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Earl Russell: I shall not repeat what I have said before, but we clearly have a problem here. I accept that the problem does not arise from the Minister's intentions. Clearly at the employment office end the system is not working. The employment officers are finding a large number of people coming in whom they do not feel that they can place. Something therefore must be done to ease the pressure on the Employment Service. Removing the appeal penalty would be one way; accepting a concept of limited availability would be another.
I appreciate that we cannot ask for communications between the Minister and the Employment Service. But is the Minister listening to what is coming back from rank and file employment officers on the ground regarding the effects of this Bill on their daily workload? Is he prepared to do anything to ease that workload? Something must be done because the Minister's intention is not being effected. If the Government can think of any better way than these amendments, I shall listen with a great deal of interest.
Lord Ashley of Stoke: I should like to say a brief word in support of Amendments Nos. 46 and 47. I am particularly anxious that Amendment No. 47 should be accepted by the Minister. If it is not, the Bill as it stands is an inducement to schizophrenia.
The situation is that people who are appealing against a withdrawal of benefit must assert that they are incapacitated; by definition they must plead incapacity. Simultaneously they must satisfy an employment officer that they are fit for and seeking work. They cannot face both ways. The Bill as it stands means that they have no option but to do that. It is an impossible dilemma. If the amendments are accepted, it will provide a solution for them and for the Government.
The CAB informed many of the Members of the Committee this afternoon and gave us brilliant briefings. The CAB is clear that many people who have had incapacity benefit withdrawn will be placed in the position I stated. I accept its word and hope that the Minister will also and that he can do something about it. The CAB also said that it is afraid of a kind of ping-pongits phrase not minewith people in poor health being bounced between the Benefits Agency and the Jobcentre. I am sure that is right. People will go to one agency and be rejected; they will appeal to the other and again be rejected; and so the ping-pong will continue. Vulnerable people will suffer. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will give careful and sympathetic consideration to these amendments.
Lord Inglewood: I shall begin with Amendment No. 46. We understand the concerns which lie behind this amendment. It seeks to recognise that the circumstances of people who have a disability need special consideration. I would assure the Committee that we have taken the needs of people with disabilities into account in drawing up the JSA labour market rules.
We intend to carry forward the current provisions in unemployment benefit and income support which allow a person with a mental or physical condition to place restrictions on the nature, hours, rate of remuneration, locality or other condition of employment which he is prepared to accept where those restrictions are reasonable in view of his condition. I hope that goes some way towards answering the point of the noble Earl, Lord Russell.
In the majority of cases, where a person wants to restrict his availability on health grounds, the employment officer will be able to accept the individual's assessment of the restrictions which are necessary. That is how the current provisions work in practice and we are not aware of any problems to which requirements to produce evidence have given rise. Employment Service staff in Jobcentres, where necessary with the support of disability specialists in placing and counselling teams, will be able to draw on their own knowledge and experience both on the impact of disabilities on occupations and on their effect on a person's prospects in their local labour market. In other cases, including those where the employment officer has any doubt about what is appropriate, the case will be referred to an adjudication officer. Depending on the circumstances, an adjudication officer may wish to seek evidence from the individual to demonstrate that his condition justifies the restrictions that he proposes to place on his availability.
Where a person is found capable of work under incapacity benefit, the disallowance notice will contain information on the functional areas in which limitations were identified. Provided that the claimant has consented, ES staff will be able to ask for this information when a claimant registers with them. That should normally be sufficient, if necessary, to verify the existence of a condition which restricts the type of work
My noble friend Lord Swinfen asked a specific question relating to new regulation 17(a). I should like to give him a full answer. Regulation 17(a) provides for cases where a claimant is incapable of work under the new definitions introduced with incapacity benefit if he wishes to claim unemployment benefit, and in future JSA, rather than incapacity benefit. He can be treated as capable of work for JSA purposes if, despite his disabilities, he can still undertake some forms of work. The provision is therefore a helpful one as it ensures that disabled claimants are not debarred from JSA even if they could be eligible for incapacity benefit.
In answer to the specific questions raised by my noble friend, first, the regulation deals only with the question of capacity. Once the claimant qualifies for JSA under it, he has shown only that he can be treated as capable for work and must then still go on to agree availability arrangements and, of course, look for work. Secondly, given the type of claimant concerned, it is, however, quite clear that in virtually all cases there would need to be agreed restrictions on availability. These will be agreed exactly as for any other disabled claimant in line with the nature of the disability. It is worth remembering that in both these questions we are dealing with volunteerspeople who are keen to find work and have chosen JSA. In those circumstances, we do not anticipate major difficulties agreeing sensible availability arrangements.
I shall now move on to other points raised. If a blind person on incapacity benefit decides to sign on, he will make a claim for JSA. The Employment Service adjudication officer must decide whether he satisfies the regulation, because we are looking at evidence which is concerned with the claimant's ability to undertake work. This is a labour market issue. As the regulation makes clear, the AO will take into account any recent work or training record. If there is none, he can take into account any other factors he considers appropriate in deciding whether the claimant has a reasonable chance of obtaining work despite the fact that he has disabilities which would normally allow him to claim benefit as incapable of work. It should not be necessary for a blind claimant who is made redundant to have to go separately to the Benefits Agency for an assessment of incapacity before his claim can be decided. Our intention is to operate procedures which are as simple as possible for claimants who want to seek work.
I return to the amendment. It would involve prescribing what evidence an adjudication officer may require. I cannot agree that that would help the jobseeker or the adjudication officer. Adjudication officers make their decisions on the basis of the facts available. He should not be constrained in the evidence he may seek; similarly, what evidence the claimant may wish to provide should be up to him.
I now turn to Amendment No. 47. I have made clear that we want to include people with disabilities in JSA, not exclude them. But this amendment could mean that people with disabilities or indeed anyone dissatisfied
Where a person appeals against a decision that he is capable of work, he will be able to claim JSA pending the outcome of his appeal if he makes himself available and looks for work. I appreciate that noble Lords may be concerned that that will prejudice his appeal. Let me reassure your Lordships. That will not be the case. The adjudicating authorities have made it clear in their judgments, and the chief adjudication officer has confirmed in published guidance, that making themselves available for work should not in any way prejudice their appeal.
There may be some people who do not wish to make themselves available for work pending their appeal. Existing invalidity benefit claimants, those in receipt of severe disability allowance and others who have been incapacitated for 28 weeks as of 12th April this year will be able to get their full income support personal allowance pending their appeal, if found capable at their first "all work" test. Any other person who first claims incapacity benefit on or after 13th April this year can also claim income support pending the appeal, but the personal allowance will be reduced by 20 per cent.
Lord Swinfen: I thank my noble friend for his answer, which has been long and involved. I should like to study it. Some more questions have come to mind during the course of this short debate. However, because I have not given my noble friend advance knowledge of them, he may prefer not to answer them now but to write to me.
At Report stage in the other place the Minister promised to ask the Secretary of State for Social Security to consult the Secretary of State for Health about how to encourage general practitioners to provide medical evidence free of charge to claimants who need it for the purposes of placing restrictions on their availability. Can my noble friend tell me whether there has been any progress with those discussions? More generally on that point, will he look again at the possibility of paying for medical evidence of that kind?
However, I understand that current unemployment benefit rules states exactly the opposite. The word "not" may have been lost in the reporting. But as this is a most important issue, can my noble friend clarify the point? If restrictions that are placed on availability for work because of physical or mental condition are considered to be reasonable, does the claimant then have to demonstrate that he still has a reasonable prospect of finding work?
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