19 October 2011
Lord Freud, Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions, has confirmed that the Government is “looking to introduce a period of reconsideration, or a reconsideration process, prior to a full appeal” for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), adding: “but regardless of what an article in a newspaper might say, clearly the practical difference, if one was to be extended in the way described, is purely a difference of conditionality, because… the actual payment rate of the assessment phase of ESA is the same as Job Seekers Allowance (JSA).”
His comments came in response to a question by Lord McKenzie of Luton, as he tabled an amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill yesterday, mentioning recent media stories about – and reaction to - possible plans to stop ESA payments during appeal.
Our thanks to political monitoring agency DeHavilland for alerting us to this development and for highlighting key parts of Lord McKenzie speech [shown below in Bold] and Freud’s response in the following extract from Hansard.
Lord McKenzie’s amendment
Lord McKenzie said: “This is by way of a probing amendment. It was prompted by an article in the Times of 14 October. The article suggested that people were to be denied their benefits if they appealed against the determination. That seemed to be in the context of the reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants, particularly those who were denied ESA- the work-related activity group- who could therefore qualify for jobseeker's allowance.
“The article stated: ‘Hundreds of thousands of welfare claimants face losing their benefits for months if they challenge a ruling that they are fit to work. Ministers are looking at removing payments during the appeals process in an attempt to slash the number of challenges that are threatening to derail the Government's benefits reforms. The unprecedented move is being considered as one way to unclog the courts which are set to be inundated with appeals as the Government attempts to reduce the annual £7 billion incapacity benefit bill. A reassessment of all 1.6 million incapacity benefit claimants began in April, with ministers promising to move them on to a new system with narrower eligibility criteria for the sick and stricter requirements to find work. However, concerns over both the reliability of the test to find out whether people are ready for work and the scale of the project has prompted fears of a mountain of appeals. Judges have said privately that they could be facing 500,000 cases a year, some taking more than nine months to resolve.’
“In view of the concerns that an article like that can generate, we consider it appropriate to give the Minister an early opportunity to set the record straight, and hopefully deny that that is the Government's intent. To be clear, do the Government have any plans or otherwise contemplate, by amendment to this Bill or otherwise through regulation, the prospect of denying individuals their benefit should they appeal against a determination that denies them incapacity benefits or employment and support allowance?
“At present, where there is an appeal against a decision not to include somebody in the work-related activity group, that causes benefit to be paid at the assessment period rate only, which is the JSA rate. Is this the type of arrangement which the Government are seeking to replicate, or are they proposing to go further and to deny benefit altogether? This raises wider issues which we shall come on to in subsequent clauses, but what conditionality would apply during the period when the appeal is outstanding?
“I hope that the Minister can set the record straight and clear on this. If he proposes to confirm that the article has some validity, we have some additional questions which we would pose to him. I will give him the opportunity to set the record straight and deny that this article identifies something which the Government propose to take forward. I beg to move.
Lord Freud’s response
Lord Freud: “My Lords, the amendment is slightly different from the question posed, and I shall deal with the question posed. The changes to the current appeal system are being taken forward in this Bill, as expressed in Clauses 99 and 100, so we will have an opportunity to discuss those in that consideration.
“We are, in those clauses, looking to introduce a period of reconsideration, or a reconsideration process, prior to a full appeal. We can have further discussion at that point, but regardless of what an article in a newspaper might say, clearly the practical difference, if one was to be extended in the way described, is purely a difference of conditionality, because as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, pointed out, the actual payment rate of the assessment phase of ESA is the same as JSA. That article has put out a lot of misinformation.
Lord McKenzie’s reply
Lord McKenzie: “My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister if he is saying that what is being contemplated in effect replicates what currently exists. When an appeal is outstanding, the assessment period rate, which I think is the JSA rate, applies. If that is what is going to be replicated in the new world, I understand that and can see that the article was misleading on that basis. Broader questions are raised, however, given that there is going to be a universal credit, components of which would in due course be held back during an appeal.
“If we are talking just about the work-related activity equivalent components, I can understand parity with the existing situation, but obviously other components will go into that, including housing issues. However, I am happy to leave that debate for when we reach Clauses 99 and 100, supposing that we do reach them at some stage in our deliberations. I think the Minister has dealt fairly with the principal concern that the article generated, and I beg leave to withdraw.”
Amendment 34ZA withdrawn.
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