In the past six weeks Department of Social Security Ministers and I have met more than 40 organisations representing people with disability or health problems. We regard it as a crucial part of our work to meet disabled people and disability organisations so that they can help to shape our approach of helping to get people with health problems and disabilities into work and providing support for them to stay in work.
May I tell the right hon. Lady that there is genuine anger and frustration among many disabled people and disability organisations at the perception that the Government are not keeping to their pre-election promises, not least that of a direct Cabinet post? As for the consultations that are taking place, there is a feeling that those are leading to nothing and have no depth.
There is no question of our not keeping pre-election promises. Before the election and in our manifesto, we said that we would reform the welfare state around the work ethic and that we would comprehensively review Department of Social Security spending to ensure that it conformed with our priorities to help those who can work into work and support their staying in work and to ensure that those who cannot work have the right combination of care and cash in support.
Has my right hon. Friend given any further thought to the restoration of reduced earnings allowance to the disabled former miners, steelworkers and others who had the allowance taken from them? When in opposition, Labour said that it would take little money to compensate those people, so will she consider doing that, because it is an area in which the Labour Government could make a difference?
We were concerned about the taking away of the reduced earnings allowance, which the previous Government did without giving proper notice to people who were heading into retirement. We reviewed the reduced earnings allowance, but decided that we could not restore it to those from whom it had been taken and keep our manifesto commitment to stay within our departmental spending totals. However, as we move into a situation where those who are retired get retirement allowance rather than reduced earnings allowance, we have made certain that they are contacted by the Benefits Agency and made aware of what income they will receive when they retire.
Does the Secretary of State agree with her advisory committee that there appears to be a cliff edge in benefit entitlement between those judged to be incapable of all work and all others? Does she recognize that there should be more of a continuum between capability and incapability? Might not that lead to a reform of the all-work test to enable those who are partially disabled to dip in and out of temporary, part-time or sporadic work in a way that does not prejudice their entitlement to benefit?
I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's point and with the point made by the Social Security Advisory Committee. It is certainly true that the previous Government concentrated on people's incapacities rather than on their capacities; their disability rather than their ability and that the result was a growing number of people written off to a life on benefit. We are determined to turn that around and to ensure that if people have some capacity to work—even though they have fluctuating health problems or quite severe disabilities—our responsibility is to help them get into the mainstream and achieve a degree of financial independence by helping them to get work and supporting them in work. We are looking to reform the benefits system so as to provide that help into work, rather than simply a handout.
I was interested in my right hon. Friend's remark that the Department had to stay within its spending limit. I assume that she means that the Government have accepted the fact that they have to deal with this lousy Tory budget for the next two years—a wrong—headed decision in my opinion. The cuts in reduced earnings allowances often meant that people who had worked in heavy industry lost about £30 out of a £40-a-week allowance. May we therefore assume that after the two-year quarantine is over we will get back on the road of doing what we all said in opposition—Front Benchers and Back Benchers alike—which was that cutting the allowances was an evil act by the Tory Government which the Labour Government would put right?
My hon. Friend has asked about the first two years and thereafter. We said in the manifesto on which both he and I were elected that we would stay within the laid-down departmental spending totals for the first two years. Thereafter, we said, we would reform the welfare state around the work ethic so that we can invest more public money in opportunities and need to spend less on the costs of social and economic failure.
The cut in the reduced earnings allowance was one of many such cuts made over 18 years by the Tory Government. We reviewed the situation but decided that to stay within our manifesto commitments we were not able to restore the cut.
Will the right hon. Lady confirm how many written representations she has received on her recent social security review? Is she aware of the widespread unease about it on the part of disability organisations, which naturally feel that they are not being properly consulted? Can she reassure the House that there will be no radical changes to disability benefits until there has been full consultation with interested parties in the course of a full and formal review?
My Ministers and I are meeting the full range of organisations concerned with issues of disability on a regular and continuing basis. Not only are we discussing with them the issues that fall to us to review but we are discussing with them how they will play a part in our pilot projects under the new deal for the long-term sick and disabled. We intend to work in partnership with the voluntary organisations to invest £195 million from the windfall levy in pioneering projects to help people into work. So not only are we talking to the organisations concerned with people with disabilities but we are working with them to shape and test our projects.