1 Feb 2012 : Column 267WH
1 Feb 2012 : Column 267WH
Wednesday 1 February 2012
[Hywel Williams in the Chair]
Work Capability Assessments
I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise the issue of work capability assessments, and I note that the number of right hon. and hon. Members present indicates a degree of interest that merits us having a debate that is often misrepresented. From the outset, I must make two important points. First, I support the principle behind work capability assessments; some Members are against them in principle, but I am not. I agree that those who seek sickness benefit should be assessed to determine their fitness for work. Of all the many constituents who have contacted me on the matter over almost two years, none has disagreed with the principle behind an assessment—that people who can work ought to be helped into work where jobs are available. There are many benefits, which I have seen for myself with constituents who have been able to find work, although they previously thought that they might not work again. Those benefits are not merely economic but relate to health and well-being, and we should not confuse the debate by suggesting otherwise.
To support the principle, however, does not mean ignoring the current chaos of the work capability assessment in practice. Increasingly, over the past 12 months in particular, we have seen a chaotic process, which takes an inordinate amount of time, causes great anxiety for many, takes up huge amounts of public money, especially in the appeals process, and is doing a disservice both to those who want to get back to work and to those who will not be able to work.
The Government, in particular the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), with whom I have discussed the situation in the Chamber and in meetings a number of times, have a habit of deflecting responsibility for how the system operates. Too often, the Minister has a ready excuse for the failings of the work capability assessment. Sometimes, he blames the previous Government, and sometimes he claims that people need to have patience to allow reforms to bed in, but I am not sure that I have ever heard him accept responsibility for the mess that the system is currently in. Part of the reason for that mess is the speed of the roll-out, despite the warnings of the pilot process and the report of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions.
About 11,000 people a week currently undergo the work capability assessment. Between 40% and 70% of those who appeal their assessment win their appeals, depending on whether they are represented. Is it any
1 Feb 2012 : Column 268WH
wonder that the cost of appeals is on track to reach £60 million for 2011-12, up by £20 million on the previous year? Is it any wonder that the number of tribunal service staff has increased by 30% since January 2010? Is it any wonder that tribunal centres, including the one in my area, in Hamilton, now operate on Saturdays to cope with the huge backlog of appeals? The system may have been put in place before the Minister took office, but by signing off on the nationwide roll-out, which has clogged the system, and by not dealing with the defects, the Government now have ownership of the problems and should be dealing with them.
Professor Malcolm Harrington, in his first review of the work capability assessment, made a number of important recommendations to improve the system. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions welcomed the report and said that he fully endorsed the recommendations. The Minister said:
“We fully endorse Professor Harrington’s recommendations... We believe that the principles of the assessment are right, but that the system which we inherited contained some flaws that risked undermining its effectiveness. We have moved swiftly to put those right.”
Yet in Harrington’s review of the second year, published in November last year, he made it clear that the users of the system, including benefit claimants and the organisations working with them, have seen no difference. The review cited one survey by the Disability Benefits Consortium, which asked 439 welfare rights advisers during the summer of last year whether they had noticed any improvement since the first Harrington review: an incredible 75% reported no change and fewer than 4% saw improvements. That is a damning indictment of the Government’s failure to implement proper change to make the system fairer, not only for those who use it but for the taxpayers who fund it.
One example of the Government’s failure to follow through on its welcome of Harrington’s recommendations relates to the performance of Atos Healthcare. Atos is the multi-billion-pound French IT firm that receives £100 million a year from the Department for Work and Pensions to carry out the work capability assessment. The Atos website, which I am sure the Minister is as familiar with as I am, boasts of global turnover of €8.7 million; Atos employs 78,500 people around the world.
Mr Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Before my hon. Friend goes into details about why Atos is probably failing as a medical assessment organisation, does he agree that part of the problem begins with the attitude of many of the staff engaged by Atos and their total unprofessionalism?
Tom Greatrex: My hon. Friend is entirely right. I have been contacted in the run-up to the debate by a variety of organisations giving me examples, and I have others from my own constituents, of how the process has failed and how it works and does not work. The process does not properly take account of a whole range of issues, from people with fluctuating or mental health conditions down to how people feel and how they are treated when they go into the assessment—for example, the people doing the assessments not making eye contact or asking leading questions to get an answer that is nothing to do with the health conditions.
1 Feb 2012 : Column 269WH
Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): I became a Member of Parliament in 2010 and, right from the start, people expressed concerns to me about the work capability assessment, which was introduced by the previous Government. Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that Atos was hired by that previous Labour Government? Were some of the concerns that he was beginning to talk about exhibited at that stage, or are they only coming to light now?
Tom Greatrex: I do not know why the hon. Lady says “Ah!” from a sedentary position as though that was some great revelation, because no one has suggested anything else. After the pilots, the Select Committee report highlighted issues that should then have been dealt with, but rather than dealing with them, the Minister decided to roll out the process. That is the root of the problems, such as the huge backlog of appeals, the huge cost to the public purse of dealing with those appeals and the huge anxiety and concern of many people. Many people have worked for a number of years and now find themselves, through no fault of their own, unable to continue in their previous line of work, and they would appreciate help to get into work; many others, frankly, are no longer able to work. The process was rolled out without its problems being addressed first, and given how the system is operating, those concerns are now coming home to roost.
Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Some of us who were Members before 2010 expressed concern to the previous Government. A serious issue in my constituency is the higher incidence than the national average of mental health problems, and some of those people affected have come to see me. One brave gentleman explained exactly how he had gone through the process, which involved a half-hour interview and a tick-box approach that did not take into account the challenges of mental health. As with many of my constituents with mental health problems, he would really like to work, but that short, sharp, tick-box system is not how to help people. I am sure my hon. Friend agrees.
Tom Greatrex: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Such issues were among those identified. My contention is that those problems should have been dealt with before the system was rolled out further, and we are now dealing with the consequences of those decisions.
The Atos half-yearly report for 2011 was very upbeat. It noted that operating margins had increased year on year to €166 million—an 11% increase from the first half of 2010. Its operating margin in the UK in 2011 was a healthy €34 million. The outlook for the second half of 2011 was similarly rosy: Atos expected profits to increase by 6.2%. I say all that not to congratulate Atos and marvel at how successful it has been, but to preface my next remarks.
1 Feb 2012 : Column 270WH
“better communication between Decision Makers and Atos healthcare professionals to deal with borderline cases”.
“Decision Makers already contact Atos healthcare professionals to discuss individual case issues in some instances… we will ensure this happens more often… Agreed measures will be adopted nationally during 2011.”
“Atos Healthcare Professional deployment in Benefit Centres has been trialled and has proven to be an effective way of improving communications to discuss borderline cases.”
“at the end of the trial, Atos health care professional capacity pressures meant that the initiative could not be continued. From the start of December, DWP and Atos have agreed the implementation of a telephone helpline so that Decision Makers can speak directly to health care professionals to obtain medical advice in specific cases. This is an interim arrangement until Atos are in a position to reintroduce the deployment of health care professionals in benefit centres.”—[Official Report, 20 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 1082W.]
That is a hugely significant development. This may have been due to when I tabled the question or when the Minister chose to answer it, but he slipped that answer out just before the Christmas holidays. The fact that Government policy is not being followed by a company in receipt of £100 million of taxpayer funding a year will startle many of my constituents and, I am sure, the constituents of many other right hon. and hon. Members.
I should be grateful to the Minister if he gave me answers to a number of questions. What exactly does the phrase “capacity pressures” mean? Does it mean that Atos cannot recruit the right number of health care professionals to undertake its work? Is it unable to fulfil its contractual obligations because of the amount of work that it has to get through? What discussions has he had with Atos about those capacity pressures? Does he believe that they undermine the ability of Atos to fulfil its responsibilities under the contract? What other services have been withdrawn as a result of capacity pressures in Atos? I am sure that if he is not able to answer, I will find a way of crafting written questions to get the answers from him.
To me, the phrase “capacity pressures” implies an undermining of the way in which the Government sought to deal with these issues, which was by saying that Harrington’s recommendations would be implemented in full. If that is not happening in the instance to which I have referred and perhaps in other instances because of capacity pressures in Atos, is that not a damning indictment of the failure of the system as it is currently set up?
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP):
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to the House. No one decries the need for profit, but is it not time that we got away from profit and on to service delivery? Does the hon. Gentleman share my concerns about
1 Feb 2012 : Column 271WH
many patients who go through the process of a work capability assessment and particularly those with cancer, whose health deteriorates when they experience more stress? There should be an emphasis on people’s health, rather than on the profit at the end of the year.
Tom Greatrex: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He puts his finger on a very important point. I am referring to the anxiety and concern that the process causes people, particularly if they are waiting for an assessment. If they enter the appeal process when they have had an assessment, they could wait up to eight months for an appeal. There is an issue about the whole of that process. Long time scales are involved because of the sheer number of people who are being dealt with—or not being dealt with. At the same time, we should never forget that those individuals are trying to deal with the process, and they are feeling huge anxiety. Particularly if they are already unwell, that could well affect their health. That is an important point.
Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he, like me, see constituents who are caught in a cycle, in that they get zero points when they go for the work capability assessment, they wait seven months for an appeal, the decision is overturned and they immediately receive another letter asking them to take part in another round of assessments? Does he agree that the stress and anxiety being placed on people with very serious conditions is unacceptable?
Tom Greatrex: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will go on to highlight the case of one of my constituents that I do not believe is atypical of the experience of many right hon. and hon. Members’ constituents. They get caught up in a process that seems never to end, and as my hon. Friend says, that does their health no good at all.
Last December, Citizens Advice published a damning report on the work capability assessment. One of its recommendations was that financial sanctions should be imposed on Atos for the number of incorrect assessments that it makes. As we all know, the taxpayer forks out millions of pounds on the appeals process, to clear up the incorrect decisions initially made by Atos. The Minister takes a strong interest in Scottish affairs. He may well have seen Scotland Office questions a couple of weeks ago. His colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, advised me that he and the Secretary of State for Scotland had discussed the issue with Professor Harrington and that they believed it would be addressed. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case? What time scale has he in mind for financial penalties? Does he believe that Atos should compensate the taxpayer for its performance—its failure in many cases? I should be grateful to the Minister if he clarified the Government’s position on that issue.
Ninety minutes is not sufficient time to debate fully the myriad issues that surround the work capability assessment. I could easily fill the time myself by highlighting its flaws and asking the Minister questions. I am sure that he will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to do that. I intend to make just a couple more remarks and then to allow other hon. Members to speak.
1 Feb 2012 : Column 272WH
Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I am intervening in case he is not about to move on to the issue that I want to raise. There are real problems for people with sensory impairment—a number of charities have come together on this issue—because the whole concept of being in the workplace is to be able to perform any task accurately and swiftly. That is key in the workplace. Does he recognise the pressure that those charities are bringing to bear, in that more emphasis should be placed on the guidance that any activity should be able to be undertaken “safely, reliably and repeatedly”?
Tom Greatrex: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is no good having someone go to an assessment if the fact that they can sit in a chair or pick up a box and move it once from one part of a room to another means that they are considered able to carry out a task that they may be asked to do repeatedly or continuously in a potential job. That point has been made by a number of organisations that have contacted me about the work capability assessment in the past few days.
I will put to the Minister a few more questions, to which I hope he will respond. They arise from concerns that have been raised by individuals who have contacted me to pass on their experiences of the work capability assessment. Can the Minister confirm whether Atos approved health care professionals are bound by the Official Secrets Act? If they are not, can he confirm whether there are any legally binding conditions, aside from the normal patient confidentiality rules, that prevent Atos approved health care professionals from discussing their experience of the work capability assessment?
As the first Harrington review pointed out, audio recording of the work capability assessment could drive up the quality of assessments by improving assessor and claimant behaviour. Late last year, the Minister advised that he was considering the outcome of the trial in Newcastle of the audio recording of assessments. Will he update the House on when he expects to reach a conclusion on that and whether he will publish the outcome of the trial to ensure full transparency on the issue? He will be aware of the freedom of information request submitted to his Department. Given that many other organisations routinely record their conversations with members of the public to ensure that they are meeting the necessary standards—those organisations range from banks to train companies; I think that even the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority does it—it should be considered. We need to move on from the trial as quickly as possible. Will the Minister update us on the outcome of the trial?
Individuals who undergo the work capability assessment complete a quality survey to rate the performance of Atos. The survey takes place after the assessment has been completed, but before the claimant is made aware of its findings, which is rather like asking someone for a product evaluation as they leave the shop, before they have had a chance to use the product.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab):
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is unacceptable that people have to travel 20 miles from the sizeable town of Llanelli to Carmarthen, a local town, where they then find themselves in a lift that does not reach the correct floor, and has a step that
1 Feb 2012 : Column 273WH
leads to a floor without adequate fire escape facilities? Will he ask the Minister what inspections are made of the premises used by Atos with regard to their accessibility for the vulnerable people who have to use them?
Tom Greatrex: My hon. Friend makes an important and pertinent point that I hope the Minister will address. It is a real concern if some of the facilities used by people undertaking a work capability assessment are in such a state.
Pamela Nash (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this crucial debate. My constituents share the same assessment centre that my hon. Friend’s constituents use in Hamilton, and their experiences suggest that the building is not suitable for carrying out a work capability assessment. It has no disabled access and the car park is 80 yards from the front door. People are only supposed to walk 40 yards, and they feel as if they are being tricked before the assessment takes place.
Another problem is that information is unofficially gathered during the assessments. One of my constituents is deaf, but he was told that he could not possibly be deaf because he heard his name being called in the waiting room. Clearly, while he was waiting he was looking at the door in order to lip-read. Have my hon. Friend’s constituents shared experiences such as those at the Atos centre in Hamilton?
Tom Greatrex: My hon. Friend makes a couple of important points. In some ways, a deaf constituent being told that he is not deaf because he heard his name being called is symptomatic of the attitude held by some of the people who carry out the assessments. I am sure that all hon. Members have heard about such experiences from a number of constituents, and it does the principle of helping people into work a gross disservice.
Although it is important to determine whether Atos staff are polite, courteous and accommodating to individuals undergoing the work capability assessment, the most important issue for my constituents is whether Atos gets its assessment right. I suspect that, if the quality survey were completed after the results of the assessment were known, rather than before, the feedback would be substantially different. Will the Minister undertake to consider that issue further, with a view to obtaining a more realistic overview of the claimant’s experience than that currently recorded in the quality survey?
I will conclude by highlighting the case of a constituent that I think best encapsulates all that is wrong with the current system. The Minister is aware of this case, and he was kind enough to meet me last year to discuss it. Nevertheless, I want to put it on the record because, as I said in response to an intervention, I believe that this example is not atypical of many people’s experiences.
My constituent, who wishes to retain anonymity, suffers from Parkinson’s disease. I am no expert on that condition, and I possess only a rudimentary level of knowledge about the illness. I do know, however, that it is an incurable progressive condition, as I am sure Members are all aware. Like many sufferers of Parkinson’s disease, my constituent has good days and bad days.
1 Feb 2012 : Column 274WH
His condition may deteriorate rapidly, or it may get worse over a long period of time—we do not know. We do know, however, that he will not get better.
Despite his condition, my constituent has undergone two work capability assessments, and on both occasions he was found to be fit for work. On both occasions he appealed the decision and was successful in that appeal. Late last year, however, he was called for yet another assessment. Where is the sense in that? If my constituent has an incurable progressive condition and was found to be unfit for work after his first appeal, why was he called in for a second assessment? If he was found to be unfit for work after the second appeal, why was he called for a third assessment?
I understand the need for the continuous assessment of people with conditions that may improve and mean that the individual in question can return to work, and I accept the principle of regular assessment. Being in receipt of employment and support allowance should not automatically mean that someone is on benefits for life. Nevertheless, common sense must be applied. If an individual is never going to get better, why should we reassess them? It is a waste of my constituent’s time and energy—it takes a considerable amount of energy to get to the assessment and the appeals—and it is a waste of taxpayers’ funds. As we know, the cost to the tribunal service of dealing with appeals is projected to be £60 million this year.
Think of the amount of money that has been spent on that one case. There was the original ESA50 limited capability for work questionnaire, the first assessment and the decision maker’s process after the initial WCA, followed by the first appeal and the necessary post-appeal work that must be carried out by Jobcentre Plus staff. That process was repeated a second—now third—time, and will no doubt be repeated again and again until the Government decide to stop the revolving door of continuous assessment and appeal processes that many people have to undergo. Some people are not going to get better or be any fitter for work after the third assessment than they were after the first or second.
As I have made clear, I believe the work capability assessment to be right in principle but wrong in practice. Although its flaws were clear and highlighted by the pilot process and the Work and Pensions Committee report, the Government went ahead with the nationwide roll-out. I have put a number of questions to the Minister, and I am sure we will hear from many other hon. Members. He should address those questions and not seek to avoid them by laying the blame elsewhere. My constituents, and many people in the country, do not object to an assessment to determine someone’s fitness to work. They do, however, object to a system that seems more concerned with hounding those who cannot work, rather than helping those who want to work.
Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab):
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing this debate. I have long been concerned with this issue, and it has been raised by the citizens advice bureau in Wigan and by my constituents. The level of accuracy in the work capability assessment reports is staggeringly low.
1 Feb 2012 : Column 275WH
More than one third of local decisions are overturned on appeal, and as my hon. Friend has mentioned, there are long delays to both the initial assessment and the appeal. Worryingly, however, in 60% of decisions overturned on appeal, the claimants scored no points at all in the work capability assessment. In 87% of cases, people were awarded six points or fewer—less than half the number of points required to pass the work capability assessment. We are talking not about margins of error but of assessments that are completely wrong. As more people who previously used reports from medical professionals now have face-to-face interviews, it is more important than ever that such assessments be conducted properly. People must have confidence in the judgment and accuracy of the reports.
One of my constituents came to me last week. He had received his work capability report after a long delay, and the letter consistently referred to an assessment of his leg, claiming that he had no problems. The problem was that all the way through, the letter mentioned the wrong leg. My constituent joked about it and said that he did not have a leg to stand on, but he now needs to appeal that decision with an incorrect report. Confidence in Atos is not high among any of my constituents or the advice agencies to which I speak. I am currently involved in a protracted correspondence with Atos regarding quality standards and how it is mystery shopped. Will the Minister tell the Chamber what mystery shopping takes place, how it happens, and whether there are financial penalties for inaccurate reports? The attitude certainly does not appear to be one of “right first time.” In 2010-11, inquiries about ESA claims and the Atos assessment rose by over 40% in my constituency.
I would like to draw attention to the Citizens Advice report “Right first time?”, which came out in January. There is an in-depth study of cases involving people who had been recruited before they attended the work capability assessment—they had not gone through it, and they were not complaining because it was wrong, so there was no bias. The sample is small because it took quite a lot of in-depth work, and a lot of voluntary advisers helped with it. In all, 37 reports were studied in depth. Sixteen had a serious level of inaccuracy, which meant there were very substantial errors that would have a significant impact on the award of employment and support allowance or disability living allowance. Ten had a medium level of inaccuracy, which meant there were some significant errors that would probably affect the point scoring and potential award of ESA. Only 11 reports had a low level of inaccuracy.
There were five main points of error. There were omissions or incorrect observations. One client, who had really pronounced curvature of the spine and real problems sitting, was marked down as having no problems sitting or standing. There was also incorrect factual recording of medical information. One client said he could not use his left arm at all. He could not dress or shower himself, and his wife helped him. The report said he managed to dress and shower himself, and ESA was refused, but he won on appeal. If the information had been recorded correctly at the first assessment, there would have been no need for that appeal.
Medical evidence has also been inappropriately determined. A client who was registered blind was under a consultant ophthalmologist and had regular sight tests. He said the work capability test was a bit
1 Feb 2012 : Column 276WH
random. The assessor sat there waving cards in front of him at random distances, saying, “Can you see that? What about that one?” That took no account of the fact that the client has regular sight tests with someone who knows him and who is qualified to judge.
Another thing constituents often complain about—this has been mentioned—is the closed questions, the lack of empathy, the incorrect assumptions and the fact that information has not been gathered. Clients who come to me with mental health problems, in particular, say they feel terrorised by the ESA assessment. When they walk into the room, they feel the assumption is that they are trying to cheat the system. Some have said they never want to go for another assessment.
Pamela Nash: Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is not just the assessment’s inability to assess mental health issues, but the lack of sensitivity that is shown? That causes stress for people who are already under extreme pressure and who are suffering from mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.
Yvonne Fovargue: I totally agree. I am trying to find out where people go when they are refused ESA as a result of the work capability assessment, and it is quite astonishing that there are no figures. These people do not go on to other benefits, but I cannot find information anywhere about where they do go. Given the experience of my constituents, I believe a lot of people are living off their families because they cannot face going for another assessment.
Jessica Morden: Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem with the work capability assessment is that it makes constituents who receive DLA extremely wary about the move to personal independence payments, because they see the same experience being repeated?
Yvonne Fovargue: I quite agree. The move to DLA, for which the tests are even more severe, will be a problem for a number of people. The confidence of people who have been through a work capability assessment and who have had to appeal will be at an all-time low when they have to do the same for DLA.
The other issue is that there are inconsistencies in reports. For example, a constituent said he had a hypo attack every week—he was diabetic—but when he received the report, it said he had an attack once a month. The difference meant he did not get enough points for ESA, which he would have done if the report had said he had weekly events of altered state, as opposed to monthly events. He had to appeal that decision.
Although the changes following the independent review were meant to improve the process, the Citizens Advice survey my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West mentioned showed that 87% of advisers said the accuracy of Atos reports had not improved. As has been mentioned, there are improvements that might help. The roll-out of audio recording of assessments might help, but what checks will there be on the accuracy of reports? It is no use just recording and keeping assessments if we do not check the accuracy. The summary of the report sent from the health care professional to the claimant might help—if there is sufficient information
1 Feb 2012 : Column 277WH
to help the claimant check the accuracy, if summaries are sent to all claimants and if they are sent in good time.
The Work and Pensions Committee said we need to do more to learn the lessons from the management of the Atos contract and to improve the quality and monitoring of future contracts. There are a number of recommendations in the Citizens Advice report, which I urge the Minister to read. There is deep concern among claimants and advice agencies about the use of face-to-face assessments going ahead for other purposes, such as DLA, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) mentioned, and personal independence payments.
The clients who went to their citizens advice bureaux are the lucky ones; they got their appeal, they got represented and they got help. Unfortunately, the proposal in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill to remove the eligibility of welfare benefits advice for legal aid will mean that the number of advice agencies and individuals able to give such advice will drop, so fewer agencies will be able to help people. I therefore urge the Minister to ensure that the work capability assessment system has the confidence of claimants and professionals and that we do get it right first time.
Cathy Jamieson (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) for securing the debate and for his tenacity—I think that would be the best word—in pursuing this issue. He has submitted what is probably a record number of parliamentary questions on it, and my constituents and I are grateful for that, because we have seen that someone is taking it seriously and cares passionately about it.
I want to concentrate on a number of issues raised by constituents. They were keen that I should take this opportunity to make representations to the Minister. People often feel that they are on their own and that they are the only ones having particular difficulties. Given what we have heard already, my constituents’ experiences appear to be very similar to those of constituents elsewhere, and I hope the Minister will take account of that.
I want to echo what my hon. Friend said. Neither I nor my constituents have a problem in principle with the notion that someone who is fit and able to work should do so if work is available. Many people with disabilities wish to hold down jobs and they can do so. Other people will require support, adaptations and particular circumstances to enable them to work. The constituents who come to me most frequently about work capability assessments, however, are those with fluctuating and perhaps long-term conditions. They tell me and my caseworker that the work capability assessment report does not accurately reflect their day-to-day experiences. They often say that they feel as if the wrong report has been sent in. They wonder whether people are making generalisations on the basis of their answers to questions.
1 Feb 2012 : Column 278WH
People with these conditions also make the point that if they are having a good day, they will probably get along to the work capability assessment. However, if they are having one of their bad days, they simply will not be able, in some circumstances, to attend or to cope with the assessment. In addition, people with mental health issues, in particular, tell me that they do not get a fair assessment. They feel that because their condition is apparently invisible the assessor often seems to know little about it.
Of course, there are problems. Chronic but intermittent conditions can mean that claimants sometimes find themselves moved from ESA to jobseeker’s allowance and back to ESA, with all the work capability assessments in between. That leads to real difficulties because people often find themselves with no financial support while DWP processes are under way, with one claim being closed while another is being opened.
The most frequent cause of concern for constituents is apparent inconsistency. In a recent case in my area the maximum 15 points were awarded by the health care professional; that award was overturned by the DWP decision maker. The GP, the hospital consultant and Atos agreed that the person was unfit to work, but the decision maker in the DWP disagreed. In another example from my constituency a man with a progressive and incurable kidney condition, which requires him to undergo surgical operations every six months, was awarded 15 points; but that award was overturned by the decision-maker in the DWP, even though the decision-maker stated in correspondence:
“I am satisfied that the descriptors have been fully justified with clinical findings, observations and extracts taken from the typical day history provided by Mr A. The medical report…was appropriate, complete and covered all the area of incapacity described by Mr A as well as including a comprehensive typical day history and full set of clinical findings.”
We can understand why constituents find it difficult to understand why, when all the medical professionals and, indeed, Atos, appear to agree, someone in the DWP without a medical background apparently can overturn their findings.
I should like the Minister to tell me how many people—and what percentage—he is aware of who, having been awarded that maximum 15 points, have had the award overturned by the DWP decision maker, and how many of those have had appeals upheld. That may be useful for our understanding. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West mentioned, there is concern about the cost of appeals, and I hope that the Minister will tell us the average cost of an appeal, and how much time is spent processing all the associated paperwork.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes a powerful case. I went to an appeal with someone with ME who scored zero points. She took with her the medical evidence from the experts at the hospital; when the panel looked at it, it was a case of giving it a tick and telling her that of course she was not fit to work. However, those dealing with the form-filling and Atos stage were not prepared to consider it. It seems ludicrous that my constituent must go through the expense and stress of an appeal, and that the expert evidence cannot be considered earlier.
1 Feb 2012 : Column 279WH
Cathy Jamieson: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I wanted to give some examples of constituents who have had to appeal. One is a man almost at retirement age who has worked in a manual job since leaving school at 15, who became unfit to work. He requires a tube to be inserted into his gullet so that he can eat and drink. He could not bend forward during the assessment process or when he came to speak to me, because if he did so anything in his stomach would be emptied out; he has no muscular control. Initially he was told that he was fit for work. With our assistance he won his appeal. On the other hand I have another constituent, with a progressively degenerative eye condition, who is registered blind and can just about read a 42 point font, which is fairly large. She lost her appeal. There seem to be different circumstances and different approaches.
Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): The hon. Lady makes an important point. My concern about people who must go to appeal is that they do not get the advice and support they need. People who get it are more likely to succeed in their appeals, but Citizens Advice talks about a threefold increase in impact on its services since the process was introduced. I am sure that many hon. Members have had increased mail in that time.
Cathy Jamieson: The hon. Lady makes an important point. I do not think that anyone would doubt that there is pressure on advice services. Organisations for individual conditions, such as Parkinson’s UK or the Multiple Sclerosis Society in my area, will talk about their concern that, although they can help so many people, there are others they cannot reach. I know from my case work that more people are coming to me to raise their concerns. They want to be put in touch with advocacy services to help them with appeals; my office cannot take on the job of representing people at every appeal, on account of the numbers involved.
Nia Griffith: Does my hon. Friend agree that, given the evidence we have heard today, and our own experiences, the DWP should seriously consider what to do about people with long medical histories of degenerative disease who are continually called in? It seems a complete waste of taxpayers’ money and it is a disgrace that we do that to those people. Will my hon. Friend suggest to the Minister that we might consider some way to exempt such people?
Cathy Jamieson: My hon. Friend makes a powerful case, and I am sure that the Minister is listening. On the point about people with long-term degenerative conditions, another constituent called at my office in great distress, when I happened to be there. The lady could hardly open the door to come in without assistance. She was extremely upset having just had a phone call to tell her she was deemed fit for work. She told me that she had had MS for 20 years. She has poor eyesight, mobility and memory. I was so concerned about her plight that I immediately contacted her GP, who assisted with taking up her case. He subsequently wrote:
“I have today issued Mrs E with a Med 3 for 13 weeks stating she is not fit for work (as she is patently NOT”—
“fit for work). Like her I have not received any written communication stating that she is fit for work, as I would have expected. She should receive such written confirmation and the way to appeal
1 Feb 2012 : Column 280WH
clearly outlined in that letter. My role is twofold, firstly, to continue to issue a Med 3 (medical statement) and secondly to provide written information for her appeal Tribunal.”
Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): The hon. Lady highlights the stress that individuals go through during assessments. Several constituents have visited my surgery to explain how they went through such stress. Does not the assessment have to be fair, both to the individual and to the taxpayer, as has been mentioned? Also, is not the assessment becoming a tick-box exercise with a one-size-fits-all approach that does not take into consideration the fluctuating conditions from which people suffer?
Cathy Jamieson: The point about fluctuating conditions is well made. That is exactly the problem. Some people with such conditions, in some circumstances, will be able, with the right support, to hold down employment, but others will not be able to do so, perhaps because of the cycle of their condition or because their mental health is affected. I am concerned that the process in question appears to be a tick-box exercise.
One more example from my case work involved a gentleman who lost a leg and badly damaged the other in a childhood accident. Clearly he suffered as a result of that disability. He was awarded zero points. If the system is to have the confidence of the public and the people being assessed, it must be seen as fair. My constituents tell me that there are so many inconsistencies that they feel that they are not treated fairly, that their individual circumstances are not taken into account, and that the procedure is indeed a tick-box exercise.
Fiona O'Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making an excellent contribution to the debate. The information in question is in the public domain, and part of the problem is that that means people facing the process have no confidence in it. It causes such stress, particularly for people with mental health problems, that it has even driven some to take their own lives. How can that be defended?
Cathy Jamieson: I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that I take such issues seriously. I am very concerned to hear that she is aware of people being driven to such drastic action as taking their own lives. Going by the correspondence and contact that I have with constituents, I can say only that I know just how difficult it is for people, and that many feel they cannot face the appeal process—particularly those who have suffered from a condition for years and who feel that the process is undignified and that they do not get the right help and support, and who perhaps do not know to whom to turn.
Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab):
I echo everything that my hon. Friend says about the appeals process and the total lack of credibility of Atos. Earlier, she mentioned the systemic problem of DWP officers overruling all of the evidence, even that from Atos. Will the Minister address the fact that many people who are told that they cannot work again are
1 Feb 2012 : Column 281WH
suddenly taken off the support system in the DWP and put on to the other system, thus causing them great problems? They are made to go through rituals of training and work interviews when everyone agrees that they cannot work again. Surely that power should be clearly defined. If someone is told that they cannot work again, DWP officials should not be allowed to overrule that decision.
Cathy Jamieson: I am sure that the Minister will respond to that point, which is also one that I raised earlier. As I had concerns about the work capability assessments for people with a range of conditions, I tabled some parliamentary questions in a bid to find out how many people had been assessed in my constituency. I was disappointed to be told that such information could only be provided at a disproportionate cost.
After hearing about the experiences of a number of my constituents, I tabled another parliamentary question to find out how many assessments had been carried out on constituents who had cerebral palsy, osteoporosis, MS, who were registered blind, who had hearing impairments, who were on the autistic spectrum, who were carers themselves and who had learning difficulties or mental health problems. Those are the people who had come to me saying that they had had difficulties with the work capability assessment. Again, I was told that such information was not available at constituency level. I hope that the Minister can respond to that and tell me whether that kind of assessment, analysis and reporting will be available by parliamentary constituency in the future because it is in the interests of transparency and it would enable us to make comparisons across different parts of the country.
Finally, I have a couple of points around the issue of Parkinson’s, which my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West mentioned in his opening remarks. The Parkinson’s Disease Society says that increasing numbers of people with Parkinson’s are being rejected from the support group. Between October 2008 and November 2010, it says that 45% of people with Parkinson’s who had undertaken the work capability assessment were referred to the work-related activity group instead. As an example, the organisation cited the case of one man who was placed in the work-related activity group despite the fact that his tremor was so severe that he could not hold a pen, walk more than a few steps or button up his trousers himself.
The organisation gives examples of people having long waits for appeals and receiving inconsistent or inadequate support in the work-related activity group. It talks about the ESA assessment process impacting disproportionately or inappropriately on other benefits, the worry for carers and the knock-on effect on other statutory services.
“I feel I could work in the right job, with the right support, but none of this has been forthcoming from the job centre, who wished me well but basically said there are no jobs for able-bodied people let alone someone like me. I’m not surprised that only 6%
1 Feb 2012 : Column 282WH
of people in my position get back into work in 12 months. Everything I’ve done to get back into work I've had to off my own bat.”
On the one hand, we have people who say that they want to work and to cope with their condition and feel that they can do so but who are getting no help, and on the other we have those who feel that they are being hounded. That is not the sign of a caring, compassionate and decent system. I hope that the Minister will take account of what Citizens Advice and others have said and that he will not make this a party political issue. There is agreement across all parts of the House that this system is not working in the way that it should. I hope that in his response, the Minister will consider making some changes and give us some hope for the future.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Williams. I am following a very powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson). In securing this debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) has done a great service not just to the House but to the many thousands of people in the country who are affected by the issues. I had a number of points that I wanted to make, but as others still want to contribute, I will restrict my comments to two specific problems with the work capability assessment that arise from my constituency.
My first concern relates to people with sensory impairments. In particular, I want to raise an issue that was brought to my attention by a constituent with a visual impairment. In fact, I raised this case in a parliamentary question with a Minister a few months ago because my constituent was having problems filling in the ESA50 form through the audio systems available to people with visual impairment. After months of difficulties, which I do not have time to go into today, it turns out that my constituent may not have actually needed to go through this process because in November, the DWP changed the criteria by which people are allocated to an ESA support group. I am told that the new rules mean that someone with a hearing or a visual impairment could qualify for a place in a support group, whereas between April and November, the position was that someone had to have both a hearing and a visual impairment to qualify for the support group. That has certainly caused my constituent a great deal of concern. By giving her the wrong guidance, she felt that the DWP had sent her down the wrong road for months.
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Chris Grayling): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. I will respond to all the detailed questions in my remarks. On this specific point, there have been no changes to the rules around referrals. There were no changes in November. We have updated our guidance, which we do as a matter of routine, but there have been no changes to the formal rules.
I understand what the Minister is saying, but the guidance was updated to reflect some of the difficulties that had been raised. The view of the Royal National Institute of Blind People is that Atos
1 Feb 2012 : Column 283WH
may well have been wrongly assessing people between April and November. That may have been the fault not of Atos, but of the incorrect guidance. Will the Minister tell us how many people were wrongly assessed and why there was a need to issue new guidance? Why was my constituent required to go along a road which she did not need to, given the fact that new guidance was issued?
My second point covers the position of people with mental illness, which has been raised by a number of colleagues in this debate. I refer to a report produced by the Consultation and Advocacy Promotion Service, which is an independent advocacy organisation that operates from Edinburgh, Midlothian and East Lothian. The report describes the experience of people with mental health problems going through the work capability assessment process. Again, if time had been available, I would have gone into great detail. Instead, I will simply report its main conclusions.
The work capability assessment for employment and ESA is not designed to assess accurately the needs of people with mental health conditions. It causes a high level of stress and anxiety in people with mental health conditions and, in some cases, it may even make their condition worse. It does not cater for fluctuating conditions, nor does it accurately record how those conditions affect people’s ability to work. That is an experience that many Members will have heard about in their surgeries. I hope, following the Harrington review, that we will see some improvements in that area.
Finally, we are all experiencing these difficulties because of the way in which the process was hurriedly rolled out across the country. We will face, over the next few months and years, even more dramatic changes to the whole welfare system. If we do not learn from the mistakes that we have made so far, we will find that the problems relating to the work capability assessment process are repeated many times throughout the country. Many more people will suffer. Many more people who could get into work might not be able to because they will not be given the support. Many people who will not be able to get into work will be driven to desperation because of the difficulties that they will face. At the end of day, it will also cost the public purse much more money, which none of us wants to see happening.
I hope that the Minister will recognise that we are not trying to make political points. It is not a political issue; we raise it because we hear from our constituents in our surgeries throughout the country every week and we want action. Opposition Members would certainly be beating down the door of a Labour Minister if we were in government and there were the same kind of problems. We need action and assurance. We certainly do not need complacency from the Minister and I sincerely hope that we do not get it in his reply today.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab):
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) for introducing the debate and I thank other hon. Members for the way they have spoken on behalf of their constituents on an issue of genuine national interest. We could all, across parties, cite chapter and verse on the people who come to our surgeries and citizens advice bureaux who have been made desperate
1 Feb 2012 : Column 284WH
by the system’s failings. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) made the point that if the same situation occurred under a Labour Administration—the Minister has inherited some of this, but the national roll-out before we have solved the problems is a significant issue—we would say the same thing to a Labour Minister: how do we change this to make it work?
I have not only seen constituents, but have regularly been to appeals and seen Atos do assessments as well. I have seen the process first hand all the way through, not only when the constituent arrives in my office and says, “What is happening? Why is my life being destroyed for months while my benefits are suspended? I’m taken off benefits and then seven months later, my appeal goes through successfully, along with a huge proportion of others.” I have seen the process, and as a former Minister who was previously employed in private industry looking at systems management, I can tell the Minister that this is not working. There is a genuine issue and the process and procedures are not fit for purpose—it is so damn obvious when there is this number of successful appeals.
The underlying principle that the Minister must work with is compassion, and we would support him in that, but the system lacks compassion. It has to be fair to both taxpayers—a point made earlier—and those who are going through the process. There are people who are unable to elucidate their circumstances fully when they fill in a form and who are not going to give 101% when they sit in front of somebody tapping into a computer keyboard without making eye contact. There are doctors who will not spend 15 minutes filling in the long narrative history of a medical condition that would lead to the right decision in the first place. Therefore, when people fill in the form for the first time, the vast majority do not fill it in in the detail needed. It is a tick-box exercise, and people have a lot of fear and misunderstanding over that. They tend to come to us, as MPs, after they have failed and are going in for the interview. We say to them, “Take someone in with you, because at least then they can give you some support and guidance.”
The system must be based on compassion, and at the moment, it is not. I say that because I have seen the Atos procedure and the interview, and interestingly, even though I went into the office in Bridgend to see it, I was not allowed to sit and watch an interview, even if somebody was willing, but I could see the appeals. The staff were very kind and as informative as they could be. I was allowed to watch an abbreviated recording of a mock-up interview, in which we saw minimal eye contact, because there cannot be eye contact when someone is tapping away at a keyboard and asking, “How did you get here today? Oh, so you did that,” and then goes on to the next question and the next. It is completely different from the panel. I was allowed to sit and watch it taking place for three hours, with four people—lay people, someone from a medical background and someone from a legal or judicial background—genuinely dealing with individuals with compassion.
I shall give the Minister an illustration of what should be happening to cut the cost for the taxpayer further downstream. A young chap walked in and sat down looking completely healthy. He was in his early 20s. He had someone with him, as one should have at an appeal. The panel started asking him questions. He looked
1 Feb 2012 : Column 285WH
completely fit. “Do you go out with your friends?” “Yeah, I go out with my friends.” “Do you socialise regularly?” “Yeah, I tend to go out every Friday night.” Based on those kinds of questions and the fact that he could walk a certain distance, that guy had been declared completely fit for work. When a gentleman on the appeal panel asked him where he lived, he replied, “Merthyr.” The panel just happened to know Merthyr. “Where do you go out in Merthyr?” “Town centre.” “When you go out socialising with your friends on a Friday night, where do you go? Do you go to clubs?” “No, we don’t do that. We just mooch around town.” “Where do you go?” “We get off the bus and walk right to the centre of town.” “How far is that?” “From the bus to the town centre is about 50 yards.” “I know Merthyr quite well, so do you then go to the rugby field?” “No, I don’t.” “Why not?” “Because if I walk more then 50 yards, I not only get out of breath, but collapse with the condition I have.” None of that detail comes out in the initial stages. I am not saying that we have to flip the process round completely, but its lack of compassion, tick-box nature, lack of fairness to the taxpayer in allowing costs to escalate down the chain and to the individual, and the concerns over good decision making and managerial process mean that it simply is not working.
My message to the Minister is straightforward. The worst thing in the debate would be for him to go into denial or to say that the system is bedding in or just needs a bit of tweaking. There are fundamental issues with the design of the process, and the number of appeals that are successful when the right information is in place and the sheer superficiality of the initial contact with Atos show that the system is not working. I note the earlier comments about whether Atos follows procedures correctly. Whether the problems are inherited or caused by the new work capability assessment or by the national roll-out, the procedures at the Atos end are simply wholly inadequate.
The Minister could save the taxpayer a lot of money if he got this right. He could save a lot of angst and worry, not only for those with fluctuating conditions, sensory impairment or other needs, but for those who are genuinely trying to be honest and fair about their condition and those who want to work if they are fairly assessed. At the moment there is a terror of going through the process. When people come to my office now, I cannot give them a lot of hope, as an MP, about fairness in the system.
My hon. Friends have mentioned the statistics and the national analysis by Citizens Advice and others. As much as the press loves to scaremonger and paint pictures that vilify some of these people and their “scrounger mentality”—“Get them back into work!”—there are many people who want to get back to work and many others who are being unfairly put through pain and anguish when they should not be, such as those suffering from long-term conditions.
Redesign the system, so that it has compassion and is expert-led at the gateway, and improve communication between the Departments. Do not go into denial. This is not a matter of blame. We do not blame the Minister, but we will if he does not solve the problem, because it is now on his watch. We will applaud him if he can turn
1 Feb 2012 : Column 286WH
this round, because we also want people back in work. The great innovation was to turn the system round to take the emphasis away from incapacity and towards capacity—what can people do? There is cross-party support for that, but the changes must be driven with compassion and fairness all the way through. At the moment, the system is wasteful, inexpert and, in terms of processes and management, shot full of holes. Please make it fit for purpose and we will be here in six months applauding you.
Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): I am conscious of the time, Mr Williams, so I will be as brief as I can. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) on securing the debate and I encourage him to try to secure another debate later in the year, because the process is ongoing, will involve more people, and more issues such as those we have heard about today will come forward. The opportunity to bring such matters to the Minister’s attention is important. We are dealing with the human consequences of failures in a bureaucratic, state-driven system—in this case, incapacity benefit. Similarly, many hon. Members have seen the failures of the immigration system, and its human consequences for our constituents and for people around the country.
Jake Berry (Rossendale and Darwen) (Con): In my constituency, I have had the experience of the fit for work tests being piloted in the Burnley benefits centre. There has been an extreme improvement through the pilot scheme to where we are now. There is more we can do, but I echo my hon. Friend’s thoughts about waiting for the completion of the process before we pass judgment.
I would like to place in context some of the concerns we have heard about; first, about being assessed. It is quite natural to expect people to have concerns, as we are making a significant change to people’s lives. In many comments, the issue has not been a generic concern relating to assessment, but a concern about specific types of conditions and cases. Will the Minister confirm that for every 100 assessments, nine people who are found to be fit for work go on to win their appeal? That means there are 91 people who fit into another category.
One fluctuating condition that has not been mentioned is alcoholism, and people who have chronic, long-term alcoholic conditions. One constituent who came to see me had his papers from assessments in the 1990s. Will the Minister provide confirmation on that?
Although it does not relate directly to the debate, part of work capability assessment is that there is then work. In today’s conditions, what can the Minister say will be on his agenda to try to encourage some of these people into work at the end of their assessments? There is much more I would like to say, but because of the time I have to stop there.
1 Feb 2012 : Column 287WH
As we have heard, the previous Labour Government introduced the work capability assessment as part of the change from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance. Incapacity benefit did not help people with long-term sickness or disability back into a job. In fact, in 1997, the vast majority of people in receipt of incapacity benefit were simply abandoned; in many cases having been encouraged to move on to that benefit to reduce headline unemployment.
We started, experimentally, with the new deal for disabled people, which was a striking innovation at the time. I am pleased that the Minister has sought to build on the lessons of that programme, and from pathways to work which followed, into the new Work programme, and the ESA was the next step in that process. The WCA was designed to look at applicants’ functionality, and to assess whether each applicant was fit to return to work, fit to undertake work-related activity, or not fit for either.
Atos was contracted in 2005 for seven years. The current Government opted to extend the contract for a further three years in November 2010—the contract now runs until 2015—and will soon need to decide whether to take up the option to continue the contract to 2017. That decision needs to be influenced by the kind of experiences that we have heard about in the debate.
It is clear that the system has been overloaded. There needs to be change for it to function properly, so we support fully the implementation of the first Harrington review and much of the second. We regret that the Government pressed ahead with implementing the Department’s internal review last year, given the widespread consternation about the findings of that review. We were particularly concerned by one aspect of Professor Harrington’s second review, which proposed that some cancer patients, who until then had been exempted from a WCA, should no longer be exempted. Macmillan Cancer Support was concerned that that would put greater stress on cancer patients when they ought to be concentrating on recovery. It was a particularly frustrating development for everyone. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us this morning—if not this morning, then in the debate in the House this afternoon—that there will be something of a climbdown on that point.
I am anxious to ensure that the Minister has the time to answer fully the points that have been put to him, so will shorten my remarks. We have still to hear—apart from the point about cancer patients—about a number of other proposed changes that the two WCA reviews have recommended. What is being done on the new descriptors that cover fluctuating conditions—on which we have heard a good deal in the debate—and mental health conditions? There have been some helpful recommendations on those. When will the results of the pilots on recording assessments be released and responded to by the Government—a point also made in the debate?
It is worrying to hear that capacity pressures are restricting the ability of Atos to implement the Harrington recommendations. There needs to be better communication between Atos health care professionals and decision
1 Feb 2012 : Column 288WH
makers in the Department for Work and Pensions if we are to reduce the number of mistakes made in WCAs and the current, astonishingly high number of successful appeals.
I should like to draw attention to an issue that has not yet been raised and is a practical consequence of the problems and delays in the WCA system. The DWP recently revised its estimates of the number of people receiving ESA who will go into the Work programme, which the Government introduced in June. The forecast of the number of people going into the Work programme has been reduced dramatically, and the bottleneck in the WCA seems to be a major part of the explanation. Will the Minister comment on that? It is one of the key reasons why a number of small voluntary sector providers, which are contracted to the Work programme, are now at risk. Groups with specialist expertise to help people with particular health problems are receiving far fewer referrals—therefore, a far lower income—than they were encouraged by the Government to expect. In some cases, they have had no referrals at all since the Work programme started in June. Some are saying that they will have real trouble staying in business at all.
Problems with the WCA, as we have heard, could turn into a serious loss of capacity in the voluntary sector. People then left with no specialist help available would be in a worse position still. How will the Minister ensure that the WCA is refined? When will he introduce the changes that have been called for by charities and Professor Harrington? What assessment has he made of the capacity of Atos to implement those improvements? Will some of Professor Harrington’s recommendations not be implemented, as has been suggested, because of the capacity pressures in the system?
Ministers have defended their decisions about the welfare system on the basis of the need to save money. However, it is very important, particularly for Ministers in this Department, not only that they are saving money, but that the system that they are responsible to Parliament for is working fairly. All hon. Members who have spoken in the debate are absolutely right to highlight the fact that, with this part of the system, there is a long way to go.
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Chris Grayling): Let me be absolutely clear—particularly in relation to the comments made by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), who proposed the debate, and the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies)—that we are trying to do the right thing. We are trying to identify people with the potential to go back to work and provide them with the help to do so. Sometimes, those people will have a health condition—in the United Kingdom, 7 million people with a health condition are in work—so the number of points that people receive in the work capability assessment does not automatically mean that they do or do not have a health condition. The judgment is all about helping people return to work, perhaps in different roles. Their health condition might prevent them doing what they did before, but that does not mean that there is nothing they can do.
1 Feb 2012 : Column 289WH
June 2010, 18 months ago, prompted partly by a report from Citizens Advice but also by concerns such as those raised by hon. Members, I asked Professor Harrington to take a careful look at a process that was already well under way. Employment and support allowance and the work capability assessment were established in 2008. The work capability assessment had been working since 2008. Statistics on the growth of appeals matched the flow of new claimants into ESA and worked down to some change 18 months ago, but I was unhappy that the process did not seem to be right, so Professor Harrington went away, reported in November 2010—interestingly, the date at the end of the period that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) mentioned when she quoted the Parkinson’s statistics—and made several recommendations to us.
The right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) made a point about pilots and roll-outs. Crucially, we did not simply pilot the work capability assessment and then start it. At that time, the questions that we were addressing were whether we could sort out the process and whether we should go ahead and roll out incapacity benefits, which would increase the number of people going through the work capability assessment.
Professor Harrington went away and made his recommendations to us, which we accepted in full and have implemented. He told me, “I believe the system is in sufficient shape for you to proceed with incapacity benefit reassessment.” We set ourselves a goal to put his recommendations in place, improve the quality of the process and address many of the issues to which hon. Members have referred today by the end of last May, when the assessments in the incapacity benefit reassessment were to start alongside the existing process of assessing ESA new claimants. We did that, and we started.
I have heard a lot today about the number of people who have sat through appeals and the number of cases overturned. It is crucial for hon. Members to understand this. I am almost certainly right in saying—I could not swear to being absolutely, 100% right, because there may be a small number of exceptions—that since the Harrington changes were introduced last summer, not a single appeal has been completed. Therefore, all the examples cited today that relate to the appeals process refer to what took place before the Harrington changes to the system that we inherited, which I accept was not doing the job as it should have done. I want everyone to understand that.
As a result of the Harrington changes, we tried to create a more humane, careful and thoughtful system. We have sought to change systems to provide greater protection to those with long-term problems. The right hon. Member for East Ham referred to the internal review that his Government carried out and that we implemented in the belief that it would increase the size of the support group—those who receive long-term unconditional support—and that is what has happened. We believe that the changes that we have introduced will lead to more people receiving long-term support.
One issue that I raised with the Minister was that of people turning up for appointments and being turned away because they were double-booked. My constituents who were part of the pilot scheme
1 Feb 2012 : Column 290WH
travel, on average, three or four hours to get to and from an assessment. To be turned away when they have had to rely to get there on family and friends who have taken time off work is a real problem. The Minister has apologised to one of my constituents, but has the policy of triple-booking appointments been changed?
Chris Grayling: A situation in which people are treated like that can never be acceptable. Of course, we have an issue with some people not turning up to appointments, and because it is an intensive programme, we do not want a health care professional sitting there without anything to do. Sometimes, we will get it wrong. We will try hard not to, but there is no such thing as a perfect system. That is true of all parts of the system. I openly accept that we will sometimes get it wrong, but we have done everything that we can to create a system that gets it right as often as possible. We have changed the nature of the work capability assessment in the process.
We make a much greater effort to ensure that we have proper medical evidence at each stage of the process from the consultants and specialists working with the people concerned. One reason why so many appeals were successful was that new evidence was emerging only at the appeal stage. We have worked hard to ensure that such evidence comes in much earlier in the process, so if we get it wrong in Jobcentre Plus, we will get new evidence there at a point of reconsideration. That is a crucial change. We are now ensuring that we seek out additional information in Jobcentre Plus before we take the first decision, but we have bolstered the reconsideration process to make it much quicker and more straightforward, so that if we get it wrong the first time, people can get a quick second opinion in Jobcentre Plus. That is crucial to getting the process right.
We have also tried to make the process more humane. People now get phone calls instead of the generated, standard letters that I regard as impersonal and inhuman. All our measures are part of a process of change that I hope will make a real difference to individuals’ experiences—and it is. Indeed, in his second report, Professor Harrington praises those involved in the process for creating a system that he, as an independent figure, regards as much improved.
As constituency MPs, we will always have people coming to our doors saying, “I am being done wrong by,” because sometimes, in an imperfect system, we will not have got it right. Equally, however, some people will still think that we have done wrong by them, but three years later, when they are back in work, they will say that it was the best thing that ever happened to them.
About a month ago, I sat with a woman in a Work programme centre who said that she had been off work with chronic depression for 13 years. She told me that she had arrived on her first day in the Work programme and said, “I can’t possibly work. This is ridiculous. I don’t know why I am here. I am being traduced.” A month later, she was doing voluntary work in a charity
1 Feb 2012 : Column 291WH
shop, applying for jobs and beginning to say, “Actually, this is good.” We are taking people through a difficult period in their lives.
I said “rubbish” to the final comment made by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West not because he is not raising genuine issues—although I hope that I have explained their context—but because the system is not about forcing people into work. It is about finding the right number of people whom we can help into work. The alternative is to leave them on benefits for the rest of their lives, doing nothing. I do not believe that they benefit from that.
Tom Greatrex: I was making the point that, given the lack of confidence in the system, many people feel as though they are being hounded rather than helped. That is the crucial matter that must be addressed in the coming period.
Chris Grayling: I accept that, but I genuinely hope that hon. Members will take note of what I said about the time lines and the changes that we have introduced. Professor Harrington said of the concerns highlighted in the Citizens Advice report to which hon. Members referred, “This happened before my changes.” I hope that we can send the message that the system is changing and improving and that we are making genuine efforts and will continue to do so. That is why we changed the guidance in November. It is a process of continuous improvement. We want to get it right as far as we possibly can.
1 Feb 2012 : Column 292WH
recorded. We decided not to implement universal recording because, based on the trial experience, people did not want it. Few people wanted their sessions recorded, and some said that they definitely did not. We decided therefore to offer recording as an option to those who want it. That seems entirely sensible.
Contact between Atos health care professionals and decision makers will be done by telephone. What matters is not the contact between a single person and a block of decision makers, but trying to phone up the decision maker themselves. On capacity issues, as we stand here today, the incapacity benefit reassessment is on time. New claims for ESA have fallen a bit behind, mostly because of the introduction of the personalised statement following Professor Harrington’s report. We discovered in the first few weeks that it took health care professionals much longer to complete the statement than expected, so the number of completed assessments dropped. That has changed. They have caught up again, and we are chasing through to clear the backlog, as we are doing with the appeals backlog that we inherited.
Finally, the right hon. Member for East Ham asked about the Work programme. Incapacity benefit reassessments are progressing according to time. The biggest impact on numbers in the programme has been created by the different mix of people coming through and the bigger support group. I am quite relaxed about having a bigger support group, because if we need to provide long-term unconditional support to a larger group of people than we had expected, it shows that we are making a genuine effort to get it right and are being sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities. We want to help them into work, but we want to do it in the right way.
1 Feb 2012 : Column 293WH
Micro-combined Heat and Power
Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I have been here before—who can forget my seminal Management of Energy in Buildings Bill, a private Member’s Bill in 2005, which, among other things, tried to promote deemed permission for domestic microgeneration, or my proposed new clauses to the 2008 and 2010 Energy Bills on plans for the development of micro-combined heat and power and passive flue gas recovery schemes? I am afraid that the blank looks of those present seem to answer that question, but I am here to have another go.
Mr Andrew Smith (Oxford East) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so early in his contribution and congratulate him on securing this important debate and commend his expertise. I assure him that he did not receive a blank look from me—he has been a path-breaker on this issue and is leading the way once again.
I am armed today with substantially better prospects than at any stage hitherto as far as micro-CHP is concerned. What is micro-CHP and why am I so exercised about it? Put simply, it is a rather prosaic technology which, while it will probably not induce conversation at dinner parties, is potentially important for all of us, because most of us possess something that looks remarkably like a micro-CHP unit—namely, a boiler. So this is about boilers.
Members will remember how a previous boiler revolution—in which I was pleased to have had a hand in developing revised building regulations—has probably been responsible for reducing more domestic CO2 emissions than virtually any other measure of recent years. I am talking of the specification in building regulations that condensing boilers should be installed in homes. That measure was implemented in 2005 and changed the face of boiler installation in the UK. Within a year, more than 85% of new boilers installed were condensing. They were 20% more efficient than traditional boilers, saving about 15% of gas consumption as a result.
A micro-CHP boiler goes into a kitchen or on a wall in exactly the same way as a standard boiler. It also heats the house and provides hot water in the same way, but it is powered by a Stirling engine, a Rankine cycle or—this will be the case in the near future—a fuel cell boiler, all of which are efficient and produce electricity alongside their heating duties. A typical domestic installation produces, effortlessly and alongside the normal heating of the household, about 1 kW of electricity, so it might generate 10 kW of electricity over a winter’s day of heating, which is equivalent to the output of a 3 kW solar installation on a sunny day.
Micro-CHP boilers have been promising for some years. The Stirling engine was invented in 1815 and has been promising since then. Indeed, I first visited the site of the then EcoGen boiler plant in Peterborough in 2002 and was told that the product was about two years from market, but it was not, and nor were other micro-CHP
1 Feb 2012 : Column 294WH
plants, and I think that some people have lost a little faith in the products over the years. Now, however, very efficient micro-CHP boilers are on the market. They work well and are coming down in price with larger-scale production. I visited Ceres Power in Surrey during the autumn. It is developing an even more efficient fuel cell boiler and I am confident that it will come to market in the near future. The products are now there and, if we have the imagination, are set for the second boiler revolution.
The simplicity of such a revolution has already been demonstrated. People will have boilers in their homes for the long-term foreseeable future. What is more, about 1.5 million boilers break down or retire and are replaced every year, so it is not difficult to see that, if future building regulations favour micro-CHP boilers as replacements, that would happen not with a great deal of fuss or with many lifestyle magazine articles, but with a further leap forward for domestic energy sustainability, which we will have to work on urgently over the next few years, as the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), is well aware, with the emergence of the green deal and the energy company obligation.
The potential of 1 million boilers installed by 2020 is, on any reckoning, considerable. Not only would that level of installation generate about 20 GW of electricity on a typical winter’s day—which is about equivalent to what we import via interconnectors on any given day—but 1 million householders would save considerable sums on electricity through self-generation, for which there is considerable appetite, as suggested by the upsurge in solar photovoltaic installations. Micro-CHP-generated electricity is eminently compatible with solar PV, because we would generate far greater amounts of electricity at precisely those times of year when solar PV generates least.
The second boiler revolution could act just as dramatically in reducing emissions. Even if those 1 million boilers replace older condensing boilers, rather than non-condensing models, after a 10-year life, they would generate a saving of more than 2 million tonnes of CO2, which is about half the total estimated CO2 savings that the Committee on Climate Change has pencilled in by 2020 for the results of greater efficiency in household appliances. That would be a dramatic contribution to emissions abatement.
“Since it is a boiler replacement the route to market is already well established. With over 1.5 million gas boilers installed in UK homes each year (most of which are replacements) the potential market is huge. Also as a direct boiler replacement there is likely to be less installer and consumer resistance compared with other low carbon technologies.
MicroCHP has been said to have the greatest mass market potential of any emerging low carbon domestic microgeneration solution. Studies have shown that microCHP could displace as much as 90% of existing boiler sales.”
1 Feb 2012 : Column 295WH
Mr Andrew Smith: Before my hon. Friend leaves the sunny uplands, is not another of their aspects the fact that a lot of the technology’s development has taken place in this country, so, as well as its environmental benefits, it has industrial and employment benefits? We do not want this to be another industry in which breakthrough developments happen in this country, only for the commercial exploitation to go abroad.
Dr Whitehead: I thank my right hon. Friend for that important point, although I am slightly worried that he may have broken into my office and looked at my speech, because I am about to address that precise, important point on this clutch of technologies and their developers.
After the sunny uplands, we have to look at the reality, which is somewhat different. The industry has, on few resources, determinedly placed itself in a position in which it can supply reliable boilers over the next few years to the quantity that I have sketched out, and in so doing substantially reduce the cost differential between micro-CHP and conventional boilers. As my right hon. Friend has mentioned, the UK industry is a world leader on the technologies.
Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): The UK is a world leader in all sorts of microgeneration. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that SEaB Energy on Southampton university’s science park is generating micro-power in shipping containers? That might not be on the domestic scale of boilers, but it is proof that in the UK we are world leaders at coming up with innovative ideas and working out how we can generate power on a small and sustainable scale.
Dr Whitehead: I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. Indeed, the Southampton university science park is the base for leadership of a number of innovations in microtechnology, renewables and wave and tidal power. I am familiar with a number of the developments that are taking place there. It is a good plus for both our constituencies that that science park is producing such good work in the area of microgeneration.
The wider deployment of micro-CHP could, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith) said, be beneficial for UK jobs. My colleague and next-door parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), has alluded to the fact that micro-CHP is very good for development and technological advances. The problem with our world lead in these technologies is the fact that, in truth, not many boilers have been deployed yet. Indeed, the initial results of the inclusion of micro-CHP boilers with the feed-in tariff programme last year—a pilot of 30,000 micro-CHP boilers was reviewed after the first 12,000 installations—have been less than sweeping, with only about 200 FITs payments taking place so far within that pilot.
However, that has to be set against the background of the very modest FITs payments allowed for micro-CHP: only 10.5p, along with a 3.1p export tariff. The figure of 10.5p is close to the starting marginal cost element considered to be generic for all renewables of 9p. That is the equivalent of support for large wind resources and is way below the 5% or so return on investment that is
1 Feb 2012 : Column 296WH
considered to be the sort of level that will attract investment decisions among householders and small businesses.
Of course, although micro-CHP is energy and climate efficient, it does not qualify for the renewable heat incentive as far as heat production is concerned for the obvious reason that, all other things considered, it is not fuelled by renewable energy. However, of course, it could be supplied in the form of biogas on an off-grid basis. I am not sure whether the Department would, in those circumstances, accept that micro-CHP would qualify both for RHI and FITs, but I imagine that that is a debate for another day. The fact of the matter is that a technology and an industry that can do great things are now waiting. The sector needs the confidence and future intent to enable it to scale up to the levels needed to produce a large intervention in the UK’s boiler landscape at a price that will eventually be at or close to those of more established boiler installations.
In the meantime, the industry needs some assistance in kick-starting—for example, the 30,000 installation pilot limit could be removed, so that there can be investment in a mass rather than a niche future. The allocation of a feed-in tariff of perhaps 15p per kWh would, along with the export tariff, enable a return even on present prices of about 5% to be achieved. I am confident that that allocation would be short-lived, especially if the Minister were to use his powers of persuasion to convince his counterparts in the Department for Communities and Local Government that a revision of part L of the building regulations in a few years’ time is appropriate. At that point, I imagine that no feed-in tariff support would be needed or necessary.
I hope that the Minister will be able to provide me with some positive encouragement for these very modest proposals in respect of micro-CHP, not least because, if he is not able to do so, I will have to come back and say it all over again. He will therefore have the pleasure of going through all this again—by the way, that is not a threat.
I am concerned that, if no early support and encouragement is given to micro-CHP, someone else will take it off our hands and we will not have the presence, the technical imagination and the investment capacity of the hard-won position our industry is now in. That will have gone or withered and we will be playing catch up. We need that support to come now. We are talking about an extremely modest investment by the Government—perhaps 2% of the FITs budget up to 2015, or far less than that if there is some clever management of the FITs budget. That 2% or less would have a potentially enormous payback for householders and Great Britain plc alike.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) for initiating the debate. He has unrivalled expertise and parliamentary experience in this sector. I am delighted that my name will be linked to his long crusade going back over a decade on behalf of these technologies.
1 Feb 2012 : Column 297WH
potential to be part of our carbon reduction transformation. This technology has the potential to engage consumers in the energy sector and make them more self-reliant and more conscious of their consumption. It can also provide the opportunity to export. All of those things are good. If we can get micro-CHP right, it can play a far larger role in driving the decentralised energy revolution that we want to see—perhaps even more so than some of the other technologies that are sometimes considered to be more glamorous and are grabbing the headlines. Not every home in Britain can have a solar photovoltaic panel on its roof or be in the right place, but very few homes would not benefit from a micro-CHP.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I have been frustrated by the lack of progress and the missed deadlines for the introduction of a wide, scalable, consumer-friendly roll-out. When I was retrofitting my home in 2006-07, I was very keen to get one of the new micro-CHP boilers. Among all the other interventions I was making on my house, it was the one piece of kit that I was really keen to get. It took more than a year to do the retrofit. During that time, we were constantly promised that the boiler would be arriving and it never came. In fact, I left the house as I no longer lived there and, in all that time, it never came—despite being tantalisingly close to getting one and having seen the model.
The hon. Gentleman is right: we need the industry to respond. I recognise that there is a clear role for Government leadership. I can understand the reactions of the industry to investing in innovation, research and development to bring micro-CHP boilers to market, not just as an interesting gadget or as an alternative method of delivery, but as an attractive, price-competitive alternative to taking electricity from the grid or installing a conventional boiler.
The hon. Gentleman is right: the condensing boiler revolution is a great unsung part of our success during the past decade at reducing our carbon emissions. I do not have the figures to hand, but I am sure that he is right. That fairly simple intervention of jump-starting or pushing forward an advance in relatively simple technology had a massive impact. As a result of him having reminded me of that, I will go away and think about whether we have that transformational push in our current policy landscape, with its focus on feed-in tariffs and heat tariffs as a means of pulling through with its very expensive 25-year tail. Is that necessarily the universal panacea that we need?
I do not want the hon. Gentleman to think that we are not committed to providing a feed-in tariff for combined heat and power, because we absolutely are. We are consulting on tariff levels and I will be publishing our proposed levels very shortly—within a matter of days. I will be introducing a new tariff proposal for CHP. Unlike in almost all the other technologies, I will be looking to raise the tariff in those proposals. I do not think that I will be able to satisfy the hon. Gentleman’s demand for 15p, but I am considering raising the tariff.
I have to be honest about the tariff. It is difficult, in the current climate, to make the argument for swimming against the tide, when some other technologies are facing substantial tariff reductions. We are constantly demanding that they deliver greater value for money to the consumer. We are putting any form of subsidy
1 Feb 2012 : Column 298WH
under close scrutiny in the light of the impacts on people’s bills. That is warranted in respect of micro-CHP. The role of the feed-in tariff is not to provide a long, indefinite subsidy to particular technologies. If there is never any hope of a particular technology being able to deploy without subsidy in a reasonable time frame, it is hard to make the case for our subsidising that technology rather than others.
If micro-CHP can scale up, that represents potential. However, it is unlike other technologies. The hon. Gentleman is right. There are other policy levers apart from feed-in tariffs, which are a useful signal, and, let us face it, we have that policy tool in our hand now and we should not ignore its potential, but we may need to come back to other policy levers if the feed-in tariff alone does not send a strong enough signal.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s ambition for the mass deployment of CHP. If we can get that technology to gain customer acceptance and if the industry can come forward, his ambition of 1 million boilers by 2020 is something that we should think about. The industry needs to hear that message. I should like to test that ambition to find out whether it is credible and feasible. I do not want to posit another number and see the same level of progress as in the previous decade.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Back in 2002 there was lots of talk about the potential roll-out. The first phase of the feed-in tariff scheme for micro-CHP has been beyond disappointing. The number of boilers is almost non-existent: a fraction. We set the 30,000 limit, worried that there would be a surge of deployment, but there has been 1% of that.
I am mindful that we need to revisit Government support and leadership. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, in this Minister, there is someone who is interested in this agenda. That is why I set up the distributed energy contact group, which involves all the key players on combined heat and power and decentralised energy. I want to embed that in policy thinking at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, not just in response to one idea, but building on the success of our microgeneration strategy last week, for example, when we had terrific buy-in from stakeholders throughout the sector. I want to build that now and ensure that decentralised energy is right at the heart of thinking in the Department, which—let us be honest—in the past has tended to gravitate to larger-scale energy solutions. We all know that; it is not a secret.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that, under the coalition, we are trying to be more permissive with our ideas in considering the potential of a range of technologies. I am personally committed to driving the decentralised agenda—not just introducing more competition in large-scale generation, but introducing viable consumer models that will work at distributed and microgeneration level.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it will be a challenge to decarbonise heat and electricity in homes. It is a big challenge that we will have to tackle on a number of fronts. There is no silver bullet that will allow us to do that. A lot of attention is on the solar PV industry, which takes a significant amount of subsidy—more than 90% of the feed-in tariff budget. The hon. Gentleman knows that it is an attractive technology. The way that it is going, from being the most expensive technology, is exciting. Rapidly falling costs mean that it could reach grid parity, potentially, even within this
1 Feb 2012 : Column 299WH
Parliament at larger scale and, certainly, for the consumer within the decade, and could be cost-competitive with other large-scale renewables within a year or two. The price falls are exciting. However, it is not the only technology out there.
In respect of the carbon footprint, when retrofitting my home I was as keen as mustard to install solar PV, because apart from a micro-CHP sticking some PV panels on is the other whizzy, exciting thing that can be done. Arup surveyed my house, before the feed-in tariff had come in, and it was made clear to me that that was the least cost-effective thing that I could do if I was serious about reducing the carbon footprint.
There is a clear hierarchy when considering reducing the carbon footprint and improving the efficiency of a home. It has to start with energy efficiency, which is why the green deal will put a big emphasis, and a new push, not just on cavity wall and loft insulation, but on whole-house retrofits, including solid walls, windows, doors and the range of interventions to improve the total envelope of the building. After that, renewable heat must be considered and then microgeneration. It is in that order that we should prioritise subsidy, leadership and interventions.
Mr Andrew Smith: I am encouraged by the Minister’s positive commitments. Is not another advantage of micro-CHP that it will supply most electricity at the times of peak demand for electricity, which is not always so with alternative technology?
I am excited by the innovation that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test mentioned. Traditionally, a lot of the CHP boilers have needed a high heat load—a 5:1 ratio in terms of heat and electricity—but some of the new hydrogen models offer almost a 1:1 ratio. I am not the expert on that; the hon. Gentleman is. It would be a much more attractive proposition for people if they could use such a boiler in the summer, when they are not using their heat load except for hot water, or in the
1 Feb 2012 : Column 300WH
winter when only using a marginal heat load because they have taken all steps to insulate their home to a much higher level.
Developments in CHP now mean that, rather than just having a marginal by-product of a large heat load, it can offer an exciting balance between heat, which we hope to reduce demand for by making our homes more energy efficient, and electricity, which we anticipate there will be an increased demand for as we increasingly go towards a more electrified economy, if I can put it like that.
I reassure hon. Members that we will consider support for micro-CHP as part of the comprehensive review of feed-in tariffs, and I will come back with those proposals shortly. But I by no means regard that as the end of the matter. As we encourage take-up and begin to go beyond the pilot stage, we must revisit the scheme to ensure that subsidy is sustainable. Certainly it would not be sustainable to reach a million homes with the sort of level that we are talking about. That is why we have a sensible cap at 30,000 units. But let me be clear, the feed-in tariff would go beyond that 30,000. I think that is meant to signal a limit in terms of a sensible budgetary constraint on being able to subsidise at that higher level that number of units. I certainly anticipate a long-term future for the feed-in tariff for micro-CHP, but I do not rule out other policy interventions being necessary in order to jump-start this particular technology. The microgeneration strategy that we published in June 2011 is also helping us to stimulate the microgeneration industry, developing the solid steps that were taken in previous years, and I commend the work of the Government supported by the hon. Gentleman.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for calling this important debate and look forward to working with him constructively on a cross-party basis where there is a lot of consensus on where we need to travel. We now have to do the difficult work of ensuring that we have sufficient deployment.
1 Feb 2012 : Column 301WH
Community Sports Facilities
[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]
So often, sport is limited to the last letter of the DCMS—the Department for Culture, Media and Sport—but sport is much more than that. If we are talking Government Departments, sport reaches into issues that concern Ministers of Health, Education, Business, Innovation and Skills, Work and Pensions and the Home Office.
Charlotte Leslie: It is a pleasure to resume the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I was talking about the importance of sport, and how it reaches into all sorts of areas that are covered by Ministers in the Department of Health, the Department for Education and the Home Office, and I want to argue that sport, and the way it is managed, is crucial to the Treasury and matters financially to our country. The way that community sport and its facilities have been funded and organised in the past has overlooked the great business and community potential of our nation, and a real opportunity exists.
Seldom has the significance of sport for our country’s well-being been in sharper focus than following the August riots that were carried out by disaffected youth, with the London Olympic games glinting over the horizon. Seldom has the need for a nationwide Olympic sporting legacy of aspiration, effort, achievement, action, consequence and reward, which reaches out to all our communities, been more keenly felt.
The UK is the most obese nation in Europe, and obesity costs the NHS £4 billion a year. Within four years, however, that figure is projected to rise to £6.3 billion. Diabetes is also on the rise. The NHS currently spends £715 million on drugs for diabetes, and by 2025 it has been forecast that 25% of the NHS budget will be spent on diabetes alone. Quite simply, if our NHS is to survive the demands put on it by an ageing population, changing demographics, more expensive treatment and ever-rocketing expectations, our population must change its body mass index and its lifestyle.
Something else is often overlooked. Sport is vital not only because of the calories it burns, but because of the mindset it involves. Crucially, it entails a sense of delayed gratification: if we do not take the easy option now, but do something that initially takes a bit of effort, such as going for a jog instead of having that nice second cup of tea and that slice of cake, that will have benefits later, because we will lose weight and look good in that outfit we want to wear. At the sharp end, it is about what my brilliant former swimming coach Eric Henderson called “no pain, no gain”.
1 Feb 2012 : Column 302WH
rewards of seeing oneself get fitter and make progress. That starts a virtuous circle of achievement, as we believe and see that we can do something, and that, crucially, is what builds self-esteem. That is where sport is so important for young people, particularly the kind who were involved in the riots over the summer.
I have seen first hand the extraordinary effects that sport can have on young people who are most likely to fall into a lifestyle involving gangs and riots. As the chair of the all-party group on boxing, I have seen how powerful boxing is in turning a kid with all the energy, inclination and anger to riot into a responsible and exemplary role model for other young people. I think of inner-city clubs such as the Riverside youth project in Bristol, which is managed by the amazing Dennis Stinchcombe, and which is sending one of its boxers to the GB team this year. Other sports also have a huge impact, and I will mention them later.
Why does sport work? There is the release of pent-up aggression and energy, the structure and discipline that are often so lacking in young people’s home lives and the respect for role models—often male—which frequently do not exist at home for young people. Crucially, there is also the building of self-discipline, self-respect and self-esteem through a cycle of putting effort in and seeing positive results come out.
Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): My hon. Friend may come to this, but does she agree that where sporting achievement can be measured, so, too, can its positive effect on academic achievement? The one leads to the other, and there is increasing evidence of that. That is another example of how the Government should see these things as an investment, rather than as a cost.
Charlotte Leslie: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am making it in a rather long-winded way, but he has made it in far fewer words. The cycle of achievement translates into learning how to get good grades at school by putting effort in and getting achievement out. It also helps people with resisting the easier lifestyle choices that are less good for them in exchange for achieving a better physique and physiology later. That concept of delayed gratification is essential to the concept of achievement, and it is essential if our young people are to fulfil their potential. They have to put that effort in to get the rewards and achieve their life potential.
I turn again to what we saw during the riots. What was striking was that so many of the young people and kids who were rioting talked about having nothing to lose. The reason they did that is that they could not really see they had anything to gain; they did not know how to achieve, and they had no traction on the cycle of achievement. They may have had dreams, and we often talk about dreams in relation to things such as aspiration, but dreams are not the same as goals. Those young people may have had dreams about being a famous footballer, being rich or having a glorious, glamorous wife, but dreams are very different from goals, because dreams are dislocated from reality. Those children could see no way—they had no ladder—to access those dreams.
Goals, however, are embedded in reality, together with some way of getting a rung closer to where we want to be, whether we want to be a famous footballer, to be super-rich or to have or be a glamorous wife, or
1 Feb 2012 : Column 303WH
whether we want to be a nurse, to start a business or to pass our maths GCSE. Not one of our Olympians will have become an Olympian by just dreaming about it; they will have worked—oh my goodness, how they will have worked—and they will have gone training when they did not want to. That sense of delayed gratification—putting effort in now for reward later—is what will lead our Olympians to the gold medals that I hope and expect so many of them will win.
Nationally, I hope there will be a facility to allow our Olympians to tell the inspiring story of the effort and hard work it took them to achieve those goals, which are many people’s dreams. It is important for not just young people, but the whole country to see that greatness comes not by accident, but through great determination and hard work. That message speaks to the country as a whole in the difficult times we face.
We have a huge opportunity. One thing sport is so good at is showing young people how to, and that they can, reach their goals. They can put effort in and get a tangible achievement out. That works especially well for young people who do not find the classroom an easy place to be. They might find the authority in the classroom difficult to take, but they might excel in other areas.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) said, that is where sport touches Departments such as the Department for Education. Young people’s results absolutely rocket when they are engaged through sport. Building self-esteem through sport helps in employment. Sport teaches discipline, resilience and other employability skills. We talk about trying to embed all those skills in the curriculum, and there they all are, embedded in sport. In terms of Home Office concerns, sport provides fantastic behaviour management and can prevent young people from becoming future inmates. The social and financial benefit to society cannot really be measured.
The benefits of the self-esteem, individual resilience, teamwork, delayed gratification and discipline instilled by sport go on and on, although Members may be glad to know that I will not. Instead, I want to turn to another great benefit of sport that is often overlooked: the financial and business potential it holds for the community.
In securing community sport for future generations, we face an opportunity and a tremendous challenge, and those centre on our sports facilities. Here is the challenge. The model of community sport is substantially dependent on local authority initial funding and maintenance funding. That has meant too many run-down, off-putting facilities, and it has claimed sporting casualties among facilities. Some years ago in my constituency, despite a massive community campaign, the council misguidedly sold off the much-needed Robin Cousins sports centre and the Shirehampton swimming pool. Now, the community has no proper local sports facilities and a growing population of increasingly bored youth.
More widely, to take football as an example, the latest Football Association survey found that the overwhelming majority of respondents identified poor local community facilities as their biggest problem. A Football Foundation survey found that of the 45,000 local football pitches that exist, 38% did not have changing rooms, 94% had no floodlights, 80% were badly drained and out of use
1 Feb 2012 : Column 304WH
in the winter months, and only 1% had the third-generation artificial pitches that can be used for 90 hours a week, as opposed to just four.
Let me illustrate the point more graphically. In another area of my constituency, Henbury Old Boys football club is struggling to raise funds for much-needed renovations to the clubhouse, facilities and changing rooms. Shirehampton football club is thinking of moving away from its much-loved home ground, which is at the heart of the community, and its clubhouse, which was built by the members themselves, because it cannot progress in the league without floodlights for its pitch, and it cannot get them.
The Minister for Sport and the Olympics (Hugh Robertson): I do not know whether my hon. Friend has tripped across this yet, but I will mention it before we move on. Part of the Places People Play scheme is a sub-£50,000 grant scheme, to which more than 600 clubs have applied. It exists precisely to try to tackle the problems she has itemised. It has been phenomenally popular; in fact, it is the most successful facilities scheme Sport England says it has ever run. My advice to the football club in her area that is struggling with its changing rooms is to make sure it puts in a grant application. The scheme is called Inspired Facilities and it is part of the Places People Play programme run by Sport England. My hon. Friend should encourage the club to put in an application.
Charlotte Leslie: I thank the Minister for that, and will certainly do so. I will come on to what the Government have been doing to recognise the issue in question, and the tremendous investment that they have focused towards it.
The Football Foundation’s research from last season shows that where new investment, such as that suggested by the Minister, took place at a community sports facility, participation increased on average by more than 10%. The sad truth is that often, as cuts hit, local authorities sometimes choose to make cuts to their front-line services and sports facilities, or to hike up charges dramatically, shutting out those on low incomes. To go back to what the Minister said, it is welcome and brilliant that the Government have acted so swiftly and strongly to meet the important challenge of investing in community sports facilities. They have pledged enormous, much needed Government investment in those facilities.
Our national lottery reforms have, I believe, brought an additional £135 million for upgrading community sports clubs and facilities. We are linking schools and sports clubs more effectively, helping schools to offer more of their facilities for community use, which is extremely welcome. Schools’ facilities have for so long been shut to the communities that want to use them. The Government are linking up local sports clubs with schools so that the schools can benefit in their turn from the tremendous expertise and dynamism that community sports clubs offer. That has been quite a long time in coming, and it is welcome that the Government have grasped the nettle and linked those two valuable resources.
1 Feb 2012 : Column 305WH
Additionally, there is a £400 million local sport fund for local authorities, to help with local sports provision, and a further fund of, I believe, about £100 million, for upgrading such facilities as swimming pools. As a former swimmer I have a particular interest in such projects. The achievement is superb, and is a gratifying indication that the Government see sport’s importance and consider it a priority. I am pleased with the investment that they are putting in.
It is vital that that investment does not just build facilities—buildings. If we run facilities as we have always run them we shall get what we have always got: a welcome initial investment and, in the long term, an expensive continuing drain on state funds, which may not always be made available to meet the need. Not only do we need to build and upgrade facilities; we need to build social enterprises. We need to ensure that we build not only facilities but an entire social enterprise model, involving the community, business expertise and smart corporate financial and human capital investment, so that the facilities do not become sponges on precious local authority funding and maintenance grants, but will instead be vibrant centres of the community, using profitable elements of the enterprise to subsidise the loss-making elements that the community needs so much.
The good news is, as colleagues have already told me, that that is already happening. However, it needs to happen more, and it can. Community sports trusts already exist, and the charity the Football Foundation is doing interesting work on providing some kind of model for change. Football is the most popular sport in the country, but 33% of the foundation’s effort in sport goes beyond football; so, for those who are not so into football, it is not just about that. The foundation’s idea works on making an initial investment but also helping to build and support a sustainable hub around a facility, such as a crèche in the club house or better use of bar facilities, including sport on TV, to make a profit that can be pumped into maintaining and improving the facility.
Corporate social responsibility is also an enormous opportunity. Funds cannot be better used than to invest in community sport, but often we also need to think smarter about how we use the expertise of those who work in our large corporates. We should encourage corporates to demonstrate corporate social responsibility by making links so that their staff can mentor and give time to local sports clubs and enterprises. When better than the Olympic year to start something of that kind?
One of the football clubs that I have visited in the Bristol area has been extraordinarily successful in community fundraising, and in building a social enterprise model around the club. One of its secrets is that there was someone on the board whose day job was project management and fundraising. In the face of the decimation by Bristol city council of much-loved sports facilities in Shirehampton, Avonmouth’s National Smelting Co amateur boxing club, run by Garry Cave in his spare time after work, has raised funds to build a new gym to accommodate the ever-increasing number of boxers who want to take part. It did it by pooling the expertise and resources of parents, helpers and supporters. In fewer than two years a brand new and far bigger club was up and running,
1 Feb 2012 : Column 306WH
and well oversubscribed. That is a success story, but it was and is still very tough going, and corporate support would be a massive help.
Such corporate support is already happening. As far as I have been able to see, Barclays has demonstrated good and innovative use of corporate support in its Spaces for Sports investment. What struck me when I visited its facilities was that what I saw was not just about capital investment unleashing participation in sport; it was also about creating and supporting an enterprise for the long term, driven and managed by the community. One of the things said again and again in communities affected by the riots was that facilities owned by the community, with community involvement, escaped the vandalism and damage. That sense of community ownership is massively important.
Mr Donaldson: I congratulate the hon. Lady on her remarks, to which I have been listening intently. We find in Northern Ireland that a benefit from sport is its capacity to unite a community that is divided—in our case by sectarianism, but often in Great Britain by ethnic differences and so on. Would the hon. Lady consider the positive effects that sport can have in bringing communities together, particularly where there is a history of conflict, but also in areas where there are gangs or criminality?
Charlotte Leslie: I thank the right hon. Gentleman not only for his chivalrous intervention but for the excellent point he made. It is true in Bristol that there are areas with opposing gangs, and it is difficult to bring those groups together, but local sports and the boxing club have managed that against all the odds, and things are being done that many people would say could not happen. I agree that the community cohesion that sport can bring is spectacular.
Sport not only provides an opportunity for large corporates such as Barclays to hone the effectiveness of their corporate social responsibility; it also, crucially, provides a great opportunity for small business and economic growth. At a time when small building companies are struggling, and we need to get young people into apprenticeships and provide opportunities in the construction industry, what I have outlined is a great way to do it. Small and medium-sized enterprises make up 99.7% of the UK’s construction industry, and up to 11 construction firms go bust every day. The Government have already identified construction programmes as a key way of stimulating the economy, and have focused on house building. That is very well and good, but developing new and upgraded sports facilities also provides many SMEs with a crucial lifeline, so that a range of subcontractors, such as architects, electricians, carpenters and plumbers can survive. For example, a relatively small project in Essex, funded by the Football Foundation
1 Feb 2012 : Column 307WH
with a grant of just over £250,000, which for the foundation is relatively modest, enabled the Lawford juniors football club to get a new changing pavilion. In addition, that project alone employed 35 different subcontractors, three quarters of them local, and two apprentices.
Although times are tough, we face a tremendous opportunity. Sport is already one of the nation’s greatest examples of the big society, with thousands of individuals giving up time to volunteer at local clubs. It is superb that the Government—I pay tribute to the Minister—are investing so robustly to protect and support the Olympic legacy. That is a much needed springboard for sport. However, we still need to rethink sport’s dependency on the state, to safeguard its future. The readiness, skills and need certainly exist to build excellent sporting facilities for future generations that are sustainable, vibrant social enterprises bringing growth to communities, and are assets to, not drains on, strained local authorities.
We need to combine the backing of Government, the expertise and action of charities, such as the Football Foundation, and smart CSR—that is, money and skills—from Britain’s businesses, such as that which I saw from Barclays, with our existing community sport network to safeguard and promote sport into the future. What better year in which to pull all those together than the Olympic year of 2012?
Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con): Thank you, Mr Bone, for giving me the opportunity to speak in the debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) for making a fantastic speech, especially given that she had the hindrance of a croaky throat. During my time as a lead member for leisure on Swindon borough council, we had great pleasure in visiting the Riverside boxing facility. As someone who is not quite as passionate about boxing as my hon. Friend, I was extremely passionate about the huge difference that it made to very challenging communities. I am thinking particularly of the links that it had with the Navy and the Army. Those links enabled people with real drive and enthusiasm to be identified and given an alternative opportunity in life. That facility should certainly be praised.
I want to cover a couple of subjects. I have spoken in similar debates in Westminster Hall in recent weeks, but I am delighted to see that I have a slightly different audience today, so I can recycle some of the points.
The Centre for Social Justice highlighted in its recently published report the vicious cycle whereby prices rise to raise revenue and that threatens participation levels. That is not an idle threat. Local authorities that are under pressure to balance revenues and expenditure often turn to the services that we are debating and consider hiking up prices. In my local authority, when Labour was last running the council, it decided to increase leisure centre prices year on year. That was a false economy not only because usage went down, but because the revenue that it collected went down. I urge local authorities throughout the country to think carefully before taking a short cut to try to raise revenue.
There are alternatives. We found that as we invested capital in the council leisure facilities, we prioritised invest-to-save schemes. For example, as the Football Foundation has identified, there is a chronic shortage of
1 Feb 2012 : Column 308WH
3G football pitches. By local authority standards, they are relatively cheap to build, and they generate huge amounts of revenue, which can be used to offset other, loss-making leisure activities. We built three 3G pitches at the back of the Link leisure centre on a four-year payback scheme. That paid itself off after 13 months. As in that example, when councils want to invest in leisure facilities, they should partner them with those few sports activities that are so popular that they can generate sufficient income to help to offset the losses made by others.
Local authorities should do far more on marketing where facilities are not being fully utilised. I will use the example of 3G football pitches again. Until I was elected to Parliament, I used to play football with a group of people every Tuesday night. Every so often, at those peak times, there would be a cancellation. Once the hour arrived and the pitch was not being used, that time was lost for ever. I felt that there were so many groups making regular bookings that the authority should have built up a database. It could then have sent out an e-mail to say, “The Thursday 7 pm club is not coming this week. The first club to reply can take up the space available.” That club could pay half the price, so participation would be increased and the local authority would not be wasting money. It would basically be a case of copying what the airline companies do when they are trying to sell off their last few seats.
We should be much more confident about empowering the respective managers to allow people who turn up to play. I am thinking particularly of younger people. Use of the 3G football pitches normally costs £42 an hour. If one is empty, but a group of teenagers turn up and between them they can cobble together £2.50, we should take that £2.50. An additional benefit is that they would be encouraged to use facilities in a controlled and safe environment.
Councils can play other roles, one of which is facilitating sports clubs to find a home. I set up the very successful Sports Forum, which has got more than 60 different sports clubs in Swindon working together. One challenge that many sports clubs have is finding a home where they can participate in their sport. The best example of that was the Esprit gymnastics club, which was based in an industrial retail park and became so successful that 450 children a week were using the facility. However, all the other tenants of the park complained that there were no car parking spaces left, so the club was told that it needed to find a new home.
The club gallantly searched high and low in Swindon, but no buildings with a sufficiently large roof were available, so the council stepped in and identified a building—Headlands school sports hall. Headlands school was being bulldozed to build an academy a few miles down the road, so the relatively new £4 million sports hall was also set to be bulldozed. To cut a long story short, it was agreed that Esprit gymnastics club would take on that building and pay a commercial rent. It was a not-for-profit business, but it obviously charged the children to take part. The sports hall was a considerably bigger facility, for which it was then able to obtain external funding. Now, on a weekly basis, more than 2,000 children use that facility, which is still standing.
1 Feb 2012 : Column 309WH
martial arts academy, so it is a thriving community facility. They also manage the neighbouring football pitches. The local authority does not run the facility. It is run by volunteers so successfully that I am determined repeatedly to invite my hon. Friend the Minister to visit it to see what a fantastic jewel in the crown it is for Swindon.
Last week, I met people from Swindon Supermarine rugby football club, which is based on the Swindon Supermarine collective site. That includes the football club, the archery club, the bowls club, the diving club and, of course, the rugby club. They want to build additional facilities, including an indoor 3G facility not just for rugby, but for football and other sports. The Rugby Football Union will be supporting that. I am delighted that, following that meeting, Swindon borough council has agreed to offer as much advice as it can ahead of the process of looking to build, putting in bids and going through the planning process. All those different sports clubs will come together and work together, so that that site continues to be something very valuable for my constituency.
Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) for securing this important debate. At the outset, I declare that I am a parliamentary fellow of Sport England. My intervention is linked to the point about local authorities. Does my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) agree that it is crucial that excellent local authorities, such as his, work in partnership with organisations such as Sport England? That organisation has launched the £32 million Sportivate programme to get 14 to 25-year-olds playing sport. It is attracting more than 300,000 extra people into playing sport. Local authorities need to work in partnership with excellent organisations such as Sport England to ensure that everyone can play sports.
Justin Tomlinson: I thank my hon. Friend. His intervention is very helpful because it ties in perfectly with my next point. To return to the Sports Forum principle, one reason why that is so successful, with the 60 different sports clubs coming together, is that there is a pool of expertise that can draw on national organisations that can come and give presentations. The Sports Forum meets every three months. We are talking about three 30-minute segments. They are advertised in advance. One segment could be, for example, about how Sport England can help, and Sport England will come along and give a presentation.
There is the sharing of best practice. For example, some sports clubs were looking for facilities and some sports clubs had facilities that were under-utilised. They merged to become stronger as a unit. Also, the expertise can be provided to apply for funding, because if ever we need nuclear physicists, it is for filling in funding application forms. We were fortunate in Swindon because we had many people who were very good at that, and they helped other sports groups to apply for funding.