Last May, the number of people who had been claiming incapacity benefit for over five years was 1.23 million, and it had fallen in the previous quarter.
I noted the Minister's reply to my hon. Friend Mr. Harper. However, of the 2.6 million people claiming incapacity benefit, 1.8 million began claiming during the past 10 years, since 1997. Does the Minister agree that the past 10 years have been a missed opportunity, in which not enough people of working age have been helped back to work? Surely we need real welfare reform now.
No, I certainly do not agree with that. The real scandal is that the number of incapacity benefit claimants more than tripled under the Tory Government, when the hon. Gentleman was a Government Member; incapacity benefit was used, for a long period, to disguise rising unemployment. We have reversed the position; the number of people claiming incapacity benefit is coming down for the first time in decades, thanks to the success of the reforms that we have introduced, including the pathways to work programme. Our aim is to reduce by a million the number of people receiving incapacity benefit by 2015. I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the progress made.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that one of the key tools for helping incapacity benefit claimants back to work is the permitted work rules, but there are four separate permitted work regimes, which is very confusing for people. Will he today promise to look at that, and will he try to come up with a simple, single system that is easy for people to take advantage of, and to understand?
My hon. Friend has raised the issue before, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be writing to him about it shortly. I can confirm that we are looking into the very point that my hon. Friend raises.
My registered blind constituent, Mr. McCarthy-Fox, is concerned to ensure that work capability assessments are carried out by people who understand disabilities such as his. How will serious physical disabilities such as blindness and learning disabilities such as Down's syndrome be taken into account in those assessments, and when will my right hon. Friend publish the criteria for conducting the interviews?
My hon. Friend will know that the regulations for the employment and support allowance were published last week, and the work capability assessment is an important part of the process. We developed the procedures in close discussion with disability organisations. I think that it is widely recognised that the arrangements that will be put in place, including the work capability assessment, will be a considerable improvement on the current personal capability assessments. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, of course, that we need to make a proper and accurate assessment of all the conditions that people applying for the employment and support allowance may have, and I hope that when he looks at the details he will see that the new arrangements are a considerable improvement on the old ones.