute of Blind People’s support programme in Loughborough. Specialist employment support could include peer-to-peer sessions, interview and CV preparation, support focused on managing specific impairments, and discussing with employers how to manage different types of support in the workplace. Such support allows for more intensive and effective interventions that reflect the specific support needs of an individual.

Scope provided me with Azar’s story. Azar is 20 and recently took part in Scope’s pre-employment programme for young disabled people. Azar has cerebral palsy and told Scope that because of his disability, potential employers assumed that “he couldn’t do this and he couldn’t do that”. He knew that he wanted to work in business, so after he left college he was looking for a job, as he wanted experience to put on his CV. Having had the support of a professional mentor, he feels more confident and less worried about being judged, which has a significant and positive impact on his employability.

Job retention is another area that requires renewed focus if we are to halve the disability employment gap, and specialist employment support has a role to play in that too. Ann, a member of staff of Scope’s employment service, provides an example of how such support can help people stay in work. Ann supported a client with Asperger’s syndrome who worked in a hotel. When he got stressed and bombarded with customers, he went into his shell and ignored people. He got really upset with his own behaviour. The reasonable adjustment was for Ann, the specialist disability employment support worker, to speak to the manager and ask about making sure that the client was able to have a breather for five minutes to handle the stress. The manager was absolutely fine with that. That is a straightforward, cost-neutral, reasonable adjustment and has significant positive benefits, but requires someone who understands the health condition and is able to work with the employer.

The Government should consider personal budgets to support disabled people, so that they have greater control over the type of employment support they receive. The In Control programme had a certain measure of success, and it is a shame that it has been wrapped up. There is considerable international evidence that personal budgets can empower disabled people to have increased choice and control over their career by removing bureaucracy from the employment support system and creating greater flexibility in the type of employment support available. They also serve to help smooth the transition for disabled people moving from unemployment into work, they and should link up with Access to Work support. If people were able to carry through the Access to Work package, it would smooth the system significantly.

Finally, the devolution agenda provides a big opportunity to do far more to ensure that disabled people are connected to growth and employment opportunities in  their local area. There are precedents for funding focused on increasing employment rates for specific groups of people, such as the Youth Contract and the Youth Contract for cities. There is the potential for regions to be incentivised to put disabled people at the heart of their growth strategies. That could be done by creating specialist employment support programmes, bringing together local employers or looking at wider strategies. I therefore urge the Government to ensure as a minimum that regulations made under the Bill give due consideration to types of support that will ensure that many more disabled people are better supported in the workplace.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Fair Work and Employment)

I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to his place, and I am glad to see that he has been able to return.

The SNP fully oppose the proposals within clauses 13 and 14. We are glad to see Labour making some headway and supporting us in our opposition. To reduce the rate of employment and support allowance to that of jobseeker’s allowance is completely immoral and makes absolutely no sense to us. The Government clearly did not consider when formulating the policy the fact that those who have been placed in the ESA work-related activity group have been independently found unfit to work. Otherwise they would not seek to reduce the support for those who are ill or have disabilities or more complex needs to the same level as support for fit-for-work claimants, such as those receiving JSA.

ESA claimants have always received a higher rate than those on JSA, because they typically take longer to move back into work, as they face additional barriers. Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, expressed the same concern when he said:

“Almost 60% of people on JSA move off the benefit within 6 months, while almost 60% of people in the WRAG need this support for at least two years. It is unrealistic to expect people to survive on £73 a week for this length of time.”

Returning to employment is not an option for many people with disabilities. Those unable to work should receive an income replacement benefit to ensure a fair income.

The Minister needs to understand that those who live with an illness or condition are typically worse off than those who do not. A Parkinson’s UK survey in 2007 found that just under a third of working-age people with Parkinson’s were in any form of employment. It further reported that many younger people with Parkinson’s who cannot sustain work because of their condition relied on incapacity benefit for their income or part of their income.

I cite again the case of my constituent with Parkinson’s who came to see me after having been sanctioned. I wrote to the Department about his sanction and raised it with the Secretary of State on the Floor of the House and by letter. He was sanctioned and taken to a tribunal, although the Department’s own legislation said that the process should be done in a paper-based format, as people with degenerative diseases are not always fit to present themselves. The Department was not even aware of its own policy, and said so in an email to me. I found that particularly disturbing, and I continue to pursue that case.

The Scottish National party is extremely worried about the provisions. Reducing the ESA WRAG rate from £102.15 a week to £73.10 a week from April 2017—a  reduction of just under £30—will force sick people further away from getting back into work, despite the fact that the WRAG was created especially to support the ill and disabled back into work. The Conservatives’ policies are doing exactly the opposite of what they claim they want to do.

The Chancellor said in the summer Budget that it was a perverse incentive for ESA claimants to receive more than JSA claimants without getting support to return to work. He cited the reduction in the number of JSA claimants by 700,000 since 2010 while incapacity benefit claimants have fallen by only 90,000, and said that 61,000 of those in the WRAG want to work. We do not dispute that, and we agree that more support must be put in place to assist those with illnesses and disabilities back into work. However, we do not understand the Government’s rationale for reducing the payments for the ESA WRAG or universal credit. How will that incentivise more people to work? Perhaps the Minister can help us.

The Disability Benefits Consortium has told us that more than 493,000 disabled people are assessed as not being fit for work, 248,000 of them with mental and behavioural problems, 86,000 with diseases of the musculoskeletal system and connective tissue and 8,000 with progressive and incurable conditions such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and other serious and degenerative diseases. The DBC has said that those living with long-term conditions are struggling to get by on the current rate of ESA. For the Government to cut it further will surely put them further into poverty and deprivation. The Conservative manifesto committed to halving the disability employment gap, but it is my party’s contention that the reduction in the ESA WRAG component will in fact present more barriers to those with disabilities who are trying to get back to work.

Mencap has said that households that include a disabled person will be hit much harder than others. Given that a third of them already live below the poverty line, the additional reduction in income will have a devastating impact on those most in need of Government support. The Government’s own figures already show that over the past year, the number of disabled people living in poverty has increased by 300,000. I am astonished that the Minister can even consider taking a small additional payment away from the ill and disabled when they are struggling to deal with the challenges of their condition.

Given the Government’s own admission that the vast majority of people in the WRAG want to work, they should be protecting any benefit that will help break down the barriers to work. The SNP has been sent here to defend our people from further hardship, to protect them from poverty and to secure a fair, just and sustainable pathway to prosperity. We will not find that in this Bill. I call on Members on both sides of the Committee to vote with the SNP to remove these unscrupulous plans.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 2:15 pm, 13th October 2015

It is good to see you again, Mr Streeter. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark for his introductory speech, especially given the circumstances.

I stand to speak against clause 13. Are we considering clause 14 at the same time?

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Not at the same time, but let us now agree that this can develop into a clause 13 stand part debate at the same time as considering amendment 139.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I am grateful for that clarification and for your leeway, Mr Streeter.

I am grateful to the various organisations, charities and many individuals who have contacted me with their personal stories about how they believe these changes to ESA WRAG support will affect them. I particularly mention Parkinson’s UK, Macmillan Cancer Support, Leonard Cheshire Disability, the RNIB, the Disability Benefits Consortium, Scope, Inclusion London, United Response, Mind and the Richmond group. Collectively, those disability and health organisations represent more than 15 million people in the UK who are disabled or have a serious long-term condition.

We want to prevent the cuts to the work-related activity component of employment and support allowance. We believe it is unjust and unfair that disabled people, and people with serious health conditions who have been assessed as part of the work capability assessment process as not fit for work and placed in the work-related activity group, are having their social security support cut by nearly £30 from £102.15 to £73.10. There is compelling evidence from the independent Extra Costs Commission, which analysed the additional costs facing disabled people and found that, on average, they spend an extra £550 a month associated with their disability.

The Government’s proposed cuts affecting people in the ESA WRAG are on top of the whole host of other cuts in social security support for disabled people since 2010. The Hardest Hit coalition has estimated that, by 2018, £23.8 billion will have been taken from 3.7 million disabled people. There were 13 policy changes under the Welfare Reform Act 2012, including changes in the indexation of social security payments from the higher retail prices index to the lower consumer prices index and the 1% cap on the uprating of certain working-age benefits, which has cut £9 billion from 3.7 million people’s social security support. People on incapacity benefit have been reassessed, which has taken another £5.6 billion. The time for which disabled people in the ESA WRAG are able to receive support has been limited, cutting another £4.4 billion. The reassessment of disabled people receiving disability living allowance to determine whether they are eligible for personal independence payment means that another £2.62 billion has been taken. That is on top of the provisions in the Bill, and we should not forget the cuts to social care, which are currently up to £3.6 billion and predicted to be £4 billion by 2020. Disabled people rely very much on support through social care.

In light of the significant existing cuts, will the Minister confirm whether the Government have undertaken a cumulative impact assessment on the latest proposed cuts affecting disabled people, in light of the requirements under the Equality Act 2010 and the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s work on cumulative impact modelling?

This morning, the Exchequer Secretary mentioned the importance of controlling welfare and social security spending. The UK currently spends 1.3% of GDP on  disabled people. Out of 32 European states, we rank 19th in what we provide to disabled people. I did not have the information at my fingertips this morning, but for families and children it is slightly worse at 1.1%—23rd out of 32 European countries. We are a wealthy country, and to build our recovery on punitive measures against disabled people, vulnerable children and families is appalling.

The Government’s impact assessment on the changes to the work-related component of ESA—apart from being delayed, so that Members were unable to scrutinise it before Second Reading—is very limited in its analysis. For example, although the assessment estimates that approximately 500,000 people and their families will be affected by the cut to ESA WRAG support, there is no analysis of the impact that will have on the number of disabled people who will be pushed into poverty. We know that disabled people are twice as likely to be in persistent poverty as non-disabled people and that 80% of disability-related poverty is caused by the extra costs that I have mentioned. Last year there was a 2% increase in the proportion of disabled people living in poverty, which is equivalent to more than 300,000 disabled people pushed into poverty in one year. Given that half a million people will be affected, according to the Government’s own impact assessment, and will lose 30%, or nearly a third, of their income, what is the Government’s estimate of the increase in the number of disabled people living in poverty?

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. She has come to the Committee relatively late. I know that this is an area of expertise for her, but perhaps I can put on record the evidence that was given to us before she was on the Committee. It was essentially that if the Government are trying, as they put it, to “incentivise” people on employment and support allowance into work by cutting their benefits so that they live on the same level as JSA claimants, it will mean that they are ignoring the fact that people on ESA take longer to get into work. They may well find themselves in a crisis over the winter, when they need a new coat, because they have been unemployed that much longer. People claiming ESA are recognised by the system as not being fit for work.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

My hon. Friend makes an absolutely pertinent point; in fact, I was going to come on to that, so she must have read my mind. On Second Reading, the Secretary of State stated that

“the current system discourages claimants from making the transition into work”.—[Official Report, 20 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 1258.]

But what about people with progressive conditions such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis or motor neurone disease? There is no chance that people with those conditions will get better, but they have gone through the work capability assessment process and been placed in the work-related activity group. Are the Government seriously saying that this measure is going to incentivise that group of people into work? How many people with progressive conditions such as those will be affected? Given that, and the fact that in 2014 45% to 50% of ESA appeals were upheld, will the Government finally accept that in addition to being dehumanising, the work capability assessment is not fit for purpose and needs a complete overhaul?

The impact assessment has estimated that, by 2021, approximately £640 million a year will have been cut from social security support to disabled people, with £100 million a year to be provided in unspecified support to help disabled people into work. If the Government are serious about supporting disabled people into work, what measures are in place? This is exactly the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury was making.

What measures are in place to ensure that there are jobs for those disabled people who are able to work? What are the estimates of the impact on the employment of disabled people, how this will impact on the Government’s target to reduce the 30% disability employment gap—it is actually 34% in my constituency in Oldham—and how many employers will be engaged? I hope that it is more than the current 68 active employers from the Disability Confident campaign. The campaign has been going for two years and yet only 68 employers are currently active in it; 33 of those are existing disability charities. I hope it will be more than that, but why was this not included in the impact assessment process?

What exactly is the “work” bit in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill? We have heard about reporting on apprenticeships and about different aspects of reporting. But what is the link to ensuring that disabled people are able to go into jobs before they have a third of their weekly income deducted?

On the Thursday before the August bank holiday, five months after the Information Commissioner had ruled that the Government must publish data on the people on incapacity benefit and on ESA who had died between November 2011 and May 2014, the Government finally published these data. They revealed that the death rate for people on IB/ESA in 2013 was 4.3 times that of the general population, and had increased from 3.6 times in 2003. People in the support group are 6.3 times more likely to die than the general population and people in the work-related activity group—the people whose support the Government are seeking to cut—are more than twice as likely to die. The figure is actually 2.2 times more likely to die than the general population.

The Government have, regrettably, continually maligned, vilified and demonised people on disability and other social security benefits. The language around calling people shirkers and scroungers has been picked up and used in many media outlets. In 2010 the instances of use of the term “scrounger” by the mainstream press increased to 572—more than 330% from 2009—and it has stayed at this level. Language is so important, and the way that social security claimants—particularly people with disabilities—are portrayed in the media is so important. The innuendo that people with a disability or illness might be “faking it” or are “feckless” is quite frankly grotesque and belies the epidemiological data. Incapacity benefit and ESA are recognised as good population health indicators. I can say that as a former public health consultant. I have experience of this and I have worked in this field. The release of the Government’s own data, which show that this group are more likely to die than the general population, proves that point. This group of people are vulnerable and need care and support, not humiliation, from us.

Once again the cart is being put before the horse: make cuts in support and cross your fingers that something turns up for disabled people. That also applies to people  on low incomes. The policy flies in the face of the Conservative party’s pledge to protect disabled people’s benefits. All last week’s warm words at the Tory party conference are just that if they are not followed up by action.

With this cut to the ESA WRAG support without anything to replace it, the Government are condemning more people with disabilities and their families to living in poverty and I predict, unfortunately, that more tragedies will undoubtedly happen. I urge the Government and all members of the Committee to think again and vote against clause 13 standing part of the Bill.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I thank the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark for starting the debate and for his contribution. He has made some very relevant points in terms of how Government can continue to support people with disabilities to get into employment. He has touched on the fact that the Government have made a very solid commitment to increasing the employment of people with disabilities. He and other hon. Members touched on many of the schemes that the Government have undertaken to support people with disabilities and health conditions to get back into work and to participate fully in society. That is why we made a solid commitment in this year’s Budget to spend more than £310 million over the next four years to support people. Coupled with the increase in work incentives in universal credit, this will not only help to make claimants affected by the changes move closer to the labour market, but will contribute to the commitment to halve the disability employment gap. There will be bespoke schemes that are tailored to claimants, to help them back into work. The Disability Confident campaign was mentioned. We have been working with employers to remove the barriers that might prevent disabled people from fulfilling their aspirations.

It is fair to say that we also recognise that it is difficult to find the best way to improve support for people with health conditions and disabilities. It is challenging, and I do not think that any hon. Member in this room has all the answers to that challenge. Of course, as a result, varying types of support are required to help these people move into work. That is why the Department offers a flexible range of support to help people get back into work, ranging from personal individual support from Jobcentre Plus work coaches to Work Choice, Access to Work, and the flexible support fund. In the autumn we intend to put out further details on support, and that will be informed by discussions with stakeholders. That will also build on the evidence coming out of a range of pilots that the DWP is already testing.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark 2:30 pm, 13th October 2015

It is welcome to know that more big detail is emerging, but it is disappointing that that detail is not before the Committee, which I think would be right and proper. We had a case this morning where, similarly, there was not enough detail to make scrutiny possible. Will the Minister commit to a meeting with representatives of groups including the Disability Benefits Consortium, Scope and RNIB, to make sure that their views are genuinely taken into account?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I would be delighted to do exactly that. I would like to emphasise for the benefit of the whole Committee that that is exactly how good policy is developed. It is developed through meeting stakeholders and hearing of their experiences, and of how we can put into implementation the practical support that people need. We need to understand how we can do that through our own current delivery mechanisms, whether through jobcentres or our work coaches or through some of our schemes.

I would also like to touch on the commissioning strategy that the Department holds right now. That includes how the Department approaches the market when looking at flexibilities for support provision, and also how the marketplace itself can develop to include stakeholders and disability organisations to provide that support. Setting out guidance on this in particular is impractical, and obviously the commissioning strategy strikes the right balance in terms of engagement and developing the right options.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Will those discussions, debates, consultations and engagement include specific proposals around the Work programme and Work Choice reform?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

The hon. Gentleman has raised a valid point. Obviously, with the 2017 date which he touched on coming up, this is about evolving the policy and looking at future provision, as well as existing provision. That is an ongoing discussion that we are having with stakeholders right now in the Department. The hon. Gentleman also spoke about devolution. Devolution provides new opportunities for further integration, and localisation that is based on collaboration, rather than setting out prescriptive approaches. As a Government, we are great believers that that is the appropriate way forward. That reflects the reality that local authorities have a good understanding of these issues, and they work with DWP and also with third parties and stakeholders at a local level.

The hon. Gentleman will be fully aware of many of the pilots that are taking place. Obviously we have the Working Well pilot in Greater Manchester with the combined authority, which is an excellent example of how support is being provided at a local level. There is much more in terms of other pilots in particular. By the time that pilot is rolled out it will cover not just individuals with disabilities, but also up to 50,000 individuals with a range of health conditions, to support them. That will involve a budget of in excess of £100 million. This includes something like £36 million from the combined authority alone.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The Minister and I met at the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, of which I was a member until a couple of weeks ago. I asked in that Committee about the concerns which unfortunately exist around that scheme, including that there was a mandation of claimants to the Working Well scheme. I asked for clarification about that, particularly before the pilot was due to be rolled out. The Royal College of Psychiatrists is dead against it; it flies in the face of its commitment to medical ethics. There are real concerns there.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

Devolution in itself means that local authorities, working with stakeholders and delivery partners, develop the right support and the right policies for implementation to support individuals. It is not for the Government to be prescriptive about that. This is about how we can tailor support for individuals. That is exactly the right approach. This should be completely focused on providing the right level of support for people with health conditions as well as with disabilities—yes, to help them get closer to the labour market and back into work. When I came to the Select Committee there was a broad discussion focused on the value of work and its importance, from the point of view of health and wellbeing, for people’s health conditions as well as for those with disabilities.

That brings me to some other points that were raised, such as employment and support allowance, the WRAG group and the support group, and people with terminal illnesses who, quite rightly, are being supported through the support group. The hon. Lady said she felt that they were at a disadvantage, given the Government’s policy. I suggest that in fact we are supporting them, through ESA, making sure they are being given the right level of support. There is no compulsion for them to go back to work; they are being supported by the system. Through all our welfare reforms we have made it clear that we will continue to protect and support the vulnerable. That of course includes those who have terminal illnesses or people with progressive illnesses who are unable to work. That is exactly what the employment and support allowance and the support group category, in particular, does.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

When we met recently, I asked the Minister about the increase in sanctions for people on ESA WRAG, which has increased since 2012 by 300%. The Minister has just stated that there is no compulsion; yet these people on ESA WRAG are being sanctioned.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

Sanctions are part of the process that the claimant has with the jobcentre, in particular when it comes to the contract they have and their discussions. All the parameters are made perfectly clear to claimants coming to the jobcentres in terms of what is required of them. Those requirements are not unreasonable, given that they are work-related. In particular, they are there to help the individual to get back into work. No unreasonable requirements are placed on the individual at all.

Photo of Emily Thornberry Emily Thornberry Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

From my experience just of those who come into my surgery, what the right hon. Lady is saying is not in touch with reality. She has talked about the importance of listening to people and I really think that she should listen to this. For example, if someone has a mental health condition which is a variable one, they will be put on the lower component of ESA, so on the edge of being able to work, perhaps with support. If it is insisted that they go in for an interview, or that they do voluntary work or fill out CVs at a period when they are suffering depression or life is particularly chaotic, the experience of my constituents is that the local jobcentre is not sufficiently understanding and they will get sanctioned.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I say to the hon. Lady that, first, sanctions are there for a purpose: they encourage jobseekers in particular to comply with reasonable requirements.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

I will not give way. That is the purpose of the claimant commitment. Secondly, ESA was introduced back in 2008—as I am sure the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury will remember, although I was not a Member of Parliament then—and was dubbed a radical reform package. The work-related activity component at the time was intended to act as an incentive to encourage people to participate in employment. Clearly, we know that that has not happened. We are therefore reforming our approach with DWP, through our jobcentres and work coaches, to support individuals to get back into work.

Specifically with ESA, the hon. Lady will be aware that the Secretary of State gave a speech just before the conference recess about how we can do more. It is absolutely right that we do more to support people with health and mental health conditions, and work is already taking place around the country. With that will come more co-location of health services with our jobcentres, as well as more support and signposting in our jobcentres.

To return to my point about sanctions, I have no idea what the Labour policy on sanctions is, but they exist as a reasonable requirement through the claimant commitment. Our jobcentre staff work with claimants to ensure that they are being supported in the right way to get into employment. Our work coaches help them and signpost them through universal jobmatch. They get the support required. That is part of the claimant commitment, which is made abundantly clear to the claimant when they come into the jobcentre in the first place.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

On the reasonableness of sanctions, I have had a mum come into my surgery who was sanctioned for not attending an appointment at Jobcentre Plus because she was taking her daughter to hospital. Does the Minister conclude that that is reasonable?

When employment and support allowance was introduced, there were specific expectations about the number of people who would end up in the support group, in the work-related activity group and on jobseeker’s allowance. Those potentialities were not hit for some time, due to problems with the work capability assessment. Given that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has been discussing completely overhauling the work capability assessment, which was in our manifesto in May, is the Minister seriously suggesting that the system is perfect, and—

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Order. I think that is probably enough for one intervention.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

Gosh, where to start? To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question about the case that he presented, no. If he would like me to pick it up, I would be happy to do that for him. With regard to the system being perfect, of course it is not; it is evolving over time, hence the Secretary of State’s most recent comment about how we can do more to support people with health conditions so that it becomes a case not of why people cannot work but of how we can support them to get back into work and with their health conditions in particular.

Photo of Naseem Shah Naseem Shah Labour, Bradford West

I could reel off a list of people who have come to my constituency surgery. I am the former chair of the largest BME mental health charity in Bradford. Does the Minister agree that it is absolutely diabolical to apply sanctions after testing somebody with mental health difficulties and saying, “If you can tie your shoelaces, you’re capable of going to work”? Does she believe that the number of people who have committed suicide after sanctions have affected their mental health problems is acceptable?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

First, with regard to the hon. Lady’s long list of cases, she is welcome to present them to me, and I will look at each one individually. Secondly, the work capability assessment has evolved over time. The organisations that were originally contracted to undertake it have changed. The point is that people should be assessed for what they can do; it should not be about what they cannot do. Where people have particular health conditions, it is right that we as a society support them either to get back to work or to get the treatment that they need. On her latter point, there is no causal effect at all.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Again, this all emerged about the Minister saying that there was no compulsion. There clearly is compulsion for people on ESA WRAG. In my speech I raised points about people with progressive conditions such as MS, motor neurone disease and Parkinson’s who are included in that group.

This debate has extended. We as a Parliament are still waiting for the Government’s response to the report of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions on sanctions beyond Oakley, which specifically considered ESA sanctions. It made a number of recommendations that unfortunately support what has already been said.

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions)

Thank you, Mr Streeter. I will bring it back to clause 13. Finally, I would like to say while speaking to the clause that we have touched on the level of support that is currently under way for people with health conditions and people with disabilities in particular.

I touched on devolution, some of the pilots that are taking place and some of the wide-ranging support we have, such as personalisation pathfinders and many of the supports that are already taking place in our jobcentres, as well as funding from the European social fund, that are helping with more localised provision. We believe that they are the appropriate ways forward in terms of providing the right level of support for individuals with health conditions. To come back to my earlier point, we intend to set out further details on support in the autumn, which will be informed by discussions and work with, and evidence from, stakeholders. I urge the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark 2:45 pm, 13th October 2015

It is important to reiterate the concerns about the language on who is protected and who is not. We had some discussion about that before conference recess. The sheet in front of me says that 244,250 people with mental and behavioural disorders in the work-related activity group will be directly affected. Disabled people  have already experienced an impact—not that group specifically but more generally. Some 440,000 disabled people have to pay the bedroom tax or spare room subsidy and benefit rates have been frozen, including the vast majority of employment and support allowance benefit paid to disabled people. We have also had the change to disability living allowance. It is very frustrating to hear Ministers continue to claim that disabled people have been protected when they clearly have not.

Having made that significant point, it would be interesting to see in more detail the concrete proposals that the Government are introducing. I am glad they are committed to working with stakeholders, although I am a little bit concerned, having been a co-chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium policy group for some time and not really having been consulted or engaged by them. I hope the relationship has improved under this Minister and that those discussions are constructive. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 8.

Division number 32 Decision Time — Clause 13 - Employment and support allowance: work-related activity component

Aye: 9 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 13 ordered to stand part of the Bill.