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House of Lords - Welfare Reform Bill (Second Reading)

My Lords, I start by welcoming the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, to his new DWP duties. I have always found him open, courteous, thoughtful and honest in our exchanges on Treasury matters. I hope that by saying that I am not putting the kibosh on his career when Gordon Brown takes over. The House has been very fortunate in recent years in all its Work and Pensions Ministers: the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and now the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie.

I am very fortunate in opening the debate from these Benches to be able to put the problems which the Bill addresses in their wider social and economic context to some extent, particularly because the real experts on disability-my noble friends and colleagues on our team, Lord Addington and Lady Thomas of Winchester-will be bringing all their practical experience and passion to bear, as your Lordships will hear shortly. We very much look forward also to the contribution of my noble friend Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, with his long and distinguished record in another place.

We heard about consensus from the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. We all agree with the ends of the Bill, we differ only on the means. We welcome the measured and balanced tone of the Minister's opening speech today.

Some 2,700,000 people are on incapacity benefit-almost one-tenth of the 29 million people now at work in this country. It is a truly shocking statistic. We know that the first big surge on to benefit came in the Thatcher years as the pits, the mills, the steelworks and the shipyards shut down, leaving middle-aged men with no realistic prospect of finding work in depressed areas such as south Wales and the north-east. They are the casualties of deindustrialisation, and you can still see a marked difference between the rates of incapacity in southern England and in the rest of the UK. But now we are suffering a second, different surge, this time from the casualties of our fractured society. Over 40 per cent of people now on incapacity benefit have mental health problems such as depression or schizophrenia, 40 per cent of them women. My noble friend Lady Thomas will go into much more detail on that. But why, for example, is cognitive behaviour therapy for depression not much more freely available from the National Health Service, as the noble Lord, Lord Layard-whom I am delighted to see in his place-has argued so strongly?

Last week my colleagues and I visited job centre jobcentre in Stockwell, just over the river. In Lambeth the overall employment rate is only 63 per cent compared with almost three-quarters nationally. In Stockwell and Brixton, it feels even lower. We were very impressed by the dedication and professionalism of the staff we met, who were trying to do their best for vulnerable people who often have serious mental health problems. The staff told us that they needed more training and more immediate access to specialist advice. My noble friend Lord Addington will expand on that later and will be moving relevant amendments in Committee.

I was also struck by the number of large gentlemen standing round in uniformed blazers. I was told that they were customer care officers, but they were supplied by Group 4 and looked awfully like the security men I see just up the road tills at the tillsat Tesco in Kennington job centre. Of course jobcentre staff must be properly protected, but it is a sad commentary on the state of our society 10 years into a new Labour Government that the staff need so much protection from the people whom they are there to help to find work or secure the benefits to which they are entitled. What a waste of scarce resources on essentially unproductive security that is when eight of the job centre posts in that jobcentre have had to be cut as part of the massive DWP job-reduction programme over the past few years. Good management and dedicated staff can take you only so far; resources-and that means money-are the key to giving a sensitive and effective service to the hundreds of people with job centres needs who come to jobcentres every day.

Getting 1 million or more claimants into work is a daunting task, but the payback for our economy and the Exchequer, if we can pull it off, will be immense. Can the Minister give us chapter and verse on how the Pathways to Work programme, which he mentioned, will be rolled out across the whole country and convince us that the Department for Work and Pensions is not trying to make water flow uphill by trying to do this at the same time as front-line posts are constantly being cut? Is "one million into work" just a typical Tony Blair instant initiative for a cheap and nasty headline in the Sun, or is it really a firm long-term commitment with the political will and the cash to make it happen? You cannot solve a persistent deep-seated, institutionally ingrained problem like incapacity on the cheap.

Can the Minister also tell us which categories of claimants will be worse off as a result of the Bill? Will vulnerable people now have to wait longer to receive the full benefit to which they are entitled if they pass the assessment, instead of having payments backdated to the date on which they first claimed? How does he reply to the Child Poverty Action Group, for example, which points out that families will have to wait up to 13 weeks on the jobseeker's allowance before they receive the employment and support allowance? Can he also tell us how his department will respond to the very cogent criticisms of the citizens advice bureaux that, "a quantum leap in the quality of medical assessment and decision making is necessary",

in view of the 60 to 70 per cent appeal success rate for disability living allowance claims? What about the view of the citizens advice bureaux that the quality of ATOS ORIGEN doctors' assessments of suitability for benefit must be improved?

The citizens advice bureaux speak with great authority because they see thousands of people every day. Perhaps I may add one case from my own personal experience. I will write to the Minister with full details and ask him what went wrong, but the essential facts are these, and they confirm everything that the CABs and others say about the difficulty of sanctioning people with mental health problems and the poor quality of decision-making. A young man I know has been receiving disability allowance because he has severe mental health problems. He has been sectioned three times under the Mental Health Act, most recently from January to June last year. Last August, he was sent a letter telling him to attend a medical assessment in Enfield-he lives in Brixton by the way-and containing a 20-page questionnaire. He did not attend the interview or fill in the questionnaire and a few weeks later his disability allowance was cut off. Like many other people suffering from severe mental problems, he does not open his post, and if he did, he certainly would not have been able to fill in the questionnaire. By chance, the young man's father called in recently. He discovered what had happened and that his son's benefit had been cut off without either his legal guardian or social worker being informed, although both their addresses were on file.

How many other highly vulnerable people are penalised in this way, people who perhaps have no relatives or friends able to complain on their behalf? Again in the words of the CAB, "the DWP needs to focus much more strongly on what it should do to prevent such injustice".

On housing, we on these Benches, like Shelter, the Child Poverty Action Group, the Scottish Council for Single Homeless and many other organisations, oppose the single room rent restrictions and will be moving amendments to that end. We are in very good company; in 1996, just before they came to power, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and John Hutton all voted that same way in Parliament. What has changed?

Along with these housing organisations and many others, we also have grave reservations about Clause 30 of the Bill, which withdraws housing benefit following eviction for anti-social behaviour. This really would be visiting the sins of the fathers on innocent children. If this provision, as the Minister has just told us, is being piloted for two years, it should be subject to a sunset clause so that, unless it is renewed, it automatically lapses after that period. We shall, I am bound to say, need some more persuading from the Minister in Committee if we are not to oppose the clause outright.

The Bill acts on the supply side of the job market. It attempts to encourage and help people to apply for jobs, which we wholly support, and penalises people who do not co-operate. Here we will be trying to save the Bill from unfairness and sanctions that do not work. However, the demand side is just as important. How do the Government plan to encourage and persuade thousands of employers that people with disability or mental health problems can be productive, reliable and, let us be frank, profitable employees? Otherwise the Government might just as well be pushing on a piece of string, and any idea of getting a million people, or even several hundred thousand, off benefit and into work would just be moonshine.

I touched earlier on the problems that people with depression and other mental health problems have in getting real help from the National Health Service. In this Bill we are also trying to pick up the pieces from another failure of so-called joined-up government-in basic education. In our work in the Economic Affairs Committee of this House, the message comes across loud and clear from employers that far too many of our people lack the most basic skills in reading, writing and simple maths. "Working on the Three Rs", the joint study published last August by the CBI and the Department for Education and Skills, says: "Poor basic skills damage people's lives and their employment prospects. Weak functional skills are associated with higher unemployment, lower earnings, poorer chances of career progression and social exclusion".

Exactly. For the least well educated 20 per cent, Britain's record is far worse than that of Germany, France and the other main European countries. Instead of wasting our children's time by teaching them Britishness, whatever that may mean, we must give them the most basic life skills of all-the ability to read, write and add up. Our competitors do not teach their young people to be German; they teach them a trade.

So we are all on the same side with this Bill. As we scrutinise it, improve it and help it on its way through the House, our watchwords on these Benches will be training and fairness; encouragement not punishment; carrots not sticks; practical help and advice, not threats. In my experience, those work better for most people most of the time, whether employed already or still stuck on benefit. Britain is one of the world's richest economies and, in the Blair decade, the wealthiest in our society have grown richer, often beyond their wildest dreams. It is high time to help many more of our people into productive work so that they can share in building and enjoying our prosperity and not suffer, as all too often happens, in the shadows of our society. In that fine cause, we must all work to produce an Act of which Parliament can be proud.