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4.47 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): It will be on the record of the House that I expressed concern about these regulations when the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill was first debated in May 1999. I used the opportunity of an exchange during oral questions to the Leader of the House on 11 May to pursue the subject. The Secretary of State will recall that, during the most recent oral questions, I also pursued the matter of the therapeutic earnings rules, when I asked what part they would play in what would be offered to people with disabilities.

My particular concern is the one that I had originally, and it has also been picked up by the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney). It is the matter of people with a severe disability. I want to focus on people with learning disabilities and on-going mental health problems. I shall not rehearse the arguments that I made before on the subject. I simply say to the Secretary of State that the arrival, out of the blue, of a request to attend a compulsory interview on a particular day is a major problem for many people with a severe learning disability or mental health problem. I can think of many people with that type of disability who would simply bin the letter in a panic.

The Secretary of State has said that there is to be recognition of people with on-going severe disabilities and that they will be protected. Will he give a little more detail of exactly how those cases will be analysed? I accept that this regulation relates to new claimants, but some new claimants will have severe, lifelong disabilities. I am all in favour of trying to access appropriate employment for people with a range of disabilities, including some of those with severe mental health problems and some of those with learning disabilities.

We hear a lot about portals and gateways. If those people are to be required to go for an interview and are told that if they do not attend they will lose key benefits,

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it is essential that, whatever portal or gateway they are encouraged to go through, appropriate and well-informed sources of support are in place to help them to access that employment. It would be criminal to raise expectations and to put them through what could be for them the traumatic experience of the interview without being able to guarantee that support will be there on the other side of the gateway or portal.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): The hon. Lady raises an important point regarding mental health and various other conditions. The key aspect is the training of the staff involved, their ability to respond to the particular needs of people suffering from those conditions, and their ability to assess reactions to the demand for an interview and the behaviour at the interview itself, which could become confrontational unless training is given.

Mrs. Browning: The hon. Gentleman is right. I know that he takes a particular interest in these issues and speaks with great knowledge on the subject. I hope that the Secretary of State will have heard what he said.

What worries me is that in the regulations there is a priority list of benefits that will be lost if a person fails to attend the interview. At the top is income support. The Secretary of State will know that people with a severe disability may qualify for the severe disability premium of income support. The amount of money that they receive may qualify them for certain levels of housing benefit. They may have a package of support from, say, social services, to which they make a contribution. That contribution will be based on the level of income support that their disability attracts. Suddenly to remove or to reduce it because they did not attend an interview could cause severe financial problems. They could get into debt. It could cause huge problems in terms of their well-being and state of mind.

I want to know from the Secretary of State how he will deal with severe disability while at the same time offering equal opportunity. If what was being put before the House was an enhanced opportunity for people, particularly those with learning disabilities or on-going mental health problems, to access employment or a phased way into paid employment that was not just a make-work scheme but real paid employment, I could appreciate that. What I cannot appreciate is that that group of people will be told, "This is compulsory and if you do not attend the interview you will lose benefit."

I think that the Government have gone wrong. It is a new rule that is to apply only to new claimants. The very language of the debate and what is written in the regulations seems to imply that just about everyone claiming benefits who has a disability once held down a job and for physical disability reasons no longer does so.

We know the prevalence of back injury; it is common. People start out in a working life. Their health may deteriorate physically or they may suffer a back injury or some strain injury at work that means they are no longer able to do the job they have always done. They may then go on incapacity benefit. To try to get those people into some other form of work is wholly laudable.

If that is what the Government are trying to do, they will have my total support, but there is an element of, "Come for the interview on the day we say, regardless of

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your level of disability." [Hon. Members: "No."] I wait to be reassured. It is now three years down the track and I am still not reassured. the disability organisations are not reassured and Lord Ashley of Stoke is not reassured. We are waiting for that reassurance. [Hon. Members: "Sit down."] I will in a minute. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may find it amusing, but I have received correspondence from people with disabilities who may be affected by the legislation. They do not find it amusing at all. They find it not only hurtful and confusing, but rather frightening.

David Winnick: I know that the hon. Lady is being baited by my hon. Friends. Party politics comes into these matters and I am the last one to criticise that. However, she can take this reassurance if it is worth anything to her: today she has said hardly a single word with which I disagree.

Mrs. Browning: I am very grateful. The hon. Gentleman indicated in an intervention earlier that he is knowledgeable on this subject. I am sure that he is concerned, as many of us are, about our constituents who will receive such a letter. I should like the Secretary of State to provide more details about what will happen to people who may not turn up to the interview because they cannot manage official correspondence or because their state of mind is such that they are unable to deal with the letter. We cannot assume that all such people have very convenient social workers whom they can phone up and ask, "What shall I do about this letter?"

We are dealing with a draconian rule that failure to attend the interview will result in a loss of benefit and with regulations that catch-all do not apply only to people who have a disability that has prevented them from working for some time and want to get back into work, but to people on the disability register who have lifelong disabilities that they were born with. The provision makes no differentiation between those people and someone who may have a back injury.

Mr. Levitt rose

Mrs. Browning: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman. I let him intervene on me in the debate in 1999 and I hope that this time he will make a more sensible intervention than he did then.

Mr. Levitt: Fond memories, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The points that the hon. Lady raises would be right if they had not been answered during the debates in 1999. I remember raising the same issues in Committee and I was told by Ministers that it would be possible for advisers to visit the homes of people who could not get out and that it would be possible for communications support to be provided—indeed, it would be essential. There will be a flexible, personalised, tailored process so that people get the appropriate help in the appropriate way. The hon. Lady should not forget that 1 million disabled people would like to work.

Mrs. Browning: I am not forgetting that, but for some people about whom I am concerned a stranger visiting them at home would be a major trauma. I quite appreciate that if someone has a physical incapacity that means that

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it is difficult for them to attend an interview, the interviewer may decide that it would be better to offer them an interview at home. However, people with certain disabilities have communication problems that could be critical in an interview. They do not always have support workers to attend the interview with them.

Reference has been made to training and the level of expertise offered by interviewers and their support workers. I should like to think that it was there, but I am afraid that it is not. We do not see it in any other aspect of the lives of people with those disabilities, so it seems strange that it is suddenly on offer when they have to attend a statutory interview.

Mr. Rooney: The hon. Lady is in danger of severely over-egging the pudding. She should remember that we are discussing people who have made contact with the service in order to make a claim, so she should be careful about using the communication argument.

Mrs. Browning: Regardless of how those people contacted the service in the first place, some quite intelligent people are affected by communications disorders. They cannot pick up the phone and make contact—[Interruption.] Labour Members are shaking their heads. Their ignorance on this subject is palpable. Ignorance is bliss. I hope that the Secretary of State will be wise when he responds to the debate.

The problem, as we can see from previous debates, is that the profile of a person with a disability is predominantly of someone with a physical disability and ignores those with multiple disabilities or severe learning disabilities. It certainly does not encompass someone with schizophrenia, living in the community and drawing benefits, who will almost certainly receive such a letter. It is too much of a catch-all provision.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) said, the Government's agenda is not about addressing the needs of people with disabilities but about using the benefits system to gerrymander some figures to make it look as though they are fulfilling some long-lost election pledge to deal with benefit fraud. There are very few people who genuinely have a disability who seek to defraud the Exchequer.

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