HC Deb 17 May 1999 vol 331 cc663-701

`. After section 2B of the Administration Act (inserted by section 49 above) there shall be inserted—

"Optional work focused interviews

2C.—(1) Regulations may make provision for conferring on local authorities functions in connection with conducting work-focused interviews in cases where such interviews are requested or consented to by persons to whom this section applies.

(2) This section applies to persons making claims for or entitled to—

  1. (a) any of the benefits listed in section 2A(2) above, or
  2. (b) any prescribed benefit;
and it so applies regardless of whether such persons have, in accordance with regulations under section 2A above, already taken part in interviews conducted under such regulations.

(3) The functions which may be conferred on a local authority by regulations under this section include functions relating to—

  1. (a) the obtaining and receiving of information for the purposes of work-focused interviews conducted under the regulations;
  2. (b) the recording and forwarding of information supplied at, or for the purposes of, such interviews;
  3. (c) the taking of steps to identify potential employment or training opportunities for persons taking part in such interviews.

(4) Regulations under this section may make different provision for different areas or different authorities.

(5) In this section "work-focused interview", in relation to a person to whom this section applies, means an interview conducted for such purposes connected with employment or training in the case of such a person as may be prescribed; and the purposes which may be so prescribed include—

  1. (a) purposes connected with the existing or future employment or training prospects or needs of such a person, and
  2. (b) (in particular) assisting or encouraging such a person to enhance his employment prospects." '.—[Mr. Andrew Smith.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.45 pm
The Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities (Mr. Andrew Smith)

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment (a) to the proposed new clause, leave out lines 22 and 23.

Amendment No. 87, in clause 49, page 48, line 40, leave out from beginning to end of line 3 on page 49.

Amendment No. 89, in page 48, line 40, leave out `designated authority' and insert 'Secretary of State'.

Amendment No. 90, in page 48, line 46, leave out `designated authority' and insert 'Secretary of State'.

Amendment No. 88, in page 49, line 17, leave out from beginning to end of line 22.

Government amendments Nos. 16, 17, 78, 48, 49, 19, 51, 50 and 52.

Mr. Smith

Clause 49 supports the introduction of the single work-focused gateway to the benefit system.

The single gateway will radically change the way in which people access benefits. Under the single gateway, claimants will have an interview and get a personal adviser. They will be treated as individuals, and offered the help that they need to become more independent, where appropriate, through work. The single gateway will also provide a better quality service, by bringing together the relevant services currently operated by the Benefits Agency, the Employment Service and local authorities. The gateway approach will stop people being shunted from pillar to post and it will give them more help, as well as underlining that with rights go responsibilities. After extensive scrutiny in Committee, this part of the Bill received a measure of cross-party support, and I hope that the same will be the case today.

I shall start by dealing with the Government amendments in this rather large group as they are make minor, technical changes to this provision to ensure that the gateway works in the way intended. I shall then move on to deal with the more substantial issues raised by the Opposition in their amendments.

New clause 10 and the consequential Government amendment No. 48 will enable local authorities to conduct voluntary work-focused interviews and advice. That has always been the intention. We want local authorities to be able to provide additional help to people who want it—above and beyond the interviews that we will require under clause 49. As it is currently drafted, the Bill only enables local authorities to carry out compulsory interviews. New clause 10 will correct that position.

Government amendment No. 16 also relates to the role of local authority staff in administering the gateway. It clarifies the definition of "designated authority" in clause 49. It makes it clear that that includes the common arrangement for administering housing benefits in which people are contracted by local authorities to deliver services on their behalf. That change reflects the definition of "local authority" in Clause 63, which enables such staff to participate in the information flows that that clause allows.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Originally, there were three definitions in clause 16 and now there are four. What or who prompted the right hon. Gentleman to add a definition? There was no mention of the need to do so in Committee, but the extra definition has suddenly emerged on Report.

Mr. Smith

On looking closely at the provisions of the Bill, we were advised that in order to operate the single gateway as intended—which, as I have said, enjoys a measure of support from the Opposition—it is only sensible to include people who have been contracted to supply services in administering housing and council tax benefit on behalf of local authorities, as well as staff employed by local authorities. It is a straightforward provision to ensure that local authorities will act fully within the law when they operate the single gateway in the integrated way that is intended. The change provides consistency, and will ensure that such staff are not excluded from playing a part in the administration of the new programme.

Government amendment No. 17 is a simple consequential amendment which re-numbers the subsection. Government amendment No. 49 will ensure that local authorities can be paid for their role in helping to deliver the single work-focused gateway and our plans for a modern, integrated social security system. At present, local authorities can deal only with claims for housing benefit and council tax benefit. Clauses 49 and 62, and new clause 10, will extend their statutory powers—enabling local authorities to conduct work-focused interviews, and handle claims and information relating to a range of social security benefits. Existing powers to pay subsidy to local authorities do not cover those additional functions.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The right hon. Gentleman is now talking about local authorities conducting interviews. Employment agencies are skilled in conducting such interviews. What skills will the staff of local authorities obtain that allow them to talk to people about possibilities in the jobs market? I am somewhat thrown as to how those people, who have never been involved in such work, can suddenly become involved in it.

Mr. Smith

The hon. Gentleman cannot have been following events quite as closely as his hon. Friends who served on the Committee. It is a central aim of the single work-focused gateway that we stop people being shunted from pillar to post by drawing together in one place, at one point of contact, functions that are at present discharged separately. It is and will be an integrated operation. Therefore, positions for staff operating the single work-focused gateway and personal advisory interviews have been open to application from, and have been applied for by, staff of local authorities as well as those of the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency.

The hon. Gentleman would do well to remember that many local authorities have initiated one-stop shops and advice services, so it is perfectly reasonable to expect their staff to have relevant experience. The amendment provides, not only that they can play their part in those functions, but that, where subsidy is payable, the powers in the Social Security Administration Act 1992 will be extended so that those local councils can be paid subsidy in respect of those functions.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

The right hon. Gentleman will recall that, in Committee, there were many discussions regarding confidentiality of information and people employed on a contract. I cannot see among the amendments anything that would apply to employees of local authorities the confidentiality provisions that apply to employees of the Employment Service. I am sure that they are included, but I should like an assurance to that effect.

Mr. Smith

I thought that I had said that equivalent arrangements for sharing information with such staff were in the Bill, as amended. However, it is important not only that they can share that information but that there is a legal basis for them to do the work, and that the local council can receive appropriate subsidy in respect of those functions.

Amendments Nos. 19, 50 and 51 are purely technical. They enable regulations relating to clause 49, new clause 10 and new paragraph 68A to schedule 12 of the 1992 Act to be made within two months of Royal Assent. We want to be able to present regulations to Parliament as soon as possible after that. That will allow staff and the outside world as much time as possible to prepare for the onset of the compulsory phase of the gateway, which, under the Bill, will commence in April 2000. The amendments are simply necessary to ensure that that can happen.

Amendment No. 52 is a technical amendment, which ensures that the changes introduced by amendment No. 49 will apply in England, Wales and Scotland. Amendment No. 78 expands the definition of a work-focused interview, to clarify that such interviews can deal with future employment or training prospects. It makes it clear that its purposes may also include encouraging people to enhance their employment prospects over time. It spells out our intention to ensure that the interview will be helpful and relevant—not just for those with an immediate prospect of work. The amendment helps to ensure that work-focused interviews will be available to the greatest possible number of people, providing them all with the opportunity to move towards independence.

As I explained, these are largely technical amendments, which ensure that the policy intention, so thoroughly examined in Committee, can be delivered. I commend them to the House.

I shall now discuss the Opposition amendments. Amendment (a) attempts to remove subsection (4) from new clause 10. The purpose of that subsection is to ensure that those local authorities within the 12 pilot areas of the single gateway have the additional powers that they need to conduct voluntary work-focused interviews. There is no need for all local authorities to have those powers at this stage. Subsection (4) gives us the ability to ensure that areas not involved in the pilots remain unaffected by the provision.

5 pm

Amendment No. 87 would remove our ability to give personal advisers discretion to defer or waive the requirement to take part in a work-focused interview. We need that discretion because the heart of the policy is that staff will be able to make decisions on whether or not an interview is appropriate on a case by case basis and in a way that takes account of the needs and circumstances of the individual.

Our expectation is that the vast majority of people will have an interview immediately, but advisers will judge whether the help and support they can offer will be of use to the client immediately, or whether intervention might be more effective later. There may be clients—a grieving widow, for example, or a mother who has just given birth—for whom an immediate interview is not appropriate. In other situations, people may benefit from an interview straight away, even if there is no early prospect of work.

It would completely undermine the policy if we attempted to set out in regulations the precise categories to which that principle applies. We want work-focused interviews to be as helpful as possible. We think that they will provide an excellent opportunity for clients to discuss their situations and the action that they might take. We want to get away from categorising people by some predetermined label.

Mrs. Browning

I hope to expand on this point later in the debate, but I am concerned by the Government's apparent and remarkable failure to understand the groups who may be required to attend interviews. Many of those who receive severe disablement benefit have lifetime conditions. I am not labelling them, just recognising that they have medical conditions. For many such people, to have to attend an interview straight away would be a major trauma. While the Minister recognises the impact of an interview on someone who has just been bereaved, he does not seem to appreciate that for those who suffer certain types of medical condition, the suddenness of having to appear at an interview would be extremely traumatic.

Mr. Smith

Recipients of that allowance suffer a wide range of conditions. I do not say that it is appropriate in every case that they should have an interview straight away, but nor is it right to defer the interview in every case. Flexibility and sensitivity to clients are at the centre of our approach on the single work-focused gateway, but we want, as far as possible, to provide an early interview. Those interviews are not just about exploring barriers to employability, although that is important. They also provide people with an opportunity to meet their personal advisers to discuss a wide range of issues to do with their circumstances and their entitlement to benefit.

We shall see how well the pilots work, but I believe firmly that sensitively and expertly conducted interviews will be welcomed by claimants who will receive more effective support and advice. They will have a point of contact to which to turn for advice, and that point simply does not exist with any constancy at present. The hon. Lady should be cautious about saying that so-and-so should or should not have interview. We intend that people should find the interviews helpful and should welcome the opportunity to have them as soon as is sensible.

Amendment No. 87 would remove our ability to give personal advisers that discretion to defer or waive the requirement. It would totally undermine the policy if we attempted to be overly prescriptive in regulation in the way in which the hon. Lady appeared to suggest. Staff need discretion to decide whether an interview is appropriate according to the individual circumstances of each claimant.

Furthermore, and this may further allay the hon. Lady's concern, advisers need to have the discretion to defer the work-focused part of the interview if it becomes apparent during the interview that it is not appropriate, for example if the client is distressed or something about his or her personal circumstances emerges that was not previously apparent.

Mrs. Browning

The right hon. Gentleman is saying that we should go ahead with the interview and curtail it if it causes distress. It is almost 100 per cent. certain that the way in which he intends to make people attend the interview will cause distress to people with certain medical conditions. I ask him to think again. His suggestion shows a remarkable lack of knowledge and sensitivity on his part and on the part of the Government. I am thinking of conditions that might broadly be categorised as mental health problems and developmental disorders.

Mr. Smith

We are sensitive to the position of people who have those difficulties. Indeed, they were the subject of extensive debate and consideration in Committee. I remind the hon. Lady that clients can be accompanied to the interviews if they want. Of course, the advisers are being carefully trained to undertake the interviews. The whole point of the pilots is to learn from the experience.

The hon. Lady should be careful about producing yet more regulations that attempt to specify in fine detail matters that must be decided in large measure by professional judgment informed by good experience and sensitivity to the needs of clients. That is the way in which the system will operate.

The Opposition amendment could have some bizarre consequences, as it would be impossible to identify in regulations every situation in which the interview should be waived or deferred. Therefore, someone with a genuine case for deferral could be made to have the interview straight away if his or her precise circumstance had not been specified in secondary legislation.

Mrs. Browning

Can the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that the sensitivity and experience will be such that no one from the two categories of people about whom I am concerned—those with mental health problems and developmental disorders—will do a runner or suffer a relapse in their overall mental health when invited to attend such an interview? That is the reality of what happens to such people when they suddenly get that sort of letter.

Mr. Smith

It is ridiculous for the hon. Lady to ask me to assure her that no one who is invited to attend an interview will ever do a runner. She cannot be well informed about the day to day realities of life within the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service to suggest that a Minister could possibly give such an assurance. I will give her the assurance that people who are suffering from mental illness or other acute difficulties will be treated with sensitivity in the single work-focused interview and, moreover, that the purpose of the interview is to provide them with help, which they are not getting as a result of the way in which the system operates at present.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

The right hon. Gentleman says that he envisages and desperately hopes that the system will be sensitive and I in no way disagree. I believe that that is what he is seeking. Given that the National Schizophrenia Fellowship has carried out a review of the client group in question, which suggests that the mental health of 55 per cent. of people with schizophrenia and 65 per cent. of those with depression had worsened as a result of the Government's review of the benefits system, how can he be confident that the change that will be put into operation by the legislation will not have a similar effect on those who sadly suffer from mental illness?

Mr. Smith

Because we are listening carefully to the groups that represent such people in the design of the single work-focused interviews. From the outset, I proposed organising sessions where we invited representatives from the various groups to test the process to destruction and ask what could possibly go wrong, to ensure that every possible contingency was prepared for in how the process is designed and delivered, and in the training that people receive. One cannot train and prepare people for everything that might happen, but that is the case in the present system. This system will be infinitely better than the anonymous, alienating and sometimes unhelpful way in which many clients are processed now.

Mr. Burns

The Minister said that the Government were listening carefully to the views of special interest groups. Of that, again, I have no doubt, but it is one thing to listen sensitively and another to act on what one hears. If the Government are listening sensitively, what changes have they made as a result? Why will they not accept the view of all the groups that it would be better to exempt people suffering from mental illness?

Mr. Smith

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. He mentioned the National Schizophrenia Fellowship, which is one of the bodies that runs a pilot to help disabled people into work under the new deal for disabled people. Of course, with them and other groups, we will learn from the experience of the new deal for disabled people, which again involves interviews and all the hazards that he noted. They are clearly being dealt with in a way that commands the confidence of the group or it would not be involved.

Mr. Burns

The Minister said that he disagreed with what I said because he had been working with the NSF. Of that, again, I have no doubt but can he explain the NSF's briefing, dated 17 May, which states: We believe that people with a severe mental illness should be exempted from the compulsory work focused interviews"?

Mr. Smith

The Government's problem in attempting to act on that would be the definition of "severity". I have already assured the House that where it is inappropriate to hold such an interview, the advisory service will, of course, defer it to an appropriate time. I have also given the assurance that where it becomes apparent during the course of an interview that it would not be right to have the work-focused part of the interview, that part can be deferred. It is not as though such problems cannot arise in the present system when someone goes into a social security office or job centre. The difference is that our proposed arrangements make systematic and sympathetic provision for such people's needs that is not made in the present system.

Mrs. Browning

I disagree with the Minister. As long as their medical professionals provide them with regular certification, people who receive severe disablement allowance do not go through this inquisitorial process at all. The Minister's arrangements introduce something that a group of people with lifelong disabilities will be exposed to for the first time.

Mr. Smith

I have always counted the hon. Lady as one of those who, like us, believed in mainstreaming rights for disabled people and giving them a full and equal opportunity to take part in society, yet she erects a definition that would set them apart. We know from evidence and surveys, for example, that 1 million disabled people want to work. They want the dignity of being treated like everyone else. They want that civil right. They want the same opportunities that others enjoy.

We are talking about an advisory interview. Except for those for whom the jobseeker's allowance is the appropriate benefit, no requirement is being made except that those concerned attend an interview and discuss their circumstances. Help will be available which is not available now. I am surprised that the hon. Lady would deny disabled people that help.

5.15 pm
Mrs. Browning

The Minister fails to understand the specific groups of people about whom I am talking. One of the categories consists of those with a lifelong developmental disorder. Many of them are in receipt of the severe disablement allowance. Many of them would like employment, and for most of my adult life I have been active in trying to help them into employment. However, we must face realities. When they receive the letter to attend an interview, and even with somebody to support them, the process will have to be dealt with extremely sensitively. The Minister should make further inquiries about the categories of people that he will invite into an office. If they are set up to fail yet again in their lives, which could well happen, that will have a dramatic effect on their lives.

Mr. Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth)

The hon. Lady is failing them entirely.

Mr. Smith

As my hon. Friend says, the hon. Lady appears to be failing them entirely before they start. The Government agree with her about the importance of sensitivity and care. However, if she is saying that by definition disabled people should not have the interview, we shall have to agree to differ. There has been talk, understandably, about people going in for interviews. Where it is better to do so, the interview can and would be held in the prospective claimant's home or in another location of his or her choosing.

Mrs. Lait

The right hon. Gentleman will know that in Committee, I raised the case of one of my constituents who is a paranoid psychotic. He is in the process of going to the appeal tribunal, and I alluded to that in Committee. I saw him on Friday. His condition is deteriorating by the minute and by the day. He is now being prescribed further drugs to calm him down so that he does no damage to himself or to anyone else. That is because of the stress that has been created by having to go to the tribunal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) is making precisely the same point about the single work-focused gateway. I am sure that my constituent would get himself into exactly the same state as he is in now if he, too, was called for interview during that process. Does not the Minister see the point—it was made by the Royal College of Psychiatrists: people with certain mental and developmental disorders deteriorate under the pressure of the form of interview that is proposed?

Mr. Smith

I understand the point that the hon. Lady is making, and that is why we must be careful. However, that is not a reason for excluding disabled people from the interview.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Concern about this matter is not confined to one side of the House. I have sought in correspondence with the ministerial team to make many of the points that are now being made by Opposition Members.

Those of us who think that this is a good Bill which will constitute a significant advance for our country and for many people who have welfare and pension needs may nevertheless take the view that there is a group of people who, when invited to an interview by an authority, will have a condition that is significantly exacerbated by that very offer. I have sought assurances from the ministerial team that sensitivity will involve recognising that some people should have their interview not only deferred, but deferred sine die. If an interview is merely deferred, the additional psychological burden will cause their depression, concern and anxiety to deepen over time. I urge my right hon. Friend to have regard to the fact that unless full medical records are available and those records are used sometimes to defer such interviews sine die, there is a group of people who will unquestionably be affected deleteriously by the Government's proposal.

Mr. Smith

I take serious note of the points made by my hon. Friend. Of course any medical recommendation in such instances would carry enormous weight. Just as it is appropriate in many circumstances to defer an interview, equally in circumstances where people's condition improves, it can be appropriate and helpful for them later to have the interview.

Through the Bill and particularly through the single work-focused gateway, we are trying to get away from the practice of categorising people, pigeonholing them and treating them in a particular way in advance, rather than treating them as individuals in the light of their individual needs. We will have a more individually sensitive and responsive system.

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital for us to address people's individual needs, rather than writing them off for years? I have people coming to my surgery who have been put on benefit and simply ignored—given no help, advice or support and not made to feel part of our society. They have been written off and left almost to rot. Is it not important that we make sure that everybody in our society is given help, support, encouragement and, of course, handled with sensitivity? People are part of our society, whatever condition they are suffering from. It is important that the Government recognise their value and their individual contribution.

Mr. Smith

Very well said. I agree with every word of what my hon. Friend says. It underlines the fact that our proposals for the single work-focused gateway are wholly consistent with our approach to the Disability Rights Commission, the new deal for disabled people and the other measures that we are taking to ensure that disabled people have full opportunities in the mainstream of our society.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

If the Minister believes that individuals' needs should be taken into account, should he not accept that there are some individuals whose need is not to be forced to attend an interview? As has been ably set out by my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), there are some people who will be severely affected by the mere fact of receiving a letter requiring them to go to an interview.

The Minister speaks about sensitivity and individual needs. Will the letters that are sent out be differentiated according to the circumstances of the individual, or will there just be a standard letter, so that someone who falls into one of the categories referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton would receive the same letter as someone in receipt of jobseeker's allowance? How will the letters inviting people to an interview be worded?

Mr. Smith

On the hon. Lady's first point, we have not said that everyone must have an interview. We accept both that it may be appropriate to defer the interview, and that in some cases—terminal illness is an obvious case, which we discussed extensively in Committee—it would indeed be inappropriate to suggest any interview in the future.

With regard to the sensitivity of the letters, in most cases letters will not be necessary. There are two stages to the single work-focused gateway. There is the initial registration and orientation stage—the first approach in making a claim for benefit. At that stage the interview will be arranged, as far as possible within three days. In the case of someone with a mental illness, the first approach for benefit may not even be made by the person himself, but by another member of the family or a social worker. Sensible account will of course be taken of the information given when that first approach is made in deciding whether and how to arrange the interview.

Mr. Burns

Will the Minister explain the situation of people suffering from schizophrenia or other severe mental illnesses who have a history of violence, but are not in a secure unit or in prison, and who enjoy freedom as a result of the Mental Health Act 1983 and subsequent legislation? Why will they not be exempt, given the difficulties that the strain of such an interview could cause them? He said that some interviews might take place in the interviewee's home. A number of people suffer from mental illness; the interviewer may not know a person's mental history and could be in danger. That is an important point to consider.

Mr. Smith

Sensible security precautions must be taken, whether the interview takes place in the single gateway centre, somebody's home or somewhere else. At root, our difference concerns not the judgment about what it is right or not right to do in particular circumstances, but the hon. Gentleman's naive expectation that everything can be finely defined in regulations so that we will know who will fall on one side of the line and who will fall on the other. I do not believe that that can be done.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, like many other Members, I held a consultation meeting about the Bill with local disability organisations? Mine was well attended and they warmly welcomed the proposals on the gateway for two reasons. First, they believe that it is wrong that any category of person should be written off—exempted beforehand—and therefore given no opportunity to build on their abilities, hopes and aspirations. That was a powerful feeling among the people I spoke to.

Secondly, although some hon. Members have discussed the stresses that might be linked to the requirement to attend an interview, is not considerable stress related to unemployment, to the prospect of having no future in the labour market and being unable to make contributions, and to people finding that they have been written off and isolated from the rest of society?

Mr. Smith

Yes, indeed; my hon. Friend puts it well. Those who would, let us remember, deny people an interview would cut them off not only from immediate contact, but from the immediate help that could ease their circumstances and which their situation dictates. I start from the presumption that it is a good thing for as many people as possible to have an interview, although I accept that it makes sense to defer the interview for some people or not require them to take part in one.

Mr. Duncan Smith

I hear what the Minister says, but, given what many of my colleagues have said about the problems in the grey area and the Government's commitment to holding interviews within three to four days of someone becoming eligible for benefit, does he not agree that problems will be created for the individual making the decision about who should or should not attend? Three to four days is a tight time scale; does he still stand by it, in which case does he not recognise what is the problem?

Mr. Smith

I do, because we are determined that our operation of the system will be more efficient and effective than that with which Conservative Members were content to put up when they were in government.

Amendments Nos. 88 to 90 would remove the phrase "designated authority" and its definition from clause 49. That term has been introduced to allow certain decisions about the requirement to attend a work-focused interview to be taken not only by the Secretary of State, but by local authority staff or by those contracted to provide services to either. Where a claimant's first point of contact with the benefits system is the housing benefit department, for example, local authority staff will be able decide whether an immediate work-focused interview is appropriate, or whether the requirement should be waived or deferred to a more appropriate time.

5.30 pm

One of the key changes that the single gateway will introduce is that it will streamline the delivery of benefits. We will provide claimants with a better service through a one-stop shop, which will give people a single point of contact for all of their needs.

The amendments would prevent those working for local authorities from taking decisions in relation to imposing the requirement to attend an interview. All decisions would need to be taken on behalf of the Secretary of State. If the amendments were accepted, we would be left with two choices: we could either exclude local authorities from the single gateway process altogether, which would mean continuing the present inefficient, piecemeal delivery mechanisms, with all their disadvantages for claimants; or we could refer decisions to the Secretary of State while allowing local authorities to retain responsibility for all other aspect of delivery of the single gateway, including conducting the interviews. However, that would be administratively cumbersome and would inevitably lead to delays in processing benefit claims. Moreover, it would run directly counter to the streamlined service that we all want to see provided.

I appreciate that the Opposition's amendments may have been tabled to probe the Government. They have raised some important points during our debates. However, if enacted, the amendments would be damaging and would prevent us from achieving one of the prime aims of the single gateway initiative—an efficient, integrated service for benefit claimants, which would be better than anything that they have had before. I therefore urge the Opposition to withdraw their amendments.

Mr. Duncan Smith

This is an important element of the Bill. As I said on Second Reading, when I was last directly involved in the Bill, the trouble is that a provision such as this deserves a Bill of its own. Lumping it together with parts of the Bill with which we disagree has meant that the only option for us is to vote against all of it, which creates problems.

As we said on Second Reading, we do not have a problem with the idea of the single gateway in principle. After all, it is nothing more or less than a continuation of what we started with the jobseeker's allowance. There is great logic in directly connecting a claimant's interview process and eventual job achievement with the claiming of benefit. We made that clear years ago when we introduced the jobseeker's allowance. The Labour party in opposition opposed the jobseeker's allowance. We are prepared to let bygones be bygones, as Labour Members have now seen sense. They have come round to accepting not only the JSA, but the logic behind it, which is to try to connect those in receipt of benefit with their employment prospects.

As my hon. Friends made clear in Committee, we have no problem with this provision in principle. We hope that it continues our JSA policy successfully. However, we have tabled amendments because the Government appear to point in two directions at the same time. We agree with the principle that people should be interviewed and should, hopefully, be moved into work unless they have a reasonable reason for not working, in which case they should receive benefit—they may suffer from certain disabilities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said, or have some

other problem, which could be clearly set out. However, the problem in general—I shall proceed to the particular—is that, in conjunction with this provision, the Government have taken a series of measures that will make it more difficult for those people to find employment.

One of the keys to this whole process is that the gateway, if it is to be successful, must not become a bottleneck. The problem that we face is that the Government have talked about creating a gateway, but at the same time, they have succeeded in dramatically ramping up the costs on business—and there are more such proposals to come. I mentioned some of those costs in the previous debate, and I shall now wrap them up.

Mr. Andrew Smith

What costs arising from the gateway fall on business?

Mr. Duncan Smith

If the Minister holds his enthusiasm for a second, he will find that I am talking about costs across the board.

Mr. Smith


Mr. Duncan Smith

Hold on; I shall give way in a moment. The Minister must acknowledge that the gateway cannot be dealt with in isolation, because a gateway to employment requires jobs to be found on the other side of the gateway for those who would be employed. Perhaps I have missed something, but the Minister is surely not telling us that the gateway is an isolated idea, and that once people are through the gateway, it does not matter whether they get a job because that is an irrelevance. He is not saying that, is he? No. He is not going to intervene on that point, because that is obviously not what he is saying.

For a gateway to be successful, there must be employment on the other side—not only the current levels of employment, but increasing employment to deal with the numbers of people who are likely to be made available for work. Just under 1 million lone parents will be looking for jobs, as well as many others to whom my hon. Friends and others have referred. It is wrong and, indeed, impossible to consider the gateway in isolation. Before I deal with the particular amendments that we have tabled, I must examine carefully what the Government are doing on the other side of the fence.

As a result of the windfall tax, the Government imposed a £5.2 billion cost on industry. That money does not come out of thin air: it must be found in some shape or form, and the cost is likely to find its way through to employment. It is estimated by others, including the Confederation of British Industry and the Institute of Directors, that the Government's first Budget cost business £14.25 billion. Their March 1998 Budget placed a further almost £5 billion-worth of costs on business. The national minimum wage is estimated by most people to cost employers an extra £8 billion, and will increase the cost of taking on employees. The working time directive, which the Government are keen on, will cost business an extra £6.65 billion. The European works councils will cost almost an extra £billion, and the parental leave elements will cost £0.11 billion.

I have probably missed something; there may be other costs that we have not picked up. [Interruption.] Labour Members may laugh, but they have tenure of employment for up to five years. Many people do not have the same security of employment as Labour Members, although I wonder just how secure that employment will be come the next election.

Those extra costs have a bearing on this matter, because if employers have to pay an extra £39 billion, they will find it more difficult to provide employment on the other side of the gateway. If there is not a serious and increasing number of jobs available, there will be frustration. People will be brought for interview in the hope of obtaining work, only to find that they hit a barrier on the other side of the gateway. They will have the interview, and nothing further will happen. There is no obligation on them to take work, so the people who come forward in the initial stages will be those with a deliberate and keen desire to find work. Hon. Members make the point time and again that people do not want to be left on the shelf.

My general point is that the Government cannot have it both ways. They want to ape some of what is going on in the United States. They have examined the Wisconsin programme, and other programmes involving people returning to work. In those cases, people are obliged to take work, whoever they are—including lone parents—but the Government have decided that there is a halfway house. Here, people will not be obliged to take work, but will be obliged to undergo interviews as a first step towards taking work. I know about the exclusions, and I shall deal with them shortly.

It is not possible, however, to copy only part of a scheme; it is necessary to take both sides into account. In the United States, the cost of employing people has been lowered, while here the Government are intent on raising the cost. The Americans recognise that there must be a balance in the equation: they do not see just one side.

The Minister asked whether we were concerned about the cost of the programme. As I said earlier, we do not have a problem with the programme in principle. The cost that we are concerned about is outside the problem: the direct cost of the Government's decisions from Budget to Budget, as well as from subject to subject.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Is the hon. Gentleman really telling us that the Opposition have no problem with the idea of people being interviewed, but have a problem with the idea that people will not be forced to take whatever job is offered to them during the interviews?

Mr. Duncan Smith

That is not what I am talking about. I am saying that the principle follows the jobseeker's allowance principle. As the hon. Lady knows, jobseekers are obliged to take employment if it is there, and this process follows from that. My point is that, over the next few years, the Government will realise that they have not dealt with the second part of the equation. If new jobs are to be created, industry's costs must fall; if they rise, the jobs cannot be created.

As was pointed out earlier, there are nearly 1 million lone parents out there, a large proportion of whom will want and need work as a result of the Government's present attitudes. Not enough work will be created for those people, let alone all the others involved. My point is very simple: this is a standard equation.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

May I develop the analogy that my hon. Friend used earlier, in order to help the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)? Am I right in thinking that my hon. Friend means that, if a gate is to work properly, it must be well oiled and easy to open? The costs imposed on business mean that firms will employ fewer people, and in particular, the non-wage costs of the working time directive mean that fewer will be employed. There is no point in entering the gateway if it is not possible to emerge on the other side.

Mr. Duncan Smith

That is essentially what I am saying, but my answer to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) was quite simple. I shall explain it once more—again, very simply.

This may represent a clear dividing line between the two sides of the House, but, whether the Government like it or not, if the cost of employing people is raised, there will be no jobs for them. If we do not believe that, and if a division is created between supply and demand, we shall experience the problem that now exists in Euroland, of which the hon. Lady knows only too well. There, the costs and burdens imposed on business have risen dramatically over the past 18 years or so, which has resulted in probably the highest levels of unemployment that various European countries have experienced since before the war. That has happened simply because those countries have not dealt with the equation to which I refer, whereas, by and large, the United States accepts that there are two sides to it.

The Government are trying to have it both ways. As was said earlier, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment is now talking about "three strikes and you're out". The Government are using lots of big tough language about getting people into work, but—this is the other side—what happens when the costs bite, as they are already beginning to? How many jobs will be created that are not already there, or likely to be there—jobs that are relevant to the legislation, and that the Government appear to expect?

Mr. Pond

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, in recent years, countries in what he describes as Euroland have been rather more successful than us in creating employment, and that the previous Conservative Government left a larger proportion of non-pensioner households with no one in work than was the case in any other EU member state? Is he also aware that, in the United States, increases in the minimum wage were associated with growth in employment in those very sectors? Is it not a fact, therefore, that the Government's employment measures will ensure that, when people come through the other side of the gateway, there will be jobs for them?

5.45 pm
Mr. Duncan Smith

With respect, I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been for the past 10 years. If he honestly thinks that employment in Euroland is better than it is here and that its policies have a fantastic effect, why does he think that his Prime Minister goes over there, lecturing all those countries almost weekly—the hon. Gentleman is off-message on the subject—that it is not good enough and that they have to be more like us? The hon. Gentleman has to realise that he cannot have it both ways. I hope that it does not get back to 10 Downing street and to Millbank that he is off-message. I hope that Hansard does not record it correctly because it is just rubbish.

We have been more successful at creating jobs here because of the pressure to keep costs down. That lid is now blown off. We will find that it becomes more and more difficult.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

Does not the truth lie between the two points that have been made? Over the past 20 years, this country has been far more successful in creating jobs than Europe, but our Governments have been far more successful in destroying those new jobs. What is significant about the past two years is that we have not had the economic downturn that practically everyone prophesied.

About 7,000 people are registered unemployed in Birkenhead. We have not recovered from the loss of a shipyard and a steel mill, which occurred under the previous Government after the foolish way in which they managed the exchange rate. However, even in an area of high unemployment, within a single year, more people come on and off the books than, at any point, are a stock of unemployment.

Given the extraordinary mobility of numbers moving on and off the books, even in an area such as Birkenhead, is not there everything to be said for the Minister's argument that, if we have a proactive welfare service, one of its tasks is to help those who stay longest in the queue, and who find it most difficult to get jobs, to the front of the queue to take some of the jobs that are there—despite what Governments do as they come and go—so that they are not left languishing at the back? That means, of course, that unless there is an increase in the number of jobs available, some people will have to spend slightly longer in the dole queue than they would otherwise have done. But, even if we take that static—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I should say to the right hon. Gentleman that the intervention is getting rather long.

Mr. Field

To bring a long intervention to a conclusion, surely there is a case for having these work-focused, single gateway interviews to help those who have been in the queue the longest to the front of the queue, and to get the jobs that are available.

Mr. Duncan Smith

I always enjoy listening to the right hon. Gentleman. I recognise that it was a long intervention, but it was very interesting. The first point that he made was about conditions in Europe and Britain. If he looks at the figures over the past 12 years or so, he will find that, by and large, this country has been successful at producing private sector jobs. In the rest of Euroland, the public sector has been the main area of job creation.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, if one gets an imbalance, in the way that those other countries have, it creates more and more costs and fewer and fewer private jobs. In essence, that is what has been going on. We can call someone employed but if, in a year's time, that employment falls through and no one else is able to be employed, that is destroying jobs, not making them.

On the other general point that the right hon. Gentleman makes about what we should be doing, I said earlier—I hope that he gives us credit for it—that we are not opposed to the principle of bringing people in.

He will remember that when he was a Minister, in many discussions I agreed that, regardless of whether one agrees with the jobseeker's allowance, interviews are a continuation of implementing the JSA idea, although perhaps by applying fewer strictures than were applied under the JSA regime.

Opposition Members generally have said that requiring interviews is the right move, and we do not question it. I am simply concerned that the Government should deal with the other side of the equation, which they have not yet done. If they think that they have dealt with it, they are simply sticking their heads in the sand. The types of people described by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) will feel endless frustration if they are not able to find work.

I accept that the current system has some slack in it. Any of our constituents who have seen the many people who should and could be in work, but are not, will be aware of the slack. However, the issue is greater than simply how to deal with that situation. The programme, if it is to be successful, cannot create only frustration. If it starts causing major frustration, we will simply end up with many people trying, in almost every way, to avoid the process—bringing us back to square one, and requiring us to impose major demands and strictures simply to get people to the first interview.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead, when he was a Minister, always made the point that people should, ultimately, see the programme in a positive, not a negative light. I agree with that. I am therefore telling the Government that if people are to regard the programme positively, Ministers will have to strike the right balance, which they have not yet done.

Ministers cannot have it both ways. They may think that as the economy is performing reasonably well, the cost side of the equation is not a problem, but—as hon. Members will have noted—employment costs are rising dramatically. That will cause big problems for the Government. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead mentioned the robustness of the economy. However, I remind Labour Members—whether they like it or not—that the economy is robust as a direct result of the tough decisions taken, over 18 years, by the previous Government. Many countries in Europe have not taken those decisions, and have consequently had problems. That is the point that I was making to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich. The Government cannot have it both ways. If they want to get the programme right, they will have to get both sides of the equation right. If they want people to look for work, they have to accept that they must reduce employment costs.

Our amendment (a), deleting subsection (4) of the new clause, is intended to complement our other amendments in this group. We tabled them because we believe that the Government's proposals are rather messy, as some of them will apply in different ways at different times, thereby causing problems.

In amendment No. 87, we propose removing the provisions allowing massive leeway to the people mentioned in clause 49—but who are specified also in Government amendment No. 16. In the Bill, a tremendously large number of people are given dramatic powers to decide who should attend interviews. As the Minister may know—although he did not attend the debate—I made that point to the Secretary of State on Second Reading, saying that I had deep concerns about the provision.

I have heard all that the Minister has said today on the matter, and I have avidly read the Committee Hansards to discover the Government's intention in clause 49. As I, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton and other hon. Members have said, the guidelines—particularly subsection 3(c)—are very vague, and we have a problem with them.

As farmers know very well, gates exist to control the access of sheep, or whatever, from one field into another, and no sheep should get through a closed gate. The problem with the Government's proposals is that they create a gap in the hedge, allowing a way round the gate. My concern is that the Government have no clear idea of how to address the access issue, which requires further consideration. I hope that the Minister will deal with that in his reply.

Mr. Andrew Smith

I am a little surprised by the hon. Gentleman's analogy of a gap in the hedge. Is he suggesting that too many people who should have an interview will not have one, because advisers are exercising their discretion in allowing them to defer or waive an interview? Or is he concerned—as some other Conservative Members are—that some people will be required, inappropriately, to have an interview? Is it the one or the other?

Mr. Duncan Smith

It is both—for reasons that I shall explain, and I hope that the Minister will appreciate. The Government are proposing that the discretion should be exercised more widely, from the Secretary of State to (b) a person providing services to the Secretary of State", to (c) a local authority", and now to (d) a person providing services to, or authorised to exercise any function of, any such authority". In other words, and as the Minister knows, the discretion will be exercised at a very low level.

I made two points on Second Reading. The first dealt with a scenario in which an official is under pressure because he or she feels that the target—of three or four days—set for them by the Government is very tight, and a senior official is breathing down his or her neck, saying, "You've got to meet your targets. You've got people stacked up and you're beginning to miss the target, which you've got to stick to, as we are obligated to do by the Secretary of State." The official—particularly a local authority official having to take on the new responsibility—may say, as they often do, sometimes for very good reasons, "We need more staff or greater resources. The Government are asking us to do more than we were established to do. We're trying to get this sorted out, but can't do it."

Mr. Bercow

I should not want my hon. Friend to neglect one other important consideration before proceeding to his next point. Does he agree that the problem of staff overstretch, which he has just described, could in the future be especially acute because of the provision in the new Benefits Agency rules for interviews, in some unspecified circumstances, to last for up to one hour each? Will not that make it that much more difficult to meet the very burdensome targets that are being proposed?

Mr. Duncan Smith

My hon. Friend again raises a serious issue—which, I am sure he will appreciate, is part of the reason why I am probing the Government on the matter. Officials will have to operate under the constraints that he mentioned, in addition to the three to four-day time limit. We are therefore beginning to discern a series of almost statutory requirements. I say "almost" because, although they may not be written in tablets of stone, the Minister and Secretary of State have described them and they may easily be cited.

The official may say, "I'm under pressure. I could easily off load these two or three people for a while and give them a bye. I'm fed up with this lot. We'll get on with dealing with the other people. Now, I can declare myself on target. Yet again, politicians don't provide the resources to meet their requirements." I am worried that the Government's proposals will create pressures on officials and, consequently, an unintended hole through which people may pass.

The second aspect is that people should know whether the provision applies to them. That is of particular relevance to those who are suffering from disabilities or are chronically sick. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton made an important point. The Minister accepted that he did not have the absolute answers.

6 pm

Mr. Andrew Smith

I did not.

Mr. Duncan Smith

All right, the right hon. Gentleman has the absolute answers. Perhaps we can hear them. This is the first time that I have heard a politician being rash enough to say that he has the absolute answers, but we now have a new type of politician. Perhaps this is new Labour.

With no guidance, those who are not sure what the approach to them will be may expect to be brought in because they think that they fit within the categories, but how are they to judge that? Are they to spend their time worrying whether they will be called in? Can they not be given guidance on whether they fit within the categories? That gap creates the problem. The Government may fall into the trap of letting through people who should not be let through because of the total discretion that will be applied at such a low level and causing worry because, as subsection (4) of the new clause says, Regulations under this section may make different provision for different areas or different authorities. There will be different approaches throughout the country. Two people sitting next to each other in the same office may take different approaches. That will not be deliberate, but the gap is a problem. We have tabled our amendments in an attempt to get the Government to face up to the situation and promise to come forward with a clearer picture of the categories. I recognise that they cannot give a comprehensive list, but officials at whatever level should know who is most likely to fit in certain categories and who is less likely to need to come in at certain stages.

The discretion and the huge variations that it will cause will lead to problems of uncertainty. The vulnerable will be worried and those who are bent on avoiding the issue may find ways to do so—through the gap in the hedge.

Mrs. Lait

Does my hon. Friend accept that there is a further complication? Most people do not comprehend 100 per cent. of what they are told, particularly when it affects them directly. Medical evidence shows that people usually comprehend only about 10 per cent. Does my hon. Friend agree that the low level of comprehension of what officials tell those who are interviewed will create a further huge area of potential disagreement and argument that would add to the problems of the lack of guidance from the Government on who is eligible?

Mr. Duncan Smith

I am grateful to my hon. Friend because she has gone to the heart of the issue. The problem is for the Government. I see Labour Back Benchers shaking their heads. I know that they are used to accepting absolutely everything that the Government say. We were in government once and many of us were Government Back Benchers. Sometimes, we used to accept as absolute what the Government told us—[HON. MEMBERS: "Not you."] Well, maybe not, but many did. As many now accept, that all-seeing Government often got it wrong. The new Government do not believe that they get anything wrong, but such arrogance has to be probed.

Mr. Andy King

Will the hon. Gentleman accept that that is why we are establishing pilots? One is being established in my Warwickshire constituency on 28 June. It will be based in the town hall, with a team of people from across the three agencies. They are currently being trained to deal with people sensitively. That is not arrogance. The Government are moving forward in a way that will give people hope. Why cannot Conservative Members accept that we are giving a good deal to unemployed people?

Mr. Duncan Smith

I hear the hon. Gentleman and I hope that the Government do as well. However, the hon. Gentleman has missed the point. He accepts that the Government are all-seeing and will be able to establish what they want. I have visited some of the pilots and talked to the officials. Many of them have expressed the same concerns—which I hope they have expressed to the hon. Gentleman—about resourcing, pressure of work and numbers coming through. They are not panicking, but they are worried. Of course they are positive about the programme. Officials want to do what the Government ask of them properly. That is what they are there for and they should be applauded for that. My point is not that they should not be positive—they are invariably positive—but that we should not try to use and abuse that positive attitude and ignore the problems and pressures. With such discretion, the problems may become nightmares in due course, because different officers, even those working next to each other, may take differing views. Who is to check?

Why not give clearer guidelines for the pilot programmes? Instead of seeing whether it hurts, why not see whether it works? With more clearly defined

categories, it will be easier to decide whether the system works. That is a positive way to deal with the issue. With respect to the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. King), whom I saw shaking his head earlier, I hope that, in the spirit of constructive debate, he will accept that our points in amendment No. 87 are relevant.

Amendments Nos. 89 and 90, which would delete the words "designated authority", are part of the same argument about too much variation and too little clarity. The Government must recognise that if there is no clarity, the gap will result in worry and concern, while some of the more defrauding element and those whose intents are not wholly positive or good will deliberately break the system.

Unless the Government come up with serious answers or are prepared to accept our arguments, we shall vote on the issue. They have failed to recognise their obligation to lower costs while making a gateway, the need to resolve the confusion, the need for clarity and the importance of not allowing differences of attitude or behaviour to resonate throughout the system, creating problems for the most vulnerable. The Government still have much to sort out.

Mr. Rendel

I am slightly sorry to have to oppose some of what the Tories have said, because there has been agreement between us on many of their amendments and ours. However, I do not accept their amendments in this group. Amendment (a) to new clause 10 would restrict the right of local areas to take decisions in their own way. There may be good reasons why some areas do not want to go along with what happens elsewhere. It has been a long-standing principle of the Liberal Democrats that we would like local authorities to be given, as far as possible, the widest chance to take their own decisions in their own way where there are regional differences that may make that appropriate.

In the amendments, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) is restricting the opportunities for specific cases to be exempted from the gateway. That would run entirely contrary to many of the amendments that I tabled in Committee, in which I sought to ameliorate some of the potentially unfortunate effects of the single gateway by ensuring that there were widespread exemptions from the difficulties that otherwise might be imposed on someone seeking benefits.

I cannot go along with the Conservative amendments in this case, and it seems that the new clause will be acceptable. Having said that, it is worth bringing to people's attention, as we did in Committee, some of the problems that the Minister has not addressed properly. Everybody would accept that there are good reasons for doing our utmost to make sure that people who want work—whether they are single parents or people with disabilities who may have had trouble getting work in the past—are given the opportunity to get work.

The difficulty with the single gateway is not that people are not being given the opportunity to get into work—that is widely accepted—but simply what will happen if they do not attend the interview, and whether that carries certain implications in terms of their benefits. The Government's consistent answer is that, as the interview is for the benefit of the individual, why should he or she not want to come? They say that they are trying to avoid fraudulent reasons for not attending interviews.

I quite accept that there are good reasons for doing our utmost to avoid any fraudulent use of the benefits system—we wish to avoid and counter fraud just as much as anyone else—but I still believe that there may be cases where people do not attend interviews for good reasons, which may not be clear to the authorities. It was to avoid that situation that we tabled a number of amendments in Committee, and I am sorry to say that the Government would not accept them.

The Government have not properly answered the question on the problems that may arise when somebody does not come to an interview for what may be, to them, good reasons—reasons which, if most of us knew them, we might accept as good reasons. However, those reasons may not necessarily be known to the authorities, who then impose some form of cut in benefits or refuse to allow benefits to start for people who do not come to the interview. The Government have still not answered that properly.

By forcing people to come to interviews by imposing certain sanctions if they do not, the Government are forcing people to do something that is for their own benefit. If it is for their own benefit, surely the Government ought to be able to persuade people of that. If they cannot, it is odd that they should take powers to force somebody—by imposing, or by threatening to impose, benefit sanctions—to do something that is supposedly for their own benefit.

Unless the Government can be sure that there will be no case in which someone, very properly, does not go to the interview for a good reason that the Government fail to recognise as such, there will still be queries about the single gateway. I do not feel that the Government have allowed for sufficient exemptions. However, the new clause, without the proposed Conservative amendments, will go at least some way towards what I am asking for. Therefore, we support it.

6.15 pm
Mr. Burns

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) said, the single work-focused gateway is to be welcomed in principle. In no way do I part company from him on that. I agree also with the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) that any sane person would wish to give the maximum opportunity to those who are not in work to find it.

It is a myth that a disproportionate amount of people who cannot find work are, to use the jargon, scroungers or loafers. They are not—they desperately want to get work to enhance the quality of their lives and to provide for themselves and their families. Given the economic cycle and certain educational circumstances, some need to be assisted to do that.

I shall focus on those suffering from mental illness. I was perplexed by the Minister's comment that he and the Government were consulting the different disability groups and lobby organisations. As I have said, there is a great difference between listening and acting upon what they have heard, and I am concerned about how carefully the Government have listened. The Minister said that the National Schizophrenia Fellowship fully supported what the Government were doing, and said that it was operating a pilot scheme for the Government.

Mr. Andrew Smith

It is possible that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood or misheard me. I said that the National Schizophrenia Fellowship was participating in a pilot scheme for the new deal for disabled people, and that there would be lessons to be learned from that in terms of the advice that we give to people. I did not say that the fellowship fully supported everything that the Government were doing.

Mr. Burns

The Minister will have to read Hansard in the morning, or perhaps his private secretary will read the galley proofs before Hansard is published. I distinctly heard him say that the NSF supported what the Government were doing. He then went on to say what he has just repeated about the pilot scheme. Yet the briefing from the NSF to Members of Parliament for today's debate states categorically: We believe that people with severe mental illness should be exempted from compulsory work-focused interviews. That is clear. There are no grounds for misinterpretation, or for arguing another case. That rather contradicts the impression given by the Minister, and it certainly contradicts the sycophantic intervention from the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond). I know that there may be a Government reshuffle, but any sycophant must have an element of self-respect.

Mr. Duncan Smith


Mr. Burns

My hon. Friend may be right, and that fact may not enhance the chances of the hon. Member for Gravesham—although, no doubt, he will be a gift to the Whips, who will need people to do the Government's business in future.

The NSF carried out a survey last year of 660 people suffering from mental illness, and asked about their benefits and the Government's review of the welfare system. The findings are relevant to the comments of a number of my hon. Friends both today and in Committee. The mental health of 55 per cent. of people with schizophrenia and 60 per cent. of those with depression had worsened as a result of the Government's review, according to the survey. One in three people had debts, the majority of which were unpaid electricity, heating and telephone bills. More than half the people in receipt of disability living allowance used the money to pay for food, clothes and bills, so the benefit subsidised their basic necessities. The majority of people who took part in the survey felt that their mental health problems prevented them from working.

The NSF says: As it stands, the Bill would prevent thousands of people with a severe mental illness accessing the financial support that they require to regain and sustain their mental health. Worse than this, some of the changes will actually create additional barriers and stress which will increase the likelihood of a relapse. I urge the Minister to think again. I understand, because of the neatness of his mind and the need to legislate, why he does not want to make too many—if any—exemptions to the broad thrust of the policy, which might allow a coach and horses to be driven through the Government's ultimate aim, but there are certain groups of people who, through no fault of their own, are incapable, because of their mental state, of coping with a system that has been proposed for what I accept are understandable reasons.

We should consider whether we should make exceptions in certain limited circumstances. I do not think that that would open the floodgates for every special interest group to make a demand. There is an overwhelming case for not putting any additional burden on people who suffer from mental illness.

The NSF says that clause 49, which is affected by new clause 10 and the subsidiary amendments, will cause problems because people may be persuaded into seeking jobs that they are not ready to take, and that the stressful nature of the interview itself may cause irreparable medical harm and cause relapses among those who have begun on the road to recovery.

Mr. Gray

Does my hon. Friend agree that the question of who should be exempt from the interviews need not be a value judgment such as he is describing but could be determined according to whether the people's benefits themselves are dependent on the fact that they are not able to work? People on severe disablement allowance and incapacity benefit would then automatically be exempt.

Mr. Burns

That is an interesting point, and I hope that the Government will consider it.

What I am about to say is in no way a criticism of those who will carry out the interviews. As the Minister rightly said, they will be given first-class training to make them as well equipped to carry out their work as is humanly possible. Sadly, there is a stigma attached to those with mental illnesses, and a lack of understanding of the problems that they experience and the way in which they respond to circumstances and challenges. However well trained people are, the interviews will be carried out across the whole range of society, and I fear that there could be problems because, through no fault of their own, not all staff at all times will be able to live up to the highest standards of their training.

Some individuals may be so unwell that, as well as being unable to attend, they are unaware of the impending interview. The Minister sought to allay those fears, and to some extent I have been reassured by what he said on that narrow issue. There will always be the fear, before, during and after the interview, that people with mental illnesses may lose their benefits because they have not been able to answer the questions or cope with the interview properly. The increased tension and concern could contribute to a relapse.

We should not duck the issue that, because of their condition, some people who are called for interview will not understand at all what it is about. They will be totally confused both in the run-up and during the interview itself. Given all those circumstances, I wonder why the Government are not prepared to reconsider.

I asked about schizophrenics or others with mental illness who have a history of, or may be prone to, violence, especially if they are tense or under pressure. That could cause grave problems to the individual concerned and, equally importantly, to the officials and staff involved in the interviews or other parts of the process.

I am bewildered about why the Government are not prepared to budge on what is a very sensitive issue. They certainly say that they want to handle the matter sensitively, and I do not doubt their sincerity, but that is not enough: they should be prepared to think again.

Mr. McWalter

If we gain an assurance that there will be an explicit input from the medical profession,

with support and advice intimately associated with the process, so that those being interviewed can see clearly that the difficulties associated with their mental condition, especially if it is a fluctuating condition, will be fully taken into account, would that not settle many of the hon. Gentleman's doubts?

Mr. Burns

I am not convinced that it would, although it might settle some of them. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion has merit, and should be considered further, but I fear that it might cover fewer people than he imagines. There is still a great lack of understanding of problems and treatment patterns. The medical opinion on a person could be wrong or could not be relevant at the time. The suggestion would not be a catch-all way of allaying all fears. The Government should consider it, but I do not think that it would be helpful in all that many cases.

Mrs. Browning

The intervention by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) and the Minister's comments earlier both referred to the point that medical evidence would show whether an interview would be inappropriate. However, officials would have to obtain the permission of the person concerned before accessing those medical records. While that lengthy process was going on, the person would be aware that an interview was pending and that could cause them stress.

6.30 pm
Mr. Burns

That is a powerful and important point. Another issue is the civil liberties aspect, given that the medical history of individuals is not normally made available to officials of the Benefits Agency or the Employment Service. The Government should consider that point carefully, because such an approach could cause more problems and complications than the suggestion by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter).

Mrs. Lait

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. Does he agree that some people with fluctuating mental conditions could perform ably at an interview, but, by the time they were fed through the system and went to see an employer, they might have relapsed? That could cause problems and tensions between the Benefits Agency and the employer.

Mr. Burns

That is a relevant and interesting point, and my hon. Friend is right.

Mr. Pickles

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would make more sense that the person performing the interview should undergo a personal capacity assessment? The Government's proposals contain no such requirement and they resisted amendments in Committee to include it.

Mr. Burns

My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point. I fear that the Minister will not be able to answer that point because he was not listening to my hon. Friend. He will be able to read the intervention in Hansard tomorrow and, I hope, will accept the point.

No one disputes that the ethos behind the Bill is twofold. First, it is to encourage people into work or back into work. Secondly, it is to make savings in the welfare budget.

However, the Minister's resistance to giving serious consideration to exemptions to those suffering from severe mental illness contains an irony. Have Ministers considered that, if they force an individual suffering a mental illness to an interview and he or she suffers a relapse, that could cost the state far more in treatment than might be saved by forcing him or her to an interview? It is a supreme irony that what is a cost-cutting, money-saving, Treasury-driven Bill could, in this narrow instance—the Bill may contain other examples—have the opposite effect and cost the state more than it would save.

The Minister has been reasonable in this debate, although he has not budged an inch. I urge him to listen to all the contributions, from Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Members, and, on reflection, to think again. If he continues on his current course, the Government will bitterly regret it when it becomes apparent how much suffering the Bill will cause to a section of the community who deserve our help instead of the burdens, worries and confusion being placed on their shoulders.

Mrs. Dunwoody

I wish to ask a few questions of my right hon. Friend the Minister. Who will be asked to give evidence about the state of mind of a person who is to be brought to an interview? At the moment, it is mostly the Department's own doctors who are required to give evidence on physical disability. Will the support of a general practitioner not be regarded as sufficient evidence that an applicant is not fit to be interviewed?

I am also worried about the calm assumption that those who suffer from some form of mental illness can be easily and rapidly clinically diagnosed. That is not my experience. Especially in cases of recurring clinical depression, people's mental states fluctuate so widely that they can be capable of being coherent at an interview and within a short time become incapable even of being summoned to an interview. I dealt recently with a case in which the mere announcement that a meeting was to be held six weeks later to examine an applicant's case history in detail reduced the person in question to a state that required considerable medical assistance.

Another difficulty is that some general practitioners ask for extra money if asked to provide any form of certification. They feel, with some justification, that they are doing the work of the Department and they see no reason to expand their existing responsibilities.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister has considered those points and will be able to provide a coherent answer, because to insist on a particular machinery to achieve a result without having thought about the implications for those who could be damaged by it is not an advance—it is a retreat. Many of the objections that have been raised may be artificial and unnecessary, but by the time we find out, people could already have been damaged. That is not, I believe, the intention of the Bill or of Ministers, but they must be prepared to think of the answers before, not after, the situation deteriorates.

Mrs. Browning

I declare two unremunerated posts, one as vice-president of the Alzheimer's Disease Society and the other as specialist councillor on the national council of the National Autistic Society. The speeches we have heard so far have raised genuine concerns. I am aware of the problems people have with identifying, within the general framework of legislation, separate groups of people with disabilities. However, by the same token, if legislation contains no recognition of its impact on groups such as those we have been talking about tonight—especially those with mental health problems, including a group I am closely involved with: those with developmental disorders—it becomes a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

I repeat to the Minister something that my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) said. Talking about the interviews that people would be required to attend, he asked, "Why wait and see whether it hurts?" Ministers have a duty of care not to introduce legislation when they are unsure whether the process that they are introducing by statute will cause hurt to certain identifiable groups. There is enough knowledge about mental health, especially schizophrenia—as was so ably argued by my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns)—and many developmental disorders, to make it possible to predict today that there will be hurt if those groups are subject to the process that the Minister proposes.

The Minister said that he was surprised by my earlier intervention, because he felt that I had an integrationist approach to employment opportunities for people with disabilities. He is absolutely right, but that does not mean that I do not recognise that although, for those two specific groupings, integration is to be achieved if possible, the process whereby it is achieved is absolutely key to whether integration is a good thing or hurtful and harmful.

It has been said that some people's response would depend on the day on which they were invited for interview. Much has been said about mental health problems—specifically, schizophrenia—with which I entirely agree, and I endorse what has been said. I shall not develop that further. I want to explore in more depth what happens when people with developmental disorders are interviewed.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) spoke of the impact on a person who was given six weeks' notice to attend an interview. If something suddenly happens to a person within the autistic spectrum disorder grouping that is not part of their usual routine, the magnitude of the distress that they suffer is very different from that suffered by someone with a physical disability.

I want to draw a distinction. In my constituency, I know of some young people with cerebral palsy who are well qualified and deserve to be in employment for 101 reasons. I would wholeheartedly support a process that would enable them to get into work tomorrow as a result of attending an interview. However, although some people with autistic spectrum disorders have the potential to obtain employment, to be realistic—this is not being unkind to them—they are very few. For many, setting them up to fail—which is what we are contemplating—compounds their distress, and compounds their feelings about themselves and the rest of the world.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), attended last week's launch of autism awareness week in the House, and we were very grateful to her for doing so, but we still feel that we have to work hard to promote understanding of autism. Many social workers and GPs do not understand the autistic spectrum at all. We are working very hard to fill that gap. I am very worried that the people who will carry out the interview process—and whom my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green mentioned—would have great difficulty in distinguishing, on paper, which people with autism would be ideal candidates to bring in for interview.

Mrs. Lait

I realise that my hon. Friend is a true expert on autism. Will she perhaps describe the reaction of some autistic people when their routine is disturbed, and say how badly such a disturbance affects them?

Mrs. Browning

For the purposes of the debate, I am assuming that those people with autism who are in full-time residential care would not come within the remit of the policy. I am talking about those in the community. Some may be living independently; some may have supported living arrangements. The vast majority of adults in this category would be living with relatives. They are all different. Although certain common features might typify the response of a person with autism, every response will be different.

Many people with autism, faced with an interview, would do a runner. They would disappear for the day, and would not turn up even if they knew that someone was going to accompany them. Others would simply put the letter in the bin, and it is possible that no one else involved in their case would even know that they had been called for interview. As the Benefits Agency knows, it is not untypical for many of those adults who now receive communications from the Benefits Agency to bin any piece of paper that they find confusing. In their eyes, the problem is solved. They are not looking at it; they need not deal with it any more. Obviously, that is not an ideal way of dealing with the matter.

6.45 pm

The Minister said that, in many cases, the interviewer would visit the person's home. The presence of a stranger who has come to talk to a person with autism, and to ask them questions in their own home, could be met with a range of reactions, no matter how experienced the interviewer was. It would not be untypical for an adult with autism to sit with their face to the wall during the interview, instead of looking at the person asking the questions. It is very important to emphasise—because this is what distinguishes autism—that I am not talking about people with a below average IQ. In autism and other conditions, such as Down's syndrome, there is often a high IQ. It is not that people do not have verbal skills. Some have very good verbal skills, but would resist using them and engaging in conversation in a stressful situation, such as an interview.

Another possible reaction is over-anxiety to please. The person would try to second-guess the interviewer, and try to give the answer that he or she felt that the interviewer wanted. It is very difficult for someone with autism to imagine a situation that is not within their personal experience so, when asked the straightforward question "What sort of work would you like?" it is not unknown for the person with autism to say, "I would like to be an astronaut." Such a case has been recorded. Such a response does not mean that the person is of low IQ; it is

simply that they may have seen a film that tells them what an astronaut does. They have understood it, and they have understood it sufficiently to give that answer. I do not know how many vacancies there are for astronauts, but that is not an untypical answer.

Unless interviewers have a great deal of experience, not just of interviewing, but of asking questions in a specific way, they will not receive a useful answer. The question "How do you feel about this?" is very difficult for a person who cannot conceptualise an answer. It is not simply a case of asking questions in a gentle or non-pressurised way; the work is very specialised.

In the previous Parliament, when I was Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department of Employment, I took part, with the then Secretary of State, now Lord Hunt, in a pilot scheme co-funded by the Department of Employment—the supported employment scheme in London for people on the higher functioning end of the autistic spectrum. There was some success. I am not saying that no one on the autistic spectrum is capable of employment. I am simply telling the Minister that autism is different from any other developmental disorder.

In order to get people with autism into employment and in order for that employment to work—which is the key, as has been said—what happens when they have passed through the gateway is crucial. The people conducting the job interview need coaching. Someone must be present during the interview to be with the person being asked the questions. Once the person is in an appropriate job, they will need someone there to support them—not to do the job, because some people with autism have university degrees and can hold down very high level jobs. I know of several who have worked in the civil service. What I am saying is that someone will need to be in the workplace to sort out communications with other people there. That is invariably the challenge at work for people with autism.

There is a way around that problem if the Minister recognises not that some groups should be excluded from the opportunity to get into employment, but that a different approach would be the answer. Even if it worked in only one case in a hundred, that would be worth while. I am convinced that the top-down approach of the proposed structure and the compulsoriness of the interviews will make it less likely that more people with autism will become employed.

Although there has been much welcome emphasis and recognition of autistic spectral disorders among children over the past 10 years, a gap remains in recognition among adults. Adults, often living at home with parents, may be undiagnosed until long after childhood. Some may qualify for benefits such as severe disablement benefit. The Minister has talked of flexibility, and the Government must ensure that conditions misdiagnosed, or not diagnosed at all, are recognised in the benefits system through the gateway.

For an adult who has never worked, a situation affecting many, the simple physical discipline of holding down a full-time job can be difficult. Has the Minister considered such people? If they were successfully interviewed and it was thought that supported help could be given, the best first stage might not be a paid job, but a process of working towards paid employment through voluntary work. That would certainly mean supported help; we cannot send people with autism out into the wide world. Many would have difficulty in finding their way to the benefits office for the interview on their own and on public transport. Such problems compound their difficulties with getting into work.

As a former Minister, I fully understand why Ministers are reluctant to make exceptions on the face of a Bill. However, the Minister has an excellent opportunity tonight to reconsider, on the basis of the information that he has heard about specific groups for whom the scheme could have a detrimental outcome despite its overall good intentions. He could consider how to adapt his scheme to accommodate people such as those with either developed mental disorders or mental health problems.

Those two groups are not, of course, exclusive. One difficulty that faces people with developed mental disorders is that they often have mental health problems on top of the disorders as they become adults. The nature of their conditions may lead to difficulties in adapting to adult life. This is a complex area, especially for those without specialist knowledge who will be asked to make judgments about whether the person sitting in front of them is behaving or reacting as he or she is because he or she has a developed mental disorder or an overlying mental health problem. In adulthood, the two often go together. Considerable expertise is required to unravel the suitable way to take such people forward.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

This morning, I had the pleasure of a visit to Sandwell to see the pilot scheme for the new deal for disabled people. Despite the coincidence of its occurring today, the visit had been fixed up some time ago, and I met a group of people highly committed to helping disabled people not only to get back to work but to make progress towards a life in which they can feel they participate in the community. I had a strong feeling that they were doing an excellent job under the current arrangements, and I urge my Front-Bench colleagues who are devising schemes for the new gateway to listen to the experience of those people.

I was told that about 4,000 letters had been sent out, and around 400 phone calls came back. Those who sent the letters were at pains to ensure that there was no mention of any Government Department. The logo refers only to the new deal. For disabled people, receiving a letter from a Department is distressing and stressful. Many phone calls came from people who said, "Thank you very much for writing, and the scheme sounds very interesting. If only it had been available 10 years ago, it might have been useful to me, but I do not think that I am able to participate now."

The people who have responded did so voluntarily, and they are receiving an excellent service. Even so, interviewing people with disabilities such as mental health problems is stressful for staff. I asked one of the team, an occupational psychologist, what her work was. Most of it, she said, was in assisting the team dealing with disabled people. Sometimes it can be extremely stressful if a person who suffers a mental illness needs a lot of time.

I am concerned that we could, if we are not careful, throw out the baby with the bath water in this new scheme. If teams who interview people have to spend much of their time on enforcement rather than offering a good service, the scheme could prove counter-productive. I believe that Ministers are well aware of that fact, and they have talked to the team that I met and to people who have experience on the ground.

A briefing sent to Labour Members in 1995 pointed out the insecurity that compulsion causes among disabled people. It said that changes from invalidity benefit to incapacity benefit meant more insecurity—both for existing claimants who might become ineligible for any benefit, and for anyone concerned about their long term security should they fall ill. It referred also to the difficulty of having one test intended to cope with complex disabilities, particularly mental health disabilities. My Front-Bench colleagues are aware of those issues.

I shall vote with the Government tonight, largely because of the answer that I received to a recent parliamentary question about compulsion. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Social Security wrote that the requirement for compulsion will initially affect only the 12 Single Work-Focused Gateway pilot areas and will be introduced in ways that take account of individual circumstances. The evaluation of the pilots will enable us to consider whether to extend this approach more widely."—[Official Report, 31 March 1999;Vol. 328,c.840.] The Government are aware of the pitfalls and they will go about the process carefully. In so doing, I urge them to listen to the staff who will have to implement their policies and ensure that they are comfortable with having to implement whatever element of compulsion is eventually decided upon.

7 pm

Mr. Andrew Smith

We have had a wide-ranging debate. At one point, I wondered whether some Conservative Members were trying to spin it out a little, but that would have been an unworthy thought.

The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) spoke for a long time about matters that were tangential to the gateway, but which are none the less important to the economy and, as he said, to the supply of jobs. He did not mention the fact that we now have record levels of employment and, what is more, record levels of vacancies for this stage of the economic cycle. He referred to vacancies, however, and should accept that their number is not totally unrelated to the tough decisions that this Government took in their early months in office—the fact that we made Bank of England operations independent, got the public finances under control, invested wisely in public services and set about raising training and education standards and introducing initiatives such as the new deal. All those have helped to get record numbers into employment.

Therefore, the House will take with a large pinch of salt the hon. Gentleman's propaganda that somehow there cannot be any jobs out there or that we are damaging prospects for people on the other side of the gateway. Nothing could be further from the truth.

After all that, we heard that the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green not only supports the single work-focused gateway in principle, but concedes that it does not impose burdens on business. As for his attempted arguments about variation in the Bill and his worry that regulations would apply differently in some areas from others, let me assure him that the only reason for that variation between local authorities, which the Opposition amendment would strike out of the Bill, is to operate the single work-focused gateway in the pilot areas without imposing the same requirements on the rest of the country. That is plain common sense for any initiative that is being piloted. It is absurd for the hon. Gentleman to claim that that variation should be struck out of the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman also went on about the fact that variations between areas would allow greater discretion in some—it was difficult to follow his argument—but that is not the case. There is consistency throughout the pilots. Amendments Nos. 88 to 90 would not deal with that problem, but would merely cut local authorities out of the single gateway, which would be contrary to its central purpose and to the principle that the hon. Gentleman said he supported.

Mr. Duncan Smith

I do not intend to delay the right hon. Gentleman, but in answer to my arguments all that he has offered so far is that he can assure me—just as he assured my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) in Committee. That does not rub. When individuals are taking decisions and, therefore, varying their decisions on the ground, how much notice will they take of the right hon. Gentleman's assurances? They will have no idea what they mean—they do not mean anything, other than what he thought at the time.

Mr. Smith

The Bill means what the Bill means and the amendments and the new clause mean what they mean. In attempting to strike out the different provision in some local authority areas, the hon. Gentleman is either asking us not to run the pilots in a number of pilot areas, or he is saying that it somehow makes sense for every local authority member of staff who is operating the single gateway interviews or registration and orientation to refer on to the Employment Service, the Benefits Agency or the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman would erect a great mountain of bureaucracy and rigidity around the operation of the single work-focused gateway, which would make it respond less flexibly, sensitively and efficiently to the needs of clients. Therefore, we can dismiss those arguments.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) spoke cogently about why the Conservative amendments did not make sense and why new clause 10 did, so I thank him for his support. However, I cannot go along with his arguments, which amounted to saying that we should simply make the gateway voluntary. Of course, many people would volunteer to take part, but it shows extraordinary naivety about how some people approach the benefits system if he imagines that one could simply leave it to that voluntary principle. Apart from anything else, claimants themselves would not see it as fair and neither would it be so.

In the Bill, we are effecting a shift of culture—we believe that it is reasonable to do so—so that having an interview will become a normally accepted part of making a claim on the benefits system. The majority of the British public will think that eminently reasonable. Many of them would be staggered if they knew that so many people access the benefits system at the moment without an interview. Most people would see this as a straightforward, reasonable and commonsense measure, which indeed it is.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), who argued with great feeling about the difficulties facing people who suffer from mental illness and schizophrenia. I wholly share his views and those of his hon. Friends, including the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), who spoke on the same subject. Of course, we must be sensitive to the needs of disabled people and those suffering from schizophrenia. The difference between the hon. Members and me is that the Conservative amendment suggests that we can sensibly enshrine exceptions in regulations. The consequences of the amendments would be less flexibility and less ability to respond to individual need. If Conservative Members honestly believe that more regulation—the top-down approach, which the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said that she did not want—is the right way to deal with a situation that calls for such professional sensitivity, they are the ones who need to think again.

Mr. Burns

If the right hon. Gentleman accepts the argument and agrees with it, but feels that the amendments are defective and would not achieve the aim, surely he could table his own amendments or, if that is not procedurally possible at this stage, do it through guidelines.

Mr. Smith

If we felt that the Bill needed an amendment, we would have tabled one. The way to get a responsive, flexible and sensitive system is not to attempt rigidly to define exceptions in regulations; it is to offer proper training and sensible and sensitive guidance to those who are working at the front line, and that is what we are doing.

The bodies that are advising us on the training of personal advisers include not only the Royal National Institute for the Blind and the Royal National Institute for Deaf People but the Mental Health Foundation. Of course, we will take close note of what they say. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have a high regard for the National Schizophrenia Fellowship and other similar bodies that have made representations on the subject. I can assure him and the House that I will make it my business to speak further with those organisations on the way in which guidance is given to front-line staff. We want the legislation to help vulnerable people and not to form some sort of barrier that could worsen their medical condition.

Mrs. Browning

Will the Minister agree to take advice from the National Autistic Society as well?

Mr. Smith

Yes, I will.

Mrs. May

The Minister talked about responsiveness and sensitivity. He said earlier that if in the middle of an interview, it became clear that the interviewee was overstressed, the interview would be stopped. For some people, including those in the groups mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the stress of attending the interview, having it stopped and being shown the door could be devastating. What support will be available to such people in that situation? What training will personal advisers be given to deal with such circumstances? He said that the individual needs of the interviewee will be taken into account, but the extent to which that is possible will depend on the length of interviews. What targets will personal advisers be set for the number of interviews that they have to hold?

Mr. Smith

Training for personal advisers and front-line staff will go through all the difficult situations that we can possibly anticipate. We are being guided in this not only by expert opinion in the Department for Education and Employment and Department of Social Security, and by the considerable expertise of staff in the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service in catering for the needs of clients with difficulties, but by outside expertise and recommendations based on that. If the hon. Lady wants to suggest further bodies with evidence, views or experience that we should consider, we will be pleased to hear from them.

It has been said that it could be stressful for people to get a letter or have an interview but it is not as though people do not encounter that in the present system. An advantage of the single work-focused gateway is that it involves a personal adviser who will have had more training and experience and who will act as a constant point of support. At present, when people with mental illness or other problems inquire about their benefit, they talk to several different people. The new system will offer a constancy of personal support that Opposition Members should recognise as a positive gain over the anonymous, fragmented methods of the past.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) asked who would give evidence of state of mind. We do not expect or require people to turn up with or send medical certificates in respect of why they cannot turn up. A judgment must be made by the personal adviser. Account will be taken of medical evidence where it is supplied, but let us not forget that for most people who claim sickness and incapacity benefits, medical evidence is already supplied.

We will have to allow for fluctuating conditions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich said, some people will be sufficiently stable to arrange an appointment at the registration and orientation stage, but will be not be up to attending the interview or will attend, but not be capable of rational participation. In such cases, we expect benefit to go into payment and not be suspended until an interview can be undertaken.

7.15 pm
Mrs. Dunwoody

My right hon. Friend said that training will be given to civil servants to deal with those problems. Well-trained young social workers have been asked to undertake interviews at home. In one case, a young woman was killed. Will he be careful before sending civil servants into situations of personal risk?

Mr. Smith

Indeed we shall. I assure the House that close attention is being given to security in the design, organisation and delivery of pilots. That is particularly important where people visit other people's homes or go outside the normal interview location. Equally, security must be a prime consideration in offices in the interests not only of staff, but of other clients.

We are talking about pilots. As far as possible, we want interviews to take place in a much more welcoming environment than that which characterises many Benefits Agency offices. All the experience in the Employment Service since jobcentres started operating in an unscreened environment is that it reduces aggression and tension and the number of incidents. Working in an unscreened environment in the single work-focused gateway requires good security arrangements. I am making it my business to ensure that they are in place so that there is a better experience for all concerned.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) for her remarks. She spoke warmly of the new deal for disabled people pilot that she visited. I echo her commendation of the energy, commitment and sensitivity of staff in the pilots. Not only are we listening to them now, but as we put the single work-focused gateway into operation, we will continue to listen to that experience as we carry the pilots forward.

We have heard no good reasons for accepting the Opposition's amendments. I imagine that they were intended to allow a debate, but they would seriously damage the flexibility, sensitivity and effectiveness of the single work-focused gateway. They should be withdrawn or voted down because the single work-focused gateway, as provided for in the Bill, is the way to provide the quality, sensitivity and responsiveness in the access point to the benefit system that the country has needed for a long time. I guarantee that when the pilots start on 28 June, the system will give a much better service to claimants.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time.

Amendment proposed to the proposed new clause: (a), Leave out lines 22 and 23.—[Mr. Duncan Smith.]

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 133, Noes 409.

Division No. 178] [7 pm
Amess, David Duncan, Alan
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Duncan Smith, Iain
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Beggs, Roy Evans, Nigel
Bercow, John Faber, David
Beresford, Sir Paul Fabricant, Michael
Blunt, Crispin Fallon, Michael
Body, Sir Richard Forsythe, Clifford
Boswell, Tim Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Fox, Dr Liam
Brady, Graham Fraser, Christopher
Brazier, Julian Gale, Roger
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Gibb, Nick
Browning, Mrs Angela Gill, Christopher
Burns, Simon Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Butterfill, John Goodlad, Rt Hon Sir Alastair
Cash, William Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Chapman, Sir Sydney Gray, James
(Chipping Barnet) Green, Damian
Chope, Christopher Greenway, John
Clappison, James Grieve, Dominic
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington) Gummer, Rt Hon John
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Hammond, Philip
Colvin, Michael Hawkins, Nick
Cormack, Sir Patrick Hayes, John
Cran, James Heald, Oliver
Curry, Rt Hon David Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) Horam, John
Day, Stephen Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Hunter, Andrew Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Jenkin, Bernard Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Key, Robert Ruffley, David
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) St Aubyn, Nick
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Sayeed, Jonathan
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Lansley, Andrew Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Leigh, Edward Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Letwin, Oliver Soames, Nicholas
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Spicer, Sir Michael
Lidington, David Spring, Richard
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Swayne, Desmond
Loughton, Tim Syms, Robert
Luff, Peter Tapsell, Sir Peter
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strangford)
McIntosh, Miss Anne Taylor, Sir Teddy
MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew Townend, John
Maclean, Rt Hon David Tredinnick, David
McLoughlin, Patrick Trend, Michael
Madel, Sir David Tyrie, Andrew
Maples, John Viggers, Peter
Maude, Rt Hon Francis Walker, Cecil
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian Waiter, Robert
May, Mrs Theresa Wardle, Charles
Moss, Malcolm Waterson, Nigel
Nicholls, Patrick Wells, Bowen
Ottaway, Richard Whitney, Sir Raymond
Page, Richard Whittingdale, John
Paice, James Wilshire, David
Paterson, Owen Woodward, Shaun
Pickles, Eric Yeo, Tim
Prior, David Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Randall, John
Redwood, Rt Hon John Tellers for the Ayes:
Robathan, Andrew Mr. John M. Taylor and
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ty) Mr. Tim Collins.
Abbott, Ms Diane Blunkett, Rt Hon David
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Boateng, Paul
Ainger, Nick Borrow, David
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Bradley, Keith (Withington)
Alexander, Douglas Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)
Allan, Richard Bradshaw, Ben
Allen, Graham Brake, Tom
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Breed, Colin
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Brinton, Mrs Helen
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Brown, Rt Hon Gordon
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy (Dunfermline E)
Ashton, Joe Brown, Russell (Dumfries)
Atherton, Ms Candy Browne, Desmond
Atkins, Charlotte Buck, Ms Karen
Austin, John Burden, Richard
Ballard, Jackie Burgon, Colin
Banks, Tony Burnett, John
Barnes, Harry Burstow, Paul
Barron, Kevin Butler, Mrs Christine
Battle, John Byers, Rt Hon Stephen
Bayley, Hugh Cable, Dr Vincent
Beard, Nigel Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Begg, Miss Anne Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies
Beith, Rt Hon A J (NE Fife)
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Campbell-Savours, Dale
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Canavan, Dennis
Bennett, Andrew F Cann, Jamie
Benton, Joe Caplin, Ivor
Bermingham, Gerald Casale, Roger
Berry, Roger Caton, Martin
Best, Harold Cawsey, Ian
Betts, Clive Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Blears, Ms Hazel Chaytor, David
Blizzard, Bob Clapham, Michael
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Grocott, Bruce
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Grogan, John
Clelland, David Gunnell, John
Clwyd, Ann Hain, Peter
Coaker, Vernon Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Coffey, Ms Ann Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Cohen, Harry Hancock, Mike
Coleman, lain Hanson, David
Colman, Tony Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Connarty, Michael Harvey, Nick
Corbett, Robin Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Corbyn, Jeremy Healey, John
Corston, Ms Jean Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Cotter, Brian Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Cousins, Jim Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Cox, Tom Hepburn, Stephen
Cranston, Ross Heppell, John
Crausby, David Hesford, Stephen
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Cummings, John Hill, Keith
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack Hinchliffe, David
(Copeland) Hodge, Ms Margaret
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Hoey, Kate
Cunningham, Ms Roseanna Home Robertson, John
(Perth) Hood, Jimmy
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire Hoon, Geoffrey
Dafis, Cynog Hope, Phil
Dalyell, Tam Hopkins, Kelvin
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Darvill, Keith Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Howells, Dr Kim
Davidson, Ian Hoyle, Lindsay
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Dawson, Hilton Humble, Mrs Joan
Dean, Mrs Janet Hurst, Alan
Denham, John Hutton, John
Dismore, Andrew Iddon, Dr Brian
Dobbin, Jim Illsley, Eric
Donohoe, Brian H Ingram, Rt Hon Adam
Doran, Frank Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Dowd, Jim Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Drew, David Jamieson, David
Drown, Ms Julia Jenkins, Brian
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Johnson, Miss Melanie
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) (Welwyn Hatfield)
Edwards, Huw Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Efford, Clive Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)
Ellman, Mrs Louise Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Ennis, Jeff Jones, Ms Jenny
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Wolverh'ton SW)
Field, Rt Hon Frank Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Fisher, Mark Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Fitzpatrick, Jim Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Fitzsimons, Lorna Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Flynn, Paul Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa
Follett, Barbara Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Foster, Don (Bath) Keeble, Ms Sally
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Foulkes, George Keetch, Paul
Fyfe, Maria Kelly, Ms Ruth
Gapes, Mike Kemp, Fraser
Gardiner, Barry Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
George, Bruce (Walsall S) Khabra, Piara S
Gerrard, Neil Kidney, David
Gibson, Dr Ian Kilfoyle, Peter
Godman, Dr Norman A King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Godsiff, Roger King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Goggins, Paul Kingham, Ms Tess
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Kumar, Dr Ashok
Gorrie, Donald Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Lawrence, Ms Jackie Pickthall, Colin
Laxton, Bob Pike, Peter L
Lepper, David Plaskitt, James
Leslie, Christopher Pollard, Kerry
Levitt, Tom Pond, Chris
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Pope, Greg
Lewis, Terry (Worsley) Pound, Stephen
Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen Powell, Sir Raymond
Linton, Martin Prentice, Ms Bridger (Lewisham E)
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Llwyd, Elfyn Primarolo, Dawn
Lock, David Prosser, Gwyn
Love, Andrew Purchase, Ken
McAllion, John Quinn, Lawrie
McAvoy, Thomas Radice, Giles
McCabe, Steve Rammell, Bill
McCafferty, Ms Chris Rapson, Syd
McCartney, Rt Hon Ian Raynsford, Nick
(Makerfield) Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)
McDonagh, Siobhain Rendel, David
Macdonald, Calum Robertson, Rt Hon George
McDonnell, John (Hamilton S)
McFall, John Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
McIsaac, Shona Roche, Mrs Barbara
McKenna, Mrs Rosemary Rooker, Jeff
Mackinlay, Andrew Rooney, Terry
Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
McNamara, Kevin Rowlands, Ted
McNulty, Tony Roy, Frank
MacShane, Denis Ruane, Chris
Mactaggart, Fiona Ruddock, Joan
McWalter, Tony Russell, Bob (Colcester)
Mahon, Mrs Alice Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
Mallaber, Judy Ryan, Ms Joan
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Salter, Martin
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury) Sanders, Adrian
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Sarwar, Mohammad
Marshall-Andrews, Robert Savidge, Malcolm
Martlew, Eric Sawford, Phil
Maxton, John Sedgemore, Brian
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael Shaw, Jonathan
Meale, Alan Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Merron, Gillian Short, Rt Hon Clare
Michael, Rt Hon Alun Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Michie, Bill (Shefld Heeley) Singh, Marsha
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute) Skinner, Dennis
Milburn, Rt Hon Alan Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Miller, Andrew Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Moffatt, Laura Smith, Miss Geraldine
Moonie, Dr Lewis (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Moore, Michael Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Moran, Ms Margaret Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Morgan, Alasdair (Galloway) Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Morley, Elliot Snape, Peter
Morris, Ms Estelle(B'ham Yardley) Soley, Clive
Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon) Southworth, Ms Helen
Mountford, Kali Spellar, John
Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie Squire, Ms Rachel
Mudie, George Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Mullin, Chris Steinberg, Gerry
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Stevenson, George
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Naysmith, Dr Doug Stinchcombe, Paul
Norris, Dan Stoate, Dr Howard
Oaten, Mark Stott, Roger
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
O'Hara, Eddie Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Olner, Bill Stringer, Graham
O'Neill, Martin Stuart, Ms Gisela
Öpik, Lembit Stunell, Andrew
Organ, Mrs Diana Sutcliffe, Gerry
Osborne, Ms Sandra Swinney, John
Pearson, Ian Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann
Pendry, Tom (Dewsbury)
Perham, Ms Linda Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Taylor, Matthew (Truro) White, Brian
Temple-Morris, Peter Whitehead, Dr Alan
Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W) Wicks, Malcolm
Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W) Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Timms, Stephen Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Tipping, Paddy (Swansea W)
Todd, Mark Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Tonge, Dr Jenny Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Touhig, Don Willis, Phil
Trickett, Jon Wills, Michael
Truswell, Paul Wilson, Brian
Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE) Winnick, David
Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown) Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk) Wise, Audrey
Twigg, Derek (Halton) Wood, Mike
Twigg, Stephen (Enfield) Woolas, Phil
Tyler, Paul Worthington, Tony
Vaz, Keith Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Vis, Dr Rudi Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Walley, Ms Joan Wyatt, Derek
Ward, Ms Claire
Wareing, Robert N Tellers for the Noes:
Watts, David Mr. Mike Hall and
Webb, Steve Mrs. Anne McGuire.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause added to the Bill.

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