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While people who receive DLA as their only benefit will not be subject to the provisions of this clause, people with DLA who then claim a benefit which is covered--for example, income support--will be subject to the requirement to participate in a work-focused interview.
The fact that this clause could apply to recipients of DLA does not mean that all recipients of this benefit will be subject to work-focused interviews. Advisers will be trained and guided to consider each case individually using all the information available to them. They will consider whether a client will benefit from an immediate interview or not. If not, that interview may be waived or deferred. Clearly, if somebody is on DLA, on highest rate care, on what I call the six months or under special rules--that is, they are regarded as having a terminal illness--of course no one is suggesting that compulsory interviews apply.
I can assure your Lordships that these provisions will be applied with appropriate sensitivity. We are working with all the voluntary organisations to ensure that they guide us not only in training staff but in continuing to train and advise staff once the schemes are up and running so that they may stay up-to-date with the knowledge they need.
The argument for including carers within the scope of this clause is the same as that for people with disabilities. Of course we respect and value the role performed by carers. We are emphatically not suggesting that carers give up their caring responsibilities and take a job.
What we are saying is that caring duties do not last for ever. My noble friend Lady Pitkeathley knows infinitely more about this than I ever will. Caring for a child who, for example, will be dependent as an adult may well be a lifetime commitment. Caring, say, for an elderly parent or a seriously ill spouse may not be. We know that the median length of time that someone is on ICA is two years. One quarter of all carers care for around six months or less. Only one-fifth care for more than five years. There is a wide range of experiences here according to whom the carer is caring for.
I therefore endorse the remarks of my noble friend. Carers who are permanently outside the labour market not only become poor but socially and emotionally isolated. When they, in turn, come to need care they may well find that there is no one to care for them. One of the best ways to ensure that carers re-enter full society is to ensure that they remain sensitively and properly in touch through an adviser with the potential to re-enter the labour market as and when they are ready.
As I have said, around 10 to 15 per cent of carers work in spite of the fact that they have heavy caring commitments. Others may wish to do so. We would not want to deny them that opportunity. The same argument applies with respect to widows and widowers. Recently bereaved people must and will be treated with appropriate respect, consideration and compassion. But we must have regard to the individual circumstances of each claimant. In my view, a blanket exclusion of those on attendance allowance or DLA, of carers, widows and widowers would do absolutely nothing to address, meet and reveal individual needs. It would deny many the very help and support they need at a difficult time.
As I have tried to make clear in earlier discussions, the ONE service is not just about jobs, although work for those who can is a central aim. It is also about providing an holistic approach to the welfare needs of each claimant based upon their individual circumstances. If those needs are best met by helping individuals to move towards the labour market, that is what will be provided. If they have different needs, such as help in stabilising their financial position or bereavement counselling, we will provide that help and ensure that those who can at least help them are available to them. Each person will be treated according to their personal needs, which is the basic tenet of ONE.
Many widows and widowers choose to work. Those who have given up work to provide care for their spouses may move back to work quite quickly. Others, if they have children, may wish to stay in touch with the labour market to improve their future employment prospects. We will offer tailored help via their adviser.
The core of the debate is whether access to the additional service of ONE that we wish to provide should be on a voluntary or compulsory basis. In my view the argument here is clear. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, in putting words into my mouth did so entirely accurately. If people have not had the advantages of a new system explained to them, how can they arrive at a sensible conclusion as to whether or not they should volunteer? How can people decide whether or not they want the help the ONE service can give them until someone has told them what help is on offer?
As I said to the House on a previous occasion, I have changed my mind on this issue so far, for example, as concerns lone parents. When I first started at the Dispatch Box I thought that voluntary interviews for lone parents were all that was necessary. I thought that those who were ready would take them up and those who did not come for interview were those with caring responsibilities who would not want to enter the labour market and it was not right to encourage them to do so. I have to say that I have changed my mind. The evidence is overwhelming that the element of compulsion for new lone parents will be essential.
Where interviews are voluntary, we know that 80 per cent of those to whom we extend an invitation do not respond. Yet, of the 20 to 25 per cent of those who do respond, 90 per cent choose voluntarily to join
That is why I say that people do not know what they do not know. When lone parents come in for an interview for the first time they realise what is available to them, as do disabled people, carers, widows or widowers who have perhaps been out of the labour market for some time. Only then can they make an informed choice as to what they want to go on to do. That has been my experience in trying to address the identical issue with lone parents who may have come out of a bad relationship and have dependent children. They need to know. When they do know, they voluntarily make informed choices that suit their needs.
I hope your Lordships will accept that we mean such interviews to be holistic, not just work-focused; to offer a range of information, services and advice about benefits to which they may be entitled; counselling support; debt counselling support; bereavement support that may be necessary; training and childcare opportunities or whatever is appropriate. Most people cannot know that sort of information unless they have come within the purview of that interview.
I take the point about the work-focused interview in relation to the comments expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, some of which I rather sympathise with. In future we shall describe the interviews as "personal adviser meetings" in order to lower the possibility of stress and tension associated with the word "interview". That point was sensitively made and we are, indeed, taking that on board.
The noble Baroness is right to emphasise the need for sensitivity in training among personal advisers. She has seen the training pack. We are working closely with the voluntary organisations to ensure that that training is delicately and sensitively done and, as I say, is holistic.
However, I ask your Lordships not to effectively write off those on DLA with another benefit, widows, widowers and those who are carers, from coming within the range of this service. From my experience with lone parents, if such a "personal adviser meeting" is voluntary, people do not attend. Yet, if they do attend, 90 per cent want and choose to go on the programme and are glad that they do so. Had we not sent the letters out, they would not have come.
My concern is how we reach the rest. If noble Lords were minded to support the amendment there would be a repetition of the same experience. These people would be confined to the edges of society, living on inadequate income and support, with an inadequate social life, because they had not learned of the opportunities that exist.
It is not an onerous requirement. They will attend a simple meeting. If that meeting is inconvenient, if it is deferred because of a person's health or recent bereavement, or if the meeting needs to take place in the person's home in the presence of a friend or a carer, that is acceptable. It is not meant to be threatening or create barriers. It will ensure that people who are pushed to the edges of society as a result of their responsibilities or experiences, have the information with which to join mainstream society. Knowledge is power, and the Government wish to empower people. If the amendment were to be accepted, there would be a risk that they would not have that knowledge and they would effectively be disempowered. I hope that noble Lords will not accept the amendment.
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