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Column 69pre-election period. The second was the advantage that people see in staying on invalidity benefit rather than drawing a retirement pension. There is, however, another reason.
If people question those reasons, as they well might, and if they do not believe that Government policy is skewed in a pre-election period, they need only consider what happened with the disability living allowance and the disability working allowance before the previous election. They were both ludicrously over-advertised, to the extent that 90 per cent. of the claimants of one of them had to be turned down because they were misled by the Government into believing that the claim applied to them.
That advertising was done a matter of weeks before the last general election, as a feel-good campaign by the Conservative Government, to give the impression that they would care for the disabled. It was a massive, expensive deception, the bill for which should have been paid by Conservative central office.
Invalidity benefit claims have increased especially sharply in Wales. One of the reasons--as the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) recognises, because it is an area in which he has been much engaged throughout his parliamentary career--is that the people who claim invalidity benefit now are people in the 50 to 60 age group who, during the bulk of their working lives, worked in industry that was very much deregulated. We are returning to it now. It is another fashionable crusade on which the Government are embarking but which has its dangers.
At the time when industry was so deregulated, many people who worked in the quarrying industry in north Wales or the mining industries of south Wales were exposed to dust and suffered from silicosis and pneumoconiosis, and also had their bodies exposed to risks that we would all find intolerable now. In the steel industries, men worked in front of baths of boiling sulphuric acid while the steel was being pickled, without wearing any type of mask. People were deafened by the noise of machinery. There is a famous poem by Gwenallt, who spoke in the Welsh language, about his father coughing up his life-blood into a bucket in the kitchen--a graphic account of what happened to that generation of people who worked until literally they dropped.
That generation, especially in south Wales, is responsible for that increase in claims for invalidity benefit. Those people, now in their fifties and sixties, of which there is a greater concentration throughout Wales and in the industrial area of Wales than probably anywhere else working in those unhealthy industries, leave their work prematurely. The old compassionate practice was for them to go on to a light job ; to continue in their occupations but to do something in which there was not much demand for physical effort, where they could carry on semi-invalided. In these hard days, that is no longer possible. They go on to sickness benefit and eventually on to invalidity benefit, which is absolutely just and right.
The explanation which was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), and that which I have just given, show why the increase has taken place. There has been no analysis by the Government that suggests that there is any other reason for it. It is nonsense that we can contemplate such a major piece of legislation without possessing firm evidence. The Government are motivated by anecdotal evidence only.
There is one aspect about which I have attempted to question the Government, as has my hon. Friend the
Column 70Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar). We asked the Government to name the 80 experts who will convene to consider the detail of the proposed medical test for incapacity benefit. It is crucial that all the organisations that wish to contribute to the discussion--we have been told that the Government's mind has not been entirely made up--know who those people are so that we, as Members of Parliament or outside organisations, can make a contribution.
Today the Secretary of State mentioned one organisation that I do not think many of us had heard of. He quoted selectively from a letter. We know, however, that the mass of organisations for people with disabilities very much oppose the Bill and are highly critical of it.
Instead of giving us the names of the panel members, the Government have said that the members have asked them to respect confidentiality until the exercise is completed. They intend to publish a report containing the names of the members of the panel, the summary of its work and findings and the results of the exercise, after the event. Why on earth should that be, and why should they reject the two parliamentary questions that have been tabled on that basis? It is crucial that the information is communicated to those people. The only possible reason that I can think of why the membership of the panel should be treated as confidential is that members are ashamed of what they are doing and do not want to be named. Perhaps the Minister can tell us at the end of the debate why that star chamber is meeting in secret to make those decisions and we will not know who the "guilty people" are until they have made their decisions. It seems an extraordinary situation.
The Secretary of State looked a little puzzled at the amusement on the Opposition Benches when he mentioned certain categories of people who will be exempt. One of the categories that he mentioned was that of people in a permanent vegetative state. It is not much of a concession to say that someone who is in that state will not be asked to take a job down the nearest coal pit. That is our brave new world.
Are the Government really saying that Opposition Members should receive that news with great gratitude--that the nation will be told that people who are permanently, hopelessly incapacitated should not be pressurised into doing an extra job?
The Bill fails because the test that the Government are applying is not a test of incapacity for work--that would be the sensible course for them to take--but one of disability. It should be a test of incapacity. If the test is adopted, the result will inevitably be that many people who are incapable of work will be refused benefit because they are not disabled enough and presumably others who are capable of work will receive incapacity benefit because they pass the disability test.
It is an irrational basis for a major piece of legislation, but we all know what it is about. It is about the Government again saying--the hon. Member for Kensington (Mr. Fishburn) seems to have swallowed the myth entirely-- that we cannot afford our welfare state, which we have afforded for many, many years. We afforded it in the 1940s and the 1950s when we were a very poor nation relative to our wealth now and relative to many other countries in the world. At that time we could afford a welfare state that was regarded generally as adequate. The Government are also saying that in 40 years' time
Column 71--when we shall be infinitely richer, by all forecasts, than we are now--we shall not be able to afford an adequate welfare state. The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), who never takes part in these debates but writes well about them, would disagree with that analysis. The Government have exaggerated the demographic trends because it suits their case and they have also exaggerated the burden that the welfare state is and is likely to be.
The Bill, as so much of the Government's legislation at the moment, is designed to shift spending from the people who are in greatest need. They will make a case for it. Virtually every organisation representing people with disabilities has objected to the measure. It will mean a massive cut in the incomes of those people whose income is already very low. My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead has said that many of the people who now receive the present invalidity benefit will not qualify, and we have had the figure--95,000 in the first year, 195,000 in the next year. We know that virtually none of those people will qualify for the current unemployment benefit. We know that very few of them will qualify for income support if someone in their family works, so there will be a massive cut in the income of the great army of people who are already on low incomes. I will finish with a final argument. My hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead spoke about the people we see on our streets now. The fastest growing industry in Britain is drug trafficking. We know that the great attraction for young people, young or old, is not to take a job on dirt pay that they may get in McDonald's Hamburgers Ltd. or to take some other low-paid job where they work for pennies above the level of income support, but to recruit themselves into Britain's fastest growing industry where they can make huge moneys in the area of criminality : the business of trafficking drugs.
The financial inducement of that industry will recieve its greatest boost from the Government's attempt to drive people into deeper poverty. The entire message of the Bill is an attempt by the Government to soak the sick.
Dr. Charles Goodson-Wickes (Wimbledon) : In the health debate in the past week, we heard how sensitive Opposition Members are to any proposals to reform the welfare state. Today, to adopt the phrase used by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security, "there is evidence that the Opposition are in repose". I have not the slightest doubt that, in due course, he shall have to endure ritual protest alleging that he has betrayed the memory and the ethos of Beveridge.
What did Beveridge actually say? In establishing the concept of a safety net, he made it clear that the role of the state should be limited. He said :
"The state, in organising security, should not stifle incentive, opportunity and responsibility. In establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than a minimum for himself and his family The danger of providing benefits, which are both adequate in amount and indefinite in duration, is that men, as creations who adapt to circumstances, may settle down to them".
In other words, the risk of people becoming dependent on welfare and flouting the original and worthy intentions of the legislation was recognised. The result would be, first,
Column 72a disincentive to work and secondly, his outlook on life would be damaging to the individual, his family and, also importantly, expensive to the taxpayer. It is precisely that problem which has arisen in relation to sickness benefits in the social security system.
Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West) : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has clearly re-read the Beveridge report recently. Would he remind the House what Beveridge said about the giant idleness, by which he meant unemployment, and what Beveridge said about the need for Government to maintain full employment?
Dr. Goodson-Wickes : I welcome that intervention from my near namesake. We can all quote selectively from Beveridge and I am trying not to do so. Even the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the concept of full employment is a worthy objective, which parties on both sides of the House, whenever in government, have failed to fulfil, yet I believe that it is still a worthy aim.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his courage in tackling what is bound to be an emotive issue. It cannot be right that the number of people who receive invalidity benefit has trebled over the past 15 years, which implies that almost 1.5 million people are unable to work when the health of the nation has been improving steadily. On the other hand, as the prosperity of the country improves, provision for those truly in need should be all the better, which partially covers the intervention of the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West.
The present system is bureaucractic, arbitrary and expensive. The transition from staututory sick pay and sickness benefit to invalidity benefit is wholly unsatisfactory. Problems occur because while statutory sick pay is taxed, invalidity benefit is free of tax. More importantly, while invalidity benefit is free of tax, unemployment benefit is taxed. It is these distortions which are clearly the major factors causing invalidity benefit to rise from £2 billion a year in 1979 to over £6 billion a year today. Some estimates are as high as £8 billion.
The so-called gatekeeper to invalidity benefit is the general practitioner who is asked to issue a certificate. All hon. Members have heard representations about the invidious position in which the GP has found himself. Any doctor, acting on the best motives and knowing something of the personal, domestic and financial circumstances of his patient would find it difficult to deny him or her access to a higher system of benefits. Thus, the number of people on invalidity benefit has risen inexorably.
That unsatisfactory state of affairs is compounded by other anomalies. For example, invalidity benefit, which is more generous than the state pension, may be received for five years after pension age. What an extraordinary state of affairs. Also, periods of receipt may be linked to include periods of unemployment during which claimants were not incapacitated. Perhaps most telling of all is the fact that, once people are on invalidity benefit, an infinitesimal number come off it. It has become a one-way track. That system flies in the face of common sense and the whole operation must be re -examined to ensure that only those who are genuinely disabled and those who are chronically ill qualify.
Speaking as a physician myself, I have the greatest sympathy for GPs who are put in a near impossible situation.
The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Nicholas Scott) indicated assent.
Dr. Goodson-Wickes : I accept that intervention. I did not have the exact statistics to hand. I accept that there is now a three-way communication and look forward to my right hon. Friend the Minister's elucidation. I correct myself on saying that it had become a one-way track. It has become a tendency.
I have the greatest sympathy for GPs performing the difficult task which the regulations have imposed on them. How can they dispute a claim for invalidity benefit without impairing the doctor-patient relationship? Why should they confront their patients over a dubious claim, when they often have neither the time nor the training to assess people's fitness for work? For example, a large proportion of claims are based on musculo-skeletal disorders, two thirds of which are associated with back pain, which is notoriously difficult to assess.
It was thus with great interest that I heard from my right hon. Friend that the National Back Pain Association has made representations, which I am sure will be taken extremely seriously. The British Medical Association-- here I part company with my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth)--says that GPs do not want to be cast in the role of policemen, making judgments which may be based as much on social factors as on medical factors. I welcome the proposed incapacity benefit, which while consolidating and simplifying the system, also introduces the medical incapacity test ; an objective, medical yardstick. It involves the claimant, the claimant's GP and the Benefits Agency medical services. A simple questionnaire will be sent out before the end of 28 weeks, at least I hope that it will be simple.
The general practitioner merely has to confirm the diagnosis and, after scrutiny by an adjudication officer on purely medical grounds, I understand that about 85 per cent. of cases will be referred to the Benefits Agency medical services, which has discretion over which claimants shall be examined. It is just as important that the case must be reviewed at intervals thereafter, to check that there has been no change in the medical condition.
Let me give an example. We heard today about a patient suffering from angina. I do not know the circumstances of that particular case, although they sounded rather doubtful and perhaps worthy of re-examination. Clearly, a patient suffering from angina who subsequently has surgical treatment--a coronary artery by-pass--may well be fit to resume a normal way of life. [Interruption.] I hear a bit of jocular comment from the Opposition Front Bench. I happen to be a practising physician who deals with such problems daily. I have numerous patients who have gone back to an entirely normal way of life after the appropriate surgery.
Column 74physical condition changes, that should clearly be taken into account at a review. My objection is that the Government were contemplating with satisfaction a state of affairs in which the person, before by-pass surgery--with all the disadvantages of constricted arteries and the pain that the condition brought--should not be on invalidity benefit.
Dr. Goodson-Wickes : I have already said that I should like to know more about the case. The hon. Gentleman has missed my point, which was that, before the introduction of the proposals, the patient who had had surgery did not automatically come back to be reassessed and could have stayed on invalidity benefit indefinitely and with no form of monitoring. The Bill is in part designed to remedy that situation.
I am sure that those on the Opposition Front Bench will welcome the exemptions that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has granted. Those near pensionable age, those with terminal illnesses and those in receipt of disability living allowance will be exempt from the tests proposed. Above all, those genuinely unable to work need have no fear about reassessment under the new scheme because hon. Members on both sides of the House will be monitoring their effectiveness in practice.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : The hon. Gentleman said that, in the case to which he referred, the claimant would not be subject to review. Did he not hear the Minister refer in his opening speech to the fact that 300,000 cases annually were being reviewed, including cases of that nature?
Dr. Goodson-Wickes : The hon. Gentleman exhibits the phenomenon of the perfect being the enemy of the good. The ethos behind the Bill is to make absolutely certain that a mechanism exists and can be stringently applied to ensure that the system works properly. I welcome the concession enabling those on benefit to continue to do voluntary such work. Many hon. Members have espoused the concept of active citizenship. We have not heard much about that recently and I hope that the Government will again pick up that theme. The concession is certainly an example of their encouragement of voluntary work. I welcome, too, the undertaking that groups representing the disabled will be involved in advising on the setting of medical standards.
The principle is undoubtedly right. The exact mechanism should be examined in Committee. We must be wary of having too many tiers of decision making and excessive bureaucracy. If 85 per cent. of cases examined by the adjudication officer are, indeed, to go to the Benefits Agency medical service, there will be a large element of double handling.
I ask my right hon. Friend to consider whether the Benefits Agency medical service should not itself be the decision maker. Could we not cut out the role of the adjudication officer entirely? That may be a radical suggestion, but I invite my right hon. Friend to address it none the less. Whatever system we end up with must be backed up by an appropriate appeals procedure to protect aggrieved claimants. On a more positive note, I believe that nothing but good can come out of market-testing the Benefits Agency. Does my right hon. Friend see any scope for the independent sector to become active in this area? I assume that there
Column 75would have to be an appropriate governing body to ensure the maintenance of comparable standards and some uniformity across the country.
When all the emotion is swept aside, we are left with a proper and overdue examination of the system, applied in a practical and humane way. Sadly, the abuses predicted by Beveridge have come about. They cause resentment to the beleaguered taxpayer and further deprive the most vulnerable in society. The balance must be restored. I am confident that my right hon. Friend will tackle the unfairness, protect those needing benefits and show a fair and feasible way forward.
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon) : I must say that I should have more confidence in the Bill if it did not come from this stable and at this time. We have heard so many attacks on scroungers and so much about the need to roll back the state in recent months that attempts to dress the Bill up as legislation designed to allow us more effectively to target disabled people leave me highly sceptical. I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes). He said that only genuinely disabled and chronically sick people should be entitled to invalidity benefit. I put it to him that there are many grey areas--that many people who would not be defined as chronically sick according to the definition in the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 should, none the less, certainly be entitled to invalidity benefit and would qualify even under the new definitions that are to be applied.
Dr. Goodson-Wickes : I do not dispute that for a moment. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would accept, however, that the necessary flexibility has been built into the Bill to cover those in categories that he describes as grey areas and to ensure that those who need benefits are given them.
Mr. Wigley : I shall be coming to that point. I do not believe that there is adequate flexibility, as I said in an intervention in the speech of the Secretary of State. The hon. Member for Wimbledon has experience as a doctor. I can well understand the difficulty facing general practitioners, especially given that they must maintain their relationship with their patients. But if a GP is not in a position--either directly or through his or her access to specialists--to make a judgment on the validity or otherwise of an application, who on earth is ?
The danger is that the necessary flexibility will not be there and that we shall be unable to look at the needs of the individual in the light of all his or her circumstances--circumstances that are often not known to those on faceless boards and panels who make decisions. Hon. Members have sought to imply that it is a redeeming factor of the Bill that terminally ill people will not be subject to review. I do not suppose that they will ; that is part of the tragedy. If such cases have to be invoked as a justification for the rationale behind a Bill, that Bill needs to be looked at very carefully indeed. I oppose what I believe to be a dishonest Bill. I do not believe that it is a Bill intended to target the existing cash resources of £6.1 billion on those who need it. I might have some sympathy with the Bill if, rather than clawing back
Column 76money for the Treasury or other Departments, it retained that same sum within the broad ambit of the needs of disabled people who have been claiming invalidity benefit--either giving more money to the limited number of beneficiaries or replacing wrongful beneficiaries, as the Government see it, with the numerous people who should undoubtedly be receiving benefit but are missing out for a variety of reasons, including ignorance and lack of advice. In reality, however, the Bill is aimed at cutting expenditure by £1.5 billion, not at re-targeting that cash among the group from which it is being taken away.
I do not accept the logic of taxing invalidity benefit--certainly not in its entirety. Part of the benefit has been regarded as intended to cover needs over and above the basic necessities of a person or a family ; it has gone to meet exceptional requirements arising out of the circumstances of a person's invalidity. That part of the benefit should most certainly not be taxed any more than should specific disability provisions--which, indeed, they are not. The Bill acknowledges--and the Secretary of State acknowledged--that 195,000 people who fail to get work after losing their invalidity benefit will depend on income support or unemployment benefit if they are entitled to it. The cost will be £265 million--about £30 per person per week. That is an indication of what those people will lose.
In fact, a Government document that was issued to the press last June indicated that the estimated average cost of failing the incapacity test was £87 a week and that, in some circumstances, the loss could be as high as £160 a week. The people concerned will at the very least have found themselves in circumstances which justified the payment and which, it could be argued, justify its continuation. There will be real difficulties. Many people will not qualify for income support. For example, a disabled man whose wife does some cleaning or cooking in the local school and makes a pittance in an effort to sustain her family will no doubt lose entitlement to full income support. Modest savings, too, will debar people.
Is this what the Government mean when they talk about targeting resources towards those in need? It strikes me that we have here a pretty venomous piece of legislation whose intention is to take money from one of the many groups of have-nots of society--people who are in no position to do much to help themselves.
The Secretary of State has laid great emphasis on people whose condition may render them fit for work and who should therefore be seeking work. The right hon. Gentleman defined medical and disablement conditions that would make a person unfit and would automatically entitle him to the new incapacity benefit. I think he said that the number of people in this category was 850,000. One is glad that those people are provided with a safeguard, so far as it goes, but 700,000 are left out. Although existing benefits may be safeguarded to some extent, such people will fail to receive help, and about 750,000 will be open to being tested and will run the risk of not succeeding. It remains to be seen how the figures will work out in practice.
When the Secretary of State talked about people being fit for work ; he did not define "work". The guidelines that the Government have given to benefit offices in recent months suggest that there is already a move towards tightening the interpretation of invalidity. The National
Column 77Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux has drawn our attention to reports from its local offices. Let me mention some of the examples that it has given.
Disabled people have been told that, if they are fit to sit as artists' models, they are fit to work. Are we really going down that ludicrous road? It may be technically true that a person who is acting as an artist's model should be paid. If that is the definition, and if people are to be refused benefit on such a basis, as is already beginning to happen under the existing system--the danger is that the regulations will be even tighter under the new system, since the whole objective is to cut back--the Government must be taken to task.
It is totally demeaning for disabled people to be addressed in this way. In addition, there simply are not enough jobs as artists' models. It may be that a person could sit in a chair for a couple of hours, but if no job is available he should not lose benefit on that ground.
NACAB reports that pressure has been put on Benefits Agency doctors. I quote from a recent document :
"Recent CAB advice indicates that, despite the test for invalidity benefit remaining unchanged, regional medical officers are taking a much tougher line on capacity to work, and invalidity benefit is being inappropriately withdrawn from some people who are disabled and incapable of work. Many CABs have reported their concern that Benefits Agency doctors appear to be responding to administrative pressures and declaring more people fit for work."
That is based on the experience of a cross-section of CAB offices the length and breadth of these islands.
Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham) : Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that the "artist's model" test is being applied generally. I imagine that if it were, there would be no one at all drawing invalidity benefit.
Mr. Wigley : In the context in which I am bringing these reports to the attention of the House, the question is whether modelling for an artist, as well as other occupations to which I shall come in a moment, is a job that the benefit assessors are being told to regard as suitable for disabled people. There is evidence from more than one CAB that this is what has been suggested. The hint is that such guidelines have gone out.
If that is the road that we are taking under the existing rules, and given that the whole intention is to tighten up with regard to the definition of disability, I have some misgivings, as no doubt does the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen). I am sure that if this is the Government's intention the hon. Gentleman will be unhappy. Indeed, he indicates assent.
I should like to refer to several more CAB examples. A bureau in Wiltshire reports on a client who has been off work for three years as a result of chronic back problems and has been claiming invalidity benefit. That person has been told by the Benefits Agency that he should be a van loader.
A citizens advice bureau in Humberside reports on a client appealing against disallowance of invalidity benefit. The client's GP wrote :
"Any interference leading the client to accept any form of occupation may even lead to his death."
Column 78If that is the degree of sensitivity among those addressing this question, people deemed to be unfit for work will be forced to take jobs and could die as a consequence. As they go down the path that they are starting to tread, the Government will have to face up to this problem.
A CAB in Yorkshire, reporting on a client who suffers from severe depression and has had two nervous breakdowns, says :
"His doctor maintains he cannot work and he is covered by a medical certificate until next January. The DSS has decided he is capable of doing some form of work and has stopped his benefit accordingly." In other words, Big Brother knows best. It is the disabled person who suffers.
A CAB in Wales reports on two cases in which general practitioners admitted that they felt that they had little alternative to signing clients off the sick, despite their own opinions, in the light of the decisions of the regional medical officer.
All these cases highlight the problems that are being faced at present. If such situations are arising now, what on earth will happen when the new legislation is enacted?
We have seen in recent months the emergence of a consistent pattern in the jobs being suggested for the recipients of invalidity benefit. I was about to refer to some others when the hon. Member for Shoreham intervened a few moments ago.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : The cases to which the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) refers ought to be commented on specifically in the Minister's winding-up speech. I am not suggesting that individuals should be named, but if modelling for an artist is regarded as an acceptable occupation in this context, the Minister ought to address the matter at the Dispatch Box. We are entitled to hear his view on the proposition. All the cases to which the hon. Member for Caernarfon has referred are of great interest. I should like to hear what the Minister has to say about them.
Mr. Wigley : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. We need such a response. We need to know whether the Department has issued guidance with regard to cases such as those that I have mentioned.
Let me refer to the other occupations that have been reported to more than one citizens advice bureau. We are seeing the emergence of a pattern which suggests that local authorities have been provided with guidance generally.
It has been suggested that a disabled person could become an embalmer. If a disabled person could find a job as an embalmer, he would be considered fit for work. Other suggested jobs include swimming pool attendant, petrol pump attendant, van loader, radio telephone operator, repetitive assembler, checker and packer. Those suggested jobs appear to be part of a pattern of guidance issued by the Department under current legislation.
As the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) said, the Government should come clean and tell us whether guidance has been issued along those lines, describing the jobs to which I have referred. If that is the case, how on earth can the Government justify their position? If that is the basis on which they are building the background for the new legislation, my goodness, disabled and sick people have a lot to fear.
Column 79saying. I do not mean to belittle what he has said, but perhaps he would like to address a more mainstream difficulty.
What happens to someone who has no special skill or training, who has been a manual worker all his life and who is told that he must come off invalidity benefit--and presumably may not qualify for incapacity benefit-- because, theoretically, that person could get an office job which, at the age of 52, he has absolutely no chance of obtaining? That is where the really damaging moral dilemma arises and where the danger signals fly in respect of the Government's proposals.
Mr. Wigley : It seems that the hon. Members for Workington and for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) have read my mind. The hon. Member for Garscadden has referred to the category that I was just about to raise.
What happens if a labourer who has broken his back is deemed to be fit to work as a computer programmer although he does not have the skills to perform that job and cannot reasonably be expected to have those skills? What happens if a teacher has had a nervous breakdown and cannot face a class of children? What happens if a person is told that he is fit to be a labourer, even if he is 50 years old and may never have worked as a labourer? Are those the questions that we will have to face as a result of the redefinition in the Bill? We have often heard of people being told by tribunals that they are fit for light work and, in that respect, I refer to a point raised by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn). A former slate quarryman in my constituency has a chest infection as a result of dust diseases--but, as we hear on so many occasions, "only a little dust, not amounting to pneumoconiosis". However, he is incapacitated in the same way that coal miners are incapacitated. Such people may be told that they are fit for light work, but what if there is no light work available? Are they expected to perform heavier work which may endanger their health?
A CAB in Berkshire stated :
"Many clients we see suffer from fatigue or exhaustion on the slightest effort and although they may be physically able to carry out the tests would suffer a severe deterioration in their health as a result."
Is it to be an acceptable definition of "fit for work" that someone can actually do the work, although the consequences may not be acceptable?
To what extent is the question of the type of work available in an area relevant? That is not a medical consideration and, given the way that we are going, it will not be taken into account. There may be no work available, but a disabled person may be capable of undertaking work which might possibly be available in a handful of instances somewhere scattered around these islands. If he or she does not try for that work, that person is deemed not to be seriously going after work. Is that the road that we are going down?
Mr. Campbell-Savours : Is not the critical issue the fact that, once that decision has been taken, within months that person will be drawing social security benefit and, therefore, his assets will be taken into account? That might lead to the depletion of someone's assets when that person is deemed fit for work, although he could not work anyway.
Mr. Wigley : Inevitably, if such a person had assets over and above the threshold for income support, they would be eroded until they came down to that threshold. Many people have worked hard in difficult industries and, by their fifties, have saved a certain amount of money. People are proud and want to look after themselves in their old age. They will lose their money in the way that the hon. Member for Workington has described.
To what extent are the general capabilities of an applicant before he or she became sick or disabled to be considered relevant? In other words, what consideration will be given to an applicant's ability to work as a computer programmer or labourer if that person's background is completely different?
If such factors are not taken into account, we will have a right pig's ear of a situation and there will be many cases infinitely more harrowing than those I have quoted from citizens advice bureaux. There are also problems in rural areas involving difficulties in travelling great distances to work and the costs involved. There are also problems in areas of high unemployment, such as the old industrial areas and the valleys of south Wales and other coal-mining areas. In those areas, there are high levels of unemployment and also a high level of invalidity benefit claimants.
In the context of the definitions about which I was asking a moment ago, it is worth considering the way in which case law has developed over the years. In order to deliver some kind of justice, case law has found it necessary to ensure that there is a more flexible definition of incapacity for work. In 1951, a tribunal of commissioners explained :
"a person is incapable of work within the meaning of the National Insurance Act 1946 if, having regard to his age, education, experience, state of health and other personal factors, there is no type of work which he can reasonably be expected to do."
That kind of definition is broad enough to assuage our worries. It is the kind of definition that is being cut out as a result of the Bill. That is an extremely worrying development.
Another difficulty facing a disabled or sick person when trying to obtain a job arises from the danger of the possibility of recurring sickness being in the employer's mind when considering whether to employ that sick or disabled person. Such an employer might steer clear of someone who has a history of sickness, because of the danger of absenteeism. We are all aware of the prejudice that often exists against a person who has suffered disability.
The Bill underlines even more the need for anti-discrimination legislation for disabled people. When the private Member's Bill is introduced in March, I hope that the Government will give it their wholehearted support, because many disabled people will need the provisions of that Bill when they have to face up to the implications of this Bill.
The Government's assessment of the potential for work for disabled people has been shown to be woefully inadequate by the experience of the disability working allowance. In 1990, the Government thought that 50,000 people might be entitled to claim DWA. Just before Christmas, it was revealed that the number of people claiming that benefit was 3,178. I fear that the Government's assessment in relation to the Bill will be just as misleading and erroneous.