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Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, we welcome in principle the introduction of work-focused interviews. However, we continue to have a number of concerns, in particular prematurely introducing the compulsory element before we have all had an opportunity to see with the pilot scheme whether the system is effective. The Minister will recall that during the passage of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill my noble friend Lady Buscombe suggested both in Committee and at Third Reading that the term "work-focused interview" was not at all helpful. She proposed that "personal development interview" would be a better, more positive and less frightening way of describing what is at hand for all those who are required to attend a ONE interview.
In addition, the Government said that three attempts should be made to contact a claimant before his benefits are stopped or his claim rejected (Hansard, 13th April 1999, Standing Committee D on the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill), and I am very pleased to hear that that is being continued. However, can the Minister explain why only five working days are allowed for a claimant to demonstrate good cause for having failed to take part in an interview before a decision will be made?
With reference to compulsion, we continue to question the value of insisting on interviews for those benefit recipients in particular who are sick or who have caring responsibilities when there is no prospect of them being able realistically to consider employment. As we said repeatedly through the passage of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, we would prefer those people to be invited to attend an interview--an invitation which we believe they would accept if and when their particular circumstances enabled them to do so.
Following on from the debate in this House last evening concerning the prospects for lone parents, I believe that it is reasonable to suggest that Members on all sides of the House would prefer this more practical and realistic approach. There is no doubt that the ONE scheme has much to offer in terms of a single
In addition, we shall wait with interest to see what happens to those who do not respond to requests to attend the ONE interview, in which case they will lose their entitlement to benefit altogether. Do the Government really intend to watch those people become homeless and destitute?
Lord Addington: My Lords, I thank the Minister for the informative way in which she introduced the orders. I thank her also for confirming the undertaking that she gave during the course of the Bill to take account of the concerns that I had regarding those with disabilities in relation to the interview. I remember that the noble Baroness told me that those people would have, I believe, 200 hours of training. In an idle moment, I calculated that that would amount to five weeks--
Lord Addington: Over seven weeks. The noble Baroness evidently is feeling in brave form as she said that from the Government Bench. However, I hope that that will prove sufficient to deal with all the problems that those with disabilities have. I also hope that the primary requisite in the training will be to realise that sometimes people do not know what is going on. That is the point that I have always made about ensuring that the training is carried out properly. I have always believed that an expert is the person who bows out occasionally and says that he does not know the answer to something. I hope that that is put across during the training and that the trainees will realise that putting off the matter for a few days may be very important. However, that is a personal point.
The main point of concern from these Benches is, as the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, mentioned, the idea that if people fail through this system conceivably they could be left without any means of legal support. The noble Baroness said that three realistic attempts would be made to contact them and, if we look at the regulations, that seems reasonable. But the fact of the matter is that felons convicted of the most serious crime will still be fed. The danger is that if they fail in this system they will not be fed. They will not have legal access and recourse.
I once worked with a prison reform charity that was trying to get people out of the habit of offending. The majority of the crimes that it dealt with were economically based. My noble friend Lord Russell has pointed out on numerous occasions that we do not know yet the correspondence between disentitlement to benefit and illegal activity--the selling of oneself for sexual purposes, drug trading, petty crime and so on. It is to be hoped that this pilot will give us that information, if we look at the right statistics or look far
Moreover, those who have a reduction in benefit, because they fail to reach an interview, will be pushed towards the situation I have described. The effect will not be so dramatic, but if one is on a low income and loses a percentage, that hits much harder. I think the noble Baroness would agree; it is probably self-evident. These are very real concerns.
The noble Baroness spoke about how people would be chased up, and I noted that she said that people would be trying to get to homes. There will probably be many disorganised people with disorganised domestic arrangements. When I spoke about the interview training I was once again thinking about the number of people who have literacy problems. It has been assessed that some 50 per cent of the prison population has dyslexia, and certainly 50 per cent will have literacy problems--not always in the same group, I hasten to add. It will be very difficult in many cases to reach these people and to get some form of notification to them, and they may not be in places where funds are available. A young person just discharged from prison may well be very difficult to track down, especially if a family relationship has broken down.
I come talking softly, but I hope carrying as big a stick as I can manage when I refer to a letter that appeared in the Independent on 23rd November last year. Signed by my noble friend Lord Russell and Dr Steve Webb, it said that we would support no more disentitlement measures until information from the pilot studies was available to us. When it is, we shall judge according to the evidence. As the Minister knows, we on these Benches regard ourselves as free to vote against regulations. I hope that the noble Baroness will recognise that we have real concerns, and will use all the parliamentary processes available to us to draw attention to them.
Having said that, I appreciate what the Minister said about the disability entitlement, and the sympathy that exists in regard to that. I hope that that attitude will be extended to the other matters that I have raised.
I have only one consideration with regard to the idea of contracting out. It is that any private firm that is used to do the work should have exactly the same standard of training for its employees as has already been discussed with civil servants.
The first point she made was her concern as to whether we had reneged on a commitment not to use the words "work-focused interviews". The words "work-focused interviews" are part of the primary legislation. But I assure her that we listened carefully to the discussion and to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. That is why all the literature and notifications in the ONE pilots will use the term "personal adviser meeting" rather than "work-focused interview". So I believe that we have done everything which she asked for. I hope that she is pleased with that and I am happy to put that on the record.
Secondly, I am happy to confirm that we shall indeed be making three attempts at contact and not just one. There is also the belt-and-braces provision of a home visit in case, by any chance, there has been an administrative error or a mistake in relation to the telephone number, address or whatever. Therefore, the home visit should clarify the position.
The noble Baroness asked why there will be only five working days to demonstrate good cause. In practice, if the client is in a situation where he has failed to attend three meetings, then the personal adviser will wait a full working week before making a decision that that requirement to attend has not been met. We believe that that is adequate, given that we have made every effort to make contact. But even that period can be extended for a further month if a client is unable to contact us within that period because, for example, the client is in hospital. The whole point about the pilot schemes is to enable us to see what the hiccups are and then make a decision as to whether we need to extend our guidance and train our staff accordingly.
Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, asked what may happen to those who become homeless and destitute as a consequence, by losing their benefits. I wish to make two points in that regard.
The first point is that in the 1970s until the previous administration took over, an interview was an integral part of the benefit claim. As far as I recall, there were something like six million interviews per year. It was an integral part of the claim. Over recent years that dwindled down to a few thousand interviews. We have seen fraud grow as a result and people have also developed a very passive attitude towards receiving their giro. Often they do not have a full knowledge of all the benefits to which they are entitled.