Disabled People

Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 15th October 2001.

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Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton 2:30 pm, 15th October 2001

What support his Department is giving to help people with disabilities get back into work.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

What support his Department is giving to help those with disabilities to get back into work.

Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Our objective is to help all those who can work to do so. That is why we are introducing a single gateway to the benefits system, so that there is not only a clear focus on work but we can ensure that people are getting the right level of support.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Those measures are already helping many of my constituents who are among the 1 million people with disabilities who the Disability Rights Commission says would like to work. Will he leave no stone unturned to ensure that his Department helps such people into work, so that they are not abandoned and forgotten, as they were for far too long under the Conservative Government?

Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. The problem in the past was that, although the system offered some help to people who were registered as unemployed or jobseekers since 1996, it did precious little to help other people of working age who were not working for one reason or another. That is why in July this year I promised the House that I would lay regulations before it this autumn, which it will be able to debate through arrangements that will no doubt be made. Those regulations will introduce new measures to ensure that no one on, for example, incapacity benefit needs to go for more than three years without their case being thoroughly looked into to make sure that all opportunities for work are considered if that is appropriate, and if that is not appropriate to make sure that people are getting the right level of benefit. It is critical that we should not leave people of working age without any opportunity to work. That was one of the main failings of the system in the past, and we do not intend to perpetuate it.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

Does my right hon. Friend agree that more needs to be done to inform employers and the general public about the contribution that people with disabilities could make to the work force? Sadly, in some sectors there is much ignorance about the potential of people with disabilities and the benefit of those people to employers and to the public.

Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I agree with my hon. Friend. Too many people are reluctant, for one reason or another, to employ people with a disability. Sometimes it is because of a wholly irrational fear. That problem needs to be tackled. One of the main purposes of the Disability Rights Commission is to raise awareness and to tackle prejudice. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will do everything they can to tackle prejudice, which has no place in this area of employment. We are anxious to raise awareness and to ensure that we increase the number of people with a disability getting into work.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The Government presumably believe that work-focused interviews are in the interests of disabled people themselves. They also tell us repeatedly that up to 1 million disabled people are not working and want to work. If the interviews are good for disabled people—and there are lots of them out there who want to work—why do the Government need to blackmail those people by threatening to cut their benefit if they will not turn up for an interview?

Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

That is an interesting definition of blackmail.

The hon. Gentleman knows that a large number of people in this country who have a disability could work, with the right level of support. Our new deals have shown that. There are many people now in work who in the past got absolutely nothing, and they ought to be supported.

The new system that we are introducing through Jobcentre Plus will mean that everyone of working age, whatever their circumstances, will—as a condition of receiving benefit—have to come for an interview to see what options are available.

Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I make no apology whatever for telling someone aged, say, under 25 who wants to sign on for jobseekers allowance, if there is no reason whatever why that person should not work, "You must come for an interview, and if you can work you ought to work." If the Liberals do not believe in that, I part company with them. As for people with disabilities, we have said yes, they must come for an interview, and yes, they must see what options are available to them. No one is saying "You must take a job, no matter what the circumstances are." We are saying "At the very least, you ought to know what options are available to you."

The point is simple. If there are 1 million people out there who want to work, we as a Government owe it to them to ensure that they receive the right help and assistance. I am astonished that the Liberals should be against that.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

What future plans has the Secretary of State for the therapeutic earnings rule to assist people with lifelong disabilities to obtain paid employment?

Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The hon. Lady has raised that issue on many occasions, and because of her own experience she is anxious for us to improve the situation. I am as well, but unfortunately this afternoon I am not in a position to tell the hon. Lady anything with a view to making an imminent announcement. I assure her, however, that I am keeping the situation under review.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

As we roll out the new deal for disabled people, the standard of personal advisers is crucial to ensuring that disabled people are given the right advice. That has already been mentioned this afternoon. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the training of advisers is of the highest quality, and that they are well trained in understanding the difficulties and anxieties experienced by many disabled people in regard to seeking employment—although they desperately want to work?

Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. A heavy duty is placed on those who advise, and it is important for them to know the rules so that they can offer all the help that is available. As for the new deal for disabled people, which has only just been rolled out nationally, the fact that just under 40 per cent. of people have gone into work shows that these initiatives work.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State is right: it is important for us to do all that we can to help disabled people into work. Will he confirm that the number of people claiming incapacity benefit is now at its highest for three years? There is a clear upward trend.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is no good expecting even more medical tests when the Government cannot deliver the medical tests that are required already? Will he confirm that the last Minister for disabled people, whom he caused to be sacked, was right when he said this?

"Seventy-three per cent. of those tested were recommended by the doctor for re-testing within 18 months."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 15 April 1999; c. 786.]

Talking about tests after three years is not really relevant, when the Government cannot even deliver the tests that are recommended after 18 months. How many medical tests are there now, within the 18 months recommended?

Does the Secretary of State agree that the right way forward is to deliver the conditions that already exist in regulations and are not being properly enforced, rather than causing unnecessary distress to disabled people by changing regulations yet again when the current ones cannot be made to work?

Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

I do not want to be churlish, but the last Minister for the disabled is still a Minister in this Government, albeit in a different Department.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his reappointment, if congratulation is appropriate. Perhaps he felt that he had no choice but to soldier on, despite the difficulties that he ran into in the last Parliament.

The object of our proposals is to ensure that people on incapacity benefit have the opportunity to be advised on their benefit entitlement, as well as on work opportunities, where appropriate. The problem is that too many people go on to incapacity benefit and are simply written off. They do not get the help and advice that they want.

Medical examinations are indeed appropriate and we are not proposing to change the regime in that regard, although the administration of the examinations is being improved.

The hon. Gentleman asked about trends in incapacity benefit. The number of people in receipt of the benefit has gone up in the past year or two, mainly because there are now more women with contribution conditions. I do not understand it to be the Conservative policy—yet—to strip people of their contribution conditions.