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Disabled People: Work Capability Assessments

Volume 702: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What measures they have in place to monitor the support that disabled people claiming incapacity benefit will receive should they be deemed capable of work following their work capability assessment.

My Lords, the new work capability assessment is a more positive assessment of mental and physical function and of the support an individual needs to help them move closer to work. If a person’s assessment results in no entitlement to employment and support allowance, they will be able to claim jobseeker’s allowance and the support that comes with that benefit. Jobcentre Plus personal advisers will ensure that such people receive all the support they need.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. He will be aware that the introduction of mandatory work capability assessment for all incapacity benefit claimants will come as a great shock to many long-term benefit claimants, particularly those deemed capable of work. As patron of Beginnings, a coalition of organisations working to improve employment opportunities for disabled people, I believe it is vital that everything possible is done to assist affected people. To this end, how will the flexible New Deal interact with support provision under Pathways to Work?

My Lords, the introduction of the employment and support allowance is due to happen for new claimants later this year. The prospect of existing IB claimants being subjected to the new work capability assessment will arise subsequently over the succeeding three years. On the flexible New Deal, the components involve that, at six months of unemployment, Jobcentre Plus advisers will begin intensive work with customers to identify potential barriers to employment and establish action that the customer must take to make themselves more employable. Advisers will work alongside disability employment advisers to ensure that activity identified for disabled customers is appropriate to their needs. Where available, customers will be able to access the department’s specialist disability provision. The purpose of the new assessment is to focus on what people can do rather than on what they cannot. That “cannot” approach, which we previously adopted, consigned millions of people to inactivity and few life choices. That needs to change.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is a moral and fiscal responsibility on Government to incentivise people to work wherever they are able to do so, rather than to apply reverse incentives, as we have seen in the enormous growth in claims for incapacity benefit over the past 20 years?

My Lords, it is important that the benefits and support on offer are individually focused. We believe that should be job-related and supportive of individuals. The number of incapacity benefit claimants fell by 31,000 over the past year, after two decades of inexorable rise. The approach is right. It supports those who can to go back into work. We know that work is generally good for people’s health. It is their best route out of poverty, as well as being good for their general well-being.

My Lords, how do the Government intend to monitor the experiences of different impairment groups within Pathways to Work? For example, blind and partially sighted people have distinct needs which have to be met to enable them to access training, educational and other work-related opportunities. If the Government are to ensure that all disabled people get the individually tailored support that they need to move towards work, provision by private and voluntary sector providers delivering Pathways must be monitored by impairment group. If detailed impairment-specific monitoring does not take place, it is unclear how the Government will either identify whether all groups of disabled people are receiving the help and support they need or meet their commitment to tackling poor performance from contractors delivering Pathways programmes. The Government do not presently hold any statistics which show the outcomes for blind and partially sighted people who have been involved thus far in Pathways. What are the Government doing to remedy this situation?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very important point. The key issue about New Deal is that it is flexible. As the noble Lord has acknowledged, it will be provided in due course by a range of external providers. Monitoring can and will take place under the contractual terms because the contractual arrangements are fundamentally outcome-based. As the noble Lord suggests, we should seek to ensure that that monitoring is detailed and covers all the groups affected by the benefit.

My Lords, on miscellaneous occasions, the Minister is very fond of asking me for evidence, so perhaps I may be allowed to turn the tables. Does he have any evidence whatever to give him confidence that people requiring the extra help and support to work, which they will get on the employment and support allowance, will not instead be placed on jobseeker’s allowance, where that help is not available?

My Lords, we do not have the new assessment in yet. However, looking at the history of the programmes in place to date, we can see that Pathways to Work has helped more people back into employment and has contributed to fewer people being on incapacity benefit. Therefore, in practice, it is working now. There will be a legislative requirement, which, as the noble Lord will remember, we put in place in the Welfare Reform Act last year, to ensure that monitoring on this takes place on an annual basis over the first five years.

My Lords, what powers can the Government use to control private sector providers, through the Pathways to Work programme, if they fall down on their job of providing support and advice for disabled people?

My Lords, the powers would be in the contractual arrangements. Those contracts will be structured, as I said, to ensure that they are outcome-focused and that those providers undertake support for all in the group and not just cherry-pick those who are easiest to get back into work and to sustain in work. That contractual monitoring will be the process of holding those contractors to account.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many people have been made incapable of work through prescribed tranquilisers and sleeping pills? Will he look into that and try to help such people who have memory loss and whose doctors do not review their prescribed drugs?

My Lords, I do not have that point in my brief, but I shall certainly follow it up. What is important on this agenda, and on the wider agenda which was covered in Dame Carol Black’s report on the health of working-age people, is the engagement of GPs and encouraging them to understand that work can be good for people’s health. Their role may well be focused on helping people back into work rather than signing them off sick, as happens now. The crucial recommendation about seeking to convert the sick note to a fit note is part of that process.