HC Deb 22 March 1995 vol 257 cc356-76

'.—(1) Regulations under section 4(5) shall provide for the applicable amount, in a case where as a result of a physical or mental disability the claimant has to incur additional costs for the purpose of complying with the terms of a jobseeker's agreement or a jobseeker's direction, to include an amount in respect of those costs.

(2) Regulations under subsections (2) and (3) of section 6 may, in particular, provide for any difficulties or discrimination faced by disabled persons in seeking or obtaining employment to be taken into account.

(3) Regulations under section 6(2)(a) and (c) may, in particular, provide that a person who has made and is pursuing an appeal against the determination of an adjudication officer that he is not incapable of work and whose medical practitioner, or another person with a prescribed qualification, supplies evidence of his continuing incapacity for work shall be treated as available for and actively seeking employment pending the determination of his appeal.

(4) For the purposes of sections 7 and 8, in any case where—

  1. (a) the claimant's availability for employment is restricted as a result of a physical or mental disability or partial incapacity, or
  2. (b) it was determined in accordance with the provisions of Part XIIA of the Benefits Act that he was incapable of all work for any period during the eight weeks preceding his claim,
the employment officer, as defined in section 7(15), shall be a person designated by the Secretary of State as a disability employment adviser.

(5) Regulations under section 16(3) may, in particular, provide for an income-based jobseeker's allowance, which would otherwise be prevented from being paid by section 15, to be payable at a prescribed rate where the claimant or his partner is sick or disabled.

(6) In this section—

  1. (a) "jobseeker's direction" has the same meaning as in section 15;
  2. (b) "partner" has such meaning as may be prescribed; and
  3. (c) "sick or disabled" has such meaning as may be prescribed.'.—[Mr. Bradley.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Bradley

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

New clause 2 deals with some of the problems which thousands more disabled people who will be expected to sign on for jobseeker's allowance will face as a result of the more restrictive test for incapacity benefit. It would help the Employment Service to administer the new system.

It is important to put our concerns in context. It is estimated that 190,000 disabled people will come off invalidity benefit and that an additional 55,000 people will fail to qualify for incapacity benefit in the first year of the jobseeker's allowance. That means that an additional 245,000 who have substantial disabilities are expected to sign on as unemployed and claim JSA. Not only will many of those people face a lower level of income than they would have received under incapacity benefit, but many will receive less than they would have received under the current unemployment benefit. For example, for a 40-year-old woman there is a difference of up to £18.60 a week between the higher rate of incapacity benefit at £65.05 and unemployment benefit, currently at £46.45.

Let us consider why many groups of people will be worse off under JSA than under unemployment benefit. The Labour party believes that there are five key reasons for that. First, contributory JSA will be paid for only six, instead of for 12, months. That is at the heart of the Bill. It is an attempt to cut contributory benefit from 12 months to six months and to move people after six months on to means-tested benefit, so extending the poverty trap and forcing people to be means-tested earlier. At the same time, the Government are increasing national insurance contributions from 9 to 10 per cent. In other words, people will pay more and get less out of the national insurance contributory system.

The rationale for the change is that the majority of claimants have only a short spell of unemployment lasting six months or less. However, the evidence strongly suggests that that is not the case for disabled people. Research by the social and community planning research department found that half of the disabled people who were actively looking for work had been doing so for a year and that a further third had been doing so for three years. That hardly bears out the Government's view that people come off the dole within six months.

Secondly, contributory JSA will be reduced pound for pound where people receive an occupational or private pension of more than £50 a week. Previously, that applied to pensions of more than £35 a week paid to people over the age of 55. The new rule could adversely affect some disabled people who are taken off incapacity benefit if they receive payment from a previous employer in recognition of their ill health or disability. Contributory JSA could be reduced or lost completely. A 50-year-old man with an occupational pension of £60 a week will lose £10 a week from his contributory JSA. Under unemployment benefit, the payment would not have been reduced because he was aged under 55.

Thirdly, no increase will be payable for a non-working partner unless the partner looks after children or is aged over 60. Removing the dependence allowance for a non-working spouse or partner means that contributory JSA will amount to a personal allowance only. Another good example is that of a 34-year-old man who has an injury at work which prevents him from working, for which he receives a lump sum compensation of £20,000. He has two children and a wife who cares for the children. He would receive £127.45 per week incapacity benefit, which includes an allowance for adult and child dependants.

If that person moved to unemployment benefit, he would receive £74.50, which would include an allowance for his wife. Under the jobseeker's allowance, however, he would receive only the basic rate of £46.50—a staggering difference of £80.96 per week between incapacity benefit and jobseeker's allowance. His savings of £20,000 as compensation for his injury would preclude him from the means-tested jobseeker's allowance, leaving him with only his six months contributory jobseeker's allowance.

Fourthly, the contributory jobseeker's allowance is limited to six months, thus bringing in means-tested benefits sooner. An earlier means test could bite especially hard for people with income or savings above the limit. The change could affect disabled women disproportionately, especially if they are leaving incapacity benefit, as they are more likely than male claimants to have a partner who is working full time, which would exclude them from the means-tested jobseeker's allowance. The savings limit of more than £8,000 could exclude disabled people with capital from compensation for personal injuries.

Fifthly and finally, on the rationale, disabled people may incur additional costs in their job search because of their disability. In Committee, Ministers said that they would consider the extra expenses incurred by disabled jobseekers and I will return to that matter later.

That is the context within which our new clause is framed. It is an attempt to tackle the consequences of those fundamental changes in unemployment benefit and the introduction of the jobseeker's allowance.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is odd for the House to be debating this issue, which affects the sick and the disabled in particular, at the same time as the Government are proclaiming their conversion to new rights for disabled people in their flawed Disability Discrimination Bill, which will be coming before the House next week?

Mr. Bradley

Throughout our deliberations on Report, we shall be looking closely at the interface between people with disabilities and unemployment and at the Government's Bill on discrimination, which clearly does not go any way towards tackling the real needs of disabled people in the workplace, especially as regards small employers. We shall consider that carefully and in detail as the day progresses.

The purpose of the new clause is to alleviate some of the consequences of the new Bill. First, it will help with additional costs in complying with the jobseeker's agreement or direction.

Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North)

How much?

Mr. Bradley

Since I have not uttered one word about what the proposal is intended to do, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to proceed, I shall return to that question.

Mr. Heald

The hon. Gentleman said that there would be a figure for additional costs and I am asking what it would be.

Mr. Bradley

If the hon. Gentleman reads the new clause, he will see that its purpose is to prescribe in regulations the extent to which the Government will help disabled people. We are flagging up the intention that that should be done through regulation and we do not prescribe the amount in the new clause. To answer the question directly, if the new clause helps disabled people back into employment and gets them off benefits, at worst, its effects will be neutral and the measure will probably result in a saving to the social security budget.

The purpose is to help people with the additional costs of complying with the jobseeker's agreement or direction. Disabled people may face additional costs.

Mr. Heald

What are they?

Mr. Bradley

The costs to a disabled person.

Mr. Heald

Yes, what are they?

Mr. Bradley

I shall explain. If the hon. Gentleman listens carefully when I describe the type of cost that we are dealing with, he might be able to put a figure on it himself.

The additional cost of job seeking for disabled people, compared with able-bodied people, may include travel to interviews, speculative visits to employers or even visits to the Employment Service. For example, people with sensory impairments may need assistance in approaching employers by telephone or letter, or in looking for advertisements. They may need to be accompanied to an interview by a signer. Under the Government's access to work scheme, payments may be made for equipment, adaptation to premises or transport costs to help disabled people in work. However, like the disability working allowance, it is limited to people who are already in work, so offers of help to someone trying to find a job in the first place are not available. In Committee, the Minister of State, Department of Employment showed some sympathy with the argument that disabled people faced additional costs when searching for a job, and I look forward to a positive response from her when she winds up the debate.

4 pm

Secondly, the new clause provides for difficulties of discrimination faced by disabled people in seeking or obtaining employment. In the first year of the jobseeker's allowance, an estimated 190,000 people coming off incapacity benefit will have considerable difficulties in sustaining job search activities. Except for a minority regarded as incapable of work, most incapacity benefit claimants must score at least 15 points in a test of physical or mental functions, or at least 10 points in a test of mental ability alone. The arbitrary cut-off at 15, taking no other factors into account, means that a score of 14, which confirms a substantial disability, would disqualify someone from incapacity benefit.

In addition, DSS research reports Nos. 19 and 20 into invalidity benefit conclude that the constraints arising from disability or health problems disadvantage disabled people in the labour market relative to other jobseekers. Likely to face most difficulty are those over the age of 50 with a background in manual work and no qualifications. Similarly, research by Scope shows that an able-bodied job applicant is six times more likely to receive a positive response from an employer than a disabled applicant.

The Government's Disability Discrimination Bill, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) referred earlier, fails to deal with the extent of employment discrimination as small employers are excluded from its provisions. It is therefore important that both a person's disability and the existence of discrimination be taken into account by the Employment Service when drawing up a jobseeker's agreement, considering what steps should be taken when a disabled person is actively seeking work and in imposing a jobseeker's direction.

Thirdly, where someone appeals against a decision that he or she is capable of work and where evidence of continuing incapacity is provided, the new clause provides that the person should be treated automatically as available for, and actively seeking, work. Currently, people who appeal against a decision that they are capable for work can, pending their appeal, either sign on or claim income support without signing on. Pending an appeal hearing, income support rules allow someone to claim without being required to be available for work where the person's GP continues to supply evidence of incapacity for work.

In Committee on 23 February, the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security announced that, as from April 1995, all new incapacity benefit claimants who appeal against a decision that they are capable of work will, if they are not signing on, be subject to a 20 per cent. reduction in their basic rate of income support. That new measure is a harsh, worrying and unnecessary appeal penalty. As well as the prospect of living on an income that will be severely reduced from £46.50 to £37.20 a week for a single person, people in that position are likely to be left with a gap in their national insurance credits unless they win their appeal. Furthermore, that new rule will push more people towards the Employment Service to sign on and have a further impact on the administration of the jobseeker's allowance.

Ms Eagle

My hon. Friend may remember that in Committee the Minister said that those who decided to sign on and therefore said that they were available for work would not be prejudiced in their appeal against the original decision that they were fit to work. Has he heard anything since to convince him that that rather weak assurance is worth while?

Mr. Bradley

The silence from the Government on that is deafening. I hope that the Minister will be able to offer us further assurances because disability organisations have been horrified at the new measure. I am sure that they have expressed their protests already to the Department of Social Security, locally and nationally. The benefit penalty is particularly harsh and I am sure that the Minister will be urged by hon. Members on both sides of the House to reconsider it.

Subsection (4) would ensure that where a person's availability for employment is restricted as a result of a physical or mental disability or that person was incapable of work in the previous eight weeks before his claim, he should be seen by a disability employment adviser. The White Paper on the jobseeker's allowance and the Department of Employment's press release, dated 14 February 1995, stated: All jobseekers whose physical and mental condition limits their availability will be able to restrict the type or hours of work for which they are available in line with their condition. However, the current law goes wider than that. The disabled person may need to restrict not just the type or the hours of work, because evidence suggests that a range of factors may be important in restricting the kind of work that someone could reasonably be expected to do. Disabled people signing on may need to place considerable restrictions on their availability for particular types of jobs and the method and distance of the journey to work.

According to the 14 February press release, an additional £71 million will be made available in the next three years as a number of people are expected to come off incapacity benefit and sign on. It is unclear how well those resources will be used. I hope that the Minister will be able to give further details about that when she replies.

Disabled people will need qualified advice and assistance to help with their job search. The new clause would ensure that, from the outset, the person entering into a jobseeker's agreement with the disabled person was someone from the Department of Employment's advisory service. That person would have specialist knowledge of disabilities. Unless more specialist resources are made available, assistance for increased numbers of disabled jobseekers could be considerably reduced, because we are already aware of a waiting list of disabled people seeking assistance from the Employment Service.

Finally, the new clause deals with hardship payments to disabled people. The Bill includes new powers to increase the use of sanctions against people who "break the benefit rules". In that context, it is important that any sanctions are applied fairly and reasonably to disabled people, so that those sanctions do not disadvantage them in any further way. At present, if someone is disqualified from unemployment benefit he receives a reduced amount of income support—up to 40 per cent. less than the designated amount. Under the jobseeker's allowance, there is no automatic payment, even of a reduced amount. Paragraph 4.39 of the White Paper on the jobseeker's allowance states: Although payments will not normally be available during the first two weeks of a benefit sanction, exceptions will be made for disabled people and carers. The Bill does not suggest how such people could be identified.

In Committee, the Minister said that the Government would use

definitions used in the regulations which currently apply to those who fail the actively-seeking-work test in income support…all claimants undergoing a sanction, even those in the vulnerable groups, must demonstrate hardship before they receive a payment."— [Official Report, Standing Committee B, 21 February 1995; c. 530.] There is no guarantee of payment, even for vulnerable groups, as only 48 per cent. of those applying for hardship payments under those rules were awarded payments.

The new clause allows for provision to be made for sick and disabled people in that context. Given the additional costs that confront disabled people, any reduction in benefit is likely to have a massive impact. It could be argued that benefit reduction should be far less than 40 per cent., or that the benefit rate should be paid in full if the claimant or the partner has a disability.

In conclusion, I can do no better than to quote the opinions expressed by Sir Peter Large of the Association of Disabled Professionals, who said: Rather than seek some open-ended commitment to cover any number of undefined extra costs that a disabled person might incur in seeking work"— I refer here to the intervention of the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald)—the new clause is

Government-friendly in that it allows specific additional expenses to be closely prescribed in detail in regulations. I hope that, in that spirit, the Government will consider the new clause and realise that it is intended to help disabled people return to work and so reduce their dependence on benefits. I hope that, as the measures could be prescribed by the Government in regulation, they will look on it with favour.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends would agree that, as the legislation is framed and the regulations under it are considered, sensitive consideration is needed of the position and needs of the long-term sick and of disabled people. We need to think very carefully about the appropriate interplay between the incapacity benefit system and the jobseeker's allowance.

A great many people will be affected by the changes, and a great many vulnerable people, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) told us. It is anticipated that about 220,000 people who are now in receipt of invalidity benefit may fail to qualify for incapacity benefit and about 55,000 new claimants who would have qualified for invalidity benefit will not qualify for incapacity benefit. Perhaps 190,000 people will in due course come off invalidity benefit or incapacity benefit to go on to jobseeker's allowance. We are talking of large numbers of people.

The sick and the disabled have a very real apprehension—it is one that I share—that significant numbers of them will not be sick enough to qualify for incapacity benefit but will not be fit enough to qualify for jobseeker's allowance. They will not be able to satisfy the rigorous requirements for availability and actively seeking work.

The test that is being instituted to enable people to qualify for incapacity benefit has an absolutist character, whereas the realities of the labour market are highly complex. It seems to me that that disjunction of approaches will inevitably throw up difficulties. We cannot realistically isolate, in some objective sense, individuals' capacity to work. Their capacity for work in truth depends on the circumstances in which they find themselves; on the interaction of their life history and their unique configuration of abilities with the circumstances around them and the conditions in the labour market. I am sure that my right hon. Friends will want to develop the system to provide real and effective bridges between those two regimes.

I commend to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the suggestion made by the Disablement Income Group, which appears constructive and practical, that the disability employment advisers should be involved in reconsidering cases in which people have narrowly failed to qualify for incapacity benefit as a result of taking the medical test. It would be good if those marginal cases could be reviewed and referred back to the Benefits Agency medical service for another look. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench will think about that.

I also hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will wish—as they suggested they would during our debates last year on the Social Security (Incapacity for Work) Bill—to look systematically at the linking rules. There are generous linking rules for the disability working allowance. I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends will wish to consider the matter carefully and with open minds.

4.15 pm
Ms Eagle

The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting comparison with the disability working allowance, but surely he will admit that few people have been able to claim that allowance simply because it is available only when they have already overcome the major hurdle of obtaining work. Does he have any views on what problems might be caused in the administration of the benefits by the sheer numbers who will be in the system once incapacity benefit is introduced and both processes begin to bite?

Mr. Howarth

There are, perhaps, two points. I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench have been somewhat disappointed by the take-up of the disability working allowance and have taken steps to liberalise the rules for DWA to encourage, and make it possible for, more people to benefit from it. I very much agree with the hon. Lady that, given the numbers of people who will be in the hinterland between incapacity benefit and jobseeker's allowance, a great many demands will be placed on administration. That is an extremely important consideration.

Last year the Government undertook to look systematically and carefully at linking rules and the progression from one benefit to another of disabled people. I hope that the Government will apply that approach when considering the relationship between incapacity benefit and jobseeker's allowance. We shall need to have flexibility and it is the Government's responsibility to ensure that there is not a gulf between the two benefits into which vulnerable people can fall and find themselves altogether without benefit.

I am unclear whether the rules that allow sick or disabled people to restrict their availability for work—taking reasonable account of where the job may be located or the conditions of work in a particular employment—are to be carried through to the jobseeker's allowance. Hon. Members must forgive me if the matter has already been dealt with in Committee, but if it has not been clarified, it would be helpful if my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Employment could cast some light on it.

It is tremendously important that the jobseeker's agreement takes account of the needs of an individual disabled person. The agreement must, of course, take account of the individual needs of any claimant, but that is particularly important for disabled people. I hope that we may have some reassurance on that point. I have a more radical suggestion for my hon. Friend the Minister. I am encouraged to see her turning round in her place and smiling at me. I smile on her and wonder whether, in her present benign mood, with the milk of human kindness coursing through her, she feels able to agree to allow the long-term sick and disabled to receive the contributory jobseeker's allowance for 12 months instead of six.

It is important to recognise that, as we are all too well aware, there are fewer jobs available for the disabled, regardless of discrimination. In the nature of things, it is harder for many disabled people to find work. However arduously and determinedly they look for work, typically, it takes them longer to find work. The hon. Member for Withington cited research carried out by Patricia Prescott-Clarke who found that half of those disabled people who were actively seeking work had been looking for more than one year and that one third had been seeking work for more than three years. Could the Minister find some margin in the public finances which would allow them to receive contributory benefit for 12 months instead of six? It would make an enormous difference to them and to their families.

I would also like a more lenient sanctions regime to apply to the disabled—just as I would like it to apply to many others. Surely the disabled should be able to refuse work or training that is not suited to their needs.

The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux has raised an important point, based on its extensive practical experience in the field, concerning problems that arise with medical evidence. Fundholding general practitioners and consultants are increasingly asked to provide certificates of one sort or another, which we recognise can create practical problems for them. As a result of those increasing pressures, it appears that more of them have begun to charge for the provision of evidence. A report from one citizens advice bureau states: In the last six tribunals I have undertaken for patients of our local fundholding GP a charge of £15 per letter has been levied. In another case, a GP was requested to provide evidence to support a disability living allowance review. He replied with a 16-line letter giving a brief history of the client's condition and an attached note saying that the fee for the enclosed report was £50. Another rather brief report stated: This patient is suffering from backache. It was accompanied by a bill for £22.

As I understand it, when the Employment Service seeks medical evidence it will meet the cost involved. However, when an individual claimant wishes to support a claim for restricting his or her availability for work, it is uncertain whether that person would have to pay the cost of producing the evidence in order to satisfy the Employment Service. I hope that the Government will undertake to pay such fees when the Employment Service insists on the provision of evidence.

There is an alternative approach which does not fall within the jurisdiction of the Department of Social Security or the Department of Employment, but is a matter for another Government Department. The terms and conditions of general practitioners could be altered to make provision of that service obligatory for GPs in discharging their ordinary duties. It is an urgent practical point which must be addressed.

The hon. Member for Withington referred to the difficulties that disabled people face in appealing against a decision to disallow disability benefit. They can either accept income support with a 20 per cent. cut or they can sign on to claim jobseeker's allowance. I endorse the hon. Gentleman's point that those measures should be unnecessary. If convincing evidence must be produced at an appeal, that should operate fairly effectively to discourage frivolous appeals. I am concerned that a single person would see his or her income reduced from £46.70 to £37.20 per week.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the prejudice of sick and disabled people's national insurance credits. They face either those penalties or the rigours of actively seeking work when they may be in genuine difficulty and when their appeal may be upheld and they may be accepted as being unfit for work.

In conclusion, let me revert to a point that I touched on earlier. We need to see the system and the needs of claimants as a continuum. I am worried that we shall end up with an all or nothing position in which people are judged absolutely as either sick or fit. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be willing to reconsider another suggestion that the Disablement Income Group has consistently advanced and which has great merit—the case for a partial incapacity benefit. That would help to ensure that we have the necessary spectrum of provision.

At present, there is a real danger that people may fall into a gulf in which there is no protection. Some disabled people may be taken out of the benefits system altogether either because they fall into the gulf between incapacity benefit and the jobseeker's allowance or, because of earlier means testing under the jobseeker's allowance, for reasons that the House well understands, because they end up not receiving jobseeker's allowance.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

I also fear that disabled people will suffer under the new jobseeker's allowance. Other hon. Members have spoken about incapacity benefit, but that will be up and running when the jobseeker's allowance comes in. According to the Government's own figures, some 220,000 people will be debarred from invalidity and incapacity benefit and told that they are fit for work.

I am afraid also—and I should like some clarification from the Minister—that people will not be able to get the jobseeker's allowance because they are not available for work, so they will fall between the two benefits of jobseeker's allowance and incapacity benefit. That is already happening with invalidity benefit and unemployment benefit. The citizens advice bureaux in particular have drawn attention to many cases in which people are debarred from getting invalidity benefit and cannot get any other benefit because they are not capable of work.

What does the Minister envisage that the Employment Service will do about the influx of people? Other hon. Members have raised that issue. I do not know whether the Employment Service will be able to cope with the 220,000 people in the Government's estimated figures. How will it cope with the fluctuating physical conditions or mild mental health problems of some of the people who will be applying for benefit?

At the moment, disability employment advisers deal mainly with people with severe disabilities and they are not used to dealing with people with mild mental health problems. A great deal more money will be required to train those advisers and many more advisers will be needed.

The Minister stated that £71 million will be made available for training staff dealing with the jobseeker's allowance. I should like more clarification on whether that money will be only for disability employment advisers or whether it will also include those who will be involved in the jobseeker's allowance. We need to know whether they will also receive specific training. Is the £71 million just for disabled people, or does it go further? We have not had much guidance from the Government on how that £71 million will be split up. I greatly fear that they will make do with the present number of disability employment advisers in order to save money.

We all know that people are falling through the net at present and it would be an absolute disaster for the jobseeker's allowance if it got worse.

We have heard already that anyone who decides to appeal against a decision to withdraw or refuse incapacity benefit is faced with an impossible dilemma. They either get income support at a reduced rate of 20 per cent. or they sign on. We need definite clarification from the Minister as to whether signing on at the employment exchange will mean that they are debarred from getting benefit or that it will hinder their appeal. In Committee, the Minister justified the penalty clause on the ground that it would reduce the number of appeals, but everyone should have the right to appeal against being debarred from a benefit. The Minister did not make it clear whether signing on would count. There have been many contradictory statements, so clarification is needed.

4.30 pm

Disabled people are disadvantaged in society. Next week we will debate the Disability Discrimination Bill—but I do not believe that it will help a great deal. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) spoke of the need to obtain medical evidence to support a claim of being unable to perform certain jobs because of disability. Will the Government meet the cost of obtaining that evidence? Will the Employment Service make an allowance? Otherwise, there will be a disincentive to appeal. People should be made to feel that they can appeal against a decision and not be denied that course because of the cost.

The cost must also be met where a disabled person finds it more difficult to meet the expense of travelling to and from a new job, as well as all the other costs that he or she might incur in meeting a new job commitment. I agree with new clause 2 and hope that the Government will accept it.

Mr. Keith Hill (Streatham)

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) asked a number of pertinent questions, but she could have elicited answers to many of them if she or any other Liberal Democrat had taken the trouble to serve on the Committee that considered the Bill.

Ms Lynne

No doubt the hon. Gentleman is aware that I served on the Committee considering the Disability Discrimination Bill, so was unable to be on two Committees at the same time. As I am my party's social security and disability spokesperson, I should have served on the Committee considering the Jobseekers Bill, but I served on the other.

Mr. Hill

To conclude this slight spat, both the Government and my party were able to place social security and employment spokespersons on the Committee considering this Bill, and I imagine that the Liberal Democrats have an employment spokesperson.

Figures released by the unemployment unit today show that the number of jobless people losing benefit has doubled in the past 12 months, which fully justifies fears repeatedly expressed by the Opposition that the jobseeker's allowance legislation is paving the way to a harsher and more repressive regime in the Employment Service. There is deep anxiety on these Benches that new toughness will work to the special disadvantage of the most vulnerable claimants—the sick and disabled, who will be presenting themselves in vastly increased numbers at jobcentres.

Incapacity benefit will replace invalidity benefit on 13 April, when it is estimated that more than 200,000 ex-claimants will fail the new test of incapacity and will be treated as capable of working. There is widespread evidence that a clampdown is already operating in the run-up to incapacity benefit. Streatham citizens advice bureau has seen significant growth in recent months in the number of cases where DSS medical boards are finding people fit for work and discontinuing their invalidity benefit. Trades Union Congress unemployment centres are reporting a tenfold growth in appeals against loss of invalidity benefit over the past 12 months.

One of the purposes of the new clause is to make some provision for the extra costs that are faced by disabled people, in satisfying the availability and actively seeking work requirements of the proposed legislation. I want to say a word in support of that proposal, but before I do, I ask for a specific assurance from the Government with regard to the costs of supporting medical evidence. I mentioned the experience of Streatham citizens advice bureau, of the recent growth in judgments against invalidity benefit claimants by DSS medical boards. Apparently, where claimants wish to appeal against such judgments, some doctors are now charging for the medical reports necessary for appeal, regardless of the patients' ability to pay. I find that a distressing and unfair development. It does not auger well for the new arrangements under the jobseeker's agreement where a person is seeking to restrict his or her availability for work on health grounds and needs to produce supporting medical evidence.

In Committee, the Minister appeared to offer an undertaking that no charge would be made to a claimant where the Employment Service requested such evidence. That form of words appeared at the same time, however, to exclude provision for such evidence to be free when it is the claimant who requests it. I seek an assurance that where either the Department or the claimant requests evidence with regard to limits on work, on health grounds, it will be free at the point of supply.

I notice that the Minister is shaking her head. I hope that, by the conclusion of my observations on this matter or at the end of the debate, a more generous spirit will have surged through her and that that assurance will be offered.

In more general terms, it is obvious that the sick and disabled usually face greater living costs than other people as a result of their illnesses and disabilities. In Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security offered to consider the possibility of making provision for specific travel, interview or search costs incurred by disabled people in search of work. I hope that the Minister will be able to undertake to include such provision on the face of the Bill later.

The new clause also removes the new appeal penalty that was introduced in Committee, which is explicitly designed to act as a disincentive to appeals against the withdrawal of incapacity benefit. Rather than penalising those who exercise the right of appeal, it seems more reasonable to increase the resources available for dealing with appeals. The truth is that although many will choose to sign on while appealing, not least to preserve their national insurance record, those who feel least able to work will be penalised the most. Not only will the withdrawal of incapacity benefit in itself reduce their income but they now face a further loss of income of at least £9 a week. I commend the proposal in the new clause that will at least ensure that disabled people are treated as available for work for the duration of their appeal.

It is a grave cause for concern in my view to force the sick and disabled out of benefit as a result of illness and on to lower benefits and the highly notional job market. When I visited my local CAB recently, I was told of the pressures experienced by an arthritis sufferer. She had been forced out of her old job by her disability and was told by the DSS to apply for a job as a cleaner. Another client, more than 60 years of age, who had been out of work for years, also because of arthritis, faced the loss of invalidity benefit. Where is the fairness or common sense in that?

Even more worrying is the situation of those suffering from non-physical disabilities under the new arrangements. Let me cite two further cases dealt with by the Streatham CAB in recent months that illustrate the problems that are likely to be faced by those suffering from mental illness. In one case—that of a controlled schizophrenic—the DSS suggested that that person could be employed, again, as a cleaner. It is interesting that in this new world of work that is being opened up and the wonderful, flexible labour market that is being created by the Government, the characteristic job that seems to be on offer to those about to move into the labour market is that of cleaner.

Another case, also passed to me by the Streatham CAB, concerned a severely alcoholic man, part of whose brain had been affected by alcoholism. He too faced the threat of losing his invalidity benefit. The CAB helped both those people to win on appeal, but that is no basis for complacency. People with mental illness are the least able to help themselves, and could be said to suffer from one of the least easily provable illnesses. They are in great danger of being disadvantaged by the new tough regime that the Bill presages.

Ms Eagle

Is not another factor the time that it takes for appeals to be heard, and the disadvantages that someone considering an appeal may suffer in the interim?

Mr. Hill

My hon. Friend is entirely right. My local CAB has given distressing examples of the enormous difficulties experienced by its clients in obtaining benefits—or any form of income—during that period.

People suffering from mental illness are most likely to be pressurised into job search activity that may be unsuitable or even detrimental to their health. There is a danger that a number of long-term sick and disabled people will find themselves squeezed out of the benefit system altogether. New clause 2 is designed to offer some safeguards against the risk posed by this worrying, repressive and mean-spirited legislation.

Dr. Godman

I support new clause 2. I hope that the Minister will be able to clear up some ambiguities relating to transfer from invalidity to incapacity benefit and thence—in some cases—to the jobseeker's allowance.

The hon. Members for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) and for Rochdale (Ms Lynne) said that some 200,000 people were in receipt of invalidity benefit. If I have misquoted either of them, I shall of course give way.

Ms Lynne

According to the Government's own estimate, 220,000 people will be ineligible for invalidity benefit or incapacity benefit.

Dr. Godman

I am grateful for that clarification. I wonder whether the statistics include the approximately 80,000 women aged between 60 and 65 whose invalidity benefit has been suspended by the Department until such time as the European Court of Justice offers an opinion in the test case of Mrs. Graham.

Mrs. Graham appealed against the suspension of her invalidity benefit. A commissioner by the name of Skinner—I am sure that he is no relation to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—found in her favour, but the Department challenged his finding and went to the English Court of Appeal, whose judges sent the commissioner's decision to the European Court of Justice. I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify the position; I am sure that she is wonderfully clear about the issue of the 80,000 women who are currently in a curious state of limbo.

In a letter sent to me last week, the Secretary of State assured me, and I believe him, that if the opinion of the European Court of Justice—for that is what it offers: opinions—is accepted by the English Court of Appeal, he will ensure that women caught in this appalling trap will receive invalidity benefit backdated to, I believe, 1 April 1992. I welcome that commitment from the Secretary of State. I know that the Minister cannot speculate on the likely outcome of a case that is to begin in Luxembourg on 6 April, I think, with the oral evidence of Mrs. Graham's QC, a gentleman by the name of Drabble. The Minister will readily acknowledge that the Government have a fairly honourable record in honouring European Court of Justice decisions that go against the legislation, policies and procedures of the United Kingdom.

Of those 80,000 women, some 3,000 or more live in Northern Ireland, several thousand live in Scotland and about 400 live in my constituency. What will happen to such women if they are paid invalidity benefit as a result of the intervention of the European Court of Justice? Presumably, they will be assessed for incapacity benefit, even though some of them are aged between 60 and 65—some of them, of course, will be aged over 65. If those who are aged under 65 years move to incapacity benefit, will some of them then be assessed for the jobseeker's allowance? It would help if that could be clarified.

4.45 pm

A small number of those women have visited me at my surgery. I readily acknowledge that I organised a take-up campaign in Scotland on behalf of such women. I hope to organise such a campaign in Northern Ireland because those women are being miserably treated by the Government.

Incidentally, Commissioner Skinner decided that the Government were in contravention of a European Community directive. I cannot remember its classification, but it was obviously an equality directive. It will help if persons who will be directly affected by the legislation know what the position will be if the case goes Mrs. Graham's way, as, naturally, I sincerely hope that it will, or if the Government's case is accepted by the European Court of Justice.

It is unfair that those women have been treated in this way. I readily acknowledge that, in cases of hardship, such women can have the benefit restored, as has happened to some of my women constituents. Some 800 women throughout England, Scotland and Wales have had the benefit restored on the ground of hardship. A small number of women in Northern Ireland have also had their benefit restored on that ground, which they had to prove. It would be extremely helpful if such women were informed, especially given the imminence of the case. As the Secretary of State told my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) in another letter, no opinion will be offered by the court until July, but those women are coming to hon. Members' surgeries—they are certainly coming to mine—and asking what their likely position will be if the court offers an opinion in favour of Mrs. Graham or, on the bleak side, if it offers an opinion that supports the Government.

This matter is important because we are talking about scores of thousands of women. It would be remiss of hon. Members to ignore their sparse circumstances in a debate on the new clause, which seeks, however directly or indirectly, to protect people who have suffered long bouts of sickness. Also, some of my constituents and many other women in Scotland, who are so affected and who have been in touch with me, have contributed to such benefits. They have a right to demand from the Government some sort of indication of where they will stand in the near future vis-a-vis the test case which will shortly begin its proceedings at the European Court of Justice.

The Minister of State, Department of Employment (Miss Ann Widdecombe)

We have had an interesting debate and I think that there is a genuine shared concern on both sides of the House that we should ensure that when we introduce the jobseeker's allowance, people with disabilities, having been refused incapacity benefit—as it will then be—will not fall between two stools. The main concern that has informed contributions to the debate—with the exception of the specific question raised by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) to which I shall return later—has been that people should not be caught and fall down some black hole. That was the main thrust of the speech made by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms Lynne).

I can reassure the House, as I reassured the Committee on several occasions, that we are concerned to ensure that people do not fall between two stools. It is important to understand—I say this particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth)—that when people sign on for JSA, rather than for income support, they will be able to place restrictions on their availability, on the type of work that they are able to do and even on their job search activities. They will be able to include such restrictions as arise as a result of their condition. I shall go into a little more detail about how we will make those judgments later.

Ms Eagle

When the Minister does go into detail, will she explain how the jobseeker's agreement will tie into that and what would happen if there were no agreement? Will she also refer particularly to whether specialist advisers will be on hand to interpret the practical effects of some conditions which ordinary Employment Service staff may not always appreciate?

Miss Widdecombe

Those are all important questions and I can answer most of them in a positive way which I hope that the hon. Lady will welcome.

In Committee, I made available copies of the draft jobseeker's agreement. I demonstrated that there are questions on that agreement which ask, for example, about the hours that somebody is willing to work. If somebody's condition is such that they are able to do some work—one would presume that to be the case since they have been turned down for incapacity benefit—but are not able to work a full working week, which we define as 40 hours for the purposes of JSA, they would be able to agree with the Employment Service adviser, not the disability employment adviser, some restrictions on the hours. There is then a catch-all section which says: Other agreed restrictions on …availability". That is a section to which people with disabilities might wish to add extra points that are not necessarily to do with hours or the type of work. It is important to understand that the jobseeker's agreement is meant to be tailored.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon said that any applicant should be able to have his circumstances taken into account in all reasonable conditions. That is a view to which we would subscribe. I spent some time during the Committee—as the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) will remember—trying to reassure hon. Members on that point. I shall deal with the hon. Lady's other points when I come to discuss in greater detail how the matters will be managed, and she can intervene again at that point if she is not satisfied.

I shall now address some of the specifics which came up in the debate in relation to the clause and its various subsections. First, we dealt with the question of the extra costs involved in a job search, and the particular difficulties that a person with disabilities might face. Such a person would be able to put restrictions into his jobseeker's agreement, and specialist help designed for each individual will also be available.

Help with travel to interviews will be available, and that will include the costs of an escort to or from an interview. Premiums are also payable to people with disabilities which do not depend on their availability for work, such as disability living allowance, severe disability allowance and mobility allowance. All of those will still be available, and should address the specific problems which people with disabilities have.

The jobseeker's agreement focuses on the steps to be taken, but those steps will have been agreed. There is no single prescription of the steps that should be taken. I sympathise with the point made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) on subsection (2) when he talked about discrimination. Clearly there is discrimination against people with disabilities, and the Disability Discrimination Bill was introduced to address that. That Bill is where we shall base our help for people who face discrimination.

Mr. Bradley

Why does the Disability Discrimination Bill not include small employers, who may be very willing to take on disabled people?

Miss Widdecombe

If they are very willing to take on disabled people, there is no problem at all. What we have said in the Disability Discrimination Bill is very straightforward. We do not wish to place undue burdens on small businesses. If small businesses find that it is not possible within reason to make adjustments, they must still prove that that is the case if they are caught within the terms of the Bill. They also have to master a fairly complex piece of legislation, and we must bear it in mind that they do not have discrete personnel departments as larger concerns do.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that small firms have been exempted in other countries where such a measure has been brought in. We encourage small firms to take on people with disabilities. Access to work covers large, medium and small firms, and is available to each individual. We have gone a long way towards addressing the particular concerns of the hon. Gentleman.

Ms Lynne

The Minister said that small firms were exempted in other countries. In the United States, firms of 15 employees and under are exempted. Why is the figure 20 and under in this country?

Miss Widdecombe

There is no need for us specifically to follow the United States. We have made a judgment on what we think is reasonable in terms of our legislation and the burdens we are proposing to put on business. The hon. Lady will be well aware that, under the Disability Discrimination Bill, regulations will be able to provide for that threshold to be altered if necessary. We have built in flexibility, and I feel that her point on that issue is not fair.

While on the issue of subsections (1) and (2), this is probably a convenient place to explain the figure of £71 million which has been raised by hon. Members this afternoon. Unemployed and disabled people have priority for places on all main employment and training programmes for which they are both suitable and eligible.

The Employment Service will spend an additional £71 million in the first three years of incapacity benefit on all those who come on to unemployment from incapacity benefit. That £71 million will cover, among other things, in-depth interviews, specialised help from placing assessment and counselling teams—the PACTs to which I referred earlier—and extra provision for job plan, job club and the job interview guarantee. Therefore, people affected by the introduction of incapacity benefit will have early access to the most appropriate provision. The access to work scheme—

Ms Lynne

The Minister gave a breakdown of the £71 million, but did not specify how much more money would be put into the system of disability employment advisers.

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Miss Widdecombe

There has already been substantial training as a result of the new incapacity benefit. There will be additional training as a result of the introduction of jobseeker's allowance, which will include such things as reasonable restrictions. I shall deal specifically with disability employment advisers when I talk about the particular route that I said that I wanted to follow in more detail.

The access to work scheme, which extended and replaced existing programmes, will also be of use to people who have the difficulties which hon. Members on both sides of the House rightly acknowledge.

Mr. Alan Howarth

I understood that the access to work scheme was up for review shortly. Will my hon. Friend confirm that it is here to stay?

Miss Widdecombe

If a scheme is up for review, I shall not prejudice that review any more than I am willing to speculate on the outcome of a court case. However, access to work is recognised as a successful scheme. I am sure that that success will be taken into account when the review is conducted.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

That means no.

Miss Widdecombe

I did not say no. If I had said no, it was not here to stay, I would have been speculating on its demise. I am not doing that. I am saying that when anything is the subject of a review, it ill becomes Ministers to speculate on the likely outcome in the House.

Much that I have already said covers subsection (3) of the new clause. Of course, the individual is not forced on to income support with a 20 per cent. deduction. He has the choice of going on to full JSA, placing restrictions on the hours and type of work and anything else that may be immediately relevant to his disability.

Ms Eagle

This is an important point. Will the Minister confirm that if an individual who wishes to appeal against being disallowed incapacity benefit signs on to JSA, with all the restrictions, no tribunal will regard that as in any way prejudicial to the appeal?

Miss Widdecombe

Yes. I can confirm that absolutely unequivocally. Signing on for work will not prejudice an appeal against a refusal to allow incapacity benefit. I can furthermore say that the courts have made that clear. The chief adjudication officer has also made that clear. Therefore, I do not think that that need be a worry. I know that it exercised several hon. Members who spoke in the debate. I intended to deal with it at a subsequent stage.

Subsection (4) of the new clause would ensure that a person with disabilities receives the advice of a disability employment adviser rather than just an Employment Service officer. We shall ensure that the individual will be able to make a free choice. He may not want to go to a disability employment adviser. There are people who do not. They want to be treated in the main stream. They want to stay in the main stream. One needs to respect that choice, but there will be a choice. Anyone who wants the services of a disability employment adviser and who is eligible through having some physical or mental restriction will be able to receive that advice. I hope that the hon. Member for Withington will accept that assurance.

I can also reassure the hon. Gentleman on subsection (5). Claimants who are, or have partners who are, sick or disabled will automatically be classified as vulnerable and, therefore, will receive hardship payments throughout the sanction. However, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, and I wish to confirm, they will have to establish hardship. As they are in a vulnerable group, it will be assumed that where there is financial hardship, they qualify.

I shall deal now with some of the specific points that were made in the debate. The main thrust of the speech of the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow was about women between the ages of 60 and 65 awaiting the outcome of the Graham decision. If the appeal goes in their favour, they will come under the rule which says that people aged 58 or over in receipt of invalidity benefit since 1 December 1993 will be exempt from the all-work test. Accordingly, if they win, they will not move off benefit through the all-work test. They will have their position restored and they will then be covered by the protection extended to those over the age of 58. My understanding is that if they lose, they will be in exactly the same position as anyone else over 60 in terms of retirement pension or income support where the pension is not appropriate, or whatever the case may be. I hope that that clears the matter up.

The hon. Member for Withington was probably slightly confused. I think that I heard him say that access to work and general help was for those in work. I reassure him that the Employment Service can fund the costs of travel to interview, the cost of escorts to and from interview, which are important for people with disabilities, the cost of providing communications for the deaf at interview and other similar measures. For example, when talking about people facing extra costs in looking for work, one can call to mind the blind and whether they can type a CV. The PACTs and the Employment Service can provide such a service.

I said that I would go into the detail of the position of those who cross from one benefit to another. The full detailed arrangements will be set out in regulations, but I can give the following assurances. When a claim is made, Employment Service front-line staff will take the claimant's own evidence about the extent of his condition and the impact that it has on his availability or whatever he seeks to restrict. In many cases, that will be agreed and there will not be any further problem.

Where a claimant has left incapacity benefit and makes a claim for JSA, the Employment Service will have a range of medical evidence available to assess whether the restrictions are reasonable, given the claimant's particular condition. That will include, always assuming that the claimant has given written consent, the incapacity benefit disallowance notice, which will set out the case, evidence provided by the Benefits Agency medical services and specialist expertise within the Employment Service.

Where a claimant has not made a previous claim for incapacity benefit, our front-line staff will have full access, where they need it, to the range of services offered by the disability employment advisers and the PACTs, who have specialist knowledge and expertise on the impact of disabilities on occupations and the effect on a person's prospects in the local labour market. If they have doubts about the reasonableness of the claimant's proposed restrictions, the case will go to an independent adjudication officer. He or she will, in turn, have access to the full range of evidence provided by the all-work test and incapacity benefit, if appropriate, or the expertise of the disability employment advisers and the PACTs. The adjudication officer may also require the claimant to provide further evidence, which could include medical evidence.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon that we expect that to be necessary only in a small proportion of cases. We understand that many doctors will be prepared to provide that sort of evidence free of charge and we do not, therefore, see the need for legislation to provide for any other system.

Ms Lynne

The hon. Lady says that doctors will be available to provide medical evidence free of charge in many cases, but what if no doctor is prepared to do so? She said that she does not want to introduce legislation, but if that were the case it would be essential.

Miss Widdecombe

We expect that the provision will affect only a small number of cases, and within those we would expect many doctors to provide the evidence free of charge. That is not merely a vague expectation, as it is based on the knowledge available to us. If the hon. Lady is challenging me to agree to the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon, who is also about to intervene, we do not accept that there is a case for an open-ended commitment from the Department of Employment to fund medical advice in that way. We do not see the need to fund it in that way. First, there is no good reason why we should fund some doctors and not others, and we would have to have an open-ended commitment whereby we would fund all such evidence. Secondly, we must remember that the procedure occurs only in cases of doubt and after all the other evidence that I mentioned has been exhausted. We are not talking about imposing charges at an early stage in the process.

Mr. Alan Howarth

I am a little worried that my hon. Friend may be at risk of underestimating the incidence of such charges. We should certainly acknowledge that, where they occur, they bear heavily on people on low incomes and in a precarious situation. While I recognise her difficulty about making a commitment to funding, will she say here and now at the Dispatch Box that she believes that it is right in principle that doctors should not charge to provide claimants with that evidence? Will she also undertake to confer with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to find out whether further steps can be taken to encourage doctors to conform to the standards that I am sure that she and I would both want them to adhere to?

Miss Widdecombe

While there is no reason to doubt the good faith of the claimant concerned, I hope—I can put it no higher, as I cannot lay down ethics for the medical profession—that the doctor would provide such a service free of charge. I cannot undertake to apply pressure on the Department of Health as my hon. Friend suggests, but I undertake to ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, in whose province that falls, to talk to the Department of Health.

I hope that I have given the hon. Member for Withington sufficient reassurances to enable him to withdraw the new clause.

Mr. Bradley

I am grateful for the detail in which the Minister responded to the debate on new clause 2 and for the contributions from both sides of the House. It was always a great sadness to Opposition Members that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) was not selected to serve on the Standing Committee to help us in our deliberations.

We accept the Minister's assurances on certain areas, but the proof will come out in the detail in 1996, after the Bill becomes an Act, when we can judge the interrelationship of its provisions with incapacity benefit in practice. We reserve our judgment on whether the seamless service between the two benefits will be as effective as the Government suggest.

We are concerned that £71 million will not be sufficient to meet the extra demands that will be placed on the Employment Service. On the pertinent question of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon about the access to work fund, which is under review, I can only say that the independent living fund was a huge success and we all know what happened to that, so we will be watching with great interest.

We will look at the operations of the Act in practice and I am sure that these matters may be considered in further detail in another place. With that comment, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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