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Baroness Buscombe: I support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Rix. Disabled people face many barriers to education, training and employment. In principle, personal advisers could bring a much-needed individual approach, provided that the adviser has the appropriate training, qualifications and resources. As I have already stated in connection with the previous amendments, making the personal adviser interview compulsory and linking it with the claims process risks undermining any value which the interview could have for claimants and may also worsen their health.

Clause 52 requires all claimants to participate in a work-focused interview as a condition of receipt of benefit. The Disability Benefits Consortium and ourselves believe that the term "work-focused" is misleading and does not reflect the full objectives of the interview or the range of support which should be offered to claimants.

Much has been said on previous amendments about raising fear in people's minds. In practice, much of that fear stems from the terminology used in the Bill. The description "work-focused interviews" is raising alarm among many people who are terrified of the prospect that if they cannot come up to speed in an interview which is aimed at work, they will somehow be penalised and their benefits diminished. Therefore, I suggest that consideration should perhaps be given to the words "work-focused".

The severity of the condition of claimants with severe disabilities will rule out paid employment. Those are not, by definition, people who are unemployed and available for work but people who are incapable of work and have been so for at least six months. Disabled people who can work may require welfare, either in support of independent living or to top up low earnings. But tying the interview into an incapacity benefit claim means that people are being required to discuss work prospects--that is a problem--before their capacity for work and, hence, eligibility for benefit has been assessed; at a point when they are seeking help precisely because they are not well enough to work and when they may be very ill and distressed; and at a time determined by when they make the claim rather than when they may be able to make best use of job advice.

If the amendment is not accepted, we believe that the following consequences can be expected. Claimants will feel undermined, harassed and burdened by the requirement and will be likely to perceive the interview as a hurdle in the benefit claim rather than a genuine

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offer of help, with any existing anxiety or depression exacerbated. In addition, in particular, claimants with an invisible impairment, such as mental health problems, chronic fatigue or pain, will feel under extra pressure because of their disability, which will not be obvious to the adviser. They will be faced with having to justify and explain their incapacity one more time.

We believe that claimants may be steered into ill-advised courses of action if the emphasis is on work regardless of its consequences for health, or if they think that the advice they are given has to be followed. Further, some people will not be able to cope with attending for an interview; for example, because of their mental state and the anxieties generated by the process of claiming benefits. In that case, their claim will not go forward unless there is support to enable them to take part, to show that they are exempt or have good cause not to take part. We believe also that the interviews could become a formality, especially if advisers are seeing the majority of claimants, not just those who can make best use of the interview. Therefore, we question the value of interviews.

I turn to Amendment No. 114, which concerns advocacy support for a claimant during the interview process. We recognise, as does the Disability Benefits Consortium, that interviews will be unworkable for some claimants with intellectual and sensory impairments or claimants with mental health problems unless they are permitted to be accompanied by an appropriate advocate. I think I am right in saying that the Minister made reference in her opening statement to the ability of claimants to take with them an advocate, and I appreciate that.

We believe that there should be a statutory provision for all claimants to have a right to advocacy support. The Disability Benefits Consortium supports us on this point, further suggesting that it would welcome a commitment that interview-related expenses incurred by advocates would be met by the agency. The noble Lord, Lord Rix, referred to that. However, in that regard, one might question the level of advocacy, and the level of expenses, which could be added to the support of this initiative. We therefore support both the amendments.

6 p.m.

Lord Addington: We, on these Benches, support the thrust of the amendments. I strongly agree that to call in for interview a person with a long-term unchanging disability, to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, may ultimately be a waste of time.

That applies especially if, as the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, said, the interviews are work focused. I believe that the terminology here has led to a great deal of worry. I suspect that the number of amendments to this clause might have been halved if that term had been changed. Many people who have tremendous difficulties in work have been extremely worried by the emphasis on everything being work related.

The noble Baroness mentioned advocacy support during the interviews. Further enlightenment on that point would be helpful. Such support is essential if the interviews are to be of any use. I believe an amendment

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has been tabled concerning the deaf-blind. Such people have all normal means of communication denied to them. Without advocacy support, they will be totally and utterly helpless in such situations. If information cannot be extracted from them or given to them, the Bill will be irrelevant and meaningless to them. I am sure that the noble Baroness will say that such people are already covered, but it will not hurt to have it said again. Even if the noble Lord, Lord Rix, does not intend to move the amendments, I suggest that an answer now would be helpful to us at later stages of the Bill.

Lord Davies of Coity: I am in some difficulty as regards the description of "severely disabled" in the same way as I was with the previous amendment and the description of "mental difficulties". It seems to me that the term "severely disabled" covers a range, unless there is just one category, of which I am not aware. Of course, if a person is severely disabled and bedridden, obviously he or she would not be able to attend for interview. Someone else would, quite rightly, claim the benefit on his or her behalf.

I would say that someone is severely disabled if he or she is in a wheelchair. However, the opportunity for such people to undergo an interview, with an opportunity to work, which they may want, is available to them. I am sure that all noble Lords will be able to think of many situations in which people who are described as "severely disabled" are still able to fulfil some employment function, which they would want to do. At the end of the day, it will be voluntary and their choice. The whole exercise here is providing choices, opportunities and information to enable people to exercise the right and entitlement that we think is theirs.

Therefore, I would have some difficulty in supporting an amendment which refers to "severely disabled" but which does not define the people about whom we are talking.

Lord Addington: Perhaps I may briefly follow up that point. I am afraid that the answer has to be either regulations or a much longer Bill to try to achieve more definition, as I am sure everybody involved in this field will know.

Lord Milverton: I hope that the Minister is able to respond positively to the two amendments. They put forward an important point of principle. I am sure that there are cases in which severely disabled people would need somebody to assist them when it comes to an interview.

Lord Rix: Perhaps I may be permitted to interrupt briefly. I expressed the view that I would be more than satisfied if the Minister were able to give an assurance that guidance on both the interview and advocacy were spelt out very clearly. I would consider that to be adequate at present.

I agree that there is a difficulty in describing a severe disability, particularly one which would render an interview useless. I hate to quote again the case of my daughter, which I have done previously, but she is one of probably a quarter of a million people with a very

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severe learning disability who would not benefit in any shape or form from an interview. She would not know what the interview was about. She would not recognise the interviewer. She would probably use incoherent or offensive language, if she responded at all. She might well be stark naked in bed and unable to be moved out of her room when the interview takes place. She might change her clothes eight, 10, or 14 times a day. She might well be enjoying herself getting through in a wheelchair to a specially-constructed seat.

However, I think we could safely say that she, and probably another quarter of a million sons and daughters like her, are quite incapable of attending an interview or being interviewed. I cannot believe that it is not beyond the wit of the Government to issue guidance in this direction.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: I rise briefly to support the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, on Amendment No. 95. I could not possibly hope to expand upon his speeches tonight. I should also like to register my support for Amendment No. 114 with regard to advocacy support. I have a question for the noble Lord, Lord Rix, when he comes to reply after the Minister has replied to the Committee.

The Minister referred to the fact that she anticipates that it will continue to be a right of people at the gateway interview to take along an advocate who is able to assist them on their behalf. I welcome her commitment tonight. I also note that in another place the Minister, Andrew Smith, gave the assurance that people who need help will be able to take someone with them, whether that person be a friend, a parent or an advocate in whatever sense.

He went on to argue that it was not necessary for the right to advocacy to be put on the face of the Bill, simply because in a sense one could replicate the procedure at present.

I am advised by MIND and MACA that unless the right to advocacy is enshrined in the Bill there could be occasions when individuals are not aware of the possibility of taking someone with them to an interview. They are concerned that the staff might not make that known to them or might refuse permission for an advocate to be present. Perhaps this is a matter on which the Minister could give further assurances tonight which would satisfy the Committee.

My mind was opened further than usual this morning when I was fortunate enough to attend a parliamentarians' seminar on deaf awareness training. That made me far more aware than I had been--I regret that I had not been aware before--of how important it is for advocates to appear on behalf of a wide group of people with hearing problems.

I have a question for the noble Lord, Lord Rix. I thought that I would be able to support him entirely--as is my habit. However, I was concerned by his remarks at the very end of his speech when he referred to some form of advocacy support system. I had anticipated that his amendment would amount to a nil cost to the Treasury and that one could take along a

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McKenzie friend to act on one's behalf without there being any green-form scheme or payment from the Treasury. I hope that is what the noble Lord means. Perhaps I misunderstood him, but I thought he suggested that the Government should provide a group of people, who would be paid for by the DSS or some other government organisation, to play an advocacy role. I hope that I am wrong about that.


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