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Column 81In conclusion, I can do no better than to draw to the attention of the House the words of Ann Robinson, the chief executive of the Spastics Society :
"The Government claims to be scrapping Invalidity Benefit on the basis that many people who can work are claiming it, but we've yet to see any evidence of this. This legislation is about reducing public expenditure, not ensuring the right benefits reach the right people. Once again, disabled people seem to be getting a rough deal as a result of Government cost- cutting. This new benefit will not meet the needs of disabled people who cannot work."
Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) : The Bill is extremely important and we must abide by two guiding principles. First, we must have a realistic appraisal of the level of invalidity. It is inconceivable that, with the improvement in the health of the nation over the past 15 years and before, we have seen such an increase in the number of people qualifying for invalidity benefit.
There have been massive health improvements. Many hon. Members have referred to angina. When I think of the improvements over recent years in coronary artery bypass grafts, in angioplasty, in the introduction of long- acting nitrates and in the benefits that they have had in terms of reduced morbidity, if not improved life expectancy, for patients, I find it inconceivable that a large number of such people should be entering the invalidity category. That is simply not credible.
Likewise, the improved control and management of diabetics at hospital and general practice levels over recent years must have contributed to the much greater ability of diabetics to be able to continue working during their normal working lives.
Again, I find it rather difficult to accept that, as the Opposition would have it, the figures show that the population are becoming less healthy. An increased number of patients have been treated in hospital in recent years, and there has been increased productivity among GPs, especially in health promotion. All that has contributed to increased health of the nation, yet, paradoxically, more people are on invalidity benefit.
The second principle is that we must target benefits on those who need them. Opposition Members have said that that will mean that some people will not receive the benefits that they are receiving at present. That might be the case, but there is a strong case for honesty in our public policy. If that means that more people are seen to be on the unemployment register, for example, I will not flinch from that, but I do not want people to be given invalidity benefit, with all that that entails and implies, when they are not invalids. Giving somebody invalidity benefit undermines their sense of self-worth in many respects. Hon. Members have not taken account of that point.
As somebody who practised as a general practitioner before coming to the House in 1992, I know that GPs do not like the current system of invalidity certification. GPs and other doctors should not act as unpaid agents of the Department and Social Security. That is not what they were trained to do, and it is not a suitable role for people who have been trained to have a neutral and objective relationship with their patients.
Far from providing flexibility in dealing with certification, as the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) mentioned, doctors are not qualified to deal with many of those matters, as I shall show later, and their relationship with their patients has been undermined by a
Column 82system which asks them to be judge and jury on state benefit. That is not what medical practitioners are trained to do, nor what they take their medical oaths for.
All GPs find difficulty with the complexity of the system. I am sure that all hon. Members would accept that. We have
self-certification for a week, then we have F Med 3, which is issued after that, with the diagnosis causing incapacity for work, and a time limit put on that. For the first six months, doctors must decide whether the patient can do his normal job, after which they must decide whether the patient can do any sort of work.
That is an important practical point. We must consider what is actually involved in this job, that job and the other job. If one has spent one's life at university, at medical school, in hospital or in general practice, one has precious little knowledge of what many specific jobs require. It is much easier in the first six months to determine what the patient might require for his own job, because one can ask the patient what is involved, but it is difficult to determine whether the patient would be fit for work in one type of industry or another when one has no experience of it. As a GP, I found that decision difficult, if not impossible.
Off the case goes to the adjudication officer, who will decide whether one of the Benefits Agency doctors should see the patient. If it goes to the Benefits Agency doctor, he will decide whether the original doctor should give a statement. In fact, he may require the original doctor to give a statement about why the patient was put on benefit. That, plus other information, will decide whether the patient should be examined by the Benefits Agency medical service doctor at home or at the medical centre. When all that is done, the case goes back to the adjudication officer to decide whether the patient should be put on invalidity benefit.
That is a cumbersome process, which puts patients who are suffering from genuine invalidity under great pressure. It is an unsatisfactory system from the point of view of patients and general practitioners. However, for a new system to work, several points must be fulfilled. There has to be a proper scientific assessment procedure. That must be very detailed and exact, and its field trials have to be very thorough before we can introduce it into the system. It must deal not with the nature but with the effect of pathology. There is a grave danger that we will introduce categories of illness and categorise patients by the nature of their illness rather than the effect that their illness has upon them. That can be deeply undermining for some patients.
For example, I refer to certain types of physical disability or blindness. Patients might be willing and able to carry out many types of work, but, if we introduced categories for those patients automatically to receive invalidity benefit, there would be a danger of reducing the self-worth that those patients feel. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take note of that point.
Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green) : As a person who learned to walk in plaster and was considered disabled for much of his childhood, I certainly take great issue with some Opposition Members who implied that, because a person is deemed disabled for one type of work, it does not mean that he is perfectly able to perform service to the community or service to his own family by taking a totally different job. The medical assessment should be only on the basis of his condition as
Column 83it affects him at the time. That should not become a way of saying that such and such a disability or disease precludes him from work, full stop.
Dr. Fox : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. Although I readily agree, as with most things in life, there is a balance to be struck. We must not expect people to do more categories of work than they are able to do. That is why the specificity and sensitivity of the test will become extremely important.
Patients who suffer from diabetes can have a wide range of capability for work. For example, early-onset diabetics may be perfectly controlled, and late-onset diabetics increasingly have a longer life expectancy nowadays and will therefore have more complications, especially renal complications, which now cause the second largest bed occupancy in the national health service. We must be very sensitive with the tests and make sure that we do not exclude groups who should be on invalidity benefit ; but, likewise, we should not go too far in the other direction.
When we bring in the tests, we must consider not only mechanical function-- many Opposition Members tend to be obsessed with mechanical function--but cognitive function, which is extremely important. Although it is right to consider many categories, such as walking, standing, rising from sitting, manual dexterity and so on, it is extremely important to recognise the importance of cognitive function--learning difficulty, for example--and especially psychiatric morbidity.
It will be extremely difficult for my right hon. and hon. Friends to make sure that psychiatric morbidity is dealt with in a deeply sensitive way. It is always very difficult to assess, because of its fluctuating nature. Full credit to the Government for making sure that, at the very outset, that is one of the main categories that will be considered. In many debates on the subject, mental health issues have not been adequately addressed.
The test, however, must score not only individual specific limitations but combinations of limitations. Perhaps that is where the greatest difficulty of all will arise. Previous studies in other subjects have shown how difficult that will be. For example, the Oregon study was flawed because of the difficulty of taking comorbidity into account when dealing with health rationing. That will be a matter of some difficulty. We will require secondary regulations. I wish my right hon. and hon. Friends well in that matter.
Again I plead with my right hon. and hon. Friends to shy away a little from including specific disease entities as categories. We all know what our mailbags would be like. The more specific pathology groups that we include in such a Bill, the more we will encourage specific interest groups to try to have their particular pathology or disease entity included in legislation for automatic eligibility for benefit at a later stage. That is not a healthy attitude. As I have said, we must look at the effects of a disease upon patients and not at diseases themselves.
With all due respect to them, for far too long hospital doctors have regarded patients as pathology with a name. We must now regard patients as individuals. Of course, we GPs have regarded patients as such for a long time. [ Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."] I hear my hon. Friends who have had the same experience. My files will be available to the Whips Office for a six-figure sum after the debate.
Column 84Under the new system, GPs will still issue certificates for the first 28 weeks. The hon. Member for Caernarfon mentioned that matter. It is right that GPs should continue to do that. First, in that 28-week period, the conditions are usually relatively minor, or ones of which the GPs have had full experience, or the patient is recuperating from surgery or so on. The GP is the best person. The GP will have more information than a hospital about how an illness is affecting the patient.
There is also the issue which I mentioned earlier--that of a patient's own job. Incapacity should mean physical or mental impairment, causing a medical incapacity for all, or almost all, work. I thank the Secretary of State for recognising that some groups will not require to be reassessed. That is an important principle. The Opposition were, as ever, relatively small-minded in pointing out one or two cases to which my right hon. Friend referred during his speech. My right hon. Friend went through a large number of conditions which will not require to be reassessed. That is important if we are not to frighten patients about the change.
If there is one charge of which the Opposition are certainly guilty, it is that of frightening patients. The groups who will not be required to be reassessed include those who are near to pension age, those who are aged 58 and over on the day the new scheme is introduced, those who were receiving invalidity benefit on 1 December 1993 and those suffering from certain serious, specified, long-term or terminal conditions. Also included, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, are those receiving the highest rate care component of disabled living allowance.
It is right that we should remove the element of fear from the debate, and get back to the basic issues involved. It is right that others who are not included in those groups should be reassessed if the system is to be fair and just, not only to all those involved in the benefit system, but importantly to those who are contributing to keep the welfare system afloat --all this country's taxpayers. I was a little confused by the opening speech from the Opposition today. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar)--I am sorry that he is not in his place--said that he rejected the charge that the benefit was not being used to help those for whom it was intended. Does that mean that the hon. Gentleman believes that the trebling of the numbers receiving benefit does not include some people who could be working?
Were it not for the oath of confidentiality, I could give the hon. Gentleman a good number of cases of people who are receiving invalidity benefit but who could certainly be out working. Those people are getting through the system in a way which was not intended. There are a number of people on invalidity benefit who are quite clearly capable of a wide range of work. I am sure that all hon. Members know of such cases, and for the Opposition to pretend that it does not happen is quite ludicrous. Well might the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) smile--I know that he must know of a couple of such cases, too.
The Opposition have been small-minded and confusing. We heard that we would be driving youngsters into drug dealing, rather than taking jobs in McDonald's, because of the wicked legislation which we are bringing in. The Opposition have been cynical because, as with many pieces of recent legislation, they have tried to frighten those currently in the system.
The current system provides excess work for GPs. Colleagues whom I phoned this morning to see what was
Column 85happening in their surgeries today say that up to 30 per cent. of patients had come for certification, and certification only. That not only demoralises GPs and provides unnecessary paperwork. It means that they have less time to spend with patients who are genuinely ill and who need to see them. We must welcome the deregulation for GPs, and were I still working, I would find it an extremely pleasant change that that was one burden that would be taken away.
Mr. Wigley : The hon. Gentleman expressed concern at a high level of certification applications which were taking up the time of GPs. Does he accept that, if hundreds of thousands of people who are in receipt of invalidity benefit come off that benefit, a large proportion will go to their GPs more often to get certification for the illness, as they will not be covered under invalidity benefit?
Dr. Fox : The objection of GPs is not simply to the amount of work that they have to do. They object to being the gatekeeper for the Department of Social Security and to carrying out duties for which they are not trained. A great burden will be removed from them, because their real problem is their difficulty in maintaining relationships with their patients.
There are huge pressures, and even threats, from patients who are demanding to be kept on invalidity benefit. Those pressures come not only from patients, but from patients' families and relatives, all of whom can put an intolerable burden on the GP. The GP feels that he must give in, although he knows that it is not the right thing to do because of its adverse effect, not only on the patient directly, but on other patients in his care. Surely that cannot be right, and we have to change the system for that reason.
GPs will tell us of a patient in his late forties who has a bit of back pain and who may be facing redundancy. The GP knows all the social pressures which exist, but it is not the place of the GP to determine what effect that will have on the DSS. A doctor's job is to make sure that the patient is getting the correct treatment and that, if the patient is eligible for genuine invalidity benefit, he gets it. The problem of the current system is that GPs are under duress to get a settlement for a patient which is financial and not medical. The Bill at long last brings something to the House which will better target benefits, and will reduce the abuse which is relatively widespread in the system. There will be a diminished burden on doctors, which will give them more time to spend with patients who genuinely need their time. The Bill will remove from GPs the odious job of being gatekeeper for the DSS, and will give better value for money for the taxpayers. For all those reasons, I urge my hon. Friends to support the Bill.
Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North) : The background to the Bill has been well trailed over probably three years now. We have heard tonight many of the comments and cliche s which we have heard many times from the Dispatch Box. For example, there is the talk of the trebling of the numbers receiving invalidity benefit at a time when the health of the nation is increasing. That, of course, has much to do with the use of preventive, rather than curative, medicine. There is also a contradiction in the words of the Minister of State, who has said that we recently celebrated reaching
Column 86a total of 1 million people who are receiving disabled living allowance, which presumably gives some evidence of incapacity. It is rather strange that self-certification is deemed to be a good thing for a benefit as significant as DLA in terms of providing a passport to other benefits, and yet this is not the case in terms of invalidity and sickness benefit.
The aim of the Bill is to reduce the invalidity benefit bill by whatever means possible. We have heard it said many times--usually at the time of a Budget--that it has always been the Government's intention to bring invalidity benefit into the tax net. There is something of an anomaly in the fact that statutory sick pay, which is payable at a much lower rate, is taxable but invalidity benefit is not. However, surely that is a separate issue from whether people qualify or not. It is significant that statutory sick pay is subject to national insurance, and we have not heard whether invalidity benefit will be subject to a national insurance charge also. Against that backcloth, the Bill brings forward a principle. However, as usual with social security, the regulations are to follow. Too often the principle turns out to be far worse when the regulations are up and running and in effect. If people need reminding, they should read the debates on the Child Support Agency, which bore no relation to what came into being by way of the regulations.
There is a wide continuum between full and able capacity to work and total incapacity to work. Some Government Members recognised that by way of referring to the definition of grey areas. Within them, the Bill makes a tacit attempt to address that issue by talking about a period when one is unable to follow a normal occupation, and a period when one is unable to follow any occupation, but even that has its drawbacks and flaws.
Where, for instance, does one categorise somebody with a mental illness which is not severe enough to be classed as permanent? The illness may be such that, at different times of the day or week, the person can be absolutely incapable of work, whereas an hour later the situation may be different. Where does one place myalgic encephalomyelitis, an illness which is slowly getting recognition, although not at Richmond house? People suffering from ME can be severely incapacitated in the morning, feel better in the afternoon and be almost bedridden by the early evening.
Such cases cannot be dealt with adequately by the principle of a Bill such as this. I am afraid that, when we see the regulations, we will find that such circumstances will not have received full recognition or been given sufficient weight. In the not-too-distant future, Conservative Members will be protesting about how their individual constituents have been mistreated by the Bill that they seem to welcome so much.
In the continuum of work, there is a point at which people can be declared fit for some work. Let us examine the type of work that is suggested. I shall not repeat stories of officers who suggested work as an artist's model. That was a stupid one-off and I hope that the person has been suitably and permanently disciplined. Often people are told that two types of work are suitable for them. One is work as a swimming pool attendant and the other is work as a car park attendant. In the great and glorious private sector, National Car Parks may have attendants, but I know of no local authority car park that has attendants ; such car parks
Column 87are mechanised. The system is called pay and display. So that is one type of job that is not available, certainly in the public sector.
It is ludicrous to suggest that someone who has been disabled or sick for a considerable time should find work as a swimming pool attendant. Such work is a form of emergency service. Certain degrees of fitness and capability are required. Life-saving abilities are needed. Nevertheless, adjudication officers recommend such employment as suitable work.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : My hon. Friend is right in everything he says. Indeed, in Bradford at one stage the alternative job offered to people in this circumstance was work as a lift attendant. Such work was recommended for several years as an alternative job to justify not paying a person invalidity benefit, until it was pointed out that there was only one lift in the whole of Bradford in which an attendant was employed and that, as there was only one job and it was occupied, it was unlikely to be available.
The role of GPs has been championed a great deal tonight. Most illness and sickness lasts less than four weeks and certainly less than 28 weeks. Up to 28 weeks, it seems that it is all right for the GP to judge a person unfit for work. Suddenly, at 28 weeks, it becomes a major problem--a crisis of conscience, almost.
Dr. Liam Fox : The hon. Gentleman may have overlooked the fact that there is a significant difference in the position before and after the 28- week watershed. Before then, the doctor is asked to say whether the patient is fit for his own job. After 28 weeks he is asked to say whether the patient is fit for any work. That is much more difficult for a doctor to determine.
Mr. Rooney : I accept that the hon. Gentleman is a former GP, but he glosses over the point. I am not aware of any point at which GPs are informed that 28 weeks are up and from then on they must specify whether the person is unfit for any work.
It is a proper role for an adjudication officer to adjudicate on the capacity of the person to do work. That is what they are there to do. The GP will continue to fulfil that role--it has been called the role of the gatekeeper. They will still be expected to issue medical certificates stating the health of the individual concerned. The only difference will be the people will be subject much earlier and more often to medical examination by the Benefits Agency.
The Bill may be a wonderful job-creation wheeze. Certainly the regional medical officer service could not cope with the numbers who currently receive invalidity benefit. The Bill is a fundamental breach of the contributory insurance principle. It is not the first that we have seen, especially in recent weeks. According to that principle, the benefit is not targeted, but one pays a contributory insurance premium in return for specified and given benefits. Targeting means nothing less than means
Column 88testing. If that is what the Government want, they should abolish national insurance, full stop. That was never the intention of the contributory insurance system.
There has been much maligning of the words of intent of Beveridge. It is a tragedy that, in this 50th anniversary year of Beveridge, his memory has been so polluted by the statements of Conservative Members. The issue is not the number of people who qualify for invalidity benefit each year ; it is the method and the appropriateness of exit from the benefit.
Proper research, debate and discussion might find an avenue to deal with the issue. We have not had that proper research, debate or discussion. The Bill is a finance-led measure and a Treasury-driven initiative. The real damage will come later in the regulations. That is when Conservative Members will, as usual, start screaming and squealing about the implications. The Bill should be rejected tonight.
Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham) : In Britain today we give more help to the sick and disabled than we have at any time in our history. That is fully consistent with the traditions of the Conservative party established by Disraeli and even before. In Britain we spend no less than £6.1 billion on invalidity benefit. Let me tell Opposition Members that in the constituency that I represent, £6.1 billion is a very large sum of money.
The health of the nation is undoubtedly improving. Any of us who look at it --as I am sure we all do when we go to our hospitals and talk to our GPs-- realise that. Spending on the national health service is up by almost 50 per cent. since the Conservatives came to office. More people are being treated and receiving better treatment than ever before. More money and more effort is being put into preventive medicine, particularly child vaccination. Yet the number of people claiming invalidity benefit is rising inexorably--by a factor of three, we are told. Clearly, there is something wrong.
Opposition Members have sought to explain the increase by suggesting that it is something to do with the fact that it is difficult to find work at present or that the people are really retired. Yet those who are fit for work and cannot find it should be on unemployment benefit. Those who are retired should receive their pension. Neither of those two categories of person should receive a benefit intended for a person who suffers from invalidity, if they do not have an invalidity.
Opposition Members tend to forget, not only in this context but in almost everything else that we discuss in this place, that benefits are paid by working people--by our working constituents--many of whom live on modest incomes and some who support a sick or elderly relative themselves. I suggest to the socialist parties--both of them, or perhaps I should say all three of them--that they should care a little more about those people.
The socialist parties frequently tell us that this or that item is Treasury -driven, and that all that the Government are trying to do is save money for the Treasury. I should hope that the Government are trying to save money for the Treasury. As I said a moment ago, it is our constituents who fund the Treasury. Opposition Members seem to think that there is a crop of gold out of which all state schemes can be financed. I shall let them into a secret : there is not.
Column 89The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) referred to a matter which was not relevant to a debate on this subject, but as he did so, let me say a few words about it. At present we are paying rather more tax than any of my hon. Friends or I would like. The difference is that the Conservatives tax because they have to, but the socialists tax because they want to. Everyone knows that socialists believe that our constituents cannot be trusted to spend their own money. Socialists wish to take money from them and spend it themselves. That is the difference between the socialists and us.
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) : Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he said that Conservative Governments tax because they have to--because they get the economy into such awful difficulties--but Labour Governments tax because they want to--in order to provide decent services for the people that we represent?
Mr. Stephen : Labour Governments tax because they do not believe that people can be trusted to spend their own money. Liberal Democrat Governments would to the same if they were ever in a position to do so. Conservative Members have voted for higher taxation than we would have wished because of something called the world recession, which has been obvious to us, but seems to have escaped the notice of Opposition Members. It is the worst recession in the western world since 1929. I know it is inconvenient for Opposition Members to recognise that ; they would much prefer it if the present recession were the fault of the Conservative Government. But the world recession is much more likely to have been made in Washington and Tokyo than in London.
Mr. Stephen : The world recession has been obvious to me for quite a long time. It has not, apparently, been noticed by Opposition Members. It is remarkable that, during the worst recession since 1929, the Conservative Government have been able to maintain spending on the national health service, on social security and generally on our welfare state.
Mr. Foulkes rose --
Mr. Dewar rose --
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : Does my hon. Friend agree that, at the last election, it was not obvious to any Member, Conservative or Opposition, that the recession would continue as long as it did? No one could have forecast the length of the recession, and that made an enormous difference.
Mr. Stephen : My hon. Friend is right. As Groucho Marx said, it is dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future. One reason why the Conservative Government have been able to maintain spending on the health service and on the Department of Social Security is that, during the good
Column 90times of the 1980s, we repaid so much of our national debt that we were able to borrow to tide us over the difficult times.
Notwithstanding that we pay more tax than any Conservative Member would like, living standards have increased dramatically since 1979, and the great majority of people have a much greater disposable income than ever before. Our constituents often say that they have paid into the system, so they should have the money. However, when I considered the figures, I discovered that the amount of money collected in national insurance contributions was just about enough to pay the old-age pensions, and precious little was left to pay for all the other benefits. Essentially, all those other benefits are paid for out of general taxation.
The Bill seeks to resolve another difficulty. If benefit goes to the wrong people--as it does in some cases--there is less money for the right people. Opposition Members should think more about the right people, who are not getting as much money as they should.
Mr. Stephen : No, I have given way already to the hon. Gentleman. There is some debate on whether we should tax incapacity benefit. We should consider the matter from the view of somebody who is a low earner, but pays some tax. Is it fair that another person, who receives the same amount of money and has the same amount of disposable income, but receives money through invalidity benefit, should not pay tax? I do not think that many constituents would think that fair.
The issue of the general practitioner's role as gatekeeper has been raised. I was grateful for the contributions by my hon. Friends the Members for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes) and for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), both of whom are doctors and know what they are talking about. It occurred to me as a layman that a doctor with a long-standing relationship with a patient and his family might find it embarrassing to refuse a sick note. I appreciate my hon. Friends' confirmation that that is a source of embarrassment for doctors. They also mentioned something that should be obvious to all of us : doctors have enough administration to do without acting as unpaid officials for the DSS.
Clearly, we need a proper objective medical test. Now is not the time or the place to debate that test. I hope that my hon. Friends who are doctors will be involved when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State devises the test and the regulations that the House will be called upon to consider later.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) : Does not my hon. Friend find it embarrassing that Opposition Members, who know that the amount of money for incapacity benefit has risen to £6.1 billion and is expected to rise to £8 billion in 1994-95, are not prepared to confront that issue ? All they say is that we should carry on with the current system. There is something wrong with the Labour party, which is prepared for his constituents and mine to continue to pay such money.
Column 91to pay for those benefits. It does not care about the people who are not receiving as much as they should because the money is going to the wrong people.
Opposition Members have had their fun commenting on categories such as the terminally ill and people who are human vegetables who will not be required to submit to the test. Of course, we would expect the Minister to say that those people would not be required to submit to a test and he has done so. It is ridiculous to suggest, as Opposition Members seem to do, that it is a concession given by a Government who really think that human vegetables should earn a living. That shows the standard of debate of which Opposition Members are constantly showing themselves to be capable.
While at the Bar, I was for some time a personal injuries practitioner and I know that if there is a financial incentive, people sometimes tend to be economical with the truth when it comes to their physical and mental condition. There are malingerers--I was amazed when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told us that a man who had been claiming invalidity benefit had won a cycle race. That is quite remarkable.
There is nothing dishonourable or demeaning about being an artist's model, or a swimming pool or petrol pump attendant. Opposition Members should think of the reaction of a swimming pool attendant. How would they like to ask him, "You are earning your money and paying taxes?" ? The attendant will answer, "Yes and why should I pay tax to support someone who is capable of doing my job but prefers to sit at home and draw invalidity benefit ?"
The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has said that a considerable number of people will lose benefit if the Bill is passed, as I hope it will be. The Labour party cannot have it both ways. It accuses us of massaging the employment figures. The Bill is a gift for it--we are going to do something to reveal those people who are unemployed. We will take off invalidity benefit, those who are not invalids and put them where they belong--on the employment register.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) : Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the unemployment figures, which are issued by the Government, are deliberately lower than they should be because of people on invalidity benefit and that the real level of unemployment is above 3 million?
Mr. Stephen : I am not saying anything of the kind. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman was present for the earlier part of the debate, but if he reads Hansard , he will see that that issue has been discussed.
The hon. Member for Birkenhead drew attention to the extremely worrying problem of male unemployment. All Conservative Members have male constituents who have been unemployed for a long time and we are extremely worried about them. Most hon. Members have factories in our constituencies. If we visit them, we see that the roaring factories are no longer roaring. That has not happened because the Conservative Government have decided to close down manufacturing industries. Anyone who visits a factory will see not hundreds of people scurrying round or engaged over the work bench, but row upon row of gleaming robots doing their meticulous tasks, with the
Column 92assistance of very few people. It is the inexorable march of technology that has caused so much male unemployment, and if they were honest, the Opposition would accept that.
To put the debate in an international context, the House may be interested to know that the Netherlands, a country renowned for the most generous welfare system in the world, now expects higher contributions from employees with a long sickness record. Employers are fined up to one year's salary for each employee discharged into the disability scheme. Legislation has been passed to reduce the level and duration of benefits for new disability claimants, and the regulations governing the examination of claimants have also been tightened. All people over the age of 65 must contribute to the social security general disability insurance scheme.
As I listened to the hon. Member for Garscadden, I was reminded of the farmer in a remote part of Ireland who was asked by a tourist the way to Ballymena. He thought for a moment and replied, "If I were going to Ballymena, I would not start from here." Anyone with any sense, and I would have thought that the hon. Member for Garscadden had a little bit of it, would realise that we must start from where we are, not from where we would like to be. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that, in attempting to reduce the burden upon our taxpaying constituents, we are starting with the people who are drawing invalidity benefit, he has obviously not listened to the debates in the House, because the whole range of public spending is being closely examined to cut waste and to reduce the tax burden. What is the Labour party's policy? Opposition Members have been asked endless times by my hon. Friends to explain their policies, but all they can do is yell, "You're in the dock". Nobody here is in the dock. We are trying to work out what should be done in the best interests of our constituents. I would have expected, and the people expect, some kind of constructive opposition from the Labour party, but all we get is yah-boo politics.
The Labour party cannot cope with the burdens of opposition, and it is totally unfit to be trusted with the responsibility of office. 8.12 pm
Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West) : This debate is about an important aspect of social security policy but, not surprisingly, many hon. Members have returned to the theme of employment and employment policy. The interface between those policies is one of the most crucial issues to take into account when deciding whether to support the Bill.
We must decide what the prospects will be for those who are denied benefit in the future. How many of them will join the labour market and find jobs?
The Secretary of State said that he has evidence to suggest that malingerers are cleaning windows, apparently at their own offices. I am not sure whether he witnessed that act. When he mentioned cleaning windows, I wondered whether he was about to go through the George Formby song book. I thought that he was about to talk about witnessing a scrounger leaning on a lampost at the corner of the street, but he did not go that far.
The Secretary of State obviously believes that many in receipt of benefit are in employment. We must ask ourselves serious questions about the prospects of those who will lose benefit, at a time of mass unemployment, should the Bill survive the House. Will they find
Column 93employment? We all know that evidence suggests that many people with disabilities find it extremely difficult to secure employment. One survey carried out in 1990 by Social and Community Planning Research, SCPR--I am bound to say that official data are sparse-- found that, among those with disabilities who were actively seeking work, 22 per cent. were unemployed. Today, experts estimate that those with disabilities who are seeking work are two and a half times more unlikely to find jobs than those without disabilities. That survey is one indicator of the scale of the problem.