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House of Lords - Welfare Reform Bill (Second Reading)

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, who has done so much for disabled people over the years.

The Pathways to Work pilot schemes have demonstrated that a great many disabled people of working age want paid employment. Being out of work is alienating, unsociable and, for many, begins an inevitable slide into poverty. Being out of work for a long time is even worse, as confidence levels plummet, with unemployed disabled people quickly believing that they are completely unemployable, leading to feelings of worthlessness. So I welcome the purpose of the Bill, which has the ambitious aim of trying to reduce the numbers of disabled people on incapacity benefit by helping them enter the workplace. I very much hope that the Government have allocated enough resources to this ambition-£360 million over two years does not sound very much-and that they are still listening not just to Parliament but to all the expertise in the specialist voluntary organisations that work tirelessly for their client groups.

Those suffering mental health conditions, who, as we have heard, account for about 40 per cent of those on IB, are among the most vulnerable people that the whole scheme must try to help. If more help was available to deal with mental health problems in the early stages, perhaps there would be fewer people with that problem on benefits. After all, more money spent early on is bound to be cost-effective. Are there, for example, enough cognitive behavioural therapists working in the National Health Service? What has happened to the health and well-being strategy which is supposed to be running alongside the Bill?

It is especially important that personal advisers at job centres are trained properly in helping vulnerable people who are trying to overcome problems and problemsand enter or re-enter the workplace. Here I am particularly concerned about the sanctions regime in the Bill which, as others have said, could add to the stress and intimidation felt by those prone to mental illness. Will the Minister confirm that decision-makers have some discretion in the imposition of a sanction if a claimant falling into this category misses, for example, a work-focused interview without necessarily giving a "good cause"?

Employers also need to be especially understanding with employees suffering from fluctuating conditions such as clinical depression, and there is a strong view amongst specialist groups that not enough attention has been paid to the vital role and responsibility that employers have in ensuring the success of what the Government are attempting to do. Although employers of disabled people are very positive about the experience, there is no question that most employers continue to discriminate against disabled employees. That fact is borne out by the statistics reported in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion2005. The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, Mr Jim Murphy, said in a debate on 29 November in the other place that the Government needed to do more to engage employers, and I wonder what they have in mind. Unless there are stronger requirements for employers to assist employment in the future, many disabled people in the employment group are going to be condemned to engage in endless work-focused activities with no prospect of a job.

No one can say that the Bill is making the whole disability benefits field simpler, as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said. A complex web of procedures are set out in the Bill, starting with the familiar personal capacity assessment although, of course, in a new form. We have not yet seen the draft regulations for this test-they are promised tomorrow-which does not give us much time to examine them properly before the Committee stage. However, the specialist groups have seen the draft proposals and there is great concern about the proposed withdrawal of several low-scoring physical descriptors. I do not think the noble Lord said that they have been restored, so I assume they are still withdrawn at present. The point of having descriptors such as, "Can only walk up and down a flight of stairs if he goes sideways or one step at a time"-I can identify with this-is that those people who fall into such a category need help and support with work. They are not necessarily seeking exemption from work, but they need physical obstacles to be taken into account lest they get forgotten. However, I welcome the announcement made by the noble Lord that the physical function and mental health function will be added together, which shows that there is now movement towards a social rather than just a medical model of disability; that is very welcome.

Still on the subject of the personal capacity assessment, presumably there will still be a request for information from the claimant's doctor. I urge that this process is closely monitored. The claimant should be given an up-to-date assessment before the report is sent in, and then it should be sent in as soon as possible thereafter. We hear that many doctors do not submit a report in time for the claimant's PCA. The up-to-date doctor's report at the outset would surely save a lot of time wasted in later appeals, the majority of which are successful.

My last word at this point on the PCA comes from my experience of claiming disability living allowance, which was only granted on appeal, and here I must declare that particular interest. The form asked how far I could walk outside unaided. This is a difficult question and the form seemed well designed to take a range of answers into account, yet I was marked down because I was not VUTW. I had to phone up to ask what that meant. It means virtually unable to walk. None of my comments had been taken into account at all. Was it anything to do with a computer only understanding black and white answers, I wondered? In which case, God preserve all claimants from what a Member of the other place cited as, "Computer says 'No'". Watchers of "Little Britain" will recognise the phrase. What is the role of the computer is in this particular assessment? Is it the case that if pre-coded answers are not given, any non-standard responses on the form will not be attached to any particular descriptor and might just as well not have been written? Does that not make the case for having an independent assessment of the whole PCA process, and many dummy runs, before national roll-out?

I turn now to the subject of the work-focused health assessment. First, it is very important that assessors are able to call on specialist knowledge of certain conditions, and my noble friend Lord Addington will expand on this point. The second matter is the understandable concern that by undertaking this assessment at the as the time asthe main PCA, claimants will have to focus on what they cannot do and what they can do almost simultaneously. It is quite likely to be in the disabled person's interest that they do not have to make two trips to the medical centre for these two tests, and quite a few claimants obviously will not need to take the second one, but it does raise questions. Will the two tests be entirely separate and will the decision-maker be the same person on each occasion, or will the answers to one test influence the other? Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us as this is a worry to several specialist groups.

Before leaving this part of the Bill, why will no benefit entitlement except for those with a terminal illness be backdated to the start of a claim; that is, roughly the 13-week assessment phase when the benefit is job seeker the lower jobseeker's allowance level? I know this is not the not the first time that the question has been put this afternoon, but it seems unjust, particularly for those in the support group. Is this the only benefit which will not be backdated to the start of the claim?

I should like to look at the whole question of passported benefits, an issue also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. I refer to benefits such as free school meals and prescriptions, housing and council tax benefits. This was hardly touched on during the Bill's scrutiny in the other place. Will the Minister set out at some point just where the triggers are with the new employment and support allowance? However, there are almost certainly too many variables for a simple explanation now. A question involving passported benefits was put to me the other day in relation to the help and support a disabled person needs when they start work, and it is one which goes to the heart of the Bill.

If a severely disabled wheelchair user whose circumstances mean that she is currently on income support and who is at present entitled to passported benefits wishes to seek a proper job-that is, a job with more hours than the permitted work rules allow-using her new skills acquired at an FE college, will there be adequate support available? A person such as this is unlikely to take the plunge into the world of work without such support in case they had seriously misjudged their ability to cope. Will there be enough flexibility in the system for such a person, after completing the transitional period, to go back on to benefits if necessary without starting from scratch? The phrase, "What if I find it all too much?", is one which must be familiar to personal advisers. I should be grateful for the Minister's comments on such a case.

This brings me to the Access to Work scheme, which has been described as one of the best kept of all Government secrets. One of my disabled friends is a highly gifted primary school teacher in a north London borough who can only do her job thanks to an Access to Work scheme helper who writes on the blackboard, carries books, photocopies and does all the practical tasks my friend cannot manage. Are there any plans to make this excellent scheme better known? When Pathways to Work is rolled out nationally, it must surely be the case that the Access to Work scheme will have to be expanded, and I hope this has been taken into account in its budget, particularly in the number of staff engaged in administering the scheme. Perhaps we could have a reassurance on this point.

Finally, I wish this Bill had had pre-legislative scrutiny, given that it is a carryover Bill. The Government may say that the Green Paper and the successful pilot schemes carried out so far are enough, but they are no substitute for detailed parliamentary scrutiny. The problem is that the regulations which will have to be made under the Bill are just as important as the Bill itself, and they cannot be amended. Obviously all social security Bills have to contain detailed regulation-making powers, but sooner or later Parliament is going to want a better way of having its say about what is in these important regulations.

The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee can warn all it can and the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee can play its part after Bills become law, but when all is said and down, the balance is still heavily tilted towards ministerial fiat becoming law. We in this House can seek to make the most important regulations come under the affirmative process more than just the first time, or suggest amendments in a non-fatal Motion, or use the blunt instrument of a vote against the whole order. However, none of these courses of action is really satisfactory, so I urge the Minister to keep an open mind on what should go in the regulations before the Bill leaves this House. There are many other matters of concern to be explored which I have not had time to mention, and I look forward to a more detailed scrutiny of the Bill in the weeks to come.