Thursday 5 February 2015
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Voter engagement in the UK, Fourth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, HC 232, and the Government response, HC 1037; and Voter engagement in the UK: follow up, Sixth Report of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, HC 938]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Davies. Today’s debate on voter engagement is timely, given that today is national voter registration day. That happy coincidence means that we are going to talk about something very relevant, and although few Members are in the Chamber at the moment, I suspect that many people will be watching our proceedings with great interest. I understand that there has been a tremendous amount of traffic regarding the matter on Twitter today, and that we have a lot of interest from people outside Parliament on this important topic. I was hoping that I could bring some detailed information with me about what has happened on Facebook and how many hits there have been on various websites—perhaps those figures will come to me as I speak—but there has certainly been a great deal of activity.
Last night, following the debate we had on the Floor of the House on individual electoral registration, we had an event, sponsored by the House, during which an animation of a ballot box with ballot papers going into it was projected on to Big Ben. Members of Parliament from all political parties joined me on Westminster bridge; they were doing selfies, videos and little bits for their own constituents—press releases and so on. I would like to thank all those involved in the event. It was great fun, and a lot of passers-by got engaged with what we were doing and were very interested.
I particularly want to thank Holly Greenland and her team at Outreach for all their support in getting the event organised, as well as Mr Speaker, who gave us permission to hold the event. It is the sort of thing that has to be treasured and done only occasionally, but when it is, I think it has great impact. Perhaps on similar occasions, the House might consider doing similar things.
There is also an immense amount of interest from a lot of organisations. I read the names of a few of them into the record yesterday, when I had my six minutes to speak in the debate on individual electoral registration. In relation to the subject of yesterday’s debate, I particularly want to mention on record Bite the Ballot, which is a small organisation that punches way above its weight. It has been a great pleasure to work with it; it reaches out to all Members of Parliament from all parties and makes a real difference through its efforts.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his leadership on the important issue of electoral registration. I also pay tribute to the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), but I am disappointed that no Minister has turned up for the debate.
I talked earlier to Bite the Ballot, which hoped to register 200,000 voters today. To put that in perspective, the Electoral Commission’s aim was to get 142,000 people registered in the two months before the general election. In paying tribute to Bite the Ballot, will my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) ensure that the Electoral Commission raises its game as far as electoral registration is concerned?
I am happy to pay tribute to Bite the Ballot. I very much hope that it will reach that target, which, for a voluntary organisation, would be absolutely immense.
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has reservations about the way in which the Electoral Commission has participated in raising the number of people on the electoral register. We feel that it should be much more ambitious in getting people on the register. We say that in our report, and we are not being churlish in doing so; it is an open comment that we have made directly to the Electoral Commission. At the heart of the matter is the fact that 7.5 million people are not registered to vote. That means that in your constituency of Shipley, Mr Davies, there are probably 10,000 electors who are not on the electoral register. I am talking not about the ones who are registered but do not vote—we will come to them in a moment—but about people who are not connected with our democracy at all. That is frightening, and I have to say that given the demography of my constituency, I would be absolutely amazed if the number of people who are not even on the register there was not half as much again. Those people have turned away from politics not because of any recent issues, but because they do not feel that it can do anything for them or that it is relevant to them. It is incumbent on all of us, whatever our political persuasion, to ensure that that disengagement is halted and reversed. Why? Because it threatens our democracy.
Some will say, “The more people you register, the more you help Labour”. But do you know what? If we do not have people participating in our democracy, the institution itself could be threatened. That is my big worry. I shall not repeat my remarks from yesterday, because my speeches from yesterday and today could be read together, but I alluded to the fact that political parties and party leaders have historically been so focused on winning the key 70 to 90 marginal seats that we are not doing what we should to keep our constituencies in good health on a nationwide basis.
It was myself who informed the Electoral Commission that 6 million people were missing off the register after I met with Experian, the credit reference agency. Initially, the Electoral Commission denied that, but it researched the matter and said, “Yes, you are right.” Experian told me that if I had all the missing voters in my constituency registered, my political chances of being re-elected would be diminished. This is not an argument about political benefit; it is an argument about democracy, as my hon. Friend said.
That is a fundamental point. Regardless of anyone’s political persuasion, our democracy lives and dies by the participation of the people and the trust that people have in the system. If we do not maintain and cherish it, it can be diminished, not least because of what I called yesterday the corrosive drip-feed of cynicism from the media in all its aspects—and sometimes, my goodness, we have deserved the cynicism. It is incumbent on all of us to be a bit more optimistic, a bit more dynamic, and a bit more vital in refurbishing our democracy. If the current trend continues, I am afraid that our democracy itself could be threatened.
I will now gladly give way to the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)—she might explain why the Minister is not with us this afternoon.
First, I apologise on behalf of the Minister. For whatever reason, he has it in his diary that this debate starts at 2 o’clock—given that we changed the sitting hours of the House a couple of years ago, I am sure that he will make his own apology to the hon. Gentleman. I also want to make sure that all hon. Members realise that the civil servants will be taking notes, so that the Minister is fully up to speed with all the issues covered in the first part of this debate. He assures me that he is on his way.
May I come back to the point about turnout? The largest turnout in recent years was during the 1992 election. Then the turnout started to decline, but it rose again for the last election. I genuinely believe that the British public realise when there is something at stake, and turnout does increase. Even in my constituency, which some would consider to be safe—I never do, because I do not think any Member of Parliament should be complacent about their constituents’ views—the turnout was over 71%. I am therefore not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman that just because the so-called marginal seats get a lot of political attention, the turnout there will be higher.
I am not trying to diminish the hon. Lady’s helpful and valuable contribution, but part of the reason for turnout figures is that if large numbers of people are not registered, the group from which turnout is drawn is smaller. None of us wants to be in the situation at the ridiculous extreme where we have 100% turnout of one person.
On a point of order, Mr Davies. I listened to what the Conservative Whip said, but, in your time as a Chair, have you ever known a Minister not to turn up for such an important debate? Could an Officer or a Whip get a message to the Minister to tell him to get here right now to listen to the important words of the Chairman of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee? We are discussing our second report in three months on the most important constitutional issue facing us. He has done an excellent job and the Minister’s absence shows disrespect to him, to the Committee, to you and to the House.
Further to that point of order, Mr Davies. Could we not ask the House authorities to send a letter to Ministers’ diary secretaries so that they are fully aware of the times of the House and can ensure that Ministers have the right times in their diaries?
They say that what we say in Parliament does not count for anything, but those two points of order have counted for a great deal, because I see that the Minister has now arrived, and very welcome he is too.
As I was saying, large numbers of people are very much engaged in the process, but we are almost at a crisis point. We are coming to the end of a five-year Parliament, and I think we have 91 days left before the election and 72 days left before the close of registration. Therefore, if we are to encourage the millions of people out there who are not on the register to get on to it, we have 72 days.
It is relatively easy to get on to the register these days, particularly for those who are online. It can be done in a minute, even by those who are not technologically adept. I managed to help my daughter to get on the electoral register on an iPhone, but there are still the normal ways to do it through post and telephone among others. However, the figure of 72 days should be sobering for all of us. Parliament has only 38 days of involvement left. I hope that those are not 38 days to bob, weave and not do anything, but 38 days of great action from the Minister in particular to encourage people to get on the register for the important election that is coming up.
Are we not dealing with symptoms rather than causes? Is not the fundamental issue—I hope my hon. Friend’s Committee will take this on board in time —that we need an effective system of national registration not just for parliamentary elections but for driving licences and national insurance cards? That would not be revolutionary, because for decades people in Holland have had to register with the local municipality within three months of moving. That registration is then notified to all other parts of government. That avoids various problems, and that information becomes the electoral register. If we did that, we would save huge sums of money and get a far more complete register as well.
I talked yesterday about the reasons why people are disengaged with the process, which are deep and fundamental and need to be addressed at a political level. Today we are talking more about the nuts and bolts—the process. My right hon. Friend made a good point that it is not as if we are bereft of ideas. If we look around the globe, we will see that others do this better than us. That is not asking a great deal.
Governments of all parties need to get together to consider this matter It is no good just criticising the Government for inaction in the past five years or even previous Governments in the time before that—I am not making any partisan points. I look in a friendly way to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), when I say that. All parties need to be clear that what they say in their manifestos is what they will do, whatever Government is formed after May. Perhaps the ideas suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) and those in my Select Committee’s reports may help address that.
The point I was making was that we are crisis-managing at the end of a Parliament when a little pre-emptive activity earlier on might well have seen a steady flow of people registering and saved us a considerable amount of grief. Then we could have bitten into the 7.5 million people who are not on the register in a deeper way. Indeed, if we do get 200,000 people registered today as a result of national voter registration day, that will make a contribution, but almost that figure is needed on every single one of the remaining 38 days before Dissolution to make any serious impact on that enormous figure.
My hon. Friend mentions a figure of 7.5 million people who are missing from the register. In fact, it has gone up by 1 million in the past year to 8.5 million. Will he join me in asking the Electoral Commission to raise its stakes, because its 2014-19 plan says that it will be happy if 7.5 million people are still off the register in 2019? It will give itself a big fat tick for that.
I have referred to that already and I am happy to refer my hon. Friend to the report that he helped the Committee to agree unanimously. I think page 61 says exactly that: the Electoral Commission needs much more ambitious targets. It needs assistance from this House, the Government and electoral registration officers throughout the land to make an impact.
Before I come to our report, I will first, and most obviously, thank the Speakers Commission on Digital Democracy, which I will refer to a little in my remarks. It has done excellent work and its report was published last week. Thankfully, most of its recommendations overlap almost inseparably with our conclusions. The Speaker is to be congratulated on taking that initiative. I think that such ideas will become common practice and, in 10 or 20 years’ time, people will say, “Why on earth didn’t they do that when they had the technology early on?” If banking can be done securely online, there is no reason why, with a little bit of effort, we could not do something similar. That is what we propose in our report, which I will come on to later.
I also want to thank the people who were involved in Parliament week. We are in real danger of Parliament doing something significant here in helping to build our democracy, with this place standing up for democracy in a way that does not necessarily mean that it is supporting or opposing the Government of the day. Parliament can have a will of its own. I was involved in Parliament week, which was a wonderful event that involved a massive amount of interaction with young people aged 16 to 24—the very group that we want to get involved. My involvement was over in the atrium of Portcullis House and the interaction was fantastic. We estimate that there were more than 1.3 million contacts and interactions during that week, which is an enormous number of young people for any campaign to reach. Members of Parliament took part in live chats and web chats with, we think, up to 4,000 young people and there were nearly 2,000 recorded tweets—my congratulations to Lee Bridges and his team in Parliament.
The idea that people in Parliament are somehow stuffy and getting in the way is not the case. We have bags of ideas in Parliament, as Members will see in the report. I come back to my point about the House’s involvement in general and the fact that we are leaving it very late. I must say to hon. Members that the Select Committee that they, as parliamentarians, elected, along with its Chair, have taken the issue very seriously: the report on voter engagement that came out a few weeks ago and the follow-up that we are launching today are the last two of seven reports on this issue from my Committee over the past five years. Anyone who says, “We didn’t know,” or, “Oh, what a shame we didn’t have that idea—why didn’t they tell us?” should go back to the first report we did and go through it: they will see some of the ideas that will help to build, strengthen and grow our democracy. We know how to do it—none of it is rocket science—and it is very important that we now start to take action.
Parliament is not an executive body. All it can do is tee up the opportunity. It can outline how things could go, draft Bills and clauses, and write resolutions of the House—and we have done. It is all there. The only thing we cannot do is execute. The Government have to do that. That is why, as we have gone through this five-year Parliament, we have honed our proposals until we now have six key ideas that could happen as soon as a Government—of any political complexion—show the political will. As soon as they want to do this stuff, it can be trialled.
The first proposal is about voting online. I have already referred to the fact that the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy has come out in favour of that idea. We have spent a considerable amount of time examining the possibilities and consulting people. In the time between the publication of the report that came out on 14 November and the publication of the follow-up that has come out today, 16,000 people have interacted with the Select Committee. I think that is a world record—I do not think that a Select Committee has ever engaged in that way before. Not only did we have written evidence and responses as normal, but we had external organisations putting out response forms on the proposals in the report. Those organisations include Bite the Ballot, Unlock Democracy, the Hansard Society, the Electoral Reform Society and many others—I hope I will be forgiven if I do not mention them all today. That is how we managed to get 16,000 interactions with people and distil the proposals in the earlier report into the document we have published today. That is a fantastic feather in the cap of the House and, if I may say so as an aside, an indication that Select Committees might get even more credibility by doing comparable exercises on issues of concern to the general public—I will leave it at that.
Voting online was one issue where there was an enormous response, and 60% of the responses were clear that it was something we should pursue. Instead of saying, “Yes, let’s go snap on this. It’s a wonderful idea —let’s do it tomorrow,” my Select Committee has said, “We believe that voting online is the way of the future, that people should have a serious debate nationally and that after the election in May a proposal should come before the House of Commons to discuss and agree the way forward on online voting.” We are not dictating that we should be doing it in the next few weeks or that it has to be done in a particular way, but exploring that issue. If, as I say, people are prepared to put their bank account online, why on earth can we not commission the right people and get the right reports written so that by 2020 we can have an election in which people can not only register but vote online? I cannot remember the exact number—he will know better than me—but I think in the debate yesterday the Minister quoted a figure of many hundreds of thousands of people taking the opportunity to register online, so why not have many hundreds of thousands of people voting online if they choose to? That deserves serious consideration by whichever party or parties form the next Government. Let us get on with that experiment so that we can put it into action; the Speaker’s Commission agreed with that view.
The next issue that the Select Committee reported on to the House is compulsory voting. That is always a sensitive issue, as there are clearly aspects that will make us all a little bit anxious. Telling people what they should do should not be in the vocabulary of anyone in this place. However, there are, again, examples from other countries where civilisation as we know it does not collapse when there is a desire to ask every citizen to carry out their democratic duty. In my view, it is a part of the social contract—if someone benefits from a society, they should interact with and be a part of it to some degree. The minimal amount of interaction, in my opinion, should be to vote. Most of us do it, but there are large numbers of people who simply cannot be bothered.
From my own point of view, I have to say that I do not ever want to vote online except in particular circumstances—because I am not in the country, or some such other reason—because I actually enjoy the process of going down to the polling station. It is an unusual democratic activity, and, as we have seen in Scotland, can be the culmination of an interesting and exciting experience of democracy. I will always want to go down to the polling station as my first preference, although I might be away or want to use a postal vote, or whatever. But someone might choose to vote online. For me, the question is whether someone has chosen to vote. Let us put the customer first. If young people, in particular, find it much more convenient to vote online and will be happier if they can, we should facilitate that. Then the bogey of compulsion becomes a very thin spectre indeed, because many more people will have the facility to vote and will do so.
My hon. Friend has rehearsed the arguments on the issue so much in the Select Committee that he is even picking out the lines I am about to come to in my speech. He is absolutely right. If someone wants to abstain, they should at least have the courtesy to the rest of society to do so in person, and not do so just because they are lazy. They should go to the polling station. At the moment they can spoil the paper, as some people do even today; but there may be room—this issue should be part of a wider consultation—for an abstention box or a box for “none of the above”. Frankly, if someone has taken themselves out of the house and gone to the polling station, I think that they should make a choice, instead of wanting a counsel of perfection, and thinking, “I don’t like any of them.” Sometimes politics is about the option people dislike the least—the one with whom someone finds a little more to agree on than the others. If I had the idea that every candidate and every party must completely meet my agenda, I would certainly not be in the Labour party. I cannot ask the elector to apply a test that I cannot pass myself. Of course, it is only on rare occasions that I disagree with the Labour party.
In answer to my hon. Friend, of course we should give people that option and allow them to express themselves. It is better to do it that way than to adopt a heavy-handed approach and put people in prison for not voting. We must excite and encourage people, and make voting relevant for all the reasons that I talked about yesterday, which I will not go into again now. We must make voting for a local representative important. In a devolved society, they will have more power to get on and do stuff, so it will be meaningful.
Perhaps we should ultimately have the fall-back position of a fine of some description, but, frankly, we will have lost the battle of encouraging people to vote if fines are our main weapon. They should be used sparingly. If people are fined, the organisation that brings the case—the local authority—should keep the proceeds, and should not be forced through the lengthy, expensive process of sending the fifty quid or whatever it is to central Government.
We should introduce a raft of incentives, which people can claim by right if they have voted. We all know who has voted—it is in the marked register, as plain as a pikestaff—so it is possible to create an incentive-based system. The Select Committee is saying that we do not have the system down pat, so we want people to look at it, consider it and deal with it seriously.
The third of the Select Committee’s recommendations is automatic registration. If we could think about registration with a blank piece of paper, we would think that registering to vote and then voting in a general election, or any kind of election, is a strange process. Members of all political complexions go knocking on doors asking people whether they have registered, sent in their postal vote or whatever. Why on earth can we not have a system of automatic registration? We are halfway there with the cross-referrals to the Department for Work and Pensions and other institutions. We can use that public information to say, “Mr Blogs lives at such-and-such an address”, and put it on the register.
It would be up to the political parties to take it from there—nobody is saying that this is a matter for the Government. I would like that information, because I would like to go knocking on people’s doors so that I can say to them, “You are on the electoral register and you are thinking about voting. What will make you vote? What do you think about politics at the moment? What are the local issues?” We all know the patter, because we all do it. It is about getting people to want to be part of our political society, our democracy and our civic society.
We must use all the means available to us. Technologically, it is a no-brainer to put people’s information on the electoral register when they register for something or interact with a public body. I do not think that that is the most controversial of our proposals. Again, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is wisely saying that the Government should consider and plan for automatic registration. They should consider whether and how it should happen.
Our next proposal—votes for 16 and 17-year-olds—might be a little more controversial. There was a very high turnout of 16 and 17-year-olds in the Scottish referendum. We saw on TV the energy, the vitality and the challenge that young people brought to that marvellous adventure in democracy. Again, there are different views about that issue. For example, my 17-year-old daughter said, “I wasn’t mature enough to vote when I was 16.” However, giving young people the option and engaging them has another advantage. It is not merely that they will be able to vote, but that at school they will be able to register, interact with people, have debates, hold their own elections and enjoy it.
We heard a lot about people going into old people’s homes, universities and other places to block-register people, which is a sensible idea that Governments should think carefully about. Certainly, it would be sensible to enable the officer in charge of an old people’s home to register everybody in the home. We would lose something if we forced individual registration at that point. Let us be sensible about it and allow people to be registered in the way that is best for them. Schools bring a captive audience, and teachers can get everybody to register. They can make it fun or part of an exercise. That is a sensible way to proceed.
Many people—particularly those in the charitable sector—have a lot more ideas. We should listen to them and be open-minded about encouraging young people to vote. We should get people involved early. It is statistically proven that if people are reluctant to vote up to the age of 30, they tend to remain reluctant to vote for the rest of their lives. We should get people interested and excited, but not in a stupid, “We can give you everything you want” sort of way. We must tell people that making decisions can be tough, and that they should choose the party that, by and large, accords with their views, but that they are never going to get perfection. That is part of growing up and being mature.
People should not say, “Unless they give me everything, I am not going to vote for them.” We sometimes get letters saying, “I am never going to vote for you because on this issue, you didn’t do what I wanted.” Rather than that immature response, people should say, “By and large, we think you are the better person.” It would be incredibly valuable to include that sort of personal growth in schools as part of personal, social and health education.
If we do not have the automatic registration that my Committee has proposed, how might we make registration better than it is at the moment? We have suggested that the period for registration should be up to and including election day. I am not proposing that there should be no other means of registration, and that 80,000 people in a constituency should roll up at the town hall on election day. However, many of us who have been to the United States will have seen that it is perfectly manageable to enable people to go to the town hall on election day, walk through the front door and be encouraged to register, then go round the back of the town hall to the polling booth and cast their vote. However, that must be managed to ensure that there are not blockages, and we must ensure that the main routes for registration continue to be those that we have now, with or without automatic registration.
We must tell people who want to vote that they have 72 days left. If they are among the millions of people who, unlike our good selves, could not care less whether there is a general election at some point in the future, they may wake up to the fact that they are not on the register quite late. There must be a means for those individuals to get on to the register if they want to exercise their right to vote. That makes a lot of sense to me.
The campaigns on encouraging people to vote that we have all been involved in over the past few days—some of us have been involved for much longer—may percolate down to people’s consciousness only closer to the election day. There is not a Member in this Chamber who has not had somebody say to them in the last couple of weeks before an election, “I want to vote. Where do I go?” Too often, we have to respond, “I’m sorry. I’ve checked your name and address, and you are not on the register.” We have all had that. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s opinion is that people who express a wish to register should have that wish granted up to and including election day. We have some ideas about the nuts and bolts, which the Government and officials may find helpful. May I take a moment to thank the Minister and his officials for the positive way in which they have considered our report and engaged with us? Indeed, they have accepted several of the principles in the report.
There are many other points that I would like to raise. We have produced seven reports on the matter, two of them in the past couple of months, so there is bound to be a lot that I have missed. If hon. Members want to prompt me, I am sure I can bring those things to mind. The final point that I have on my little list, however, is about weekend voting. That issue got a lot of responses in the consultation, and a lot of people would be interested in the concept. Add to that the ability to vote during the week before the election, perhaps at a given place or a number of given places, and we would start to engage people who, even of a weekend, may be away or unable to vote for some other reason. The bottom line, by which the Committee has been driven, is that we must try to engage people in our democracy and facilitate every possible means of engaging people in their right to vote.
I return to the key statistics. As I alluded to yesterday, half a million people who had postal votes no longer have them, because they have not filled out the forms necessary to re-engage with the process. Some people were all but promised a postal vote for the rest of their lives, but the system has changed and those people, if they have not done the right thing, will not vote. That is a large number of people in each constituency. Even larger is the number of people not registered to vote in each constituency; as I mentioned earlier, if 7.5 million people are not on the register, that is an average of 10,000 people per constituency. [Interruption.] I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), because I can see that he has a point to make.
My hon. Friend has missed his last chance, uncharacteristically.
The creation of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s report on voting and voter engagement in the United Kingdom has been an excellent process. There has been massive public engagement and considerable engagement by Members of the House. There has been unanimity among the members of the Committee, which is, like most Select Committees—you will understand this, Mr Davies—made up of independent-minded individuals from all parties who do not reach a consensus easily. The fact that we have reached unanimity on those matters underlines the fact that our democracy needs to be polished, refurbished and maintained, and that the way in which we vote needs to be facilitated for the convenience of the electorate rather than that of anyone else. I hope that you and colleagues across the House will take the time to read the report, Mr Davies. Above all, I hope that those in government, and those who aspire to government, will act on it.
Before I call Mr Ruane as the only Back Bencher to make a speech, it may help if I indicate to him—I have no idea how long he intends to speak for—that I would like to get to the shadow Minister by 2.35 pm, to give time for the Shadow Minister and the Minister to speak and for Mr Allen to wind up the debate briefly.
Thank you, Mr Davies; that should be ample time. I congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), for his dedication to and focus on the question of electoral registration and voter engagement. As he has said, we have had seven reports in five years, and two in the past three months. The personal attention and focus that the Chair has given to the subject has enabled us to bring forward a raft of eminently sensible suggestions. I congratulate the staff of the Select Committee, who are in the Public Gallery and who played an excellent part in drawing up this report. I congratulate civic society, including organisations such as Bite the Ballot, Unlock Democracy, the Electoral Reform Society and dozens of others that contributed. I congratulate academics from around the country, MPs and other elected politicians, and the professionals involved in electoral registration. I have been hard on some of the poorer-performing electoral registration officers, but there are some excellent ones out there and I pay tribute to them for their work.
The report is chock full of eminently sensible suggestions. I want to give a flavour of how big the problem of under-registration is. There were 3.5 million people unregistered in 2004. That went up on Labour’s watch to 7.5 million in 2010, so we do not have clean hands. My concern is that the coalition Government said in 2010 that they hoped to introduce the biggest constitutional changes that the world had seen since 1832, but even though they knew that those changes were coming, they did absolutely nothing to reduce the number of unregistered individuals before introducing the changes. Labour proposed in 2009 to introduce individual electoral registration after the 2015 election, and to work in the interim five years on reducing the 7.5 million unregistered people, so that when IER was implemented we would have a perfect picture of how it was impacting on democracy. The cross-party consensus that we had in 2009 was shattered, however, and it has not returned. The issue has been polarised.
As I said in my speech yesterday—I will not go over it—I believe that that was deliberate. The Government did not say, “Oops, we have made a mistake.” That was carefully plotted. Some of the measures that the Government tried to introduce would have made being on the register a lifestyle choice instead of a civic duty. That would have resulted in a drop in registration of 35%, according to the Electoral Commission, on top of the 15% drop that had already occurred. The Government wanted to get rid of the annual canvass before the introduction of IER, knowing that the decrease would have been even greater. I believe that that was deliberate, but that was an argument for yesterday. I want to move on to other issues that are actually in our report.
Under-registration is a massive issue; 7.5 million people were not registered in June of last year, and 8.5 million people are not registered today. It is possible that there will be 14 million people not registered in June of this year, and if the Government’s original proposals had gone ahead, we would have been looking at a figure of 23 million. Yesterday, I called it a “constitutional coup”, because that is what we would have had if the Government had gone ahead and introduced those proposals.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby, our Front-Bench spokesman, for highlighting the problem of the 1 million lost voters. He did his research and found out where they were, and many were in his own constituency. They were in university towns. That is just a flavour of what is yet to come, and when the Electoral Commission finally releases its figures next week, we will see exactly where the impact has been.
One of our recommendations, which has caused some excitement in the media, is compulsory voting. Our cross- party Committee has recommended that the Government —whether it is this one, which failed to heed our advice from last November, or a future one—should at least look at the positives and negatives of compulsory voting, because there are positives. In Australia, 100% of people are registered to vote, and 90% participate in elections. It is not just about democracy; it is about the impact that non-voting has on those who are off the register and those who do not vote. Those are the people who have been hit the hardest by austerity cuts.
I cite the specific example of young people. Thirty years ago, the disparity between young people and old people, and between rich people and poor people, in terms of voting and registration was marginal. Now, those differences are major, and the biggest sufferers have been young people. In England, only 25% of young people participated in the last general election. Some 55% registered, 44% of whom went out to vote, so just 25% of all young people participated. Among pensioners, 96% registered and 85% voted. When the cuts came, the Government asked, “Where shall these cuts fall? Well, we’ll take away the education maintenance allowance from 16-year-olds—we’ll get rid of that—and we’ll triple tuition fees.” That is where they came. After the election, 250,000 students and young people stood outside Parliament, but the horse had bolted. They should have been on the register before the election, and they should have voted. I hope they heed their mistakes, and hopefully we will see 200,000 young people register today because they have realised that being off the register and not voting does not help them. It is easy to express: no vote, no voice.
The Committee took evidence on compulsory voting, which was not conclusive. Half the witnesses said that voting should be compulsory, and the other half said that it should not be compulsory. The Committee members themselves were split on the issue, but they unanimously recommended that the Government should at least explore the issues. Compulsion to raise turnout was just one of the Committee’s recommendations.
Another recommendation was greater access to postal voting. In my opinion, the Electoral Commission views postal voting as something corrupt that politicians try to manoeuvre to maximise their political turnout, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are agents for democracy, and I cite the specific example that the highest postal voting turnout in the whole country was in Tatton, the Chancellor’s constituency. Ninety-six per cent. of people with postal votes turned out to vote, which is fantastic. I take my hat off to the Chancellor, his electoral registration officer and his party for registering those people, because 96% of people voting is an aid to democracy. We should consider greater access to postal votes.
The Chair of the Select Committee raised the issue of digital voting, and again I pay tribute to the role of Mr Speaker and the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. In the 21st century, it is eminently sensible to have access to online voting. If people can vote with the push of a finger, they can exercise their electoral and civic duty.
My hon. Friend is talking about all things digital, and it may be because people knew he was going to get to his feet, but there have been more than 3,700 tweets using #nvrd in the past couple of hours, which adds to the 13,000 tweets using the same hashtag over the past 30 days. Of course, people can intervene—just as I am intervening on him—using that hashtag to participate in this debate, as the Committee intended in its broad consultation.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I should have started with this, but today is national voter registration day, an idea pioneered by Bite the Ballot—not by the current Government, not by the previous Government, not by the Electoral Commission but by a group of young people who are concerned about the registration and turnout rates among young people.
I intended to raise this in my speech, but the Minister was not here so, out of courtesy, I did not. He has listened to the Select Committee’s recommendation that additional moneys be deployed on electoral registration, for which I am genuinely grateful. Yesterday, he published a list of bodies that will get that funding, but my hon. Friend reminds me that Bite the Ballot, which has been foremost in this process, does not appear to be on that list. If Bite the Ballot does indeed recruit an additional 200,000 people to the electoral register, it will deserve not only a medal but a fair share of the additional money that the Minister has made available. Will my hon. Friend give way to the Minister so that he can answer that question?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene so that I can set the record straight. We acknowledge and recognise the good work of Bite the Ballot, with which we have opened discussions on the grant funding, as we have with a number of organisations. The Government operate with those organisations in a uniform way, and historically we have funded “Rock Enrol,” which Bite the Ballot has updated and is using in schools, but we have not been able to come to an agreement with Bite the Ballot—that is why Bite the Ballot is not included —although we want to involve it in this process.
I thank the Minister for that response. I will give him some statistics that prove how efficient and economic Bite the Ballot is. The Electoral Commission judges success on registration by the number of registration forms that are downloaded from its website. The commission is given millions of pounds by this Government to increase registration, as it was by the previous Government. For the European parliamentary elections in 2009, there were 137,000 downloads, with each download costing the Government £64. At the 2010 general election, the cost went down to £16 per download, and at the referendum it went up to £41. At the Scottish elections it was £38 and at the English local elections it was £12. Bite the Ballot can get a young person registered for 25p. Is that not a strong reason for his Department to help Bite the Ballot financially? Some might say that, because Bite the Ballot has hopefully registered 200,000 people today, it is embarrassing the Electoral Commission and the Government and must therefore be silenced. During the last election, the Electoral Commission had a target of registering 142,000 people in the two months before election day. That is 142,000 out of 7.5 million people who are not registered, which is 1.8% of the missing millions. Bite the Ballot has done that in one day. Is that not a strong reason for aiding Bite the Ballot financially and making it a partner of the Government and the Electoral Commission?
I think Bite the Ballot is being ignored out of political spite because it is embarrassing the Government and the Electoral Commission with its performance. Bite the Ballot can walk into a sixth-form college and get 100% of pupils to sign up by doing role play, by getting them involved with an emotive issue and by saying at the end, when they are all fired up, “Now we are going to have a vote, but you people aren’t registered to vote. You have no voice.” There is 100% take-up when Bite the Ballot then asks, “Would you like to fill in the registration form?”
I know the hon. Gentleman is a great fan of conspiracy theories, but I make it clear that we all recognise the good work of Bite the Ballot in this area. Also, Facebook is partnering the Electoral Commission to reach pretty much everyone in this country who is online and on Facebook to help them register to vote. Bite the Ballot was not part of the announcement yesterday because it came to the Government—we have opened discussions—with its own strict legal criteria. We need to seek legal advice before we can engage, but it is Bite the Ballot’s legal criteria that are hindering any funding.
In times of austerity and cutbacks, when every penny counts, Bite the Ballot should be out there and recruiting those young people at 25p a shot, instead of at £44 a shot through the Electoral Commission.
Moving on, because I have only five minutes left, the other recommendations mentioned by the Chairman of the Committee include weekend voting, which is eminently sensible, and citizenship education. As I just said, Bite the Ballot does citizenship education in a fantastic way and gets a lot of traction with young people. On registration, it is a sensible suggestion to have automatic registration when a citizen interfaces with a public body, whether it is the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Department for Work and Pensions or housing benefit organisations. Whatever public institutions are out there, if they interact with the public, they should have a form for people to sign. There should also be block registration for pensioners living in homes, and definitely for students living in halls.
The issue is important. As I said, a decision will be taken in June—possibly by the Minister, if he is still in power—whether to drop the additional 5.5 million unregistered people from the register altogether. It will have a massive impact on the boundary freeze date of 1 December 2015, because that 5.5 million will be added to the 7.5 million to make 13 million people missing from the register. The Government-recommended 75,000 people per seat is almost the equivalent of 200 MPs missing from Parliament. That is the nature of the game. We will become a laughing stock. That is why I say it will be a constitutional coup if that decision is made.
I questioned the Minister yesterday on what his guiding principles were. I will ask him again, because when I asked him yesterday, he said:
“Whoever is the Minister, and whoever is in government, the decision they make will be taken on the independent advice of the Electoral Commission. That is pretty clear”.—[Official Report, 4 February 2015; Vol. 592, c. 365.]
Is he saying that if the Electoral Commission says, “Don’t drop these people off the register,” he will say, “We won’t”?
It is not a hypothetical question; it is the Minister’s own words from 24 hours ago. The hon. Gentleman said yesterday—I will read it again if he wants—that if the Electoral Commission says, “Don’t drop these 5.5 million missing people off the register,” he will not do so.
The hon. Gentleman’s question involves many assumptions. Nobody has deliberately dropped anyone off the electoral register. A proper assessment must be made at the time of the state of the register: who is on it and who is not, what more can be done to maximise the register and, in view of that, what decisions need to be taken at the next boundary review. It is not a binary question of whether or not I would drop them off, so the question is inappropriate, which is why I cannot answer.
In conclusion, I turn to the performance of the Electoral Commission—I have mentioned it before—and its total lack of ambition to get unregistered people registered. That is one of its two main duties: securing the vote by removing people who should not be on the register, and ensuring that we have the maximum number of people possible on the register. Its ambition is virtually non-existent.
I have highlighted the Electoral Commission’s targets in each of the past five elections. It has massively overshot each target that it has set. In the 2009 European elections, it wanted 50,000 electors, but overshot and got 137,000. That is fantastic, but a target is supposed to be reviewed regularly so that more difficult targets can be set, for constant improvement. The Electoral Commission did not do so. For the general election, it set itself a target of 142,000 people. It overshot and got 466,000. Is the Electoral Commission not fantastic? No, it is not, because again it did not review the number. In the 2011 referendum, the target was 75,000, just 1% of unregistered people—that shows a lack of ambition—but it got 131,000.
The Electoral Commission has overshot every target that it has set. It needs to give itself more difficult targets so it can test itself. That is the commission’s record over the past five or six years. Its future target—to have 7.5 million people registered in five years’ time, which is exactly the same as today—is woeful. There is a complete lack of ambition, and I am pleased that the Committee raised that as a specific point.
With very little time left, I will say that there are good electoral registration officers out there. We need to work to that best practice. I particularly congratulate Gareth Evans, the electoral registration officer from my constituency, who has done a fantastic job. Of the 12,000 postal voters in my constituency, we have lost only 25. He has had a 93% transfer rate from household to individual registration; he is doing a fantastic job. We need to spread that best practice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) and for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), on the brilliant work that they have done throughout this Parliament, including the report that we are debating. As they both said, it is timely that we should be debating the report on national voter registration day. I echo what they said about Bite the Ballot—a truly fantastic organisation, to which I will return in a moment.
As the Chairman of the Committee knows, my plans today had to change. I was going to be in Liverpool with the brilliant organisation UpRising, which, as part of national voter registration day, is at City of Liverpool further education college as we speak, talking to young people about the importance of registration. It is great to see so many of those activities happening in colleges, schools and youth organisations across the country, thanks to Bite the Ballot and similar organisations.
At the beginning of his remarks, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North had an exchange with the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) about the context. She spoke about turnout and how it had increased since 2001, but the reality is that it has been in long-term decline. In general elections from the second world war until 1997, turnout was always above 70%. We have not come near that since the 1997 election. Not only is turnout often higher in marginal seats, as my hon. Friend reminded us, because elections there are closely fought; turnout tends to be higher in more affluent areas of the country. There is a social class dimension to the debate about voter engagement, as well as the youth dimension that we have rightly focused on yesterday and today.
I will say a little more about individual voter registration, without repeating the debate that we had on the Opposition motion yesterday. From the research that we have undertaken, which has produced the figure of about 1 million in further fall-off from the electoral register, it is clear that the areas of largest fall-off are those that have significant numbers of university students, which is unsurprising for reasons that we debated yesterday; and those that have large numbers of people in the private rented sector, which is again not surprising, as that is an inherently transient population. However, a disturbing feature, which we focused on yesterday, is the decline in the number of attainers—young people who will reach 18 during the period of the current electoral register. That is the challenge that we face.
We support the principle of individual voter registration. It was the previous Labour Government who introduced it in Northern Ireland and started the process of extending it to England, Wales and Scotland. Online registration has been a hugely welcome innovation and, as I am sure the Minister will remind us, many people have taken advantage of it. Those are welcome changes, but the concern that we have expressed—my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd in particular expressed it powerfully yesterday—involves the speed of implementation through this Parliament. I press the Minister to respond on the issue that my hon. Friend raised.
The Minister said rightly both yesterday and today that whoever is in government will decide the timing of full individual voter registration, based on the independent advice of the Electoral Commission. It would be interesting to hear from him whether, if he is still Minister and the advice is clear that we are not ready to move to individual voter registration, he will then simply accept that advice. Our view, based on the evidence that we already have, is that we will definitely not be ready for the implementation of full voter registration in 2015. We may not even be ready in 2016.
Our overriding concern is to have a register that is more complete than the one that we have at the moment, which is why I share the frustration of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd about the Electoral Commission’s modest ambitions for improving the completeness of the electoral register. We need to explore all available options. The Committee report that we are debating talks about automatic registration, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), who was with us earlier, talked about the experience in the Netherlands; we can also consider the experience in Australia.
However, the underlying objective must be to get a register that is far more complete—in comparison with not just where we are now, but where we were before, under the previous system of household registration. That is why we tabled our motion yesterday for legislation to implement the Northern Ireland schools initiative in England, Scotland and Wales, which is supported by the National Association of Head Teachers and the Association of School and College Leaders. It is also why we would like to see block registration allowed again for certain classifications, notably halls of residence and adult care homes.
Let me press the Minister to address two issues when he responds. First, in the debate yesterday—
Can the shadow Minister explain how he expects block registration to work in the context of individual electoral registration? Is he saying that those students would not have to provide their national insurance numbers or personal details to be verified? If they had to provide them, we might as well have individual registration.
We believe that there are very clear categories where an exemption can be made: where there is a residential character to people’s accommodation. Halls of residence are the most obvious example, but adult residential homes are another example.
The Minister’s intervention links directly to the question that I want to ask him, originally put by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) yesterday. Under the Cabinet Office guidance, Sheffield university has been able to achieve remarkably high levels of registration using individual voter registration but without the requirement for the national insurance number. The assurance of the university saying, “These are students who have registered to be students at Sheffield university” has proved sufficient under the new guidance. I welcome that, and I welcome the role that the Cabinet Office has played in that.
Will the Minister say whether he would be willing to write to all the other universities to ask them whether they can adopt the practice that Sheffield university has adopted? Frankly, if the Sheffield experience was typical, we could achieve even higher levels of registration of higher education students in the future than we did under the previous system.
Let me also press the Minister on the issue of Bite the Ballot and its relationship with the Cabinet Office. I welcome the extra money announced yesterday and I thank him for clarifying the position with regard to the Cabinet Office’s discussions with Bite the Ballot. However, I absolutely share the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd about the fantastic and efficient approach of Bite the Ballot. I urge the Minister to reopen discussions with Bite the Ballot to explore whether it could share in some of this resource; I am confident that it would do the job of increasing voter registration well.
Perhaps the Minister will respond to my hon. Friend’s point in his closing remarks. I am conscious that I have only a couple more minutes left, so I will try to be brief in addressing the other issues.
Let me address the issue of votes at 16. I welcome what the Select Committee’s report says on that. Labour’s policy is to move the voting age to 16 as an early legislative priority if we win the election in May. The research from the Electoral Commission on Scotland is absolutely fascinating, showing that 75% of 16 and 17-year-olds voted in the Scottish referendum compared with 54% of those aged between 18 and 24. That is very similar to the experience in Austria, when votes at 16 were introduced there. Austria found that 16 and 17-year-olds turned out in larger numbers than 18, 19 and 20-year-olds in its elections. It is an idea whose time has come.
Finally, I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North said in welcoming the work of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. We want to see a further opening up of the democratic process to ensure that as many people as possible are involved, and we support the piloting of a number of the measures referred to in the Select Committee’s report—same-day registration, for example. I know that there are concerns among electoral registration officers about some of the practical issues, but in principle my hon. Friend and his Committee are right to say that we need to look at same-day registration. In those parts of America where it has been used, there is strong evidence that it has increased turnout.
We also think that Government agencies should have a duty to raise the issue of voter registration whenever people come into contact with them. Some local authorities already do that, but it should be uniform across local government and central Government agencies, such as the Passport Office and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.
We also welcome the Committee’s support for considering the possibilities of extended and weekend voting, or even voting on public holidays. We want to ensure that the experience of voting is as easy as possible, to increase turnout. That is why we want to consider trialling voting in advance of polling day, holding elections at weekends and online voting, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North spoke.
In conclusion, I very much welcome this report and the work of the Committee. It is, of course, a new Committee that was established after the 2010 election. I will finish by once again paying tribute to my hon. Friend for his very effective leadership of this cross-party Committee. I hope that we can take forward the excellent recommendations of its report, ideally on a cross-party basis.
Thank you, Mr Davies, for calling me to speak. First, I offer my apologies for my slightly late arrival. I was at Chilwell barracks in Nottingham to launch the military’s voter registration day. It is very interesting that, although our armed forces fight all over the world for freedom and democracy, in the Army specifically at least a third of people are not registered to vote. I was there today to let people know about online registration and how important it is for our people in the Army to register to vote. That was why I was slightly delayed; my apologies.
That brings me on to a much wider issue. When we consider under-registration, we see that it affects young people but it also affects some ethnic minority groups and some people with disabilities. There are a whole range of people who are under-registered and not engaging with the electoral process in the way that they should, so Government policy should seek to get all of those people to engage with the political process.
I would like to draw a distinction between the process that Government can do something about and enthusing people to vote. I believe that getting people to the polling station and excited enough to vote, is the job of us politicians; making sure that the system works is the job of Government. In that context, obviously the first and most crucial step to engage people in the political process is the registration system. It is great that we have national voter registration day today, and I echo the comments made earlier to congratulate Bite the Ballot on its efforts in increasing voter registration. However, as I said in an intervention, organisations such as Facebook, which is in partnership with the Electoral Commission, can really help to make an impact across the entire country, which is what we want to do on a day such as this.
I also thank the Select Committee for its report. It has done a lot of work in this area and it contributes a lot of good ideas, some of which I am sure will find their way into the manifestos of some of the parties, come the election in just over 90 days’ time.
First, I will talk about what the Government are doing and, secondly, I will deal with some of the recommendations in the Select Committee’s report. Without rehashing the arguments from yesterday, the issue of under-registration goes back to the previous Government. Individual electoral registration, which I am glad the shadow Minister said the Opposition are not against, was introduced by Labour in government and has been taken forward by this Government.
What I counsel against is taking a snapshot within any one month of what is a two-year process, and then concluding that somehow IER, as a method of getting people to register to vote, is not working. I speak a lot to electoral registration officers on the ground. Furthermore, I was at the Association of Electoral Administrators’ conference on Monday—I spoke to a lot of people and asked them, “What do you need that you’re not getting from Government?” They all said that they were getting whatever they needed from Government in terms of resource and that they did not see the problems that some politicians stand here and say are happening with IER and the transition to it. In other words, the people on the ground accept that we are going through a transition process and to take a snapshot in any given month, and then generalise about the process, is the wrong approach.
The Minister said that we are at the beginning of a two-year process for the introduction of IER. Does he not think it would have been better to have started that two-year process after the general election, and after the freeze date for the boundary review, as was originally planned? Can he tell us one more time why IER was brought forward by one year, when all this impact on the general election and the Boundary Commission could have been avoided? Why did he bring it forward by one year?
May I reject the hon. Gentleman’s premise that somehow the transition to IER will result in a negative impact on the general election? Nine out of 10 electors have been transferred to the new system. More people than we expected are registering online to vote, including some 900,000 18 to 25-year-olds. May I correct a second thing as well—the idea that somehow we can sort out the register, but not have online registration? Online registration is very much part of dealing with the long-standing deterioration in the register that happened under the previous Government.
The Minister rightly reminded us that the position now is a snapshot, but our understanding is that that snapshot shows 1 million fewer than the snapshot a year ago. Is he confident that we will see 1 million people added to the register between now and 20 April so that overall there is no fall in numbers? Is that what he is telling the House?
The Electoral Commission has a target of 1 million people being registered to vote in the final weeks running up to 26 April. It met its target last year, so I expect it to meet the target this year as well.
I have only 10 minutes left, so I will race through the rest of my speech. Yesterday we announced a further £10 million towards continuing to maximise the register. We have to recognise that the very act of getting people to register to vote is a bottom-up process. Politicians in Westminster, dressed in our suits and ties, do not get people to register to vote. What is needed is electoral registration officers writing to people, knocking on doors and speaking to people to get them to register. That is why the bulk of the funding is going to local authorities and why it has been weighted to local authorities where there are higher rates of registration.
I am sorry; I can take no further interventions.
We also recognise that a number of national organisations do great work in getting people to register to vote. Bite the Ballot has been mentioned, but the British Youth Council also does good work, as do UK Youth, Mencap, Operation Black Vote, Homeless Link, Citizens UK and Citizens Advice.
The work of those organisations and of the local authorities will help us to reach the very groups that the Opposition have identified as being at risk of falling off the register. If some grand conspiracy were going on, we would not be investing money with those groups and with the National Union of Students to get people on the register. There is nothing cynical going on and no conspiracy. Whenever we introduced IER, at some point we would need a cut-off date and an effort to maximise the register. We cannot get away from that fact.
Of the points made in the report, the first I will deal with is the one about electronic voting, which comes up over and over again. I am sure that some time in my lifetime we will have electronic voting, but it took us long enough to deal with registration. We have to recognise some of the practical difficulties, however. Furthermore, the introduction of increasing process into the electoral system, whether electronic and weekend voting or same-day registration, does not address why people are disillusioned with politics.
Scotland had a huge turnout in the referendum without electronic voting. The reason was that people were motivated, excited and engaged with the issues. Introducing more electoral innovation might make voters’ lives easier, but it is not a substitute for us politicians doing our work to connect properly with people, to engage with them and, after all, to get them to turn out to vote for us.
Countries where electronic voting has been introduced—France has it for overseas voting, for example—do not necessarily achieve an increase in turnout, but, rather, an increase in turnout among certain groups of people. Overall, electronic voting does not drive an increase in turnout. That is not to say that it is not a good thing to explore—it is—but, practically speaking, in the UK we would need a system of authentication. When people turned up to vote, we would have to be able to identify them and instantly verify that so that they could vote. We do not have identity cards in this country. Some countries that have introduced electronic voting have ID cards, which is why they have been able to implement it. There are big practical challenges.
Votes at 16 also came up over and over again. There is significant scope for debate about that, especially given what happened in Scotland. Among the reasons why there is scope for debate is that 16-year-olds can join the armed forces. However, they cannot fight without parental support, and nor can they get married—there is a lot that they cannot do. If we were to give 16-year-olds the right to vote, we would have to ensure that, for example, they did not have to ask their parents which way to vote; only with parental permission can a 16-year-old serve in the forces.
I made this point in the debate yesterday, but it is striking that the very party that wants to give 16-year-olds the vote is the one that does not trust them to navigate the vagaries of individual electoral registration and says that somehow they would not have their national insurance numbers or—[Interruption.] It is a serious point. If the Labour party believes that 16-year-olds are old enough to vote, it has to believe that they are old enough to register themselves to vote in the first place.
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
That brings me on to some of the registration techniques suggested in the report, such as block registration. The Government’s guidance to universities strikes the right balance between giving EROs the information that they need—that is, enrolment data, so that they can go after students, because they know who they are and can chase them, write to them, knock on doors and get them on to the register—and preserving the fundamental tenet of individual electoral registration, which is that individuals have to register themselves.
If we cross the line where people end up on the register, but they have not been engaged in the process—that is, they do not even know that they are on the register, because the warden of the college put them on it—we breach the principle of individual registration. If we breach it for first-year students, what about ethnic minorities, or—
Thank you for prompting me to sum up, Mr Walker.
What about ethnic minorities—those who do not speak English or those who have not worked and so do not have a national insurance number? We could make so many exceptions. That is why, whatever we do, we should not breach the fundamental principle.
The work of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is excellent and welcome. I also welcome the fact that the Committee continues to look forward to ways in which we can renew our democracy.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr Walker.
I will not detain the House for too long, and nor will I make any partisan points, because it is a matter of shame for everyone in the Chamber and in the House that we have 7.5 million people not on the electoral register. That is an average of about 10,000 people per constituency, and some of us will have more than the average.
In addition, at the previous election, 16 million were on the register but chose not to vote. I agree with both the Minister and his shadow, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). We are talking not about the techniques of electoralism, but about re-engaging people who feel disenchanted with and disengaged from our political process. If people feel disengaged from democracy, ultimately they feel forced to engage with other types of political systems. That is the threat that we all need to confront today.
Unfortunately, we have not taken our duty seriously enough—all parties, all Governments—but we now have a chance to do something about it. After seven reports over five years from my Select Committee, it is now possible to see a consensual way forward on how we can improve the way in which we vote, although it will not answer the engagement question, which is a broader one; I touched on that in my remarks on the Floor of the House in yesterday’s debate.
We now have a number of ways forward. I hate to sound apocalyptic, but the next general election is an important one, because a lot of the pieces will be thrown up into the air and we will no longer have a lot of the traditional loyalties and means of expressing support. Possibly, it will be the last election in which we can make a serious effort to re-engage what is now more than a third of the population who do not play a part in our democracy. That is an onerous responsibility for those in government, for those who aspire to it and for the rest of us as elected representatives. I hope that we take that responsibility seriously.
Employment and Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments
[Relevant documents: Employment and Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments, First Report from the Work and Pensions Committee, HC 302, and the Government response, Cm 8967.]
I am delighted to be given the opportunity to discuss one of the more recent reports of the Work and Pensions Committee, on the operation of employment and support allowance and the work capability assessment.
Many people going through the ESA claims process are unhappy with the way they are treated and the decisions made about their fitness for work. Atos, the current provider of the WCA, became a lightning rod for all the negativity about the ESA process and is exiting its contract at the end of the month. Our report concluded that the flaws in the ESA system are so grave that simply rebranding the assessment used to determine eligibility for ESA—the WCA—by appointing a new contractor would not solve the problems we identified.
We called on the Government to undertake a fundamental redesign of the whole ESA process from end to end to ensure that the benefit’s main purpose—helping claimants with health conditions and disabilities to move into employment where that is possible for them—is achieved. We acknowledged that a redesign could not happen overnight, but the current system needs to be improved now, because it is causing claimants considerable distress and anxiety.
During our inquiry, the Department for Work and Pensions announced that the contract with Atos to carry out the WCA would end and that a new private contractor would be found. We believed that that provided an ideal opportunity to make shorter-term improvements to the process. We recommended a number of changes to help claimants receive an improved service and to make the decision-making process and the outcomes for claimants more accurate and appropriate.
The DWP announced that the new private contractor—Maximus—will take over the WCA contract from 1 March. We hope that the DWP and Maximus will use this new start to address the problems our report identified. However, it is important to remember that the DWP makes the decision about a claimant’s eligibility for ESA—it is not Atos, and nor will it be Maximus. The face-to-face assessment is only one part of the process. On its own, putting a new private provider in place will not address the problems with ESA and the WCA.
In response to our report, the Government said they were already doing some of the things we said were necessary. They rejected some recommendations altogether, including our call for a fundamental redesign. However, since our report was published, Dr Litchfield has published his independent review of year 5 of the WCA, and he clearly shares many of our concerns, as Professor Harrington did in the first three reviews.
One key issue our report identified is that ESA is not achieving its purpose of helping people who could work in the short-to-medium term to move back into employment. Our recommendations for the ESA redesign therefore focused on ensuring that the process properly identifies claimants’ health barriers to employment and the particular support they need so that the conditionality they are subject to, and the employment support they receive, can be tailored more closely to their circumstances.
Linked to that is our finding that the outcomes of the ESA claims process are too simplistic. Claimants can be found fit for work, in which case they are not eligible to claim ESA. They might be able to claim jobseeker’s allowance, but many are reluctant to do that, because they know they will not be able to meet the job search commitments required as a result of being on JSA. The DWP has repeatedly said that jobcentre staff can tailor conditionality to the needs of individuals with a health condition or disability, but the extent to which that happens in practice is very patchy.
Claimants found to have such limited functionality that they cannot undertake work-related activity are placed in the support group, where they are subject to no work-related conditionality. The numbers placed in the support group have increased steadily since ESA was introduced, because the Department has now realised that, surprisingly enough, many people who were claiming incapacity benefit had serious long-term conditions that meant they were unable to look for work—that is why they were on incapacity benefit in the first place. Such people should be not only not expected, but not mandated, to look for work.
We therefore have two extremes: people are either fit for work or not fit for any work. In the middle, however, there is a huge group that has become known as the work-related activity group, and everyone else is placed in it. These people are not yet fit for work, and they may even have a deteriorating condition, but they are required none the less to undertake work-related activity. Our report concluded that the WRAG covers too wide a spectrum of claimants with very different prognoses. Their employment support needs are not being properly assessed in the WCA or by the employment support providers they are referred to, so they are not getting the help they need to return to work. Proper account needs to be taken of where a claimant in the WRAG is on the spectrum of readiness for work, given the wide range of conditions and disabilities this group of claimants encompasses and the different impacts the same condition or disability can have on an individual claimant’s functional capacity.
To improve the process of assessing health-related barriers to employment, we recommended that a separate assessment of those barriers be reintroduced. The original design of ESA included a work-focused health-related assessment, which the Government suspended in 2010, and such an assessment, or something similar, should be introduced.
We were also concerned about the descriptors used in the WCA process, because they are a very blunt instrument for assessing the functional impact a particular condition or disability has on an individual. That is particularly true of mental health problems, cognitive problems and fluctuating conditions. The descriptors, including their effectiveness and the way they are applied, should be re-evaluated as part of the redesign.
The Government turned down our request for a major redesign, but there are things we thought they could do in the short term, so let me list some of the changes we would like to see. The DWP acknowledged that the contract with Maximus will cost more money, but that is justified if the service to claimants is better. To ensure that it is, the DWP needs rigorously to monitor Maximus’s service. If the service to claimants falls short, the DWP must take immediate action, including imposing contractual penalties on Maximus. Such careful monitoring by the DWP of service standards did not always happen with the Atos contract.
We recommended that, where possible, paper-based assessments are used to place people in the support group, where a person’s health condition or disability clearly has a severe impact on their capability to work, and that people are not required to go through a WCA. Unnecessary and too frequent reassessments should also be avoided, especially for people with deteriorating conditions and for claimants who have just been successful in an appeal. That will be quite important in the new contract, because Atos has effectively given up on doing those reassessments as it exits the contract, and Maximus will have to address the issue. There is still a problem with too frequent and inappropriate reassessments for people with deteriorating conditions.
The DWP should improve the way it communicates with claimants. The letters sent to claimants are too technical and complex. They need to be in plain English and to avoid using jargon. We wanted to ban the terms “limited capability for work” and “limited capability for work-related activity”. Mr Walker, if you can tell which one puts somebody in the support group, the WRAG or the JSA fit-for-work group, you probably understand these letters better than most claimants, and certainly better than some members of the Committee. I think that having “limited capability for work” means someone is in the WRAG, and that “limited capability for work-related activity”, means that they are in the support group; but who knows? It is part of the confusion. We want the DWP to make changes to the language in the letters to claimants.
In response to our report, the Government said that they are reviewing all ESA communications and that they plan to introduce a new version of the ESA50 form that claimants complete to apply for the benefit. It would be helpful if the Minister would tell us whether the new form is now being used and what progress has been made in reviewing the ESA letters and other communications.
The aim of some of our recommendations was that the DWP should take greater responsibility for the end-to-end ESA claims process. Atos became the target for claimants’ anger at the way the process was carried out, as if somehow the Department for Work and Pensions was not involved. We believe that the DWP rather than Maximus should decide whether claimants need a face-to-face assessment. Again, the Government did not seem to be persuaded by our arguments for that change, and it would be helpful if the Minister would explain why.
We also recommended that the DWP should proactively seek “supporting evidence” for the impact of a claimant’s condition or disability on their functional capacity, rather than, as is the current arrangement, leaving it primarily to claimants, who often have to pay. We also believe that the DWP should stop relying so heavily on GPs for supporting evidence, because they are often not best placed to provide the most useful information. Other professionals, including social workers and occupational therapists, often have a better idea of the impact that a condition has on a person, as opposed to knowing about the medical condition.
Paul Gray made similar recommendations about seeking supporting evidence from professionals other than GPs in his review of the personal independence payment assessment. He also made the very sensible point that the DWP should take steps to share information from the different assessments that many disabled and sick people go through in rapid succession—particularly in the WCA and PIP processes, but also for social care assessments—rather than persisting with the current duplication and repetition. That happens again and again, and claimants feel angry when they have already given information once or twice. Sharing information is important. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us whether he envisages the DWP acting on Paul Gray’s proposal.
Our report also dealt with the issue of putting claimants in the WRAG when their prognosis is that they are unlikely to experience a change in their functional abilities in the longer term. Perhaps the problem is that the WRAG encompasses such a wide range of conditions. Some people’s prognosis is that they will get better, while others’ is that they will get worse. Yet they tend at the moment to be treated as a homogeneous group. The WRAG serves as a default group, and because there is no work-focused health-related assessment those in it are not properly assessed to see what would help them back to work.
We were particularly concerned about people with progressive conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. If they are not expected to be able to work within a reasonable time scale, because their condition is getting worse, they should be placed in the support group, so that work-related conditions that they cannot fulfil will not be imposed on them. The Minister said in oral evidence to the Committee last week that he would respond to that point more fully today, and I hope he is now in a position to do that.
We made recommendations about the mandatory reconsideration and appeals processes, but time is moving on and perhaps other hon. Members will raise those important matters.
Providing financial support to people who are too ill or disabled to work is a fundamental part of the benefits system. Of course it is right that people should be encouraged and supported to return to work when their condition allows them to, but the help that they need through that process must be properly assessed and tailored to their personal circumstances. The Committee does not believe, on the basis of the evidence from our inquiry, that the current ESA process has been shown to be effective in fulfilling those functions. We stand by our call for a fundamental redesign of the ESA and the WCA. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s views on why the Government do not agree with us.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.
I want first to give the Government credit for making great steps forward with the challenges and issues we are discussing, and in supporting individuals with getting into work. That is important, and it makes people feel worth while and fulfilled. Clearly, however, no system is perfect, and the job of a Select Committee is to consider not what works but what does not, and to get it put right. That inevitably sets the focus.
There has clearly been a fair amount of change in the Government’s approach to the work capability assessment. The Work and Pensions Committee was right to point out that when there is a significant amount of change, it must be managed. I am sure that I share with other hon. Members the experience of dealing with constituents who have found that in practice some of the changes have not worked as well as they might.
One of the main changes was the move from asking someone what illness they had to asking them what, functionally, they could do. That was significant, and moving to the new assessment would inevitably be a challenge. Clearly, however, it was a move in the right direction. Just having a particular condition does not mean ex post facto and for ever being unable to work. I understand why the Government moved in that direction, and I think they were right.
As always, the challenge is in the implementation. That implementation challenge is probably in two parts. One is the fact that the process is not quite right, which was largely what the Work and Pensions Committee, of which I am a member, discussed. The other is the people involved in the system and the way they apply it. That is partly to do with culture change and partly to do with training; it is about getting used to a new way of doing things. There were always going to be challenges, but as the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), who is a wonderful Chair of the Select Committee, made clear, it is right that people with disabilities and health problems should receive all the help they need to get into the world of work.
Dr Litchfield made an interesting comment in his last report—that we need a system that is not only fair but seen to be fair, which is quite a challenge. It will be even more of a challenge for the Government given the unhappy experiences of many of our constituents with Atos. One of the fundamental challenges, to which the hon. Lady referred, is the new functional test. As has been said, it raises issues for two groups: people with mental health problems and people with fluctuating conditions.
The report raised another issue, which the hon. Lady also mentioned—the challenge of operational issues and the proper management of appointments, to prevent people from being notified of them after the time they are set for and then being criticised as a no-show, or not being told about cancellations in time. Some of my constituents who have a disability and use a wheelchair have been invited to appointments on the first floor of a place with no lift. There are challenges in improving the process, and, having seen some of what went wrong, we live in hope that the new provider will have more ability to put things right. There are some things that should be fairly straightforward.
The hon. Lady made interesting comments about categorisation, and I agree with many of them. The figures are interesting—they show that between 2009 and 2013, the number of people found fit for work fell. What does that tell us? In percentage terms, the fit-for-work group fell in numbers, the WRAG fell and the support group went up. Surely that means that more people are in the support group and are being helped, or that more people have been identified as requiring help and are being supported, which seems to me to be a good thing. If the fit-for-work group is falling in numbers, that implies that people who were wrongly being asked to do the impossible are no longer being asked to do the impossible. However, I share Chair of the Select Committee’s concerns about the WRAG. It is unfortunate that we pronounce the acronym like a piece of cloth; it is a mixed bag, and I entirely support the Committee’s recommendation that we look at unpicking it. Putting individuals with absolutely no prospect of improving into that group does not seem right.
As our Chair identified, the Work and Pensions Committee put forward a key recommendation of a fundamental redesign. The Government’s response was that they wanted to focus on the introduction of the new provider rather than get involved in a complete reconfiguration at this point. Given the timeline and the fact that Atos decided to stand aside before the end of its contract, I have some sympathy with that approach. A new provider cannot come in without being properly brought up to speed. If we start trying to change the process, we will have to go through all sorts of reports, protocols and so on, whereas if we work with a new provider and discuss what went wrong, we can effect change without having to change some of the rules fundamentally. It seems to me that that is the right thing to do.
Part of the challenge of a fundamental redesign, which I support in the longer term, is that when individuals are in the system, we are trying to assess two things: their health inabilities and constraints, and how to help them into work. Although the Government were right to try to combine all the many systems that we had in the past into one, there is clearly a challenge with regard to incapacity. I am not clear on whether the best way forward is, as the Select Committee recommended, to separate out the two and have a new system, front-ended to look specifically at the health incapacities, or whether it is to improve training to try to make the two pieces work better together. I am hopeful, however, that under the new contract we might consider changes that will enable us to answer that question.
As the report sets out, in addition to the proposal of a fundamental redesign, the Select Committee raised a number of issues relating to particular aspects of the scheme. The first was the standard of service on bookings, the operation of the system and the challenge of having enough people who understand mental health and have mental health experience. That is all crucial. The Government recognised those issues and have undertaken to increase the number of health care professionals who specialise in mental health. They recognise that it is crucial that those making decisions understand fluctuating conditions, and they will look at ensuring that the new provider’s training and induction takes that on board. The Government also took on board the need to be more aware of and better understand disability issues, so I think that things are going to get better.
The second short-term change that the Work and Pensions Committee recommended was on communication. The Chair of the Committee made the point very well, and the detail in the report was spot on. The problem was not only that the content of the language used on the telephone, and of the forms and letters, was unclear and misleading—the information that was really required was not there—it was also about the tone. The tone of a letter is important and makes a difference to how the information is taken in. To their credit, the Government have said that they are reviewing that.
The Select Committee recommended a number of short- term changes. Our Chair referred to some of them, and I will certainly not take Members on the same magical mystery tour again, because that would not be a helpful use of our time. Nevertheless, one short-term challenge does require attention: a more sensitive application of the descriptors “reliably”, “repeatedly” and “safely”. Those are quite difficult words. For me, the challenge is how we test them, because we clearly cannot just use a snapshot. We cannot just look at a GP’s letter; we need to find a way to unpick whether the functionality or performance that is required can be performed reliably, repeatedly and safely.
I also want to discuss the contribution of evidence to assessment decisions. The Chair of the Select Committee referred to the extent to which GPs are helpfully involved in the process and the evidence that they should provide. I am concerned that if information needs to be provided, it must be clear to individuals whether they need to take the initiative to get a letter from the GP or whether the decision makers will get it. There also seems to be a postcode lottery regarding the costs of GP reports. In some areas they are free, but in others they are not. That does not seem right or fair.
There is also the issue of trying to help doctors understand how they must write those letters, because they are not about somebody’s medical condition. Unless they can write a letter that links the medical condition to its effect on functionality, it is not particularly helpful. There will be those who say that that is not really a GP’s job, but I think that a GP is concerned to ensure that the best outcomes are available to his or her patients. That is an important point.
Government action is still needed, and in conclusion I want to indentify five points that require a specific review. First, one of the most important findings of the report was that the work-related activity group needs to be looked at carefully, because at the moment it seems to be a mixture of too many people with too many challenges. Secondly, we must ensure that the Government monitor the new provider very carefully. How does the Minister propose to do that, and what links has he made between his plans and the concerns raised by the Work and Pensions Committee?
Thirdly, it is important to consider how we deal with the particular needs of those with mental health problems and learning disabilities. I have not dwelt on this point so far, because the Chair of the Select Committee discussed it, but my fourth priority is mandatory reconsideration. It is quite challenging when people do not know when a final decision is going to be made, and that creates all sorts of distress. The Government’s response was to say, “No, we don’t need to do that, but we can give you some statistics,” which was not as helpful an answer as it might have been.
Finally, we must look at how we continue to review the interaction between the health challenge and the employment support challenge so that, ultimately, we can take a view on whether we need to re-engineer the system. We must separate out the two decisions. First, what is the health challenge and how do we meet it? Secondly, how do we deal with the specific employment support that is required?
Those are my thoughts. The Select Committee has done a good job of unpicking the issues that must be addressed. In the written response to the report, the Minister said that on a number of matters he would give us his reply in due course, potentially in a Westminster Hall debate, so we are looking forward to seeing whether we get replies to some of the questions that we asked.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank the redoubtable Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), for her contribution in kicking off the debate. I also thank my colleague on the Committee, the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), for the points that she made.
When I first joined the Work and Pensions Committee, I think everyone on it and probably everyone in the House was most engaged by what seemed at the time to be the storming of the last barricade. It was anathema to me and, I am sure, to all members of the Committee that those with disabilities, be they mental or physical, were seen as being incapable of work. That was the golden nugget that we wanted to see being spread out into gold dust through the acknowledgement that those suffering from disabilities are capable, with the right kind of support and training, of making the contribution that they undoubtedly wish to make to our country and to our economy.
One of the most depressing things for me in the time I have served on the Committee has been seeing that optimism change. In my constituency, I see those we are most concerned about—those labelled with disabilities, be they mental or physical—having a sense of fear about being assessed and examined. In the period since I joined the Committee, terrible mistakes have been made on implementing certain definitions of people being fit for work, and a sense of fear has grown in that community. It has been presented to me more than once that when people go through the work capability assessment, or whatever it will be called in the future, they find themselves sitting opposite someone who fundamentally believes that a claimant has no desire to work and is hoping to pull the wool over the assessor’s eyes so that they can go on claiming benefits, but nothing could be further from the truth.
I have two fundamental points to make. The first is about the assessment process. There is more than sufficient evidence to show that however sweet the words may be from those who provide the services, or from Ministers of the Crown who assert their commitment to ensuring that people with disabilities can take their proper contributory place within our society, the process simply is not working. There is a marked failure by the assessors and decision makers to pass on vital information. There is a marked lack of understanding in the initial assessment —by those who we were told would be health professionals in the first instance—of the most basic aspects of the illnesses and misfortunes that the individual claimant may be undergoing. One of the most shocking examples I heard was of someone who was being assessed and who said that they suffered from bipolar disorder. The supposed GP undertaking the assessment had to look up on his computer what “bipolar” meant. That is not an isolated example of the great gap between what is being professed by the assessment provider and what is actually happening on the ground.
It is not simply a case of making the assessment better. We all know how the assessment could be made better. The hon. Member for Newton Abbot referred to the methods of informing a claimant. We all have constituents who suffer from visual impairment and all their communications come by letter. We all have constituents who are hard of hearing and their contact point is almost invariably the telephone. We have seen direct evidence of letters being sent to the wrong address when people are hoping for a face-to-face interview. The system in its many and varied forms requires a fundamental assessment that meets the needs of the claimant, not those of the assessor.
There is a glaring lack of evidence being taken on board in the assessment. The Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee referred to evidence from Parkinson’s UK. Every group that works tirelessly on behalf of individual claimants who suffer from particular illnesses has said that the assessors never really assess the variations and fluctuating nature of each illness. The list of such variations could be endless, but there is no reason for the Minister not to have it at his fingertips, because he has been getting it from the Select Committee, from Members of Parliament and from the campaigning groups working on behalf of some of the most vulnerable in our society.
The assessment programme needs a fundamental reassessment, and here we come to one of those areas that reflect across the whole of British society. What is glowingly agreed and deemed to be fundamental in the boardroom is never passed down in sufficient detail to those at the sharp end. All members of the Work and Pensions Committee have read what the new contracted provider says will be its approach to the new contract. I tend to disagree with my colleague, the hon. Member for Newton Abbot, who referred to the pause before making changes. She felt that there needed to be time for the new contract to bed in, but the Government have told us that the provider got the contract because of its wide experience in this area. The provider has made claims, as did the previous contracted provider, about the quality of the people it will hire and the sensitivity and flexibility that those assessors will bring to bear in the job they will be invested in, but we know from experience that that has never, ever worked. It is about not just fine words and the quality of the people employed, but their training, so that when they meet the claimant, they are truly sensitive and flexible and, most importantly, have the information they need.
The constant passing backwards and forwards of information that has been given by an individual claimant on more than one occasion is utterly absurd. I cannot believe that that is not costing the taxpayer money that would be infinitely better spent on speeding up the whole process, so that people do not have to wait, in many instances in genuine fear of what might come through the letter box, if they can read, or over the telephone, if their hearing is not impaired. That is even if they are still living at the address noted as the official means of communicating with them. In my constituency, for instance, those who are vulnerable may well have had to move from their previous address because, for example, they have been unable to pay the rent. Furnishing the new address to the relevant jobcentre is the last thing on their minds when they are trying to find somewhere permanent to live.
That, in essence, is my call on the Government. We must begin to eradicate the problem whereby some of the most vulnerable people, whom we all wish to help and see play their proper part in society, have a genuine fear—a fear that can have an impact on their illness and in many instances make it worse—that the assessment process is in effect a punishment for having a disability, which is invariably through no fault of their own. We need to guarantee that the process will become as sensitive, flexible and immediate as we have been promised. If there is a genuine wish on the part of everyone to assist people to take their proper place in our society or, in the kindest possible way, to say, “Unfortunately, we acknowledge that you will never be able to function in that way again”, that would be a major contribution. I do not believe that the Minister is opposed to bringing about that solution, and I trust that everyone else in his Department shares that aim.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I am grateful to all the members of the Work and Pensions Committee, who have done a great deal of work over the past months and years on this issue. I want to look first at a couple of slightly more detailed aspects of this matter that were not fully covered—no one can cover all of it—in the introductory remarks.
The first is mandatory reconsideration, whereby someone who has had a decision that they wish to dispute goes through a stage in which the decision will be reconsidered. People now have to go through that step before they can go to a formal appeal. The Committee recommended that claimants who had been deemed fit for work following the process, and who have requested a reconsideration, should continue to be paid ESA at the assessment rate until they receive the reconsideration decision.
That issue has been raised repeatedly, not just in the Committee’s report, but on a number of other occasions, but it has been repeatedly rejected by the Minister and his predecessors on the ground that it would be wrong to pay ESA when the claimant has been found fit for work. Ministers say that there is no legal basis for making such payments. However, if the claimant is still found fit for work after reconsideration and subsequently appeals, ESA is reinstated at that point while awaiting appeal, which could be some months, not just weeks, and it can be backdated.
In December 2014, the DWP published statistics on mandatory reconsideration, stating that of the 177,000 ESA mandatory reconsideration decisions made between October 2013 and October 2014, 75% were cleared within 30 days, which still leaves a quarter—some 44,000 individuals—taking more than 30 days. I would argue that that increases the need for allowing ESA to run on, rather than decreases it. If reconsideration for 75% of the people involved is over inside a month, why go through a process of applying for a different benefit, with a different conditionality, and then have to go back to the previous benefit, for such a short period of time? The payment made is exactly the same—the ESA assessment rate is the same as JSA, so there is no difference in the amount of money people would be given.
However, there is a cost of administering a new application, and then presumably moving it back again. Citizens Advice has calculated that the cost of doing that is £160 per claimant and that if all claimants took up a JSA claim at that point, it could cost around £30 million in administration costs in a year. That just seems to be a pointless activity, which leaves some people who do not make the claim for JSA without income at all during that period. If they apply for JSA, they may find themselves subject to conditionality, stress and upset, all for a cost—not a saving—to the DWP; that does seem strange indeed. If there is a legal reason why this cannot be done, it is not beyond the bounds of imagination for Government lawyers to resolve the matter fairly quickly, presumably through regulation.
Another issue that remains missing from the published statistics on reconsideration is outcomes. What has been the outcome of the mandatory reconsideration process? How many of the requests for reconsideration result in a decision being overturned? How many mandatory reconsideration requests that are not overturned go on to an appeal being launched? At the moment, we still do not know.
I raised that issue with the previous Minister and the Office for National Statistics last year. Before reconsideration became mandatory, there were far fewer reconsiderations, but one way of judging the performance of the assessors and the decision makers, and the efficacy of the whole process of the WCA, is in part—and I accept that this is only in part—by the proportion of successful appeals. If any organisation receives a large number of appeals that are then successful, it will want to look at its processes and say, “Why has that happened? Perhaps we are doing something wrong and could do it better, so people would not have to go through that.” It is therefore important to know what is happening in the process.
At the moment, in the published statistics, when a decision is overturned at the reconsideration stage, it is counted in with the original decisions. Given the large number of mandatory reconsiderations, I would argue that it is very important to separate out the outcomes at each stage; there are the original decisions, the decisions after mandatory reconsideration, and the decisions after appeal. That is particularly pertinent given the advent of a new company carrying out assessments, because it will be one method—I appreciate that it will not be the only method—of judging the ongoing performance of the new provider. Will the Minister confirm when those statistics on reconsideration will start to be published, so that we can see what is happening in that respect?
I also want to raise the issue of reassessment. There has been a temporary stop on routine reassessments, not as a managed decision because of concern about reassessments, but because of the backlog. Therefore, in response to a backlog that has built up considerably over the last couple of years, the decision was taken to suspend most routine reassessments. That must be a great relief to a lot of people who were being called in at yearly intervals for reassessment, but it is not a considered approach to the question of reconsideration. The temporary halt, however, gives us an opportunity to look at the purpose and practice of reassessment and decide how we want to handle it better.
The Government frequently refer to the previous incapacity benefit as leaving people languishing on benefit. I have always argued that that was an exaggeration. The many IB claimants who went through reassessment prior to 2008 and the new system coming in would have been surprised to hear that there was no reassessment, because they certainly experienced it. Further, this is a time when we have to look at the outcomes of the migration process from incapacity benefit. Far higher numbers of people have been found unfit for work and been placed in the support group through the migration process than was originally predicted. We might therefore want to ask whether actually, people are genuinely far less fit than might have been assumed. On that basis, why does one have to go through very frequent reassessments that will not prove anything different from what has happened before?
Over-frequent reassessment is stressful for applicants. People describe being really worried when the brown envelope comes through the door with yet another form to fill in to go through the whole process again. It is also expensive, time-consuming, and, I would argue, partly why we got into having the backlog in the first place.
The last independent review from Litchfield recommended, specifically for people suffering a severe incapacity from degenerative brain disorder and who were in the support group, that the reassessment period should be extended to five years. The recommendation was accepted by the Government, but so far, there has been little sign of progress on when that will happen, who it will cover and how many people it is likely to have an impact on. The Committee report, however, asked for the matter to be dealt with without further delay—I would like to hear from the Minister whether that will happen or whether it will just drift on for a long time—and for ways of looking at wider aspects of the reassessment criteria to be considered. As we are moving to a new provider and a new contract, the Committee felt that this was an appropriate time to allow the new contractor to plan its ongoing work. Surely a provider that is trying to allocate its staff and its time wants to know how many reassessments it will be required to do. If the view is that we can push back a bit on that, we need to know at this stage.
One aspect of the system that the Government clearly do not want to get into now—perhaps it will have to be for another Parliament—is whether the test is doing what it should, or whether it is still trying to do two, in a sense, contradictory things. The Chair of the Select Committee went into that to a degree. It is a test for eligibility for benefit that is supposed to determine how close people are to employment and what help and support they might get. However, as it is, those two factors do not seem to get the fullest possible exploration. If people are to be able to make a journey towards employment, their circumstances need to be looked at.
The extent of the challenge people face was illustrated well by the expert panel who looked at WCA as part of a process on whether new descriptors and ways to test people would be appropriate. It looked at the outcomes of some such tests and said clearly that while there was agreement with a fit for work finding, many people who were found fit for work needed a great deal of support before they could find work and 25% would require a support worker to engage in work. If such people have been found fit for work, we must ask what the situation is for the people in the work-related activity group who are supposedly nearer to employment but likely to have greater need of support, adaptations and help to get into employment.
From all the work done on employment of people with disabilities and long-term conditions, we know that a great deal needs to be done with employers; that is a huge part of the process. Indeed, the Select Committee has looked at the whole spectrum. We also looked recently at access to work, because that is a means by which to help people to get into employment. We must look at the process as a whole.
I am concerned that the Government, in their response to the Select Committee’s report, said that they will not take up the recommendation of a fundamental review of WCA or even many of the specific recommendations. It is not only that: the whole of the introduction to the response seems to be more focused on reducing the numbers on benefits than on improving the process and outcomes. Many have been saying this for some considerable time, but it has obviously now dawned on the DWP that the number of people receiving benefit has not reduced as much as had been anticipated, given how many people have been found fit for work. According to the Minister’s own figures, which were given to the Select Committee, slightly under 100,000 fewer people are receiving ESA or IB than were receiving the comparator benefits in 2008. We have been through an expensive, stressful and upsetting process—worse than that for many people—and the outcome has been a reduction in claimants of less than 100,000 at a time when, compared with 2008, the labour market is picking up, so one might expect some people to be going back to employment in any event.
There are two ways to look at that. One is to say, “Maybe people are genuinely sicker or less able than we thought, so what do we do about that?” The other way is to say, “Oh, it has been made too easy for people to reapply, so we will try to make that harder.” I was struck that the introduction to the Government’s response to our report said that the DWP will make it harder for people who want to reapply for ESA for a second or subsequent time to receive that benefit—they should stay on JSA until their claim had been looked at.
There is also a suggestion about introducing the claimant commitment for ESA claimants. The words used here are interesting. It says claimants should be helped in
“their work related requirements including, where appropriate, proactive work search that treats looking for work as a full-time outcome”.
While modified slightly by “where appropriate”, that sounds similar to the claimant commitment that JSA claimants have to go through: for them, job search is a full-time job. Apparently, the DWP is now suggesting that that should be applied to people in the work-related activity group of ESA.
I accept that the words suggest that that should take place where appropriate, but why pick out full-time job search as the one example of what might be in a claimant commitment? If people need help with adaptations, being introduced to employers and sometimes with reskilling, depending on the nature of their previous work—for some, their health means that they cannot do the type of job they did previously—an appropriate claimant commitment, if there must be one, should cover that and not be about endless job search. All too often, when constituents describe what happens when, as ESA claimants, they go into the Work programme, they say that they feel what they are given in the way of help, if anything at all, is endless job searching, as if that will suddenly overcome their problems. I do not believe that it will.
There are people on ESA whose jobs are being held open for them, but they have to claim because they are still too sick to work and their statutory sick pay has run out. I met a constituent in that position last week and she could see little point in being put through lots of job searches when she was confident that she could return to her employment when she was fit. In the meantime, she was unclear why she should be expected to go to constant interviews with an underlying threat that she might lose her benefit. Are we really saying that people who, by definition, have been judged as unfit for work are to be treated in the same was as JSA claimants?
If the Department is keen to introduce some sort of commitment, that must be sensitive to the needs of that group. It must look at their distance from employment and obstacles that they may face. The Department should also look at the vast experience of specialist organisations in the field who have done excellent work with people with all sorts of health conditions and disabilities and helped them into work. That also needs to be done in a positive way, because the last thing we need is for people yet again to get the impression that the emphasis is, “You are not trying hard enough in some way, so we will make you try harder. If you are not trying hard enough, you aren’t really entitled to benefit.” That is the kind of message that is coming across.
If we really believe that the best thing we can do is help people back into employment in a positive manner, we need to put in all those support mechanisms sensitively. People will respond to that, as they do to many of the specialist providers. I hope that the Minister will tell us why the Government’s response focused so much on those aspects.
Thank you, Mr Walker. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for this debate, which is based on a full and impressive report by the Work and Pensions Committee. It has been informed by other developments in this area, including the fifth report of the independent reviewer, which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) referred to, the evidence-based review carried out by a number of independent organisations into an alternative assessment model and the Minister’s recent appearance before the Select Committee.
These issues are of huge interest to disabled people and the taxpayer. We face an £8 billion overspend on employment and support allowance and incapacity benefit in this Parliament because the DWP has not been able to assess people, reassess people or get them into work and off benefits. In 2010, the Government said that incapacity benefit would end, but 173,000 were still on the benefit in May 2014, the latest date for which we have figures; 527,000 cases were stuck in the ESA queue as of December. The new assessment provider, Maximus, has been contracted to carry out 1 million assessments in the first year of that contract. The Office for Budget Responsibility says it will take two years to clear the backlog and, as has been pointed out this afternoon, reassessments have been suspended for a little over a year now.
Will the Minister tell us when he anticipates the reassessments might restart? That would be helpful for the peace of mind of people who are still anxious about when the process might come back to hit them and helpful also because, from the point of view of Maximus and of the Department, it is an important question for planning work flow.
The costs and backlogs sit alongside a range of policy and operational issues that have been raised by the Select Committee, starting right at the very beginning of the process, when someone submits a claim for ESA and the evidence is gathered to inform an assessment and determine whether a face-to-face assessment is required. We know that there are difficulties with getting the relevant evidence together. We have heard this afternoon, in particular, about some of the difficulties associated with reliance on evidence by GPs. It seems from reports from claimants that evidence that should have been considered by the assessor and informed the assessment is often not available.
The Select Committee has made a number of helpful comments and suggestions on that concern—in particular, the suggestion that the DWP should take ownership of the process of submitting the ESA50 form and bringing the evidence together. It should not be the claimant or the health care professional who carries out the assessment for the independent company; the DWP itself should own the process of getting together the information for an assessment.
The Committee recommended that the taking on of that responsibility by the DWP should have been considered before the appointment of the new contractor. The new contractor, Maximus, is now in place, but as far as I am aware there has been no change to the process or to the responsibility of the DWP in relation to it. Will the Minister say what consideration the Government gave to that recommendation by the Select Committee? If there has not been a change of procedure, will he say why not?
The Select Committee made a number of recommendations about what I would call good housekeeping in relation to the assessment and decision-making process. There have also been recommendations from the independent reviewer and the evidence-based review of experts that looked at an alternative assessment model. It is clear that there are a whole range of really very helpful—and, I guess, obvious—suggestions that the Government should consider, and I hope the Minister will comment on those. For example, it has been recommended that the assessment process should be constituted on a semi-structured interview model; that we should ensure that the claimant can see what is being written and recorded during the course of the assessment; that assessors should avoid making inferences from what claimants say; and, as the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) said, that the assessment process should properly consider whether a task or function can be performed reliably, repeatedly and safely. There is also a need for much better awareness and understanding of, and training on, fluctuating conditions.
I welcome the fact that the new contract with Maximus is going to introduce more rigorous performance standards on access to assessment centres. It is obviously quite ridiculous that we are still hearing reports of claimants being asked to go to centres that they cannot get into or in which they cannot move around. However, access goes beyond the physical ability to enter and move around buildings. In particular, a key element of the Select Committee’s report focuses on improving communications, including written communication and communication with the claimant during the assessment.
In a debate in this Chamber on Tuesday, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), the Minister talked about the priority he is giving to improving communications. Can he say more about that? For example, is he looking at ensuring that communications are presented in Easy Read and other accessible formats? What steps is he taking to ensure that communication during the assessment is appropriate to the circumstances of a claimant, in particular for those claimants with autism or learning difficulties?
I turn now to ESA itself. The Select Committee has made a number of comments. As has been noted by the hon. Member for Newton Abbot, since 2010 we have seen a significant difference in the proportion of people going into the support group or being found fit for work. In 2009, 10% of claimants were in the support group and 63% were found fit for work; now the position is 47% in the support group and 34% found fit for work. That has thrown up a number of issues.
First, as Dr Litchfield pointed out in his review, when assessors’ recommendations are overturned by decision makers, that almost always results in someone being moved into the support group. The previous independent reviewer, Professor Harrington, had suggested regular audits of decision-maker performance, and I wonder why that suggestion has not been followed. Dr Litchfield also pointed to the troubling rise in the number of young people at severe mental or physical risk being placed in the support group, with 34% being placed in that group without a face-to-face assessment. I would welcome the Minister’s observations on that. Does he intend to increase the number of face-to-face assessments? What steps is he taking to ensure that appropriate support is being given to that vulnerable group of people?
As has been mentioned this afternoon, the Select Committee also highlighted a number of issues about re-referrals. Thirty-six per cent. take place within three to six months and 63% of young people at severe mental or physical risk are reassessed within 12 months of being placed in the support group. Those relatively short re-referral periods make little sense. In some cases, they might suggest that people are being wrongly allocated to the support group; in others, the issue seems to lie with the so-called prognosis period—that language seems quite unhelpful, if not misleading.
In evidence given by charities, the Select Committee heard about a number of disturbing cases of people with degenerative conditions being assessed as improving, recovering or becoming fit for work. In the debate earlier this week that I referred to, the Minister said that he did not rule out the idea that some people in that group could become fit for work in the future or might want to work. He argued—I think I am right in saying this—that that explained why some people with degenerative conditions might be put in the work-related activity group.
The Minister told the Select Committee that even someone who had been deemed unlikely to return to work could still be doing some work-related activity. I have to ask him: what, and why? As the Chair of the Committee pointed out, given that there is a mechanism for reassessment of those in the support group and the opportunity for them voluntarily to work or prepare for work, there is no justification for placing in the work-related activity group people who are not fit for work now and for whom the prognosis is that they are unlikely to be fit for work in the future.
We have also heard that the suspension of the WFHRA has left a gap in the assessment process. The work capability assessment can take us only so far in identifying the level of benefit someone ought to be on or what group they ought to be in. Both the evidence-based review and the Select Committee have highlighted that those in the WRAG or found fit for work might need considerable adaptations or support to be able to work. There is nowhere in the process where that need can be appropriately reflected.
The Select Committee also raised concerns about former incapacity benefit claimants being placed in the WRAG via a paper assessment. I know that the Minister is keen to minimise the number of assessments where possible, but the Select Committee has pointed to some real problems arising from that situation. Many claimants do not understand the decision that has been taken or its implications; they do not understand the structure of conditionality that will apply, that they will receive lower benefits when in the support group or that, if they are on contributory employment and support allowance, they could lose the benefit altogether after 12 months—for example, if there is a partner working in the household that will mean that they might no longer be eligible for means-tested support. If the Minister is determined that people should be able to progress into the WRAG without a face-to-face assessment in some cases, will he say what steps he is taking to make sure that they fully understand the decision that has been taken about them and what it means for them?
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East made a number of useful comments reflecting the Committee’s recommendations about mandatory reconsideration. I will say, for the record, that I welcome the potential for mandatory reconsideration to speed up the process of getting a decision for claimants. However, although there has been progress in recent months on reducing the time taken for mandatory reconsiderations, the most recent figures, as my hon. Friend pointed out, still show some 44,000 people—25% of cases—waiting over 30 days for the outcome. I do not think we have a breakdown of how much longer than 30 days they may be waiting.
The time scale for mandatory reconsiderations is especially important, because ESA is not paid during the reconsideration process. Although claimants can claim JSA during that period, many are reluctant to do so either because of the stricter conditionality that pertains or because they fear that it will compromise their ESA claim and their mandatory reconsideration. As was said earlier, the conditionality can and should be varied according to the individual circumstances, but that does not seem to be happening routinely in Jobcentre Plus. What plans does the Minister have to provide reminder training to Jobcentre Plus staff on that issue?
There is also an issue of transparency in relation to the mandatory reconsideration process and to the figures that are available. The statistics that we have seen do not separate out decisions overturned from initial decisions, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East pointed out, we do not have any figures for the outcome of mandatory reconsiderations. Therefore, we do not know how many are successful, how many are unsuccessful, how many go to appeal and what the total cost is to the taxpayer. The Minister said that he would get back to the Select Committee on the outcome of mandatory reconsideration, and I hope he will be able to say something about it today. The Department has not made available its guidance on mandatory reconsideration, so will the Minister commit to making it public?
The Select Committee and the independent review made a number of points about the ESA and WCA processes, and their relationship to improving employment outcomes for disabled people. The Minister told the Select Committee about a host of measures, pilots and initiatives, some of which are referred to in the Government’s official response. We now know about personalisation pathfinders, employer and young people portals, Disability Confident, the gateway employment tool, psychological well-being and work pilots, the employment and well-being toolkit to support Jobcentre Plus staff, the Fit for Work programme for getting people back to work, extra support in ESA hotspots, the well-regarded Access to Work programme, the less well-regarded Work programme and the six months’ intensive work coach support for those who have spent two years on the Work programme.
Some of those measures might be worth while, but, given that so much is going on, it is difficult to disentangle and monitor the effectiveness of each of them. It also makes it very difficult for Jobcentre Plus staff and work coaches to make the best choice about the support an individual should receive. What training do Jobcentre Plus staff receive identifying what is appropriate for individual claimants? That question is motivated by the fact that the number of specialist disability employment advisers has fallen by 20% under the Government.
There is widespread support for better information sharing from the assessment process with Jobcentre Plus, Work programme providers and others, which could be used for assessments for other benefits, such as personal independence payments. Will the Minister say a little more about how he envisages information sharing proceeding?
In conclusion, it is clear that the work capability assessment and ESA are complex, and that they continue to be a source of anxiety for claimants. I very much welcome the Select Committee’s report and the independent review. They produced many useful recommendations, and I look forward to hearing how the Minister will take them forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. My heart sank when you said that you would call the Front Benchers at six minutes past 4. I thought that we would have only 11 minutes each, but I have a few extra minutes. I doubt that I will be able to cover the Select Committee’s report, our response and all of the many sensible contributions that have been made this afternoon, but I will do my best.
I thank the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), the Chairman of the Select Committee, for opening the debate, and the other members of the Select Committee who were here for at least part of the debate and who contributed. I welcome their interest in the WCA and ESA.
We carefully considered the Committee’s recommendations, and we published our response on 27 November. On the same day, as a number of Members have mentioned, Dr Paul Litchfield published the fifth and final review into the work capability assessment. We responded positively to the Select Committee’s recommendations in a number of areas, and where we did not agree with them we set out why. I will say a little more about the recommendations that have been referred to. The Government also took the opportunity to announce a package of short-term ESA measures and to set out our view of the challenges ahead for those who make policy in this area.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) spoke about improving delivery. We will make a significant amount of progress once Maximus starts the work. I have been impressed by its performance so far in preparing to take over the contract, and I said a little about that to the Select Committee when I gave evidence recently. I want us to ensure that the assessment process is hugely improved.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot and the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) referred to the number of disabled people in work. I think it is fair to say that my hon. Friend looked at it from the glass-half-full end of the spectrum, while the hon. Lady looked at it from the glass-half-empty end. The good news, which leans more towards my hon. Friend’s side of the argument, is that this year there are a quarter of a million more disabled people in work in Britain, compared with last year. Although the disability employment rate is too low, and although it is lower than the rate enjoyed by those without a disability, it increased by 2.5%, which I believe is the largest year-on-year increase in a decade. I acknowledge that we have more to do, but we have made good progress.
As my hon. Friend and others know, our ambition is to ensure that the UK is at the top of the G7 employment league table, and that we effectively achieve full employment. We can do that only if we are much better at keeping people who develop health conditions and disabilities in work, and getting those who have health conditions and disabilities back into work or into work for the first time.
Let me turn to the points in the Select Committee’s report that Members raised today. The first point that the Chairman of the Select Committee raised was about the work capability assessment itself. As she knows, and as the Committee said in its report, there was an evidence-based review, in which experts tested the WCA against a set of alternative descriptors. Therefore, a lot of bright people have thought about whether there is a better way of assessing people’s ability to work and the impact of their health condition or disability on their ability to work. The evidence that it published in its conclusion showed that there is not a strong case for replacing the WCA with the alternatives, because they are not better than the WCA at coming up with the information.
Dr Litchfield’s report specifically referred to the number of changes and improvements to the WCA in recent years, driven by the independent reports of Dr Litchfield and his predecessor, Professor Harrington. Dr Litchfield specifically called for a period of stability to let the assessment bed down. He recognised that although the WCA is by no means perfect, it is the best means available, and there is no ready replacement. He said:
“my counsel would be to let the current WCA have a period of stability—it is by no means perfect but there is no better replacement that can be pulled off the shelf.”
I agree. I also think, as my hon. Friend said, that the last thing that we should do, as we bring in a new provider, is to start changing the process and how the system works. In my experience of having to implement tough operational processes, I do not think that that is the way that we will improve the performance of the system for all those going though the process.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) and, I think, the shadow Minister referred to the other changes that we set out at the same time as we responded to the report. We are allowing JSA claimants with short-term health conditions to stay on JSA for up to 13 weeks, and, importantly—the hon. Member for Edinburgh East did not focus on this—we are tailoring conditionality to keep people closer to the labour market. We recognise that if a person has a health condition, the claimant commitment may have to be different. Work coaches in jobcentres have the ability to flex the claimant commitment. Although I heard a lot of general assertions that that does not happen, I did not hear any specific examples. If people have got specific examples, I want to know about them, because we can then address whether work coaches are using that flexibility. They have the power to flex the claimant commitment, and they should be using it.
Given what the Minister has just said, why were similar words not used in the Government response, rather than giving as the only example people making a full-time work search? That gives the impression to anybody who reads the response that that will be the main issue for a claimant commitment.
The hon. Lady may be reading too much into the wording, and she is straying into conspiracy theory. I cleared the language in the Government response, and I have tried to give the same impression in what I have just said. It certainly was not our intention to give the impression in the Government response that the hon. Lady took from it. I think that I have set out clearly what we are trying to do.
We are introducing three new measures, the first of which is a voluntary early intervention pilot for new ESA claimants, in which we are trialling occupational health advice and support prior to the WCA. We are doing so for a sensible reason. My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East and the Chair of the Select Committee referred to the fact that the WCA was designed to be two things: a benefit eligibility test, and a test of the barriers that an individual faces to entering work, and the support that they require to do so. We ought to see whether we can intervene when somebody first applies for ESA, to see what support they need and get them that support early in the process.
That is important because—I know that this is an area in which you take a particular interest, Mr Walker—46% of people who claim ESA do so for the primary reason that they have a mental health condition, and 60% have a mental health condition as part of the issue. We know from the evidence, and from all the campaigning organisations that are expert in this area, that being out of work for a significant period of time makes a mental health condition worse, not better. If we can identify mental health problems earlier and deliver support earlier, we will either keep people in work or enable them to go back to work more quickly. There is a nugget of truth in what hon. Members have said about that, and that is why we are piloting some interventions to see what is effective. They are voluntary, so people do not have to take part in them, but we think that they will be useful and produce useful evidence. I will not set out anything about the other two measures that we are introducing, because I recognise that time is pressing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot and other hon. Members referred to the WCA’s ability to deal with mental health issues. When we designed the ESA50 questionnaire and assessment criteria, we had input from mental health organisations and groups that focus on other hidden impairments such learning disability and autism. Several hon. Members, including the shadow Minister, referred to my remarks at the Select Committee about the redesigned ESA50 form. That will be implemented this month, and we are also looking at all the communications that we use for claimants following Dr Litchfield’s recommendations in his fourth independent review. We expect those to come into force over a rolling period this year.
The letter that we issue to claimants when a decision is made, the ESA260, was revised in the autumn of last year, and I referred to that in the debate initiated by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East earlier this week. That letter now makes it very clear—the shadow Minister made a point about this—which group somebody has been put into. It informs them in clear, plain English about the time limiting for someone who is in the work-related activity group and on contributory ESA. It makes clear the consequences and implications of the decisions that have been taken, enabling the individual to act accordingly.
Let me say a word about information sharing, to which several hon. Members, including the Chair of the Select Committee, referred. As I believe I said at the Select Committee, we share information from the WCA with the personal independence payment assessment process if someone is going through both of those, and we have done so in a significant number of cases. We will look at the evidence, but the initial indication is that that has enabled PIP decision makers to make decisions on paper without having to call somebody in for an unnecessary face-to-face assessment. That is our goal, because it is sensible to make such decisions on paper, without having to pull somebody in, where it is possible to do so.
The Chair of the Select Committee spoke about looking at other organisations, and her suggestion of using information from, for example, social care assessments is a sensible one. We ask those who apply for the benefit to produce the relevant information. I have asked officials to engage with colleagues in the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government to think about such ideas. In the new social care environment, more assessments will take place as a result of the new, consistent assessment criteria introduced by the Care Act 2014. I want us to think carefully about how we can do that sensibly, because we must not place an extra burden on local government or those who deliver social care. The general point is a good one, however. We do not want people to go through multiple assessments if we can share the necessary information.
I will hurry through one or two other points, because I am conscious of the fact that I need to give the Chair of the Select Committee a couple of minutes at the end of the debate to sum up. I have mentioned conditionality for JSA, which is relevant to the point that several hon. Members have made about what happens when people are found fit for work. When people are found fit for work, they are not entitled to ESA any more and they should claim jobseeker’s allowance. As I have said, however, work coaches have the ability to flex the claimant commitment so that it fully reflects somebody’s health condition or disability. If hon. Members have specific examples of where that is not happening, I want to know about them, so that we can investigate whether they were isolated incidents in Jobcentre Plus or whether there is a wider problem with training, information or communication. Several hon. Members asserted that there have been such problems, but I did not hear any specific examples. If hon. Members have such examples, I would like them to share those examples with me.
I am conscious, as ever, of the fact that time in the Chamber is short. I welcome the Select Committee’s work on ESA and the WCA. We agreed with several of the Committee’s recommendations, a number of which were very sensible. Some of them were things that we were working on, and some were things that we had not thought of. We made it clear where we did not agree. At the end of this month, Maximus will take over the delivery of the WCA from Atos. Maximus has experience in this area, and I know that it is keen to improve the experience of our constituents who go through the WCA. There may be some hiccups at the beginning, because that is inevitable when a big change occurs, but I am confident that we will deliver an improved level of customer service, which is important to everyone who has taken part in the debate.
I thank the Minister for his reply, and he has been thoughtful in his interpretation of some of our recommendations. It goes without saying that we would always like him to go further, but there has been some movement since the publication of our report.
The new contract, as the Minister has just said, kicks in on 1 March, when will see whether Maximus makes a difference. We are saying that the whole system is flawed, however, particularly the WRAG. Even if the WCA is improved, there is still a problem if the majority of people—a wide range—end up in that group by default. It is impossible to reconcile the preparation required by people who are moving towards work with the needs of those alongside them who are moving away from work. There is a wider context, because we live in a society that treats disabled people in a particular way, so the fact that someone is ready and able to work does not necessarily mean that they can get a job. That depends on a whole range of other things, from access to prejudice or discrimination by employers.
I pay tribute to the members of my Committee; I think I must have the hardest working Committee of any in the House. We have quite a wide range of political views and personalities, but when we are dealing with an important issue and we want to get it right for our constituents, we often bring very specific knowledge from our own constituency casework, which informs the work that we do in the Committee. We think that the subject is very important, and we are always grateful when the Government listen, but sometimes they need to listen a wee bit more.
Question put and agreed to.