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Volume 723: debated on Monday 20 December 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their proposals for tailoring the benefits system to individuals’ needs.

My Lords, the Government’s reforms to the welfare-to-work system will make it more responsive to the needs of individuals. Jobcentre Plus advisers and providers of the work programme will have flexibility to tailor support to customers’ needs, rather than having support prescribed by central government. Under our plans for a universal credit, individuals will keep more of their benefits when working and will see a clear gain in working compared to not working at all.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer. The whole purpose of the benefit reforms that the Government are undertaking is to provide those who can with the dignity of work and those who need support with the knowledge that they have the full support of the state behind them. The experience of government so far has not been too good in some cases. The Harrington review found that the system was,

“impersonal, mechanistic and lacking in clarity”.

Will my noble friend tell us when the recommendations of the Harrington review will be implemented and when changes will be brought into effect that will give people that dignity and the support that the state can provide?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. The work capability assessment has been looked at once internally and now by Professor Harrington. We are committed to bringing in those reforms as quickly as possible—ideally, all of them by the time we have all the existing IB claimants reassessed with a view to going over to ESA.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, when it comes to assessing individual needs, the benefits received by carers are of extreme importance to families in need? Some weeks ago, the Minister said that no decision had yet been made about how to treat the carer’s allowance in the benefit reforms. Has any further progress been made towards that decision?

My Lords, we are working on fine-tuning the whole of the universal credit system. One of the key issues is the design of how carers’ allowances go into that. We are still not in a position to say where we have got to precisely, but we will make it clear pretty soon.

My Lords, in what way does the Minister consider that docking 10 per cent off someone’s housing benefit after they have been a year on JSA is meeting their individual needs?

The purpose of our reforms is to make sure that there is a very strong incentive for people to find work and, once they find work, to work. That is the purpose of that reform.

My Lords, I learnt last week of a severely disabled person in the Pendle area who had failed to receive their giro for incapacity benefit, which I think is now called ESA. They decided to telephone and tried several times a day for four consecutive days. Will the Minister kindly tell us what steps are being taken to ensure that Jobcentre Plus provides much needed help to those who really deserve it?

My Lords, I am obviously disturbed to hear what the right reverend Prelate has told us about this case. When we find cases and I am alerted to them, we react rapidly to make sure that the individual case is sorted out. If he lets me have the details, I will deal with it.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me whether Jobcentre Plus decision-makers in particular will have extra training following the Harrington review so that they can take into account what the review said about those with mental health problems and fluctuating conditions?

Yes, my Lords. One of Professor Harrington’s main recommendations is to put more power back in the hands of the decision-makers in Jobcentre Plus. Clearly, we will be looking to make sure that they exercise that power effectively, particularly because we need to reduce the number of appeals to tribunals. We need to get the decision right first time.

My Lords, now that the Minister has seen the report, which shows that the number of children living in poverty will increase under the Government’s proposals, and given the good work that he did in advising the Labour Government, under whom the number of children living in poverty went down year after year, does he not feel a wee bit embarrassed explaining away the policies of this awful Tory-led coalition Government?

My Lords, the noble Lord will accept that I beg to differ on part of that question. The universal credit will have a powerful effect on poverty and will at least balance some of the other effects of the reforms. One needs to see all the reforms in their entirety.

Does my noble friend accept that people on the autistic spectrum and those with learning disabilities will find it very difficult to respond to a letter requiring them to attend an assessment or for somebody to visit their home without preparation being done, so that they are comfortable and supported and know exactly what to expect?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that. One of Professor Harrington’s recommendations was to make the whole process far more empathetic and to work with people rather than, if you like, doing things in a more hostile way. Looking after people who have autism is one thing that we want to make sure that we do. In my view, people who are autistic could benefit more than virtually anyone else from the package of measures in the work programme that we are introducing. These are people who can work if they are helped to do so.