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Welfare Reform Bill

Volume 690: debated on Tuesday 27 March 2007

Read a third time.

Clause 11 [Work-focused health-related assessments]:

1: Clause 11 , page 9, line 25, leave out subsection (8) and insert—

“(8) In subsection (7), “health care professional” means—

(a) a registered medical practitioner, (b) a registered nurse, (c) an occupational therapist or physiotherapist registered with a regulatory body established by an Order in Council under section 60 of the Health Act 1999 (c. 8), or (d) a member of such other profession regulated by a body mentioned in section 25(3) of the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Act 2002 (c. 17) as may be prescribed.”

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 9. These amendments come following considerable debate in Grand Committee and on Report. Noble Lords were keen to amend the wording of the Bill to ensure that it includes a more specific definition of a healthcare professional. There are concerns that the existing definition is too broad and that unqualified people might therefore qualify as healthcare professionals and be allowed to carry out medical examinations.

During our previous discussions, there was strong cross-party agreement that we should use only appropriate and trained healthcare professionals to carry out such examinations. I can categorically state that we have no intention of doing otherwise and would want to use only healthcare professionals who are members of a regulated profession. I agree therefore that it is right to set out in the Bill that “healthcare professional” means only such healthcare professionals who are members of a regulated profession. The amendments achieve the effect proposed by noble Lords. I believe that this amendment provides the assurance noble Lords sought in relation to healthcare professionals. I beg to move.

My Lords, I like to think that I never make long speeches. Today I will be even briefer than usual in my one response to all the government amendments. However, my thanks to the Minister are no less sincere for that. I am extremely grateful for his willingness throughout the stages of the Bill to listen to our debates with an open mind. Amendments Nos. 1 to 9 describe “healthcare professional” in a better and fuller way than was originally in the Bill. In other words,

“Tis a far, far better thing”,

than you do now, and so on. I am also very glad that the Minister and his colleagues have come around to our way of thinking on contracting out. Government Amendments Nos. 2 to 7 ensure that all decisions relating to conditionality will remain under the control of Jobcentre Plus and will not be contracted out to private or non-governmental organisations.

Many of the debates have been concerned with what will be in the regulations that flow from the Bill, the important ones of which will be affirmative the first time around thanks to the activities of the Regulatory Reform Committee. I will watch these with an eagle eye, especially the parts concerned with good cause and the length of time given for showing it. I know that the Child Poverty Action Group has recently written to the Minister on this. I would be most grateful if he could give me further comfort on the subject, even at this late stage.

That said, I am also very pleased that we have been able to come to a mutually agreeable compromise on housing benefit sanctions. I have been unhappy about this clause from the start, but I am prepared to accept that it should be given a fair trial. I look forward to reading the reports of such pilot schemes as there are when they are produced. I am especially pleased that, as a result of Amendment No. 8, they can go nationwide only after further primary legislation.

Clearly, I can now look forward to the Minister’s co-operation in our next legislative encounter on pensions, with the expectation that he will be just as accommodating. Finally, I thank the Bill team and all the lobby groups who have provided so much information and assistance as this Bill has passed through the House.

My Lords, I am not sure whether we are following the groupings. I thank the Minister for this amendment, which I believe is in response to an amendment originally proposed by my noble friend. We are very grateful. My further remarks apply to the group after next, so I shall stick to the groupings list.

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their support on these amendments. I will speak to the next two groups when we come to them shortly. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, asked me to comment on matters relating to good cause and my recent correspondence from the Child Poverty Action Group. As he will acknowledge, during the passage of the Bill we have had considerable debate on the opportunity to show good cause in relation to conditionality. The principle of good cause for work-focused interviews is well established and must be considered by the Social Security Advisory Committee as part of the regulations relating to Pathways to Work.

As we have set out previously, the first use of regulations for work-related activity under Clause 13 will be subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses. For the work-focused, health-related assessment, we are considering whether there should be a consistent approach to the period for showing good cause for a failure to participate, in line with the work-focused interview regulations. I will keep the noble Lord in touch with developments on that matter.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 16 [Contracting out]:

2: Clause 16, page 13, line 4, at end insert “, except the making of a decision to which subsection (2A) applies (an “excluded decision”)”

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 2 I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 3 to 7. These amendments give effect to my commitment on Report to remove from the Bill the ability to contract out decision-making leading to sanctions. The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, has already acknowledged this.

The amendments to Clause 16 achieve this by creating a category of excluded decisions and provide that regulations cannot allow these to be contracted out. The category of excluded decisions contains all the decisions that can lead to sanctions as well as decisions about the actual sanction itself. The amendment to Clause 26 is consequential to this. Having circumscribed the powers in Clause 16, it will no longer be possible to make regulations that allow the Secretary of State to authorise providers to undertake decisions leading to sanctions. The provision in Clause 26(1)(c) is therefore redundant because it refers to such types of regulations and makes them subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. I believe that these amendments meet fully the concerns of noble Lords about contracting out and decision-making. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

3: Clause 16 , page 13, line 6, after second “decisions” insert “, except excluded decisions,”

4: Clause 16 , page 13, line 9, after “decisions” insert “, except excluded decisions,”

5: Clause 16 , page 13, line 14, leave out “mentioned in” and insert “falling within”

6: Clause 16 , page 13, line 14, at end insert—

“(2A) This subsection applies to the following decisions—

(a) a decision about whether a person has failed to comply with a requirement imposed by regulations under section 11, 12 or 13; (b) a decision about whether a person had good cause for failure to comply with such a requirement; (c) a decision about reduction of an employment and support allowance in consequence of failure to comply with such a requirement.”

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 26 [Parliamentary control]:

7: Clause 26 , page 19, line 18, leave out paragraph (c)

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 31 [Loss of housing benefit following eviction for anti-social behaviour, etc.]:

8: Clause 31 , page 26, line 17, at end insert—

“(3) The preceding provisions of this section have no effect after 31st December 2010.

(4) The Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument make such provision as he thinks necessary or expedient in consequence of the operation of subsection (3) for the purpose of securing that, with effect from 1st January 2011, housing benefit to which a person who is a former occupier (within the meaning of section 130B of the Contributions and Benefits Act) is entitled is not subject to any restriction as mentioned in subsection (4) of that section.”

The noble Lord said: My Lords, we accepted that the assurances we had given about the degree of parliamentary scrutiny which would be necessary for a national roll-out of the housing benefit sanction following eviction for anti-social behaviour have not been enough to allay the concerns expressed in this House and the other place. However, it remains our intention to pilot the use of a housing benefit sanction as an incentive to households evicted for anti-social behaviour to take up offers of rehabilitation and support in order to address the causes of their problem behaviour. We therefore propose in Amendment No. 8 to insert a sunset clause. The effect is that we will be able to go ahead with piloting the sanction to ensure that it works as we intend and that there are no unforeseen consequences for vulnerable groups. The amendment will also ensure that for there to be a scheme in place after 31 December 2010, further primary legislation will be required. We have said that we intend to pilot for two years, and two years only, starting as soon as is practicable. The end date for the pilots will be set out in regulations. I beg to move.

My Lords, since we are talking about regulations, perhaps this is the moment for me to ask a question that arises as a result of the Minister’s welcome announcement on Report. The change in the permitted work rules that now allows those on the income-related strand of ESA to earn up to £86 a week for 52 weeks is very welcome, as these people are fully passported on to housing and council tax benefits, so the tapers do not apply. However, it appears that those on the contributory strand of ESA who are also on housing and council tax benefits, which are of course means-tested, are still to be subject to the existing tapers and thus their housing cost benefits could be reduced quite significantly. Can the Minister confirm that he and his colleagues will consult before the regulations are drawn up just to ensure that there are no unforeseen consequences as a result of this most welcome change?

My Lords, I support my noble friend in what she has said and add my commendations and congratulations to the Minister and the Bill team for listening to the arguments and being so accommodating. During the passage of the Bill a good number of the points so powerfully put from Benches other than the Government Benches have been well recognised. That is understood and all sides are grateful for that consideration.

My noble friend raises a point that I can set in a more general context. The David Freud report, which is an interesting piece of work, has come a little too late to feature as prominently as perhaps it should. It deals with substantially the same subject area as is contained in the Bill, which is now being read for a third and final time. My plea would be that consultation be maintained between the Government, both Houses and the stakeholders outside this place in order to try to clarify some of the issues my noble friend mentioned, such as the difference between contributory ESA and means-tested ESA. There is a wider dimension to that in Schedule 3, which derives from the different treatment means-tested and contributory benefits have had historically. There are some inelegancies there. However, the benefit simplification team will be considering the David Freud report, going forward. Once the Bill is put to bed and the regulations come through, I hope the Minister is willing to keep as open a mind at that stage.

We all look forward with confidence to getting these systems right, because this is a very important piece of legislation. I am sure all sides of the House wish it well. If the Government can continue with the positive engagement with the stakeholders and both Houses of Parliament, that will augur well for the development of our systems in future.

My Lords, now that the Minister has moved all the government amendments, I thank him and the Bill team for what they have done. I shall put a slightly different complexion on it from that of my noble friend, who has recently come from the Commons. When I reported back to my Commons colleagues on the effect of our scrutiny in this place—the vote that we won and the other amendments that the Government accepted—they said, “That’s absolutely marvellous. When can we join the Lords? What arguments did you use to persuade them?”. I said, “Basically the same ones you used in the Commons. The difference is that here they have to listen to us because no party has an overall majority”. That is an interesting reflection on the way business is done in the two Houses.

I thank the Minister, as I did at an earlier stage, for his approach to the Bill. I believe we have improved the Bill. Again I thank the Bill team, which has done very well. But why, oh why, did we have to go so far and for so long in the other place, only to finally change the Bill here? Please can there be a little more liaison between government Ministers in the two places? That would save us some time in this House. I am sure we have ended up with a better Bill than when it started.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the concession he made, which from my perspective will make life a great deal easier—at least for 12 months. It will encourage our people to get going and become involved in small amounts of work.

Without wishing to seem churlish, I wonder whether there is any possibility of some kind of flexibility at the end of that 12-month period, perhaps by starting a period again. I can see the value of having some form of cut-off at which point one might really be putting some pressure on people to get into work, but I can envisage, without any difficulty, a number of people who would clearly be just about managing until that point, but would be some way yet from being able to get into what we would call open employment. I feel that the detriment of the sudden ending of this provision without any kind of flexibility could be very unhelpful, and I would be interested to know what the Minister has to say about that.

My Lords, I thank everyone who has contributed to our mini-discussion at the end of the Bill’s progress. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, referred to the David Freud report. As we have put on the record previously, we see that as a substantial piece of work, and the Government are committed to responding to it before the summer.

The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, talked about flexibility after 12 months with regard to the permitted work rules. It is an interesting point and we will take it away. There are always judgments to be made about work incentives as well as trying to encourage people closer to the workplace. We will certainly reflect on that.

The noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, reminded us of the arithmetic at this end of Parliament. One other feature is that we tend not to shout at each other too much at this end, which is a very constructive approach.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, spoke about housing benefit and council tax benefit in relation to alignment of the permitted work rules. The extension of the permitted work rules means that people on income-related ESA will be able to earn up to £86 a week without their housing benefit being affected. That means that customers in receipt of housing benefit and council tax benefit will continue to receive their full eligible benefit rather than it being reduced if their income-related benefit stops, as happens under the current rules.

The position of people receiving contributory ESA will be no different from that of those claiming incapacity benefit now; we have not changed that. Where their earnings exceed £20 a week, housing benefit is reduced by 65p in the pound and council benefit by 20p in the pound. We believe it is reasonable that people who receive contributory benefits should be treated in the same way as any other person claiming housing benefit who is in work. Income levels are the key: people on contributory benefit who also meet low income tests will also be eligible for housing benefit. We have made no final decisions yet on the amount of the ESA benefit rate. As in other areas, we will consult key stakeholders about the implications for ESA customers of the changes in the permitted work rules.

I should like to take this opportunity of thanking noble Lords for the courtesy they have shown me and my noble friend Lady Morgan; this has been our first DWP Bill, and the first of several this Session. I hope that we will continue to have a constructive debate on future Bills. I acknowledge that the constructive and positive debate we have had on these reforms will make a real difference to the lives of millions of people. The process has had significant commitment from Opposition Front-Bench Members, for which I thank them, as well as the passionate and knowledgeable engagement of Cross-Bench Members. I look forward to an equally constructive arrangement on the Pensions Bill.

It was believed that reforming incapacity benefits would always be contentious and hard fought, so it is important to recognise the work that has been done in building proposals that are right for the nation and that we can all support. Through the passage of this Bill the Government have listened to the concerns of the House and of the many organisations that have made representations to them. We have taken many of these concerns on board and can feel proud that the reforms now meet our shared aims and represent real progress in an important area. I thank all noble Lords for that.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 62 [Northern Ireland]:

9: Clause 62 , page 48, leave out lines 3 to 5 and insert—

““health care professional” means—

(a) a registered medical practitioner, (b) a registered nurse, (c) an occupational therapist or physiotherapist registered with a regulatory body established by an Order in Council under section 60 of the Health Act 1999 (c. 8), or (d) a member of such other profession regulated by a body mentioned in section 25(3) of the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Act 2002 (c. 17) as the Secretary of State may prescribe.”

On Question, amendment agreed to.

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.