HL Deb 08 November 2001 vol 628 cc326-43

4.51 p.m.

Earl Russell rose to move, That this House invites Her Majesty's Government to withdraw the regulations (S.I. 2001/3210) laid before the House on 26th September and to lay amended regulations which insert the words "or death bed" after the word "funeral" in Regulation 13(h).

The noble Earl said: My Lords, there are two Motions on the Order Paper—one Motion to resolve and one Prayer to annul the regulations. I hasten to reassure the House that I propose to make only one speech—unless the Minister positively wants more.

E.M. Forster was quite right: it is the tragedy of life that one gets what one wants. However, for the moment, I propose to make only one speech.

The regulations introduce compulsory work-focused interviews for those who claim incapacity benefit and several other medical-related benefits. I shall deal first with the Motion, because it deals with a limited point and is simple and, I hope, clear. It addresses regulation 13(h). That regulation sets out what shall be taken as good cause for not attending a work-focused interview. Properly, the regulations provide for attending a funeral being good cause for not attending an interview. I propose to add, after funeral, the words "or death bed".

That is not a fanciful example; it is based on an actual case discovered by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and included in its report, "Benefits and Work", published by Janet Albeson in 1997. The case concerned a woman whose husband was dying of a brain haemorrhage. She spent a week in hospital attending his death bed and was deprived of jobseeker's allowance on the grounds that she was not actively seeking work because she had not made a job application during that period. I am not especially surprised that she had not.

I do not believe that that was the intention behind the legislation. I do not believe that it is the intention of this Government. I do not believe that it was the intention of their predecessors, Mr Portillo and Mr Lilley, who introduced the Jobseekers Act 1995. I am open to correction, but I believe that that is a classic case of the law of unintended consequences. In that case, it led to a particularly harsh application, which I hope will not happen again.

When the report was published, the case was still subject to appeal. I have not been able to discover what happened since, but, as the Minister well knows, one loses benefit pending appeal. As one cannot hang one's stomach on a sky-hook, one suffers considerable hardship in the meantime. This is a case in which the Government could, without any loss of face—without even any change in policy—clarify their intention so as to avoid such hardship in future.

If the present trend towards ever more secondary legislation continues, it will be necessary to deal with the question of how we deal with the one regulation that is not right among a group of others that are. The Motion is non-fatal: were it to be carried in a Division, it would not force the Government to do anything. However, I hope that the Government see fit to take the opportunity, which I offer them, to change something that has produced an injustice that I am convinced that they did not intend.

The regulations give rise to wider issues. They have a good objective: to help people with disabilities into work where there is work that suits them. That objective is shared in all quarters of the House, but the Government are pursuing it with a wrong diagnosis and inappropriate means.

Discussing these regulations in another place, Mr. Alistair Darling said: The total case load of incapacity benefit is far too high".— [Official Report, Commons, 25/10/01; col. 473.]

I have given the Minister's office notice—slightly belatedly, for which I apologise—that I should like to know: what is Mr. Darling's evidence for that proposition? As far as I can see, that is a matter of hypothesis.

I suspect that the answer I shall receive will be, once again, a reference to how many people were referred to incapacity benefit before the 1995 Act. If I receive that answer, first, that is a long time ago. Many of those people may not now be of working age.

Secondly—this is important for the whole of our discussion—we need to understand that the link between illness and unemployment is two way. Unemployment may well lead to illness as well as being a consequence of illness. That is fairly well universally medically accepted. It was originally proposed by the Black report and sustained by the Acheson report and a detailed analysis of unemployment and illness by constituency. The fact that constituencies with the highest unemployment have the most incapacity benefit may be perfectly well be evidence that despair is not good for health.

We are all familiar with the phenomenon of an animal that pines when given no hope. I am not certain that human beings can claim to be any different. If the Secretary of State has any good reason for knowing something different, I should like to know it. The Secretary of State talks about history lessons, and says that if we are to have history lessons, let them be complete. I agree. The medical evidence should be included in that.

The regulations will have the wrong effect: they will not get more people into work; they will not help people find work that they can do. If we consider what has happened under ONE—what used, in far-off days, to be called the single gateway—those who have attended compulsory interviews are less likely to be in work than those who have not. That is the finding of the Department of Social Security's research report No. 126. The department comments that that finding is not easy to explain. I hope that I can help. The finding is confirmed by the new deal for lone parents: again, those who have attended the compulsory interview are less likely to be in work than those who have not. We are dealing here with the effect of fear, which is a genuine medical phenomenon.

Several conditions that result in people receiving incapacity benefit are objectively exacerbated by fear. Mental illness is frequently one; back pain is another; asthma is a third and irritable bowel and similar disorders are a fourth. If we make people frightened—we underestimate at our peril the extent to which contact with a bureaucracy bearing a big stick is likely to frighten claimants—we may worsen their health. Getting people with medical disadvantages to do what they are capable of doing depends heavily on making them feel safe.

A long time ago, when my wife had had an operation on her knee, she was on crutches for two weeks. On the day on which she came off crutches, the hospital tested her, and asked her to walk along a straight line. The staff put on an expression of great alarm and said, "Something's wrong. You're not limping". When challenged, they explained that almost everyone who came off crutches limped out of habit because they were afraid of the risk of doing otherwise. That was a case where fear was not present. If we want to get more people with disabilities into work, we need to produce more cases such as that where fear is not present. In my opinion, compulsory interviews are approaching the matter in exactly the wrong way.

The Minister will say, quite rightly, that home visits are available for those who find difficulty in going to a place to be tested. However, I agree with the remark made by Mrs Browning in another place that for many people, especially elderly people, home visits may be traumatic. In fact, my wife is dealing with one such case at the moment. It concerns a lady who will not let anyone into her house because she is not fit to clean it, and she dare not let anyone see what has happened to the house as a result. Consequently, all attempts at help must take place by telephone and that produces a great deal of extra work. I do not believe that that case is unique.

The second reason why I believe that this is a mistaken approach is that it is a mistaken test. The Minister knows that the test for incapacity benefit works so badly that more people who are found unfit for work than are found fit for work actually obtain work. NACAB's report on the matter, An Unfit Test, is entirely to the point.

When the test is conducted by the Government—that is, by the Benefits Agency Medical Service—rather than by the applicant's own doctor, there is a genuine possibility that there will be a conflict of interest. Before the Minister denies that, I shall ask her whether she can give me a categoric assurance that those who conduct the tests will not be subject to any targets whatever as to the number of people whom they find unfit for benefit and therefore fit for work.

There are also considerable administrative problems in relation to the conduct of the test. The noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, was going to draw attention to that last Tuesday but he had other fish to fry. I know that the noble Lord has many fish to fry, but I hope that he will return to that fish because it needs frying. A great deal of trouble is caused in trying to carry out tests to a time limit. A great deal of trouble is also caused by doctors demanding fees for medical opinion from people on benefits. Those matters need to be put right before any more is done.

In addition, are there jobs for those who are threatened with loss of benefit? Some of them do not get jobs because they face systematic discrimination. Others do not get them because, just as there are lands which God forgot, so there are lands which Mammon forgot. A good many of the people who claim incapacity benefit live in those lands. Mr Dennis Skinner in another place said—I paraphrase—that these provisions may work in some places but it is impossible to make them work here. That applies to many of the cases in which most people are on incapacity benefit. It brings us back to the link between unemployment and illness.

I turn to my final point. Since yesterday, secondary legislation has become even more topical than usual. We are threatened with the possibility of being able to delay such legislation only for three months. But the trouble is that, if that comes about, the Government will be put under a constant temptation to bring in more and more provisions by secondary rather than by primary legislation. Originally we expected these regulations to be dealt with by primary legislation, but that did not happen. There is no clear dividing line about what is fit for secondary and what is fit for primary legislation.

Nothing that I say should for one moment be taken to indicate any softening of my Benches' hostility to this proposal or of our determination to fight it to the very last gasp. However, should it go through under the Parliament Act, we would need as a companion to it legislation along the lines of the Donoughmore report of 1932, setting out limits as to what can be done by secondary legislation and what must require primary legislation. Whenever those limits are brought in, they must include depriving people of benefit.

I am opposed to capital punishment. It is my opinion that depriving people totally of the means of subsistence is capable of becoming a form of capital punishment by the back door. I know that the Minister regards that opinion as hysterical, absurd and erroneous. It is possible that she is right. When she gives me one scrap of evidence in favour of her view to that effect, I shall give it every possible consideration. She has not yet done so. Meanwhile, I believe that we are facing a situation in which the power of secondary legislation is increasing, has increased and should be diminished. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House invites Her Majesty's Government to withdraw the regulations (S.I. 2001/ 3210) laid before the House on 26th September and to lay amended regulations which insert the words "or death bed" after the word "funeral" in Regulation 13(h).—(Earl Russell.)

5 p.m.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I begin by taking up the point made by the noble Earl in his concluding remarks. In the Queen's Speech in June, the Government pledged to introduce a Bill to tighten up the rules for claimants of disability benefit. At that time, we were told that the benefit would be paid only for fixed periods and that we should expect a big increase in the number of medical tests. But, of course, we were expecting the matter to be dealt with in a Bill. Indeed, it was clear from what the Minister said back in July that she expected these matters to appear in a Bill. Of course, such a Bill would have been amendable and debatable in considerable detail.

Instead of that, the matter before us is in the form of regulations. As the noble Earl rightly pointed out, if the proposals put forward by the Government yesterday in relation to reforming your Lordships' House were to be carried out, we should no longer have the right to vote against secondary legislation; we should have only the power of delay. Personally, I regard that as a most serious matter. However, that is not the situation now.

None the less, we on this side of the House have been very restrained in the extent to which we have voted against statutory instruments. Indeed, as the noble Baroness says, so was the party opposite when it was in opposition. It seems quite extraordinary that the Government should now come forward with this proposal when, in fact, the present measure is used only on matters of the very greatest importance.

The situation surrounding the regulations that we are debating is somewhat strange. As I said, they were originally mentioned in the Queen's Speech. Subsequently, on 4th July, at a breakfast meeting the Secretary of State made a number of proposals which I believe suggested—certainly the spin which was reflected in the press suggested—that there would somehow be a crackdown on people who were obtaining disability benefit but had not been tested adequately to ensure that they were still entitled to that benefit.

That caused a considerable and understandable uproar among many people concerned with these issues. The Prime Minister bowled in on the same afternoon in support of his Secretary of State, saying, the proposals made today on incapacity benefit by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions are entirely sensible and justified. It cannot be right that we have a situation in which people coming on to incapacity benefit will be paid on average about £4,000 a year for, say, 10, 15 or 20 years, with no one ever checking whether they have recovered from their injuries and are able to work".—[Official Report, Commons, 4/7/01; col. 254.] In contrast, the noble Baroness, speaking, I believe, on the same day, pointed out that there was no question of MoT tests being introduced and that incapacity benefit claimants already underwent a review process. Some faced checks after six months. I hope that the noble Baroness has drawn her remarks to the attention of the Prime Minister because I do not believe that the furore which he and the Secretary of State caused reflected the reality of the situation. As I understand it, and as the noble Baroness pointed out, the situation is that a fairly regular series of checks have been carried out so far as concerns entitlement to benefit. The matter then moved on and the Government, having decided on a crackdown, engaged in a series of climb-downs. My sound bite was not intentional. All the best sound bites are spontaneous.

In a memorandum, the Secretary of State said that the regulations would not change the categories exempt from medical testing and would not result in claims being time-limited. So we moved to a situation where there would be a Bill covering these regulations. In July, we were then told that there would not be a Bill, it would be in regulations, in September that there would not be a fixed period and in October that there would be no additional medical tests. All we were left with was the compulsory work-focused interview that we are discussing today.

I ask the noble Baroness what else will be in the welfare Bill in the circumstances I have described, or is there yet to be a welfare Bill of the kind mentioned in the Queen's Speech?

The noble Earl raised important points concerning the detail of these regulations which, as the House knows, are not amendable. The noble Earl was particularly concerned in his other Motion—being debated with the main Motion—that the words "on death bed" should be inserted after the word "funeral". It should perhaps be the other way around. The good cause provision (regulation 13) sets out a range of issues to be taken into account in determining whether a person has shown good cause for failure to attend an interview. This is important because if they fail to show good cause, they will suffer considerable penalties. While the prelude to this clause says these are the things which should be included in the considerations, inevitably it will be the case that those operating the system will look down the list and say, "You don't qualify because you're not on the list".

The Minister should make it clear to people operating this system that this list is not exclusive. It is possible to have other reasons why a person may be unable to attend an interview and there may be good cause why they are unable to do so. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that the department's officials will be clear that this list in the regulations will not to be treated as the only reasons why good cause can be shown.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am very happy to give that assurance. It is exemplary rather than fully inclusive.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I am most grateful that the Minister will ensure that clear information is passed to those operating the regulations in what can be a fraught occasion for the applicant.

I come to the matter of penalties. These are considerable. If the person fails to turn up, a sanction will be imposed such as the withdrawal of income support, incapacity benefit and, to my astonishment, in regulation 11, bereavement benefit. Is it really proposed that, if someone fails to turn up for a job interview, they will have a bereavement benefit sanction imposed? That is a very strange proposition.

Before I turn to the points raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, could the Minister confirm a statement made on 5th of July by Mr Robin Cook in another place, that the situation now being envisaged will not affect existing claimants?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I am happy to give that assurance—but not from a sedentary position.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, thank you. The Minister's speech gets shorter by the minute.

Finally, I turn to the lessons which can be derived from the ONE operation, originally known as the single gateway arrangement. The DSS' own report on the first effects seem to be disappointing. Only a minority of lone parents or sick and disabled clients opted to take part in the operation. In the pilot areas, respondents in the sick or disabled groups who had not taken part in ONE were more likely to be in work than participants. As the noble Earl pointed out, this finding is hard to explain. Perhaps they took part in the interview rather than finding employment.

There are no changes in the attitude or behaviour of those already in part-time work. Personal advisers were able to change a few participants' attitude but this was an exception to the many who did not feel work was an option. I will not read out all the results—noble Lords will know of them—but it does seem to suggest that this is a disappointing result and raises the question of whether the compulsion set out in these regulations is justified by the results so far achieved.

One point is unclear to me. In Schedule 1, there is a long list of postcodes subject to these regulations, plus Shropshire County Council and Telford & Wrekin District Council. Does this fill a gap in a previous pilot or is this a pilot area? Why will some places be covered by the regulations and others not? I have much sympathy with the view expressed by the noble Earl. I am glad he has provided the House with an opportunity to debate these matters as my noble friend, Mr Willetts, did in another place.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, has made some interesting points to which, no doubt, my noble friend will respond.

I do not know what the Minister thought of the speech by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, but he hit a large number of targets very accurately. I look forward to the Minister's reply. Some of the questions he posed were very relevant. Like other noble Lords, I welcome the Government's attempts to help disabled people to find work. Those able and willing to work deserve employment.

The Government's aim is a laudable one but very flawed. The paramount question we need to answer this evening is whether the Government are going the right way about it. We need to look first at fraud. I hope that there is not a hidden agenda, because the Office for National Statistics said that fraud involving incapacity benefit is non-existent, so we can put fraud entirely to one side.

If that is the case, what do the Government hope to gain by compulsion? The intention is to compel severely disabled people to attend for interview. They are threatened that benefits will be cut or withdrawn if they do not attend. I cannot believe that that is the right way to go about business; to threaten and compel severely disabled people must be counterproductive. Will anyone find a job more quickly when they are under the Government's threat? I do not think so. Moreover, some people will be so frightened that they will not attend the interview. That means that they will lose their benefits, which will have disastrous results for poor severely disabled people. I am horrified by the suggested compulsion and threats.

There is a popular misconception that many perhaps most—disabled people in wheelchairs want to work. That is far from being the case; and only 5 per cent of disabled people are in wheelchairs. I admire those who want and who seek work. However. as the noble Earl pointed out, many severely disabled people are not in wheelchairs. He referred to people with mental health problems and discussed various categories. I add to those categories: people with severe heart disease, those with multiple sclerosis and those with rheumatoid arthritis. Fancy bulldozing them into a situation in which they feel at bay and are forced to attend for an interview. Bringing people to the home does not solve the problem because having an official visitor at a person's home, especially if that person has mental health problems, can be a very traumatic experience. Either way—compelling people to go out or insisting that a visitor sees them at home—the situation can be terrifying for disabled people, especially those suffering from mental health problems.

Threatening those people to attend a compulsory interview involves a loss to everyone. It involves a loss to the disabled person, who will not necessarily take a job, and to the Government, who appear to be insensitive towards disabled people and to be brow-beating them. The objective is to help those people to get jobs. What is wrong with the voluntary system?

Why cannot disabled people be invited to discuss the situation—and perhaps apply after that—with people who can help, advise and guide them? In that respect, the Government have advanced a constructive proposal. I am sure that many disabled people will warmly welcome that. The purpose of the interviews is excellent and the Government should be commended on the arrangement. However, the compulsory element is simply unacceptable.

The Government's policy of exemptions—deferments and waivers—is not the answer because the situation is vague and indistinct. We do not know who gets waived. Who gets deferred? It is up to the local civil servants. If they are good people, that arrangement is fine and there will be no problem. But what if they are tough, intolerant or impatient people? The disabled person is in their hands. What the Government are going to do should be clearly in the public domain and the provisions should be mandatory. The Government should be frank and comprehensive in that regard. We need transparency of information in the public domain.

There is another serious flaw in the proposals. If and when disabled people go for an interview, there may, as the noble Earl indicated when he quoted Dennis Skinner, be no jobs. What will happen then? The Government imply that jobs are available, but we know full well that in many areas of the country there is significant unemployment. The area that I represented as a Member of Parliament—Stoke-on-Trent—had terrible black spots. One may force, compel and bulldoze people to go for an interview, but there may on occasion be no jobs. That applies to many areas of Great Britain.

Lay-offs are being announced every five minutes in the media. One cannot pick up a newspaper without reading that a few thousand people are being laid off here and that a few thousand people are being laid off there. With today's cut of 0.5 per cent, the Government are aware of the growing problem of unemployment, and they are trying to stimulate the economy. However, they intend to go ahead with their proposals, which will bulldoze severely disabled people. I simply do not think that that is on.

I hope that my noble friend can persuade the Secretary of State, who is a very enlightened man, to stop this nonsense of compulsion and threats. We should be able to say that we have a fine scheme; if it is voluntary we can win in every way. If the Government want to disseminate information about the centres, they can do so in many ways because many means are at their disposal. They can use the very considerable disability network, which can contact millions of people. There is no problem telling people what the situation is or encouraging them to take part. If the Government do that, they will be well on the way to success.

If, despite the eloquence of the noble Earl and of others, the Government bulldoze the proposal through Parliament (they probably will) and if they find that it is a disaster (I think that it will be) I can only hope that they will reconsider. If they do so at the last ditch, that will again be of benefit to themselves and disabled people. That is my plea. However, it may be too much to ask the Minister not to go ahead with the proposal and to drop the compulsory element.

Lord Layard

My Lords, my first point is that the aim of the regulations is clear—it is to ensure that all disabled people and everyone else who is on the benefits know which jobs are open to them. Most of the people concerned are not severely disabled.

Secondly, no one will be forced to work. We should not muddy this issue with any other issue relating to tests; we are talking today not about tests but about the regulations. Their aim is simply to ensure that when people decide to claim benefit they make an informed choice about the alternatives that might be open to them. That seems to me to be eminent common sense. One could say in response to that argument that people should be free to choose whether to make an informed choice. In a sense, that is the issue that we need to discuss. I want to put two strong arguments in favour of the view that the proposed degree of compulsion is justified.

The first argument is that people easily become over-pessimistic. I should imagine that nearly all of us know disabled people who have been saved from despair by friends who prodded them to see the potential that was in them. It often takes an outside jolt to get people to see that things are not as bad as they seem. Such arguments, incidentally, have been equally important in relation to the long-term unemployed, although we are not discussing that issue. We saw what effects efforts to mobilise the long-term unemployed have had on the level of long-term unemployment in this country. The first argument involves over-pessimism and the need for everyone to be well informed about reality.

The second argument is that taxpayers' money is involved and that there is no sensible reason why conditions should not be attached, especially when the main beneficiaries are the class of clients themselves. It is very easy to take a defeatist view of the labour market. It has been said today that it can never offer much to whole classes of people. We used to take that view about the unemployed. We—many apparently well-informed people—used to say terrible things; we said that we were moving into a world involving the end of work, and so on.

Instead, experience has shown that in those countries where serious efforts have been made to mobilise the unemployed, large falls in unemployment have occurred. That has been the experience in Denmark, Holland and Britain, while countries such as France and Germany, which have had a more defeatist attitude to such things and have not made these kinds of efforts to mobilise unemployed people and to confront them with the fact that the world has more possibilities than they may have thought, unemployment has been far more persistent. I believe that the time has come, in this country, to provide more help to the other groups that depend upon benefit, and that is the reason for the regulations.

I also understand that no major disability group is objecting to these proposals. Perhaps the Minister can confirm the precise situation. Except perhaps in relation to the very severely disabled, I ask myself who is objecting to what appears to be a reasonable proposal. I believe that it is those who view these groups purely as victims.

Fundamentally, this proposal is about a different view of life—a more complicated view. We must get away from the pure victim view of such groups of people. We must recognise that there is potential in many disabled people that they themselves may not have realised they had. We must also recognise that we are doing them a service by helping them to see what in them can be married to situations in the outside world. That is what these regulations are about, and it would be tragic if they did not come into force.

Lord Addington

My Lords, in response to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Layard, I hope that he is aware that in referring to the potential of disabled people one must always discount the lucky and the brilliant.

5.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, as always, I have listened with great interest to the points that have been made this evening. However, I did not always recognise the regulations—I hope noble Lords will take this in the spirit in which it is intended—from some of the speeches to which I have listened. As my noble friend Lord Layard suggested, I sometimes thought that noble Lords were suggesting that all we are doing is compelling disabled people into work.

Perhaps I should state what these regulations concern and what they do not concern. They are about, first, extending and providing equality of access to the support available to help people into work, people who previously have been routinely denied that access; secondly, routinely writing off from work the 4 million people who claim benefits that are covered by these regulations; thirdly, ensuring security for those who cannot work; fourthly, treating people as individuals; and, fifthly, improving the service for those who visit the new, integrated Jobcentre Plus offices.

My noble friend Lord Ashley is absolutely right that there is a belief that fraud is widespread. However, these regulations are not concerned with that; nor are they about changing the current medical testing arrangements; changing the current categories of cases exempt from medical testing; time-limiting benefits; or forcing people into work. I wholeheartedly believe, as my noble friend Lord Layard said, that they are about opportunity and not threat.

These regulations provide for everyone of working age, not just disabled people, who makes a new or a repeat claim to income support, incapacity benefit, severe disablement allowance, invalid care allowance and other benefits at a Jobcentre Plus office from 22nd October to take part, where appropriate, in work-focussed interviews at the start of their claim, and periodically throughout their claim, as a condition of claiming and receiving benefit.

We have always been clear that we must be sensitive to the different circumstances that people face. So there are provisions in these regulations to waive the interview where it would clearly be of no assistance; for example, when someone is very ill or severely disabled and has no prospect of being able to work.

However, people exempt from medical testing—they amount to 25 per cent of IB claimants—will not have their interviews waived automatically. People cope with disabilities differently, and these regulations are about treating people as individuals, not as members of a category. All disabled people are entitled to help, information, advice, opportunities associated with rehabilitation, training, work and benefits. Blind people, for example, are exempt from personal capability assessment. They are automatically passported on to IB and yet 51 per cent of blind people are in work. Equally, some people with substantial learning difficulties can be exempt, and yet 24 per cent of such people already work.

The noble Earl asked whether we were saying, as he appeared to indicate from the comments made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, that the numbers on incapacity benefit were too high. My right honourable friend was not saying that people were wrongly coming onto the benefit. I repeat, as my noble friend Lord Ashley has said, that there is no evidence of fraud or impropriety, but I believe, as I am sure that my right honourable friend believes, that people stay on incapacity benefit longer than should be the case and longer than they themselves want because no one intervenes to get them the help and support that they want and need. That is why the Disability Rights Commission tells us that around 1 million disabled people, on disability benefit, are interested in work and many feel that they could work, with the right support, but currently that is not available. That is what my right honourable friend would say.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I was aware that that was her view of the matter. Can she give the House any evidence for believing that that view of the matter is the correct view?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I would certainly expect the members of the Disability Rights Commission, who have made that statement, to have the kind of expertise that I do not have—I suspect that the noble Earl also does not have such expertise—but all the evidence that is coming through the commission and the Employers Forum on Disability, and like, appears to support that contention.

I am sure that the noble Earl will agree with this next point. Sickness, painful conditions and often mental health problems, rather than disability itself, are the main barriers to work. There is much evidence to show that disabled people, as my noble friend Lord Ashley has told the House on more than one occasion, particularly if they have an orthopaedic condition—not necessarily conditions associated with mental health or sickness—are often better attenders at work and more reliable performers in work than non-disabled people. Some of the sickness records of absences from work confirm that.

We know that many disabled people could work if they were given the relevant work aids. In addition, any decision to take up the help that is available is for the individual to make. It would remain entirely voluntary. Of course, in practice many people exempt from medical testing will also have their interviews waived because of the seriousness of their illness; for example, someone with a severe mental illness, which significantly affects moods or behaviour and restricts social interaction, or someone with a severely deteriorating illness.

The regulations also enable an interview to be postponed if it were not appropriate at the time; for example, when someone is distressed following a bereavement, at the death bed of a close relative or in hospital. Where it is appropriate for a person to attend an interview, it will normally take place at the local office. If that is inconvenient, it could take place at home. Taxi fares and so on will be made available and, of course, a friend may accompany a person to an interview or be present at an interview, as the letter makes clear. The letter is positive and helpful. I have copies here if any noble Lord would like to read it.

A person will be given three opportunities to attend an interview. Their benefit will be affected only if, after all those safeguards, they fail to show good cause for non-attendance. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, the list of good causes in regulation 13 is non-exhaustive—it is exemplary—as we cannot anticipate every eventuality.

In the case of someone who failed to attend an interview and did not contact the office to defer it because, as in the case that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, gave, he or she was with a close relative who may have been in a coma following a car accident, that would be accepted as good cause. Normally, I would expect a person to inform the office that they could not attend the interview, in which case it would be deferred to a time when they could attend. If they did not inform the office until after the event, it would count as good cause.

I regret the case mentioned by the noble Earl. That was one case in 1997. I read that report and did not find any other cases like that. It may be that it was an individual example of bad practice, which one sincerely regrets. Certainly, all the guidance and training of staff should ensure that such inappropriate behaviour does not continue. Based on our experience of one pilot and 15,000 cases, there have been only seven sanctions in the period April 2000 to September 2001. As noble Lords are aware, the sanction itself is very light.

Behind this debate is the point raised by my noble friend Lord Layard; namely, whether such interviews, which are information-based, not work-based, should be compulsory. My noble friend Lord Ashley pleaded with his usual eloquence that they should be voluntary. They already are voluntary and do not work. I am a convert on the subject. Like my noble friend Lord Ashley and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, five years ago I favoured only voluntary interviews because of the very language and images of threat that my noble friend deplored. I no longer believe that. I believe that people do not know what they do not know and we have a duty of empowerment.

Even John Stuart Mill—if I may bat this back to the noble Earl, Lord Russell—believed that compulsory education was a prerequisite for informed choice. The philosopher John Stuart Mill insisted that even in the most liberal states education was the prerequisite for choices to he made. For example, how many lone parents who are currently on income support know that if they go to work they will have a rollover of two weeks' benefit to help them bridge the gap? If they do not know that, of course they will be frightened to take risks; if they do, they are more confident when the time is right to enter work. I hope that the noble Earl shares my views.

The success of these changes depends on Jobcentre Plus staff, which is why we have increased staffing. Staff have had elaborate training. With the help of the disability organisations, particular attention has been paid to disability awareness training. I hope, therefore, that those who receive that advice accept that it is tailored to their needs.

I was asked about the schedule. The schedule identifies the 50 pathfinders and 39 work-focused offices in which the Benefits Agency and Employment Service have been integrated to offer the kind of interviews that we want. As they roll out so the regulations will be amended. These regulations provide that everyone should have a work-focused interview at least every three years. They do not change the current medical testing arrangements, the category of exempt cases or the arrangements for deciding whether someone is entitled to benefit. They do not time-limit benefit or force people into work. They make sure that at least every three years people receive the help that they need, including incidentally checking that they receive the full range of benefits. If someone is interested in work or rehabilitation and training we have a duty to help them, not write them off.

We have opened the offices and are delivering a radically improved service. I have visited a couple of these superb offices. They are colourful, welcoming, comfortable and stylish. Small packets of biscuits and drinks are thrown in. Physically, they appear to be similar to the business section of some airport executive lounges that I have visited. I do not believe that that comparison is as wild as it may seem. I encourage noble Lords, including above all my noble friend, to visit them. They are the kinds of offices that I would wish every benefit claimant, client and customer to be able to experience. Nothing less than that is good enough. All of those offices are compliant with the DDA and have signing interpreters and material in Braille and audio-tape. Customers will be able to have appointments in one working day. One blind man was hugely complimentary about the new offices. He said that they had the most comfortable seats in which he had ever sat, and promptly fell asleep.

The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, said that these were fraught occasions. If he visits these offices and sees the rapport and relationship between staff and clients I do not believe that he will come away feeling that these are fraught occasions. They are positive, constructive, warm and helpful. People go away with the image of themselves and their capacity enhanced, which is what we want.

We know that the majority of lone parents want to work; they tell us so. We believe, and the DRC tells us, that up to 1 million disabled people want to work. We want them to have the best possible physical environment, training staff and knowledge to make choices and enter work as and when they are ready to do so. It is precisely because we value the skills and contribution of lone parents and disabled people that we want to empower them to come into work as and when they are ready to do so, with knowledge about their benefit entitlement, back-to-work support and the "best buy" calculation. As a result, they and we shall benefit. I commend the regulations to the House.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for her reply to my Motion. It does not give me everything for which I asked. I believe that it gives me everything which I could reasonably have expected, and I thank her very warmly for it. I also thank her for what she said just before she sat down about using the interviews to make sure that everyone gets the benefits to which they are entitled. That gave me very great pleasure.

On the other hand, I believe that the Minister's quotation from John Stuart Mill was not very wisely chosen. In dealing with compulsion for education, Mill was discussing minors, and the kind of compulsion to which they may be subject has at all times been slightly different from that which is thought appropriate for adults.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the noble Earl will realise that from 1870 onwards compulsory education was only up to the age of 12. Mill was writing at a time when there was no compulsory education even for children.

Earl Russell

My Lords, of course I realise that. I think that he was perfectly right in what he said. It does not follow, however, that one can deduce from it something which he did not say.

I listened to the Minister's description of these regulations and the argument about not writing off people. I entirely accept that that is the Minister's intention. But there is a considerable disjunction between the Minister's intention and the effect of the measures that she is defending. I have read innumerable speeches by kings and Ministers—indeed, more speeches than I have had hot dinners— in which they set out that their intentions were entirely beneficent and they did not mean any of the evil consequences which people saw behind what they said. Sometimes they were right and sometimes wrong; in almost all cases I believe that they were sincere, but the sincerity is not in itself proof of truth.

What these proposals do not understand is the extent of distrust of the bureaucratic machine felt among those who are, or have been, on benefit. They assume an awareness of their good intentions which is very definitely not there. If the Minister read something like the report of community care users on reactions to the benefits system she would find a large body of evidence for that proposal. I believe that that needs thought, because what is perceived is something other than the intention of the Minister.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I shall try not to intervene again. I agree with a good deal of the comments of the noble Earl about the service that historically has been offered particularly by the Benefits Agency. That was precisely why I was delighted to see the integration with the Employment Service and the whole shift in emphasis on training, service and physical environment in the new Jobcentre Plus offices which are wonderful. Go and see them, because that is where the future lies.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am grateful for those remarks. The Minister is doing her best, but if she is to be successful I believe that it will take 50 years. She must be realistic.

The noble Lord, Lord Layard. whose intervention added considerably to the debate, talked about the need for a friendly jolt and people being easily over-pessimistic. That is true on certain occasions. but one must establish a relationship of trust before one does it. I remember a peculiarly idle pupil at the end of the first year who was about to be sent down. I told him that he could get a first if he thought it was worth bothering. To the utter astonishment of my colleagues—blow me down—he did. But if I had not spent a long time in gaining his trust, I would not have been able to attempt to do what I did. I do not think that, even with all the benevolence that the Minister is offering, the Employment Service, the Benefits Agency and the jobcentres will establish that in the near future.

The noble Lord, Lord Layard, also had a good deal to say about labour market measures. He contrasted Denmark, Holland and Britain with France and Germany. There may be a good many other independent variables between those economies. I wonder about the question of coal. I know that there has been coal in Britain as well as in the other countries. But in the cases of Holland and Denmark, declining industries may in the past have been rather less prevalent. It is a question that we shall need to pursue outside the Chamber. But perhaps I may put on record that there may be more than one explanation of what the noble Lord has been saying.

The noble Lords, Lord Higgins and Lord Ashley of Stoke, are about as perfect a cross-section of expert opinion as one could ask for. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, for his point about regulation 11 and the bereavement benefit. It reminds me of the remarks of my late noble friend Lady Seear on the original Jobseekers Act, from which all this flows. She said that it would lead to people being asked to go direct from the graveside to the jobcentre. We thought then that that was a flight of fancy. So did she. It seems that it was not. I am sorry to hear it. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, said everything he did, including a great deal that I wish I had said myself.

I am not in the least satisfied by any of the answers that I have been given. But the question of what happens to regulations is a long-term one which stretches far wider than this issue. But I shall say only this. We cannot run a Parliament without a degree of consensus on the way we should proceed. That consensus does not exist at present. I hope in future it will. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

5.52 p.m.

Earl Russell

had given notice of his intention to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations, laid before the House on 26th September, be annulled (S.I. 2001/ 3210).

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I shall not be moving the second Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.