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Baroness Buscombe: I still feel somewhat concerned about the reference to the local authority. My understanding is that this is the first reference under this clause to "the local authority". It is therefore very important that the parameters within which it works and its powers are clearly set out.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: It is not so much that the local authorities will have the powers. We are trying to integrate a range of benefits, from JSA, IS and IB through to housing benefit and council tax benefit. We shall probably include CSA as well. Wherever anyone goes first to claim any one of those benefits--which will normally probably be JSA or IS--they will come into the "one" system. The advisers in the four basic pilots are, for the most part, ES or BA advisers rather than local authority advisers. It is possible that the "one" service could be within a local authority context.

However, the important point is that all personal advisers, whether they come from local authorities, the Employment Service, or the BA, will all have been exposed to the extremely intensive and extensive training I mentioned. So in terms of their skills--apart from some very particular areas of expertise--at the end of the training period they should be virtually interchangeable. I suspect that most local authorities may not be involved in this at all, but where they are so

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involved and their staff come forward, they will be going through the same training procedures as ES and BA staff. I hope that that explains the position.

Baroness Buscombe: Except that, with regard to these regulations, surely it is the Secretary of State who should be accountable at the end of the day.

I have listened with interest to what the noble Baroness has said. I should like to have the opportunity of reading Hansard. I may well return to this subject at a later stage, but for the moment I am happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 110 to 114 not moved.]

Baroness Buscombe moved Amendment No. 115:


Page 61, line 44, at end insert (", conducted in a location appropriate to the person")

The noble Baroness said: This amendment is designed to ensure that the interviews take place in premises which are appropriate for claimants. It highlights the important obligation on the part of the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service to ensure that interviews are conducted in premises which are accessible to as many disabled people as possible, including wheelchair users and those with sensory impairments. There are other disabled people, including those with learning difficulties, who have essential dietary, toilet and personal care routines that need to be taken into account.

Some people may wish to ensure that they have a companion with them for the interview, and of course we have already touched on that, although, as I would suggest, there may be a difference between having a companion with them and someone who is an advocate. There are also those who may be quite unable to take part in an interview without support. For some people an interview at home at a convenient time might be the preferred option. However, it should not be assumed that just because persons have a particular disability they should automatically be interviewed at home.

We should also perhaps refer to home interviews, in the light of what the noble Baroness has explained to us regarding the interview process this evening. She stated that the personal advisers would be working together as a team within the interview centre; of course that advantage is lost when an interview takes place at home. Many people with mental health problems, for example, find home interviews by the Benefits Agency stressful and intrusive, as their home may be the only place where they can feel safe.

There is no reason to believe that the idea of a work-focused interview would be any less threatening. The claimant should be consulted and given the opportunity to choose between an interview at home and an alternative location. So we shall be looking to the Minister for assurances on that. The single work-focused gateway should be implemented, we believe, as a service to individual claimants. It should take account of individual needs rather than rely solely on what is convenient for the interviewer. Personal advisers must be flexible enough to take account of individual circumstances.

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We therefore feel that the location of the interview is very important and that the option should be left entirely with the claimant to decide where the interview should take place. We should bear in mind what the noble Baroness has said in relation to advisers and their ability to work together; if the interviews take place in the home there may be some disadvantage in terms of the amount of expertise available. I beg to move.

Lord Addington: This amendment is interesting in that it seems to be directed at the simple principle of what is appropriate for an individual with certain special needs. I would hope that the Minister would be able to embrace this concept when she replies. We spoke earlier about having pigeon-holes for various people and we are trying to put people into various pigeon-holes according to their varying needs. I would suggest that having this degree of flexibility within the whole process is important. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that it will be present and that she will be able to tell us where to find it when we look through the Bill.

Lord Rix : May we also have an assurance that home visits are not a policy of last resort?

9.30 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Again, I hope to persuade noble Lords that this amendment is not necessary. The amendment presses for the interview to be conducted in an appropriate location. The "one" service is designed to improve the service that we provide to clients of the benefits system. It is a central part of what we are trying to do. We see the interviews very much as an opportunity and as important in the life of clients. We want them to take place in appropriate and pleasant surroundings in which they will feel confident and relaxed and will be forthcoming. We are not talking about a situation in which the language of sanctions and the like applies. We are attempting to achieve a totally different culture.

There are many aspects to this. We will ensure that all "one" delivery sites provide access for disabled people, and facilities to enable them to use the service effectively. We will make provision for home visits by personal advisers where that is appropriate. For example, if a client has caring responsibilities that mean it is impossible to leave home, the personal adviser will consider conducting the interview there.

The noble Lord, Lord Rix, asked for an assurance that the home visit would not be a last resort. We do not know what proportion of interviews will be conducted on home visits; it could perhaps be 20 per cent. So it will certainly not be a last resort. The only point at which a home visit will be a last resort is in the case of someone failing to attend, especially for a deferred interview, or for a "trigger" interview, and we are not confident that we have made contact with that person. At that point, a home visit will be a last resort to make sure that the person

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is at the given address. Only in that context do we see it as a last resort. But we expect the initial interview to take place in an office made available to disabled people. If that is not appropriate, a home visit will certainly follow.

In the pilot areas we have selected sites on the basis of minimising the chances of anyone having to travel more than 45 minutes to their local office. We want the environment to be relaxed, friendly and helpful; and we want people to notice the difference on entering.

As a result of the pressures that noble Lords have properly put on me during the course of discussion to give undertakings about the atmosphere and culture of the "one" interviews, I hope that I have been able to reassure the Committee in terms of the number of specific commitments that I have made. In the light of that reassurance I hope that noble Lords will accept that there is no need to place the requirement for the interviews to be conducted in an appropriate location on the face of the Bill. That is at the heart of what we seek to do. Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Buscombe: A great deal is being taken on trust. In relation to so much of what we are asking, we have to wait and see. In that sense, we are dealing very much with a framework. Therefore, I ask the Minister to bear with us. It is important that we raise a number of these amendments. We have no idea merely from reading the Bill what we are in for.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. That was in no sense a criticism. It is exactly what a probing amendment should do; namely, to extract commitments from the Government by which their pilots and other schemes can be judged. It is entirely appropriate at Committee stage. So I assure the noble Baroness that in no sense is any criticism implied--on the contrary.

Baroness Buscombe: I thank the noble Baroness; no criticism is taken. We seek reassurance. With regard to the location, I hope that the noble Baroness will accept and take on board the importance that we place on accessibility in terms of the interview location being an integral part of the system; and also that, where individuals are invited for interview, the option of interview in the home could be included in all invitation letters. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


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