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House of Commons
Session 2006 - 07
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General Committee Debates
Welfare Reform Bill

Welfare Reform Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. David Amess, † Mr. Jimmy Hood
Afriyie, Adam (Windsor) (Con)
Alexander, Danny (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD)
Banks, Gordon (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab)
Boswell, Mr. Tim (Daventry) (Con)
Brown, Mr. Russell (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab)
David, Mr. Wayne (Caerphilly) (Lab)
Engel, Natascha (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)
Heppell, Mr. John (Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household)
Hunt, Mr. Jeremy (South-West Surrey) (Con)
Laws, Mr. David (Yeovil) (LD)
McGuire, Mrs. Anne (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)
Mountford, Kali (Colne Valley) (Lab)
Murphy, Mr. Jim (Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform)
Penrose, John (Weston-super-Mare) (Con)
Robertson, John (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab)
Ruffley, Mr. David (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con)
Seabeck, Alison (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab)
John Benger, Chris Shaw, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 30 November 2006

[Mr. Jimmy Hood in the Chair]

Welfare Reform Bill

9.10 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): On a point of order, Mr. Hood, would you allow me an opportunity to correct the Official Report? The record shows that I told the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey that, since its introduction, the two strikes measure has been applicable to 320 cases a year, of which 190 have had the sanction applied. I now wish to make it clear that 320 is the total number of cases to which the measure has been applied since the legislation commenced in April 2002 and that the sanction was applied in 190 cases.
The Chairman: That was not a point of order; it was a point of information, but thank you.
Clause 53 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 54

Allocations from Social Fund
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for that point of information. It is a lovely day in London, but not in my constituency in the highlands. Sadly, not everybody in this United Kingdom—long may it remain so—is benefiting from the weather that we are enjoying here.
Let me probe the Minister for a few more points of clarification. My understanding is that the purpose of the clause is to allow him more flexibility with regard to the allocation of moneys that can be used for social fund purposes and how they can be distributed at national and regional level. Does the measure also give flexibility as to the nature of grants and loans that may be given from the social fund? If it does not, is that something that he will look at again?
A number of organisations have made representations to me about whether there might be a case for making additional types of grant available through the social fund, over and above those that are currently allowed. I am well aware, as I am sure the Committee is, that the social fund is cash limited; it is used for precise purposes. In particular, the Child Poverty Action Group has proposed ideas such as using the social fund for a child development grant, payable at key stages in a child’s life, and a health and safety grant. In the early years of a child’s life, that might be particularly useful for key items in the home that are considered essential for a child’s health and safety, such as a cot or bedding, or for the repair and replacement of gas and electrical appliances.
That organisation has also proposed the idea of an opportunity grant or allowance to assist claimants in getting back to work, recognising that additional costs might be incurred in that process. That would certainly be relevant to part 1 of the Bill. Currently, as the Committee knows, such payments can be made as discretionary payments through the adviser’s discretionary fund. However, that is not formally advertised or promoted, so it is not necessarily known to claimants unless the adviser makes them aware of it. The additional option of a specific grant within the social fund may be a way of getting around that.
The purpose of my questions is to elicit from the Minister whether the clause will give him the powers to make it clear that additional sorts of grant may be allowable under the social fund, and whether he has considered those ideas.
Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman referred to representations that he received. Has anybody mentioned to him an experience that I have encountered? A number of people in my constituency who have made unsuccessful applications for a raft of benefits have been told to go for the social fund. The result is that the local office in my constituency is often almost inundated with phone calls at certain times of day. An individual will often have to try for literally two days before he gets a response on whether an application may be successful.
Danny Alexander: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The experience that he described has been shared by some of my constituents with regard to crisis loans. Both he and I were at the recent meeting of the all-party group on citizens advice, where Citizens Advice representatives reported that the experience was common to people living in many constituencies. The Minister may therefore wish to deal with the issue of timeliness. Given the nature of social fund payments, which are sometimes for emergencies, especially in the case of crisis loans, what steps are being taken to ensure that telephone lines are answered as quickly as possible so that people do not have the experience that the hon. Member for Caerphilly accurately described?
Within the social fund, what scope does the Minister have to allow additional categories of grant or loan? If he has such powers, is he minded to use them in a particular way, and if he does not, is he minded to take them?
The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): We started in sunshine and, although there have been storm clouds over my right shoulder from time to time, we end in sunshine.
I am delighted to have this opportunity to respond to the debate on clause 54, having spent most of last evening reading the detail of clause 53.
Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): On a point of clarification, I thought I heard the Minister say “reading”, but of course he meant to say “re-reading”.
Mr. Murphy: Sorry, I should have said “writing”.
We turn a little earlier than I had hoped, therefore, to clause 54. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey is right that the clause provides for flexibility in the allocation of funds for discretionary social fund payments. The clause makes it clear that there can be a single nationwide allocation from which loans may be made, so that expenditure can be controlled and managed centrally. A national loans budget, managed centrally, provides all loan applicants in Great Britain with the same treatment. That is crucial to the fairness and transparency of the budgeting loans scheme. In particular, it will ensure that all eligible applicants in the same circumstances will have the same amount of budgeting loan available to them wherever they live.
In response to the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised, as he knows, the social fund already provides regulated grants for easily identifiable life events and situations such as maternity, funeral and cold weather expenses—be the cold weather in Inverness or elsewhere—as he fairly said. The case for further regulated grants needs to be considered in the context of increasing personal responsibility without encouraging worklessness. It is about getting the balance right. For most people, the main route out of poverty is the opportunity to work—work that pays and which, if sustained, leads to a career.
The hon. Gentleman was fair in pointing out that the clause gives a degree of flexibility within a national budget, which is how we want to allocate funds in future.
Danny Alexander: The Minister rightly referred to personal responsibility, and people’s responsibility to get back into work, which is, after all, a major feature of the Bill. My point is that the idea of additional forms of grant within the social fund to aid that process is at least worth considering. Likewise, in Committee, he has rightly often referred to the need to tackle child poverty. I argue that it would be useful, if possible, to restructure the social fund with perhaps more focus on that objective.
Mr. Murphy: Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right. He shares our commitment to the eradication of child poverty, to which the Bill is important. We look forward to his party signing up to the 2020 target before 2020.
The hon. Gentleman raised the specific matter of flexibility, and made a fair point. He reasonably alighted on the fact that the clause contains the power to make different types of grant, and we continue to consider improvements to the social fund scheme, including possible reforms to the community care grant scheme. We have said publicly, and I say again for the record, that we are keen to discuss longer-term reform of the social fund with interested parties, organisations and Members of this House and the other place. The power in the clause is generally welcomed and builds on the progress that we have made on the social fund in recent years, such as lower interest-free loans and additional funding for the next three years of £210 million.
As I said, myself and the Under-Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friends the Members for Stirling and for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), are keen to have conversations with interested parties about the longer-term reform of the social fund, and the clause plays an important part in giving it flexibility.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 54 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 55 to 57 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 6

Schedule to be inserted in the Pneumonoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979
Mr. Murphy: I beg to move amendment No. 110, in schedule 6, page 77, line 19, at end insert—
‘1A A person is not a relevant employer in relation to a person disabled by a disease to which this Act applies if the disabled person has had no period of employment with him which is a qualifying period of employment.’.
Again, we have come to this amendment a little earlier than I anticipated, but I and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East, are as one in our delight that we are making such good progress.
The Pneumonoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 provides for lump-sum payments to be made to people with certain dust-related diseased caused by their work. To qualify for a payment, a person must be unable to take civil action against their employer because that employer is no longer in business. In the Act, that is called the “relevant employer condition.” It became clear within months of the Act coming into force that applying the relevant employer condition meant that most claims would be rejected. The changes that we are making to the 1979 Act will incorporate in legislation a more practical version of the relevant employer condition than officials have been applying since 1980. There will be five circumstances in which an employer will not be regarded as a relevant employer, therefore enabling a person to bring a claim. Without the amendment, those relevant employer disregards that we wish to introduce will not apply in cases in which all periods of employment with the employer ended more than 20 years before the qualifying date.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): Plymouth ranks third in the UK in terms of deaths from mesothelioma, and we believe that the amendment is useful. The dockyard is a single employer, but there was also a myriad of other employers, some of which have gone out of business as the dockyard has declined. This change is very important.
Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is correct, and we know about Plymouth’s traditional role in the shipbuilding industry. Although I do not recall it, I lived in Plymouth much earlier in my life, because my father worked in the shipyards. I believe that it is the furthest city in the UK from Glasgow—which is an interesting and relevant point. Things got so bad that we had to find the furthest point from home.
My hon. Friend, along with many other right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government, is determined to ensure that there is a fairer deal for mesothelioma sufferers. The time that it takes to apply for, process and receive a payment is still, on average, longer than the post-diagnosis life expectancy for mesothelioma sufferers. No one can tolerate that as the status quo. Certainly we in government do not, and I do not think that it is a matter of party political disagreement.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) for the points that he has raised and the dogged determination that he has shown as chair of the all-party group on coalfield communities and that the other members of that group have shown. Technically, it is an all-party group, but I think that all those I met who represent mining communities were Labour Members of Parliament. However, there is consensus that we must go further in supporting people with mesothelioma to get a fairer deal.
In mesothelioma cases, when all employment with the employer began not more than 15 years before the qualifying date, claims for payments of compensation under the 1979 Act might be turned down in some cases in which an extra-statutory payment is currently made. That is not acceptable to the Government, and I do not believe that it would be acceptable to any member of this Committee.
Let me pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions announced in July this year a number of interim measures to ensure faster compensation for those with mesothelioma, as well as his intention to put in place a long-term solution to ensure that, wherever possible, sufferers of mesothelioma receive compensation while alive. He committed to consulting stakeholders on a long-term solution, and the formal consultation period ended on 23 November. We are analysing the responses and next March we will host a mesothelioma summit with stakeholders to discuss the options for action. We have also asked officials to carry out a review of the current industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme, and intend to publish a consultation paper early in 2007.
Finally, I want to make a wider point on the amendment. I have paid tribute previously to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), and I am a close friend of someone who was a colleague of ours, the former Member of Parliament for Clydebank and Milngavie. He played a pivotal role in previous Parliaments on the issue of mesothelioma, and again it is appropriate for me to put on record his determination and the way in which he kept this issue at the forefront of people’s minds in Parliament. Often in Parliament, we think that history began when we arrived in this place. Sometimes we all suffer from that. As I said, we have announced a review of the industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme, and of course there are related issues involving mesothelioma and other matters.
I also want to put on record the continuing admiration of Labour Members for a gentleman by the name of Jim Griffiths, who introduced the first industrial injuries disablement benefit. I think that he was from Carmarthen in Wales.
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Prepared 1 December 2006