Social Security

– in the House of Commons at 4:11 pm on 25th October 2001.

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Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 4:11 pm, 25th October 2001

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Social Security (Jobcentre Plus Interviews) Regulations 2001 (S.I., 2001, No. 3210) dated 21st September 2001, a copy of which was laid before this House on 26th September, be annulled.

The motion—[Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber quickly and quietly? We are beginning an important debate.

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

The motion was tabled so that the House would have an opportunity to scrutinise the Government's proposals on changes to incapacity benefit and other regulations. Indeed, we tabled it during one of the emergency recalls in order to secure an early debate.

The purpose of the debate is to bring some clarity to the confusion spread during the past four months about the Government's proposals on incapacity and other benefits. It is a sorry tale that has left many disabled people uncertain as to what the Government are proposing by way of changes to the benefit regime that affects so many millions of them.

The story begins with the Queen's Speech on 20 June which announced legislation on the matter, including a welfare reform Bill. A few days later, during parliamentary questions, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made it clear: he said that

"the Queen's Speech announced a welfare reform Bill that will include measures to ensure that more and more people are invited in for interview, so that they can see what options and choices there are to enable them to get back into work."—[Hansard, 25 June 2001; Vol. 370, c. 367.]

The proposal was for primary legislation as part of a welfare reform Bill.

In a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Secretary of State expanded on his proposals. The press, of course, expanded on them even more, but the right hon. Gentleman said

"as an example of that new approach, we propose to make awards of Incapacity Benefit for fixed periods. So that at the end of the award, we can review the claim and offer more . . . support".

That was the position at the beginning of July.

The Secretary of State encountered considerable concern and distress, not least owing to the clumsy briefing to the effect that the proposals were MOT tests for disabled people—hardly a helpful way of discussing welfare reform. The Conservatives support measures to ensure that disability benefits are awarded only to people who are genuinely disabled, but we do not think that is the way to tackle a serious reform.

The issue came up during Prime Minister's questions on 4 July. The Prime Minister said:

"It cannot be right that we have a situation in which people coming on to incapacity benefit will be paid on average about £4,000 a year for, say, 10, 15 or 20 years, with no one ever checking whether they have recovered from their injuries and are able to work."

He went to make a comment that we often hear from Labour Members:

"I think every Member of the House knows that people were transferred on to incapacity benefit to disguise the true levels of unemployment in the 1980s."—[Hansard, 4 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 254-261.]

I want to offer the House a brief history lesson. Incapacity benefit was introduced in 1995 as a reform introduced by the then Secretary of State for Social Security, my right hon. Friend Mr. Lilley.

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

No; it was not simply another name for a previous benefit; it was a significant change in the regime.

The number of people on incapacity benefit fell steadily from the introduction of the benefit in 1995 until 1998, since when, under the present Government, the number of people in receipt of incapacity benefit has started to increase. Therefore, under us the number of people on incapacity benefit was falling; under the present Government, the number of people on incapacity benefit is rising. The number of people whose claims were terminated by reason of failing the personal capability assessment was running at approximately 40,000 per quarter. That number is now down to 20,000. Almost half of the decline in measured claimant count unemployment is matched by an increase in the number of people claiming incapacity benefit under the present Government.

I would gladly give the Secretary of State the opportunity to repeat the claim that he always makes: that those statements may be true—of course, they are true—but the explanation is that more and more women have a contributions record that entitles them to incapacity benefit. That is not the whole story. It is true that some of the increase in incapacity benefit claimants is among women, but there are now 24,000 more men claiming incapacity benefit than there were when the number of recipients reached its lowest point. In fact, there is now a steady upward trend in the number of people claiming incapacity benefit and I believe that the Government, instead of making false claims about the history of the benefit, need to explain clearly why, while they are in office, the number of people claiming incapacity benefit is rising.

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

I very much hope to catch your eye later in the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I want to point out now that no history of incapacity benefit that starts in 1995 can possibly be complete. The total case load of incapacity benefit is far too high, and to a large extent that is because a very large number of people went on to the then invalidity benefit in the 1980s. The problem was that those people were given no help or advice to return to work; the then Tory Government simply dumped them on that benefit to disguise unemployment. If we are going to have a history lesson, let us have a complete history lesson.

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

It is certainly one effect of the calling in for interviews of people who claim unemployment benefit, and it was undoubtedly an effect when restart interviews were conducted in the mid-1980s, that some people who are classified as unemployed are discovered to have disabilities that mean that they receive disability benefits. I should be interested to hear whether the Secretary of State will deny that that happens today, when some people are claiming jobseeker's allowance or income support on the grounds that they are not in work. Is the right hon. Gentleman willing to deny that, in benefit offices all around the country now, staff are saying, "We have discovered, from the interviews that we have been conducting with you, that you have a disability, so we believe that it is more appropriate that you be on a disability benefit"? Of course that goes on. That is part of the day-to-day business of scrutinising benefits and ensuring that people claim the benefits to which they are rightly entitled. I am asking the Secretary of State to explain why the incapacity benefit case load is now rising, and rising among men as well as women.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

The hon. Gentleman's figures appear to suggest that all the scare stories that he and the Liberal Democrats were putting round in 1999 have come to nothing, but I want to take him back to the Queen's Speech, which he mentioned at the start of his contribution. Is it not the case that the Queen's Speech talked about enhancing the civil rights of disabled people even further, and would that not include the right to work for people who can, the right to benefit and support for people who need it, and the right to high-quality advice, and are not they all embodied in the Secretary of State's proposals?

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

I entirely agree with all those propositions. It is important that people who are suffering from disability are helped into work whenever that is feasible; I accept that. The question that I hope to come to during my remarks is whether the Government's proposals will be effective in achieving that objective.

While the Prime Minister was on his feet in this Chamber on 4 July, claiming that people were going to be on incapacity benefit for 10, 15 or 20 years without any attempt being made to investigate whether they were genuinely entitled to it—while he was perpetrating nothing short of a myth—the Secretary of State's colleague, Baroness Hollis of Heigham, in the other place at almost exactly the same time, was adopting a different tone, perhaps because, unlike the Prime Minister, she knew the facts. She said

"At the moment the Benefits Agency carries out 1 million personal capability assessments every year. Half of those tests are repeat assessments, the other half are first-time applications. So all new claims for incapacity benefit are now subject to review at some point between the timespan of six months and five years. There is nothing new about checking ongoing claims for incapacity benefit."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 4 July 2001; Vol. 626, c. 858.]

Indeed, a well-established provision in legislation enables any benefit officer who suspects that someone on incapacity benefit might be capable of work to require that person to have a medical reassessment.

The Minister's predecessor, who is sadly now on the Back Benches, Hugh Bayley, when discussing medical incapacity testing in Standing Committee D on 15 April 1999, said

"Seventy-three per cent. of those tested were recommended by the doctor for retesting within 18 months. In only 28 per cent. of cases was no change in the medical condition anticipated and no pre-ordained retest time set."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 15 April 1999; c.786.]

That is the regime that applies at present. That description from the previous Minister responsible for disability benefits in the then Department of Social Security is an accurate description of the present regime.

What the Prime Minister said in oral questions and the accounts that were spun to justify the Government's measures were not an accurate account of that regime. It is worth hon. Members on both sides of the House being aware of the facts about how the present regime works, as it enables us to scrutinise this measure properly.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

If there is so much concern on the Conservative Benches about this issue, how come only eight of the 169 Conservative Members have turned up today?

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

The main debate today was introduced by the Liberal Democrat party and we know how boring debates introduced by the minor parties on their Supply days are. The hon. Gentleman will find that Conservative Members never flock here on such days.

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

May I remind my hon. Friend that had he and his colleagues not prayed against the measure, we would not have had any debate on it?

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

That is correct and it is another matter with which I hope to deal.

By 5 July the Secretary of State had announced that the Government would introduce primary legislation and establish fixed time limits for the receipt of incapacity benefit. They justified their policy through seriously misleading claims about the way in which the present regime was operated.

As we all know, there was widespread concern and confusion about what was proposed. Lord Ashley of Stoke was accurate when he pointed out in The Times that

"The Government has the power to repeatedly reassess if it wishes, and it undoubtedly uses it. The proposed changes are unnecessary."

One of our criticisms of the Government is that it is not the regulations that have caused problems with securing reliable and prompt medical assessments and reassessments under the present rules for incapacity benefit; the problem has been getting access to medical assessments and reassessments when benefits offices want them to be carried out. The real problem has been with the delivery of those assessments.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the difficulties with the medical assessments that he mentions are partly caused by the way in which the Government have messed about with the remuneration and administrative arrangements of the medical officers involved, as one of my constituents recently wrote to tell me?

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

A very powerful Select Committee report on precisely that subject was published during the previous Parliament. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

The Government got themselves into a serious mess, and on 12 July, The Guardian reported:

"Government sources privately recognise the presentation of the proposal did not go as well as hoped".

That is a fairly accurate account of the mess that the Government had got themselves into by 12 July. At that point, the climbdown began. First, we learned in a parliamentary answer from the Secretary of State that he had lost his nerve about introducing all these measures as part of primary legislation, which is where we began. Primary legislation would not be used, and he announced that regulations under the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999 would be laid before both Houses in the autumn."—[Hansard, 11 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 567W.]

So I should be grateful to the Secretary of State if he could confirm that, contrary to the assertions that were made, this matter will not form part of the welfare reform Bill that we expect to be introduced in the next few weeks? That was the first climbdown.

The regulations that were then tabled include a memorandum that states:

"The regulations will not result in claims being time limited."

So I should be grateful to the Secretary of State if he could also confirm that, contrary to what he told the House during oral questions before the summer recess, claims for incapacity benefit will not be time limited under the regulations.

In answer to an oral question that I asked last week, the Secretary of State said:

"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."—[Hansard, 15 October 2001; Vol. 372, c. 911.]

Has the regime for medical examinations under incapacity benefit changed? Hon. Members on both sides of the House and many representatives of disabled people are entitled to an answer to that question, not least because the Under–Secretary of State for Work and Pensions appeared to suggest in a written answer to a question asked by Mr. Webb that

"in certain circumstances, the new triennial review could lead to an additional medical test."

So there seems to be a difference between what the Secretary of State said during oral questions and the Minister's answer.

There has been confusion about whether the measures would be introduced under primary legislation or in regulations. There has been confusion about whether there will be a fixed period for incapacity benefit claims. There has also been confusion about whether there will be extra medical tests. To add to that confusion, the Government even seem to be confused about why we are debating the confusion.

On 4 October, Conservative Members tabled early-day motion 216, which Liberal Democrat Members also signed, to try to secure a debate on these regulations. We made it clear at the time that that was why we tabled the motion, and I have a copy of it here. We were very surprised therefore to hear the Secretary of State say on the "Today" programme on Monday this week that

"by the middle of last week I discovered that neither the Tories nor the Liberals had asked for a debate so I asked for our Whips to arrange a debate. The first slot I could get is this Thursday. Getting a slot on the Floor of the Commons is difficult at the best of times, but we've got that."

We are holding this debate because we tabled a motion objecting to the regulations and we then pressed for a debate through the usual channels, so the Secretary of State has been consistently wrong and misleading not only about the purpose of the regulations and how they will work, but about why we are debating them today in the House of Commons.

Uncertainty and distress has been caused by the four months of confusion about the regulations, but, as has been said, the crucial, underlying question is whether they will have any practical effect in helping people who are disabled and receive incapacity benefit to find work.

The Government are supposed to be keen on what they call "evidence-based" policy. That is one of new Labour's buzzwords. We have much evidence in many research reports from the Department of Social Security about the impact of the ONE programme and what effect piloting of work-focused interviews has had on benefit claimants.

I shall quote to the Secretary of State the research produced by his own Department, evaluating the impact of ONE. Research report No. 140, published this year, says, for example:

"ONE did not seem to challenge or change the expectations of those jobseekers with previous experience of claiming. They largely perceived the service to be the same 'process' they had experienced before and, in some instances, compared the advice received unfavourably with that offered through the Jobcentre."

The report states as a summary:

"there was no change in the attitudes and/or behaviour of those already in work".

The researchers were not able to detect any change. The summary also states:

"Personal advisers were able to change a few participants' attitudes to work".

That, I suppose, is progress of a sort, although the summary continues:

"These impacts, however, are an exception to the wider experience of those participants who did not feel work was an option."

Labour Members believe that the Government have cracked the problem of helping people on benefits into work by introducing compulsory interviews. I invite those who genuinely believe that to consider the evidence in the Government's evaluations of the piloting of the schemes.

Research report No. 126 found that in areas subject to the piloting of the scheme, where, it is worth pointing out, it has been going on for some time,

"Respondents in the sick or disabled group who had not participated in ONE were more likely to be in work than were participants".

So, before Labour Members tell us that they have cracked the problem of helping disabled people or others into work by introducing compulsory work-focused interviews, they need to explain why they do not believe the Government's evaluations, which the DSS has helpfully produced. As the researchers say,

"This finding is not easy to explain", but that is their finding.

I shall quote from other research reports, and refer Members who wish to pursue the subject to research reports Nos. 126, 140 and 149.

"Among sick or disabled clients whose background or circumstances might hinder entry to the labour market, there was no evidence that those in the pilot areas were more likely than the controls"— those who did not have ONE job-focused interviews—

"to be working or looking for work at the second survey interview about 10 months after their claim".

Therefore, the evidence is that the proposal, which after all the confusion and distress the Secretary of State has finally put before the House, is unlikely to have any practical effects on the prospects of people in receipt of benefit, especially disabled people, subsequently entering work.

Photo of Mr Chris Pond Mr Chris Pond Labour, Gravesham

It is helpful that the hon. Gentleman has told the House that he is thoroughly confused about the matter. I am sure that, by the end of the debate, it will become clearer to him.

At the base of the issue is a significant difference between the approach of his party when in government, which was to look carefully at people's inabilities and to identify whether people could not do things, and that of the Labour party in government, which is to see what people can do and what measures can be taken to ensure that they are not written off as in the past but given all possible help. In every circumstance, that help may not be enough, but at least it will be given.

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

We have heard that rhetoric for five years. Are the practical effects, which are outlined in the evaluations of the policies that Mr. Pond supported, consistent with that rhetoric? After five years, we are entitled to evidence. It is beginning to appear and it shows that the programmes are not delivering what was promised.

The evaluation of the new deal for lone parents and their prospects of finding work clearly shows that those who did not participate in the compulsory interviews were slightly more likely to get employment than those who were called for interview. There is therefore no point in the hon. Member for Gravesham simply repeating the 1997 rhetoric. The Government can no longer live on that. We want to know what is working, and the evidence shows that the Government's approach is not.

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

The hon. Gentleman said that I was confused; I am pleased that he is not. I shall give way again, provided that he explains why we have moved from primary legislation to regulations, whether there will be extra medical tests and fixed claim periods for incapacity benefit, and why the House is debating the matter today. I am confused about those subjects, but I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is not.

Photo of Mr Chris Pond Mr Chris Pond Labour, Gravesham

The hon. Gentleman knows that the majority of lone parents who went to an interview took up one of the options that they were offered. That does not necessarily mean that they entered paid employment; training or child care opportunities might be considered in an interview. However, the interview process increased the opportunities and potential of lone parents to make a better life for themselves and their families. That is a move forward.

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

We are getting into more detail than necessary at the moment.

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

I shall tell the Minister exactly what the research shows. In the pilot areas for the new deal, a slightly higher rate of lone parents left income support than in those where it was not piloted. The number of lone parents going into work through the new deal was slightly lower. More lone parents left income support because of "repartnering". The only practical effect of the new deal appears to be that some lone parents admit that they are cohabiting when they get the letter that calls them for interview. I should be happy to debate that any time with the hon. Member for Gravesham. If he does not accept my comments, I should like to know why he disagrees with research report No. 108.

The Government have caused distress and confusion to disabled people. They have changed their policy several times in the past four months and been unable to offer any significant evidence to support it. They have also been unable to show evidence that the interviews, which are supposed to have such a transforming effect on the prospects of disabled people, will make any difference.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

The hon. Gentleman has made some telling points, but he has left me uncertain about the position of the Conservative party. Does he believe that the measures are too draconian or not draconian enough?

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

Our party's position is simple: we support effective measures to help people on incapacity benefit and others into work. We do not know what exactly the Government propose and whether their measures will have any effect. That is the reason for the debate. We look forward to the Secretary of State's explanation of the confusion that he has caused in the past four months.

Several hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I remind hon. Members that the debate must finish at 5.41 pm. Several are trying to catch my eye and the length of the speeches will determine how many hon. Members can contribute.

Photo of Terry Rooney Terry Rooney Labour, Bradford North 4:39 pm, 25th October 2001

I remember the 1980s, when the then Employment Service in every town and city had a monthly target for the number of people who had to be removed from the register—not necessarily into work—and the number against whom a sanction had to be applied. A regime of fear operated in the Employment Service, which had no interest in assisting anybody to get work. I hope that we saw the back of those days long ago.

There is a great deal of misinformation, and disinformation, about exactly what the proposals mean. Personally, I am delighted that the Employment Service now seeks to be interventionist and to help people return to work. Some may recall that back in the 1970s everyone who claimed unemployment benefit had to go for an interview, and it was a work-focused interview. It may not have been called that, but that is what it was. In the 1980s, the Conservatives abandoned the system and abandoned unemployed people.

In principle, I see nothing wrong with new claimants having to go for interviews, given the safeguards contained in regulation 5. However, perhaps the Secretary of State will tell us in what circumstances an interview would not be deemed "appropriate"—that, I think, is a worry for all of us.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

I—along with others, for all I know—am especially concerned about the severely disabled, as I said in a question to the Prime Minister a few months ago. I note that when there are good reasons, such as a claimant's state of health, interviews can be deferred. The severely disabled, as new claimants, should not be put in such a situation as they are clearly in no position to work. I—and, I am sure, my hon. Friend—would not want any further anxiety to be imposed on them.

Photo of Terry Rooney Terry Rooney Labour, Bradford North

That is a worthy concern, but, according to the terms of incapacity benefit, claimants can be excused from further medical examination for three, five or 10 years, or for life, if it is obvious that their condition will not improve. I assume that the intention is to extend exemption from interview to those who are already exempt from medical examination.

We need to reflect on the measures taken over the past four years and the impact that they have had. Will the regulations prove to be an extension of those measures, or will they begin to undo them? Between April 1997 and September 2001, my area has experienced an 80 per cent. reduction in youth unemployment and a 72 per cent. reduction in adult long-term unemployment. That has not happened by accident; the new deal has played a part. The new deal, however, is becoming an old deal. It is becoming tired.

There is now a hard core of young people with multiple problems who do not fit easily into any of the slots, and the new deal is not flexible enough to cope with them. For instance, about 50 per cent. of unemployed people under 24 in the Bradford travel-to-work area are referred to the environmental taskforce or voluntary sector options, 90 per cent. of them on a mandatory basis. The vast majority are experiencing that for the second, third or fourth time. All that the new deal is doing is recycling people. If we are to handle them properly, we must think again about the principles of the new deal and the rigid inflexibility that it incorporates.

I fear that claimants will lack confidence in the new work-focused interviews. I fear that the advisers will not be sufficiently well trained, and will not be supported by enough flexibility in the system, to deliver packages demonstrating that individuals rather than targets count. It may not have been intended, but there is now an incredible degree of rigidity and prescription in the Employment Service's application of the new deal. It has escaped from its original admirable ambitions and application. During the first two or three years, it was fantastic and the flexibility was there, but it seems to have lost it. We need to be careful that this measure does not go down that same road. The focus has to be the individual, not departmental programmes, statistics or targets.

There is another problem, which seems to operate across all civil service matters and all programmes, whichever Government are in power. Over time, there develops an obsession with outputs rather than outcomes. If we are serious about this matter, we need to start sending messages down the line that it is outcomes that matter, rather than being able to put a tick in the correct box.

If this measure is to work, we need the right training for the advisers, and confidence among claimants that the system will help them, rather than beat them. We also need to emphasise that this is a matter of choice, not coercion. Approximately 25,000 people a year with severe disabilities have, with the right help and support, been moved into mainstream employment through sheltered employment projects such as Remploy. That is not cheap, but it shows that, with the right programme, the right support and the right attitude towards discriminatory employers, the opportunities are there for those who want them. This scheme must work on the same basis. Those who are readily employable and who want to work will easily be able to walk away from the benefit system and get employment. The challenge will be for those difficult cases with a multiplicity of problems.

I would like to ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State a technical question, because I cannot see the answer in the regulations. At the moment, anybody on statutory sick pay is automatically transferred to incapacity benefit after 196 days. It is not clear from the regulations—that provision does not seem to have been repealed—whether that will still apply or whether such a change would be conditional on an interview. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend could clarify that.

In principle, I support what the Government are doing, but the mechanics of the proposals need to be worked out very carefully.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 4:47 pm, 25th October 2001

It will be on the record of the House that I expressed concern about these regulations when the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill was first debated in May 1999. I used the opportunity of an exchange during oral questions to the Leader of the House on 11 May to pursue the subject. The Secretary of State will recall that, during the most recent oral questions, I also pursued the matter of the therapeutic earnings rules, when I asked what part they would play in what would be offered to people with disabilities.

My particular concern is the one that I had originally, and it has also been picked up by Mr. Rooney. It is the matter of people with a severe disability. I want to focus on people with learning disabilities and on-going mental health problems. I shall not rehearse the arguments that I made before on the subject. I simply say to the Secretary of State that the arrival, out of the blue, of a request to attend a compulsory interview on a particular day is a major problem for many people with a severe learning disability or mental health problem. I can think of many people with that type of disability who would simply bin the letter in a panic.

The Secretary of State has said that there is to be recognition of people with on-going severe disabilities and that they will be protected. Will he give a little more detail of exactly how those cases will be analysed? I accept that this regulation relates to new claimants, but some new claimants will have severe, lifelong disabilities. I am all in favour of trying to access appropriate employment for people with a range of disabilities, including some of those with severe mental health problems and some of those with learning disabilities.

We hear a lot about portals and gateways. If those people are to be required to go for an interview and are told that if they do not attend they will lose key benefits, it is essential that, whatever portal or gateway they are encouraged to go through, appropriate and well-informed sources of support are in place to help them to access that employment. It would be criminal to raise expectations and to put them through what could be for them the traumatic experience of the interview without being able to guarantee that support will be there on the other side of the gateway or portal.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

The hon. Lady raises an important point regarding mental health and various other conditions. The key aspect is the training of the staff involved, their ability to respond to the particular needs of people suffering from those conditions, and their ability to assess reactions to the demand for an interview and the behaviour at the interview itself, which could become confrontational unless training is given.

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

The hon. Gentleman is right. I know that he takes a particular interest in these issues and speaks with great knowledge on the subject. I hope that the Secretary of State will have heard what he said.

What worries me is that in the regulations there is a priority list of benefits that will be lost if a person fails to attend the interview. At the top is income support. The Secretary of State will know that people with a severe disability may qualify for the severe disability premium of income support. The amount of money that they receive may qualify them for certain levels of housing benefit. They may have a package of support from, say, social services, to which they make a contribution. That contribution will be based on the level of income support that their disability attracts. Suddenly to remove or to reduce it because they did not attend an interview could cause severe financial problems. They could get into debt. It could cause huge problems in terms of their well-being and state of mind.

I want to know from the Secretary of State how he will deal with severe disability while at the same time offering equal opportunity. If what was being put before the House was an enhanced opportunity for people, particularly those with learning disabilities or on-going mental health problems, to access employment or a phased way into paid employment that was not just a make-work scheme but real paid employment, I could appreciate that. What I cannot appreciate is that that group of people will be told, "This is compulsory and if you do not attend the interview you will lose benefit."

I think that the Government have gone wrong. It is a new rule that is to apply only to new claimants. The very language of the debate and what is written in the regulations seems to imply that just about everyone claiming benefits who has a disability once held down a job and for physical disability reasons no longer does so.

We know the prevalence of back injury; it is common. People start out in a working life. Their health may deteriorate physically or they may suffer a back injury or some strain injury at work that means they are no longer able to do the job they have always done. They may then go on incapacity benefit. To try to get those people into some other form of work is wholly laudable.

If that is what the Government are trying to do, they will have my total support, but there is an element of, "Come for the interview on the day we say, regardless of your level of disability." [Hon. Members: "No."] I wait to be reassured. It is now three years down the track and I am still not reassured. the disability organisations are not reassured and Lord Ashley of Stoke is not reassured. We are waiting for that reassurance. [Hon. Members: "Sit down."] I will in a minute. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may find it amusing, but I have received correspondence from people with disabilities who may be affected by the legislation. They do not find it amusing at all. They find it not only hurtful and confusing, but rather frightening.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

I know that the hon. Lady is being baited by my hon. Friends. Party politics comes into these matters and I am the last one to criticise that. However, she can take this reassurance if it is worth anything to her: today she has said hardly a single word with which I disagree.

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

I am very grateful. The hon. Gentleman indicated in an intervention earlier that he is knowledgeable on this subject. I am sure that he is concerned, as many of us are, about our constituents who will receive such a letter. I should like the Secretary of State to provide more details about what will happen to people who may not turn up to the interview because they cannot manage official correspondence or because their state of mind is such that they are unable to deal with the letter. We cannot assume that all such people have very convenient social workers whom they can phone up and ask, "What shall I do about this letter?"

We are dealing with a draconian rule that failure to attend the interview will result in a loss of benefit and with regulations that catch-all do not apply only to people who have a disability that has prevented them from working for some time and want to get back into work, but to people on the disability register who have lifelong disabilities that they were born with. The provision makes no differentiation between those people and someone who may have a back injury.

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

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman. I let him intervene on me in the debate in 1999 and I hope that this time he will make a more sensible intervention than he did then.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

Fond memories, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The points that the hon. Lady raises would be right if they had not been answered during the debates in 1999. I remember raising the same issues in Committee and I was told by Ministers that it would be possible for advisers to visit the homes of people who could not get out and that it would be possible for communications support to be provided—indeed, it would be essential. There will be a flexible, personalised, tailored process so that people get the appropriate help in the appropriate way. The hon. Lady should not forget that 1 million disabled people would like to work.

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

I am not forgetting that, but for some people about whom I am concerned a stranger visiting them at home would be a major trauma. I quite appreciate that if someone has a physical incapacity that means that it is difficult for them to attend an interview, the interviewer may decide that it would be better to offer them an interview at home. However, people with certain disabilities have communication problems that could be critical in an interview. They do not always have support workers to attend the interview with them.

Reference has been made to training and the level of expertise offered by interviewers and their support workers. I should like to think that it was there, but I am afraid that it is not. We do not see it in any other aspect of the lives of people with those disabilities, so it seems strange that it is suddenly on offer when they have to attend a statutory interview.

Photo of Terry Rooney Terry Rooney Labour, Bradford North

The hon. Lady is in danger of severely over-egging the pudding. She should remember that we are discussing people who have made contact with the service in order to make a claim, so she should be careful about using the communication argument.

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

Regardless of how those people contacted the service in the first place, some quite intelligent people are affected by communications disorders. They cannot pick up the phone and make contact—[Interruption.] Labour Members are shaking their heads. Their ignorance on this subject is palpable. Ignorance is bliss. I hope that the Secretary of State will be wise when he responds to the debate.

The problem, as we can see from previous debates, is that the profile of a person with a disability is predominantly of someone with a physical disability and ignores those with multiple disabilities or severe learning disabilities. It certainly does not encompass someone with schizophrenia, living in the community and drawing benefits, who will almost certainly receive such a letter. It is too much of a catch-all provision.

As my hon. Friend Mr. Willetts said, the Government's agenda is not about addressing the needs of people with disabilities but about using the benefits system to gerrymander some figures to make it look as though they are fulfilling some long-lost election pledge to deal with benefit fraud. There are very few people who genuinely have a disability who seek to defraud the Exchequer.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead 5:01 pm, 25th October 2001

My point links to the one made by my hon. Friend Mr. Rooney. One of the real achievements of the party that is now in opposition was to change the debate about unemployment. It managed to focus the public mind on the fact that a considerable number of people were unemployed because they wanted to be, rather than because no jobs were available. We have lived through a period of about nine years during which the number of jobs in the community has continued to rise. It may be that we are now in a period during which, in the country as a whole, the number of people in work will begin to fall.

When I was in opposition, I supported the policy of linking claimants to the labour market—it was called supply side reform—and I continue to do so now that we are in government, but we are beginning to enter a different period. I recently received a parliamentary answer showing that in 266 of our constituencies the employment rate is now lower than when we were first elected in 1997. In other words, while there will of course be some jobs, even in Birkenhead, it is becoming more difficult for claimants to find work, even if they want to. That will be generally true of the country as a whole, but particularly true of areas where there are already job scarcities.

As we support joined-up government, the Secretary of State will have no problem with my plea to him, which is to tell the Chancellor that, while Labour Members support those moves that continue to develop the services that we provide for people who are seeking work, it is getting even more difficult to find work in some of our constituencies, quite simply because there is a shortage of jobs.

Of course we support the development of the supply side policies to help people into work, but I hope that it will not be long before the Government begin to think of measures that they can introduce to encourage reflation at a local level, so that those of us who represent seats where the employment rate is lower than when our Government were first elected—that is, about a third of hon. Members—will see that such policies go hand in hand with policies to try to increase the number of jobs in areas with severe job shortages.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 5:04 pm, 25th October 2001

In order to try to decide what the regulations are designed to achieve, it is worth considering the circumstances in which they were brought into the public view. On the day when the Secretary of State made his speech to the think tank about the regulations, catching the disability organisations on the hop, the newspapers, before he spoke, were running headlines about MOT tests for the disabled.

Ministers shook their heads when Mr. Willetts raised the issue, but when we read on the day of a Minister giving a speech, that

"Details will be disclosed by Alistair Darling . . . Mr. Darling also hinted",

I suspect that there has been some communication between the newspapers and the Department. The same phrase, "MOT for the disabled", appeared in the Evening Standard one day and in The Times the next day, and although that phrase was not in the Minister's speech, it makes me wonder what role the briefers had to play.

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

I regard the phrase "MOT for the disabled" as deeply offensive in that context. If the hon. Gentleman reads the article, he will see that it is not attributed to me, but it is directly attributed to someone else. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would tell the House who said it, because that person should be ashamed of himself.

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

If the Secretary of State's spinners, when they leak speeches to the newspapers, produce such headlines, he should have better people spinning for him.

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

I am not going to let the hon. Gentleman get away with that. As he is entitled to do, he has referred to a newspaper article. Will he now please tell us who made that remark, because it is attributed to someone by The Times. He has the article and, for the sake of completeness, I hope that he will tell us who made that offensive remark.

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

The article says that Joe Korner of the Royal National Institute for the Blind was worried that the Secretary of State was proposing MOT checks for the disabled. All the subsequent press coverage—and the Government have some influence on what is written about their policies—[Hon. Members: "No."] Perhaps the Government have no influence on what is written and I have misunderstood. The coverage of what the Secretary of State had put in The Times before his speech led to grave concern among disabled people. The Secretary of State may claim innocence of that, but that was the result. Disabled people opened their newspapers in the morning to read the coverage that arose from the Secretary of State's briefing about the speech.

The next day, the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Walsall, North (David Winnick) challenged the Prime Minister at Question Time. Extraordinarily, the Prime Minister had believed the spin from the Department for Work and Pensions. As the hon. Member for Havant said, the Prime Minister said that people could not be left for 10, 15 or 20 years on benefits, but the fact is that the situation is extremely atypical except for the most severely disabled people. The Prime Minister thought that the regulations had something to do with getting people who were not really disabled off benefit. They are nothing of the sort.

The Secretary of State must take responsibility for the way in which he briefs the press when he launches an initiative. The Government are proud of the way in which they manage the media, but if that management disturbs genuinely disabled people, the Secretary of State should examine his conscience on the issue.

On which points do we agree with the Government? When it comes to Liberal Democrat criticism of his policy, the Secretary of State is fond of setting up straw men and then knocking them down, so I shall make our position clear. We support efforts to help disabled people who want and are able to work to get back to work.

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

So that is the Conservative party's position as well. However, should not the Government be doing more to make it easier for disabled people to get back to work allowing people to combine part-time work with part-time benefit?

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

Those are received by a handful of people compared with the 1 million whom we are told want work. Four years ago, the Government said that 1 million disabled people want to work but are not doing so. Today, we heard the same figure. What have the Government been doing? They have achieved nothing in four years.

The key issue—which was properly raised by Mr. Rooney—is how the compulsory issues will affect disabled people. More than a quarter of the people receiving incapacity benefit have mental health or behavioural problems, as Mrs. Browning said. What effect will the regulations have on them?

On 15 October, I asked the Secretary of State to supply me with the guidance notes that he will issue to his officials to administer the scheme. Those guidance notes still have not been forthcoming.

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

The Secretary of State says that they should be, but I asked the Library this morning. At that time, the staff said that they had received nothing. Later, they rang to say that they had received the two-page memorandum, but they had not had the jobcentre guidance for officials. So I had to get it from somewhere else. Tabling a question in the House of Commons and giving it ten days is obviously a waste of time; I had to get a leaked copy from somewhere else. That is appalling.

I was staggered when I read the guidance, which has not been in the public domain until this week. There is a section on people with mental health problems, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said. Paragraph 58 deals with the threat of suicide, and says that

"if information is received by phone, letter or in person, that a person in distress plans to commit suicide the basic rule to remember is that, they might well do so. It is therefore important to treat such information seriously."

That is the guidance for those who will be forcing people with mental health problems to come in for interviews on pain of loss of benefit. The guidance says:

"Staff have a responsibility to process benefit claims quickly and accurately and to be aware of the potential risks to the customer when legitimately withdrawing or sanctioning benefit from a person known to have a mental health problem."

Why has not any of this been laid before the House for us to see? The Government are telling their own officials that, potentially, they will have real problems when they deal with people with mental health problems. [Interruption.] I will not repeat what was said from a sedentary position; it would be unparliamentary. It is clear that people with mental health problems will have concerns about this matter. What will the Government do for them?

What about severely disabled people? A number of hon. Members are concerned about who will be allowed what they call "waivers" at the interviews. The astonishing thing is that we have referred to the primary legislation—the Act that allowed the regulations to be introduced—but it did not say who would be exempted. We have looked at the regulations, which do not say who will be exempted.

The memorandum that came to the Library this morning says that, for example, people with a terminal illness, people who have been recently bereaved or people about to start a job should be exempted. But who else? We do not know and we have no way of controlling it, because it is not in the regulations. It is down to the guidance; the guidance that was not laid before the House and which is not subject to parliamentary scrutiny. It is down to the discretion of individual decision makers.

The Government say that they are concerned about the rights of disabled people. Why do not they have these rights in the regulations? Why is it down to the individual discretion of the decision maker? What protection do those involved have? Do they know that the interviews can be waived at all? Will anyone tell them? If they fell in a definite category because of a particular condition, they would have some security. However, they have no security under the proposals. The hon. Member for Havant said that the research evidence is clear that these schemes do not actually work. He referred to research report No. 149, but did not read out the title.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge and Chryston

The hon. Gentleman seems to be relying very much—remarkably so—on the arguments of the hon. Member for Havant. What about the views of the organisations of and for people with disabilities? So far, he has mentioned the RNIB. I have its briefing, which is excellent. Nowhere in it does the RNIB support the view that the regulations should be annulled. Does he have any evidence that any other organisation of that kind supports the same view? I have not found any.

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

The RNIB briefing says that

"the helping hand philosophy

—the Government's defence of what they are doing— doesn't exactly tally with the compulsory, punitive nature of the provisions."

It goes on to say that the regulations will mean that

"blind people face a new hurdle to getting their full benefit entitlement."

The RNIB goes on to talk about people who become blind and lose their job, saying that an interview just after losing work because of the onset of blindness

"may not do them any good, but it could very well cause them additional stress and anxiety."

I agree that it does not say at the end of the briefing, "Therefore annul" but it does not sound to me like a ringing endorsement.

Mr. Clarke is quite right to mention what disabled people's organisations are saying. Leonard Cheshire says that it is

"concerned that the fear of lost benefit as a direct consequence of not turning up to an interview may lead disabled people to giving up altogether."

SCOPE says that

"compulsory interviews will heighten the fears of disabled people."

A number of organisations are concerned about the regulations—to varying extents, I accept—and we should listen to what they say.

The research evidence is about the medium-term effect of the pilot schemes. It gives the schemes time to work, but the key word in the title is "voluntary." This is a departmental report on voluntary schemes to get people to go to interviews. It found that people who turn up to voluntary schemes—and such people are presumably well motivated—are no more likely to get a job. If volunteers are not more likely to get a job, what about conscripts? There is no evidence that the interviews work. In fact, there is clear evidence that disabled people—and especially newly disabled people—feel threatened by them.

I tabled a question to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Malcolm Wicks, about the effects of the interviews. This matter returns to the point raised by the hon. Member for Bradford, North. The Minister told me that, although the work-focused interview would not normally have any effect on a subsequent medical test, there could be circumstances in which the person who conducts the work-focused interview will suggest that there should be another medical test.

What expertise does the person talking about jobs have about disability and people's ability to work? Given that the work-related interview will probably be triggered by a person failing a medical test in the first place, what expertise does the person who conducts the interview have that will enable him to decide that that interviewee is not really ill and that there should be another test?

Clearly, the regulations will be passed by the House, even though we will oppose them. Will the Secretary of State tell us, on the record, which severely disabled people will be excluded from the forced interviews? Secondly, will he confirm that the people conducting the interviews will have proper disability training so that they can work with people who are deaf or blind or who have other disabilities? Thirdly, will he confirm that targets will not be set for the numbers of people taken off incapacity benefit?

The Government have failed to lay before Parliament the proper information about the regulations. They have frightened disabled people. That amounts to harassment and should be opposed.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak 5:17 pm, 25th October 2001

I should like to associate myself with the concerns that have been raised by other hon. Members.

When the matter first arose on 3 July, I was telephoned by a journalist who informed me that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had briefed the media about his speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research the next day. I was told that my right hon. Friend had told journalists that all recipients of incapacity benefit—apart from severely disabled people who had no prospect of recovery—would be subject to repeat medical tests every three years. It is correct to say that I do not think that anyone suggested that my right hon. Friend referred to MOT tests for disabled people. I am pleased to be able to make that clear.

That speech would probably have received little attention had it not been for that press briefing, which was clearly designed for a purpose. Subsequently, we heard about my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's now notorious remarks, in which he spoke about people languishing on benefits. That seemed to be nothing more than an attempt to create the impression that disabled people get generous benefits that they do not deserve.

I presume that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister must have been briefed before his performance in the House that day, but clearly he was not well briefed. Perhaps it would be too much to expect him to grasp all the detail, or perhaps he was not aware that during the passage of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999 the Minister with responsibility for disability benefits had explained that the doctors performing the all-work tests on behalf of the Benefits Agency are given five options with regard to specifying intervals between subsequent tests. They can specify three months, six months, 12 months or 18 months, or they can opt for "no significant change anticipated".

More than 50 per cent. of those who are tested are recommended for retest in 12 months or less. In only 28 per cent. of cases was no preordained retest time set. Subsequently, the Government acquired powers to carry out tests even when there was no obvious change in a claimant's condition. They also introduced the personal capability assessment, a stringent medical test that takes into account what work a person can do.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that fraud in claiming incapacity benefit, which is worth a meagre £69 a week at the long-term rate, is virtually non-existent. Only three cases—0.5 per cent.—were found from a sample of 1,400, whereas official errors were four times as high.

In our last manifesto, we claimed that the number of people receiving incapacity benefit had fallen by 11 per cent. since 1997. Since then, the Government have backtracked somewhat on the initial proposal mooted by the Secretary of State. It became known that the new arrangements would apply only to new claimants—at least in the first instance. We know from the regulations that the proposals are for work-focused interviews, as laid down in the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act, which are to take place at least every three years, and people can still be referred for another personal capability assessment.

It is difficult to find out what assessment the Government have made of the impact on the Benefits Agency medical service of conducting additional personal capability assessments. There are delays of between 90 and 170 days in carrying out the tests, and the system produces many wrong decisions. Many right hon. and hon. Members are concerned about the system's inadequacy and, indeed, cruelty.

All hon. Members share the aim of giving people with disabilities more opportunities to participate fully in society, including, if they are able to work, the opportunity to do so. No doubt my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will say that many disabled people say that they would like to work and many think that they could, given the proper assistance. The question is whether compulsion will assist in the process.

Would a disabled person who was called to a compulsory interview about his capabilities and opportunities for work approach it positively? After all, he might not be entirely convinced that out there in the wide world, in the labour market, the Government have succeeded in overcoming the disadvantage and stigma attached to disabled people, particularly those with mental health difficulties. Would he approach the interview positively, given his fears that he might lose benefit and that he might be referred back for yet another harrowing personal capability assessment?

My right hon. Friend Mr. Clarke referred in an intervention to the RNIB briefing. I cannot speak for his interpretation of the briefing, but mine is that although it is very much against the regulations it accepts that the Government are determined to push them through. Indeed, they started to do so a couple of days before we were able to debate the measures in the House.

If my right hon. Friend is determined to push the measures through, perhaps he could set up an experiment to gauge their effectiveness. The pathfinder areas could be divided into two groups. In one group, the measures could proceed as planned; in the other, instead of making attendance compulsory, the measures could be promoted among disabled people, using their networks. That would comprise the positive and helpful support for disabled people that we want to see.

My experience from speaking to people who have been on new deal programmes before is that they value the assistance given. That is especially true of lone parents. Many of them opted into the system voluntarily because they had heard good things about it from their friends. That is a much better approach to achieving our aim, which I entirely share, of assisting more disabled people into work.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will seriously consider that as a possibility, and that in the light of the outcome of this experience—I hope that he will give it sufficient time to provide adequate evidence—he will not extend the provision further unless there is evidence that it works.

Photo of Alistair Darling Alistair Darling The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 5:26 pm, 25th October 2001

I apologise to those of my hon. Friends who had hoped to speak in the debate, but it is a short debate and if I do not speak now I might not be able to answer some of the points that have been put.

It is interesting that in neither of the speeches by the principal Opposition speakers did we hear one shred of policy for dealing with a problem that successive Governments have had to confront. I understand the difficulties that Mr. Willetts has in opposing what is before the House, because I have just reminded myself what the Conservative spokesman said about the single gateway to the benefit system and work-focused interviews when we debated the primary legislation in 1999:

"we do not have a problem with the idea of the single gateway . . . There is great logic in directly connecting a claimant's interview process and eventual job achievement with the claiming of benefit."—[Hansard, 17 May 1999; Vol. 331, c. 674.]

Who said that? It was the present Leader of the Opposition, so I can see the difficulty for the hon. Member for Havant

It might be helpful if I set out what the regulations do. They provide that everyone of working age who makes a new or repeat claim to benefit at a Jobcentre Plus office should take part in a work-focused interview as a condition of receiving benefit. Jobcentre Plus offices are replacing the Employment Service and Benefits Agency offices; the first 49 opened for business on Monday, and that number will be extended throughout the country, starting from next year.

Yes, this is a new approach. For the first time there is a single gateway to the benefit system, and we want to make sure that everyone of working age has the opportunity to find out what help there is to help them to work, if they can work. At the same time, that gives us the opportunity to get more help to people who cannot work.

We are making the changes because we want to ensure that the help and advice previously available only to people getting jobseeker's allowance are now available to other people of working age, too. During this short debate we have discussed the position of lone parents and people with a disability. In the past the problem was that we did not do nearly enough to ensure that those people got the sort of help that they needed.

We have heard about the fact that the Disability Rights Commission referred to the labour force survey that shows that there are about 1 million people with a disability who are not in work, but would like to work. If anyone in the House asked us today what we do to ensure that we help those 1 million people, the answer would be that we do not do enough. That is because until now we have never sat down with people, addressed the problems that they faced, and helped people with a disability get back into work.

I understand some of the difficulties that Members have raised about the availability of jobs, and the fact that we are dealing with people who may have a range of conditions, not just one particular condition. I understand the difficulties, but I say to my hon. Friends and the rest of the House that the Government are prepared to do everything we can to try to help people who for years have been excluded, and have been denied the sort of help that they ought to have had throughout those years.

That is what the regulations are about—providing help and support. However, that is possible only if we can see people in the first place and tell them what is on offer.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The trouble is that in constituencies such as mine, where the pits and the textile industries have closed—some during the past four or five years—the number of people who are really unemployed, if we count them all, has hardly shifted since 1997. The problem in those areas—the Labour party has identified at least 25 of them—and it is reflected in some of the voting patterns, is that we badly need employment. I made a proposal for about 9,000 jobs on a pit site in Derbyshire. I have been trying to get that show on the road for four years. People say to me that the Government should be finding them work. After meeting those interviewers, in their sharp suits and Italian shoes, and going through the exercise, a lot of people are going to say, "Where are the jobs?" The Government can try as hard as they like in some areas, and it may come to fruition. I do not like the culture that surrounds the proposals but, that notwithstanding, it will be almost impossible to make them work in areas such as mine. My right hon. Friend Mr. Field put his finger on the point: when unemployment figures, sadly, start to increase generally—I hope that does not happen—the position will get worse.

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

I fully accept the points made by my hon. Friend and by my right hon. Friend Mr. Field: there are real difficulties in some constituencies in some parts of the country, but that does not mean that we should not try to do everything we can to help those people to get into work. For example, there are constituencies in London, such as Tottenham and in Hackney, where unemployment remains extremely high, yet not far away there are employers with acute skill shortages.

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

I am glad that my hon. Friend agrees.

The whole thrust of the Government's policy is to ensure that mechanisms are in place to enable us to match people with those jobs. It is difficult in some parts of the country, but it is important that we try.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Labour, Birkenhead

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

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

I should like to make some progress—[Interruption.] If I have time, I shall get back to my right hon. Friend. With due respect, he spoke earlier and I want to deal with some of the points that were raised during the debate.

The difference between us and the previous Conservative Government is that through measures such as the new deals and the single gateway we are doing far more to meet people and to give them the help and advice they need to get them into work. That is why youth unemployment has come down by 75 per cent. That is why we have got 95,000 lone parents into work. Even in its pilot form, the new deal for disabled people got 40 per cent. of people into work. Most of those people would not be in work had we not been able to offer them the help and support that we are giving them.

Many Opposition Members asked why we introduced the proposals. The reason is that experience—in particular, through the new deals—has shown that unless we can sit down with people and tell them about the help and support that are available, far too many of them do not know what is on offer. For example, when we set up the new deal for lone parents, we found that when people attended an interview and found out what was available about 89 per cent. joined the new deal. The problem was that the vast majority of people did not go for an interview so they did not know about tax credits, the benefit run-ons for lone parents or the working families tax credit. Unless we can get people to attend an interview so that we can tell them what is on offer, including the help available for those who cannot work, a situation that is intolerable to most of my right hon. and hon. Friends, whereby a whole generation was written off for year after year after year under the previous Government and given no help, will continue.

I shall address directly some of the concerns that were expressed in this short debate. The first point is that we must treat individuals as individuals. That is where I have some difficulty with the remarks made by Mrs. Browning. She had a good point to make but she spoilt it by over-egging her argument—as my hon. Friend Mr. Rooney pointed out. I repeat a point that I have made time and again and which is also clear from the guidance and the memorandum that we placed in the Library: we must treat people sensitively. We must avoid a severely disabled person who has no prospect of working and who would gain no benefit from work being alarmed unnecessarily. The hon. Lady must accept that to treat everybody who receives incapacity benefit— or, indeed, everyone who might be affected by the regulations—as though they were completely unable to deal with an interview is wholly unreasonable. I repeat—

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

I shall give way to the hon. Lady in a moment.

The regulations and guidance issued to our staff make it absolutely clear that, first, there is power to waive or defer interviews and, secondly, contrary to what the hon. Lady said, we will not remove benefit from someone simply because they do not turn up. There are provisions to ensure that we act reasonably at all times. After all, decisions of our staff are subject to appeal, so I do not accept the rather over-argued case that the hon. Lady advanced. She also asked the perfectly good question whether we would treat people sensitively and ensure that our staff were trained; I readily assent to that.

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

I did differentiate between certain hypothetical situations. Will the Secretary of State confirm one point? On 23 October, The Independent printed the draft guidelines for officers deciding waivers and deferrals, which provided that deferrals should be used "infrequently" and waivers "very rarely". How does the right hon. Gentleman square those words with the rather sympathetic approach that he is now explaining to the House?

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

I will tell the hon. Lady how I do that. We want to ensure, wherever possible, that everyone of working age, including people on incapacity benefit, is seen, so that we may offer them the appropriate help and support. If we decided at the outset that we would routinely write off large numbers of people and not invite them for interview, that would defeat the object of the exercise.

I believe that the hon. Lady would accept that it is a minority of people who would not at some stage be able to come in for interview and receive that help and support. I know of her interest in this matter, which has arisen for perfectly understandable reasons that I shall not go into now, and I can understand exactly the type of case that she has in mind, to which I am extremely sympathetic, but I do not accept the argument that our staff should routinely be reluctant to invite people in, because many people who could come in might benefit from that help.

Mr. Webb spoke nonsense about the guidance on suicide, which has applied to our staff for years. As he might imagine, we routinely encounter people in the present benefits system who might be at risk of suicide. The guidelines issued to our staff state very clearly that they should be sensitive. I am very sorry—

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

I will not give way just now.

When it comes to scaremongering and upsetting people, the hon. Member for Northavon has done more than his fair share, particularly over the past few days, including the weekend.

We have introduced powers to waive and to postpone interviews. I hope that that knowledge will allay some of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton and my hon. Friend David Winnick. No one wants our staff or the Government to act unreasonably, but I repeat that we want to ensure that people who would benefit from help and support get it.

It is important that we avoid the present position, whereby someone can go a considerable time—perhaps years—without help and support. We are now moving to a position where, no matter what benefit people are claiming, their circumstances will be reviewed at least once every three years, to ensure that we do not let people lie for year after year without getting the help and support that they need.

I hope that when Members consider the regulations tonight, they will see that the Government are acting reasonably and are doing something that Governments should have done years ago. It cannot be right that we leave people with no help or support. It is extremely interesting that, despite the fact that we heard an extremely long speech from the hon. Member for Havant and another from the hon. Member for Northavon, at no point did we hear an alternative approach or a single workable or affordable measure that would help to deal with this difficult problem. In contrast, we can show that over the past four years, through the new deal and other measures, and through the single gateway to the benefits system, we are moving forwards and doing more to help people than ever before. I am determined that we, as a Government, ensure that we help people get back into work wherever possible, as well as offering far more effective support to those who cannot work.

In that spirit, I hope that the House will endorse the regulations, so that we may help the millions of people denied help for too long in the past.

Photo of David Willetts David Willetts Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 5:40 pm, 25th October 2001

With the leave of the House, I refer the Secretary of State to the manifesto for disabled people that we published at the general election. The Labour party did not produce a manifesto for disabled people; we did and it contained practical measures to help them, including implementing the points made by the National Audit Office, which one Labour Member rightly raised, about the failure of the present system of medical assessment.

This measure is another example of a Government who are preoccupied with regulations when the real problem is the delivery of medical assessments, for which there is already ample regulatory and legal provision.

The Secretary of State has been caught out in a bogus crackdown, trying to spin tough policies. His colleague the Prime Minister was doing so in July. Today, the Secretary of State has had to beat an undignified retreat, abandoning statements that he made on the record in oral questions in attempting to explain the policy launched at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

We welcome the fact that as a result of our motion we have had this debate. We are certainly committed to ensuring that, wherever possible, people on incapacity benefit are helped into work. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Is it your wish that the motion be withdrawn?

Hon. Members:

No.

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 16(1) and 17(2) and Order [20 November 2000].

The House divided: Ayes 38, Noes 302.

Division number 44 Social Security

Aye: 38 MPs

No: 298 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.