Tackling jobseeker's allowance unemployment had to be our first priority in 1997, but we have already gone further than any previous Government to give people on incapacity benefits help to move into work. That said, inactivity remains our greatest challenge. As part of our welfare to work strategy, we are piloting pathways to work, a groundbreaking approach that gives people on incapacity benefit access to a comprehensive range of work-focused support, rehabilitation and financial incentives. The scheme is already generating encouraging feedback and will be extended to a further four districts next month.
I thank my hon. Friend for that full response. Does she agree that the positive policies that she has outlined to the House today are in stark contrast to the policies pursued by previous Tory Administrations who, in effect, used incapacity benefit as a means of fiddling the unemployment figures? As a consequence, the number of people claiming incapacity benefit increased threefold between 1979 and 1997.
My hon. Friend is exactly right: there was a 300 per cent. increase during the Conservatives' tenure of office—not that I would seek to make party political points on such an occasion.
The number of people coming on to incapacity benefit has fallen by a third since 1997. At the same time, the number of people in jobs has increased by 1.7 million and 700,000 people have left the unemployment register. Any Government would be proud of that record. We are starting to put right the mess that the Conservatives made when they were in office.
I was tempted to speak on the previous question, but like Sir Sydney Chapman, I would have had to declare an interest. This question is more appropriate, but I have been pre-empted by my hon. Friend Mr. Marshall, who made the sort of Tory-bashing attack that I really enjoy, so instead I will have to ask—[Hon. Members: "A question."] Indeed.
Many people in my constituency are on incapacity benefit. They are principally retired miners who have got out of the habit and routine of work. Does my hon. Friend agree that the pathways to work project needs to give them financial incentives and the self-confidence and self-belief that they can do something so that they get back into work? What can she do to achieve that?
I always enjoy listening to my right hon. Friend, whether he is asking me a question, bashing Tories or whatever. He is exactly right that one problem of long-term incapacity is a lack of confidence. In that regard, I am very encouraged to hear individual stories of people's experiences, which at this stage are anecdotal because it is too early to evaluate pathways to work. For example, a lady in south Wales who was on incapacity benefit for 25 years has just gone back to work as a result of pathways. Such stories give us hope that there can be a breakthrough and assist those on incapacity benefit, many of whom want to work, to get back into the labour market.