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Column 218I believe that that is an anomaly because additional pension was introduced at a time when the ability of people to make other provision for their future was much less common than it is today. A substantial percentage of those in receipt of invalidity benefit today have other resources, in savings or in income from their previous employment. Additional pension in those circumstances had become an anomaly. Many others will have other resources available to them.
Although everybody who was in Committee is aware of the fact, it is worth emphasising that there will be no loss to the existing beneficiaries at the point of change for so long as they continue to qualify for the benefit. I have made it clear before, but I reiterate it if the hon. Member for East Kilbride would like me to, that it is the intention to continue to uprate that entitlement in the usual way in subsequent years.
Let me turn to the basic principle of the Bill. The hon. Member for East Kilbride spoke only from the Front Bench and therefore it is not entirely unreasonable to make a point that I know was made frequently in Committee. I do not want ot tease him too much about it, but, in criticising our efforts and intention to constrain the growth of the social security system, by constraining invalidity benefit in particular, by altering its scope, by introducing the objective medical test and by taking away some of the add-ons to the existing benefit, is he making a commitment to restore the present situation in future years if there should ever be again a Labour Government? The Government believe that we have a clear duty to contain the growth in spending on sickness benefits and to introduce an affordable system which focuses benefits on those most in need. Our proposals for restructuring will provide a basic income for all those who cannot work and they will focus resources on the genuinely long-term sick. That is the right way to tackle the situation, as long as we ensure that no one suffers a reduction in benefit when the new proposals are introduced. The Government are determined to make provision affordable in that area.
Before I sit down, I wish to deal with a point made by the hon. Member for East Kilbride on the terminally ill. As he knows, the terminally and seriously ill will receive benefit for the first 52 weeks. Those receiving the lower rate of short-term benefit will receive a significant increase after 28 weeks ; and incapacity benefit, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is not intended to meet the extra costs of the terminally ill or severely disabled. Disability living allowance is available to help with extra care need, and the hon. Gentleman will know that the care component is payable immediately to the terminally ill. We have set out what I think are satisfactory and well-regarded arrangements to ensure that applicants are put on a fast track.
I said in Committee that I would consider the arguments for bringing forward the longer-term rates of benefit. As my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary said earlier, we are considering the points that were made and we hope to reach conclusions on them in the near future. Obviously we shall ensure that everyone is informed as and when we reach those conclusions.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) reiterated, perhaps at slightly greater length, the points that he made in Committee. I understand the economic impact on his constituency. I make two points in response to his comments. In the first instance, all
Column 219the existing caseload will continue to be entitled to their existing benefit, uprated as usual, so that there should be no immediate impact on purchasing power in his constituency. It is perfectly proper for him, as a constituency Member of Parliament, to put forward the impact of any Government policy on his constituency's economic prospects, but it is not the purpose of invalidity or of future incapacity benefit to underwrite, as it were, the prosperity of all those living in that area.
I made it clear when I responded to the hon. Gentleman's questions on the money resolution that I understand the role that invalidity benefit played at a difficult time in Merthyr Tydfil, in other parts of Wales and elsewhere. However, I do not believe that, in the long run, that is the purpose of invalidity benefit.
Mr. Rowlands : A little earlier, the right hon. Gentleman rested his case for the change on the ground that the benefits were created when people could not create occupational benefit rights. The point that I was trying to make, further to those on the money resolution, was that, as a result of the shrinking number of people in employment in our area, we shall not have a new generation creating those rights. At the same time, the available benefit will reduce for those who are entitled to it. It worries me that we are being driven backward into more of a dependency culture than ever before.
Mr. Scott : I do not wish to stray too wide of the debate, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will take all sorts of opportunities to impress upon other parts of the Government the contribution that they can make to the economic health of his area. I must also emphasise the fact that, although existing beneficiaries may lose entitlement under what will in future be incapacity beneift--in essence, it will be the continuation of their invalidity benefit after 1995--if they come off benefit, they may be able to get back into work or they may qualify for other benefits. Nobody will be left with no resources whatever.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman said about the problems that can arise, especially in small, tight-knit communities, when people in similar circumstances are on two different rates of benefit. However, to avoid that, unless we were to leave the whole system intact for ever--that would not be realistic, sensible or prudent--we should have had to take their entitlement away from existing beneficiaries and reduce their benefit to the level of incapacity benefit that was being introduced. In recent years that has been virtually unheard of, because when there are changes in social security provision we have always endeavoured to ensure that people's existing entitlement is not reduced at the point of change, even though those who become entitled in future will have a lower entitlement.
The amendments provide an uprating for the range of benefits now and make provision for benefits to be upgraded again in April 1995. I understand that Opposition Members may feel that the benefits are inadequate, but I welcome their undertaking not to vote against the amendments.
Mr. Ingram : We started out not knowing whether this would be a lengthy debate. The Minister said that it would be short, but I suspect that it has probably grown longer than he expected when he gave his one- minute introduction to the amendments.
Column 220The debate has been useful because it has drawn out much of the principle underlying the Bill, and we shall pick up the different messages that the Minister put out about that. He made a sterling defence of many aspects of the Bill, but some of us can read between the lines and see some of the other approaches that he might have liked to be used in defence of disabled people.
No one denies that it is the role of Government constantly to examine the way in which benefits are paid and the overall budget for social security provision. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) set out the Opposition's position on that clearly on Second Reading. The Minister tried to tease me a little by asking whether what we had said amounted to a commitment on my part to restore the benefit. He will not be surprised to hear that I do not intend to be teased in that way. That is no part of the purpose of the debate or of our approach to the Bill.
We have exposed the full effects of the measure. Indeed, the debate has brought them into sharp focus. The Minister recognised that it had served that purpose, and in doing so it has served the nation well, because now people will know what is coming next year and beyond.
The Minister gave me the assurance that I sought on the overall question of maintaining the uprating and the present level of invalidity benefit. I accept that assurance in the spirit in which it was given, but others may tell me that the Minister made the same commitment on additional pensions. I hope that in two or three years' time we shall not be back with the same criticism on invalidity benefit as we have had to make on additional pensions.
The Minister is right to say that it is not our intention to vote against the amendments, because they give a little more money than before, although still a lot less than current levels of invalidity benefit. For that reason, it would be wrong for us to vote against the amendments, and we accordingly accept them.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendments made : No. 2, in page 3, line 25, leave out £56.10' and insert £57.60'.
No. 3, in page 4, line 10, leave out £26.40' and insert £26.90'. No. 4, in page 4, line 12, leave out £10.95' and insert £11.00'. No. 5, in page 4, line 12, leave out £32.30' and insert £33.10'. No. 6, in page 4, line 14, leave out £10.95' and insert £11.00'. No. 7, in page 4, line 14, leave out £33.70' and insert £34.50'. No. 8, in page 4, line 14, at end add--
(7) Any order under section 150 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 (up-rating orders) made by the Secretary of State before the commencement of this section shall include provision--
(a) making such increase (if any) in the sum specified in the provision inserted by subsection (2) above as the amount of short-term incapacity benefit at the higher rate as is necessary to make that sum equal to the higher rate or, if there is only one such rate, to the rate of statutory sick pay payable after the order comes into force ; and
(b) making such increases in the other sums specified in the provisions inserted by subsections (2) and (6) above in Schedule 4 to the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 as would have been required if the provisions in question had been in force at all material times.'.--[ Mr. Scott. ]
(11) For the period of three years from Royal Assent a statutory instrument which contains (whether alone or with other provisions) any regulations under this section shall not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House.
(12) A statutory instrument--
(a) which contains (whether alone or with other provisions) any regulations made under this section, and
(b) which is not subject to any requirement that a draft of the instrument be laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament,
shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.'.
Mr. Burt : These amendments relate to the regulation-making powers. Members on the Standing Committee will recall that during discussions on clause 4 a commitment was given to the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) to look again at the period for which those regulation-making powers would be subject to affirmative resolution. It was suggested at that time that a period of three years might be more appropriate.
New clause 1, which we dealt with earlier, introduced the three-year period for regulations covering the transition to the new test of incapacity. Amendment No. 9 now gives effect to that for regulations made under clause 4. New subsection (11) will ensure that the regulations will be subject to affirmative resolution for three years from the date of Royal Assent. Additionally, new subsection (12) provides that where the regulations under clause 4 are contained in a statutory instrument that is not subject to affirmative resolution, negative resolution will apply--that is, after the three-year period. That was omitted during the original drafting of the clause.
Hon. Members may ask why we have decided on a period of three years. Why not, for example, make regulations always subject to the affirmative procedure? [Interruption.] Indeed, I hear that question spilling from the lips of Opposition Members.
We recognise that there will be a great deal of interest in the regulations made under the Bill. They are likely to be complex--the very reason for enshrining such matters in secondary legislation--and modifications may need to be made to deal with problems that emerge. In the light of that interest we think it right that the amending regulations should be subject to the affirmative procedure. Eventually the new system will settle down-- three years is a reasonable estimate for the transitional period--and, I hope, will find acceptance on all sides. From time to time there may need to be small sets of amending regulations dealing with what we expect to be relatively minor matters. We do not think that, given a choice, the House would want to debate these. There would, however, have to be a debate if the regulations were subject to the affirmative procedure. If we place amendment under negative procedure after three years, the House will have a choice whether the issues are important enough to merit a full debate.
Column 222In addition to extending the period for application of affirmative resolution to the transitional regulations, I have tabled amendments Nos. 10 and 11 to do the same with the regulations covering the test of incapacity. Because of their complexity, it is quite possible that we shall not get the regulations right first time and that amendments will be required both before commencement of the Act and in the early days of operating the new test. The regulations will now be subject to affirmative resolution for the period of three years from the date of Royal Assent.
Amendment No. 12 corrects an omission in the current draft of the Bill. Subsection ((3) of clause 6 lists all the regulation-making powers included in clauses 5 and 6 that are to be subject to affirmative resolution. However, subsection (7) of new section 171A has been excluded from the list. The amendment corrects that situation.
Amendment No. 13 clarifies the reference to new section 171D. Subsection (2) of the new section merely sets out a particular case of the power given by subsection (1).
The amendments are largely technical and give effect to a more sensible treatment of the regulation-making powers. I commend them to the House.
Mr. Bradley : I welcome the fact that the Government have used the affirmative resolution procedure for the regulations, as promised in Committee. I am especially pleased that the Minister spotted the omission of subsection (7). We would have tabled an amendment to that effect ourselves if the Government had not done so.
Mr. Bradley : However, we must place on the record yet again our opposition to the way in which the legislation is being dealt with by regulation. I shall not rehearse the arguments on that subject, but in a sense the Government have made the case for us. The Minister said that the regulations would be complex and that the Government do not expect to get them right, but expect to have to amend them. What a way to introduce legislation. They admit that they do not know what they are doing ; yet they legislate by regulation which we cannot amend and to which we can only vote yes or no even if we know that the Government have got it wrong. That is an extraordinary procedure to adopt and the Government have condemned themselves out of the Minister's own mouth.
However, we welcome the fact that a three-year period will apply to the regulations. All my hon. Friends will welcome that, because, unless the Government change the law on elections, three years should take us through until after the next general election, when we shall have the pleasure of introducing sensible regulations and legislation to deal with the real needs of disabled people in this country. Amendment agreed to.
but any such regulations shall take into account that it is in the public interest for disabled persons to make available their special knowledge through voluntary work and through appointment to relevant bodies and committees.'
We feel that this amendment is very important. We hope that the Government will treat it seriously. Throughout proceedings on the Bill, they have treated many of our arguments in a genuinely serious way and we ask that this amendment be given the same balanced approach. We also ask that it be judged not merely on its cost implications--I suspect that the overall cost of implementing the amendment will be small in terms of the cost of the overall Bill. I hope that we will not get into a cost implication argument. The amendment simply calls on the Government to provide in regulation a means by which people in receipt of incapacity benefit--the new benefit--or the existing invalidity benefit will be allowed to do voluntary work or work in a user body or committee without fear of their entitlement to benefit being affected. The Bill as it stands already provides an exemption for local authority councillors. Their work as elected representatives will not debar them from entitlement to invalidity benefit or the new incapacity benefit.
That principle must be right because to do otherwise would undermine the fundamental democratic right that disabled people should not be debarred from fully participating in local authorities on the ground of cost. I hope that that is one right that will never be dispatched to the dustbin of history by the Government but will be constantly protected and supported by them.
In Committee, the Under-Secretary made a further concession--that the disregard that will apply to members of disability appeals tribunals will be extended to members of the advisory board which deals with the disability living allowance. That concession is welcome. However, it does not go far enough, and that is why we have tabled this amendment. It is right to extend that concession, but why will the Government not go one step further--we argue that it is a small step further--and concede a similar disregard for those people with disabilities who carry out such useful voluntary work on a range of committees and bodies, which benefit from the input of a disabled person?
We can all give examples of organisations, bodies and committees which would benefit greatly from the input of a disabled person. Disabled persons should be able to serve on any committee as of right but there are specific bodies, organisations and committees which would benefit greatly from the input of a disabled person because they understand the problems associated with not only their own disability but disabilities in general.
Clearly, bodies such as school governing bodies, community health councils and the boards of voluntary organisations which have been assisting Labour Members to understand the underlying importance and effect of this Bill would benefit from having disabled people serving on them and giving advice in that specific way. That would cover the whole breadth of voluntary organisations.
Column 224As I said, many boards, committees and groups would benefit from having disabled people serving on them. Of course, the argument will be that they should be debarred by virtue of the fact that they will lose their benefit.
By allowing the disregard for those serving on the DLA advisory board, the Government have partly accepted that argument. However, they do not go far enough--they do not take the logic of the argument and extend it further. If it is appropriate to allow the disregard for those serving on the DLA advisory board, why is it not appropriate for those serving on the Social Security Advisory Committee and the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council?
That question was raised in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn). It was interesting to see the Minister's response. He said :
"We have made a concession tonight. It is a little hurtful for the hon. Gentleman to suggest that we should go further. There is an end point and one can only go so far."--[ Official Report, Standing Committee E, 22 February 1993 ; c. 364.]
The concession did not go very far at all. I do not know why the Minister was hurt by our questions, other than the fact that he accepted and understood the point that we were making and the need for the concession to be extended. The end point has been reached much too quickly. It is not that we wanted it to be reached in the way that it was in Committee but our arguments were dismissed. I am sorry that we hurt the Under-Secretary's feelings ; however, it was not our intention to bother about his feelings but to have our argument accepted by the Government.
We must examine the existing legislation which deals with certain aspects of the principle of those with disabilities serving on various committees. The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 lists a number of bodies on which it is desirable to have someone who has a knowledge of disability or who is disabled. These include the housing advisory committees, the social security advisory committee, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, the Transport Users Consultative Committee and other relevant advisory committees which deal with the range of utilities and other bodies. The 1970 Act is reinforced by the Disabled Persons Act 1986 which set out the need to include the experiences of people with disabilities on councils, committees and other bodies.
Why should we ignore the purposes of those Acts of Parliament? The Acts were laid down after careful debate and consideration in the House. There was a genuine recognition that disabled people needed much more positive discrimination and much more support in coming into the wider community, without feeling in any way that they would be debarred or suffer as a consequence.
That is why I ask the Government why they will not go further with the concession that they made in Committee about those who serve on the DLA advisory board. Why not take the concession a step further? If it is on the basis of cost, let us be told that. If it is not on that basis, where is the principle?
Why will the Government not accept that there is a lot to be gained not only by disabled people but all of us for disabled people to serve on these important advisory councils and committees which advise the House, local authorities and a range of other bodies? Clearly, to go that little step further would be a great boost to disabled people who want to serve and who do not want to operate under the fear that they may lose invalidity entitlement by serving on such bodies.
Column 225In tabling this amendment, we recognise that the Government intend to introduce a new provision to allow incapacity benefit claimants to engage in up to 16 hours voluntary work a week. That was said by the Secretary of State on Second Reading and reiterated in Committee. Clearly, that provision will be welcome. However, the Government have not said that the concession will apply to existing invalidity benefit recipients--those who are in receipt of benefit at present and those who will be eligible for invalidity benefit before April 1995. Once again, that raises the question why the Government, having gone so far, will not go that little step further. If it is on the basis of cost, let us hear the cost arguments. If it is because of some other underlying principle, let us hear it. The House should debate why the Government have no intention of conceding that in relation to the areas in which they have made a concession, and taken it a little step further.
The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux has set out the argument well in a briefing document which I understand has been given to all hon. Members. It would be useful to set out the background that was related in the document. NACAB says that it and other agencies which depend on volunteers, such as the Volunteer Centre UK, the National Association of Volunteer Bureaux, Mencap, the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation and Arthritis Care, are experiencing problems with people who are claiming invalidity benefit and who wish to become volunteers.
We know that working as a volunteer is only permitted at present if the work is considered to be therapeutic, and that is defined as medically beneficial to the claimant. However, NACAB has pointed out that many claimants suffer from medical conditions where their work as a volunteer is not medically beneficial, but neither is it harmful. Clearly, undertaking voluntary work may encourage people back into a normal work environment. It may give them confidence in themselves, and may encourage them to seek full -time employment. It gives them a sense of dignity, and an awareness of what they can and cannot do in a normal work environment. By working as a volunteer, they may be encouraged back into work ; assuming that work is available to them.
NACAB points out that, in its experience, the current rule means that recipients of invalidity benefit are reluctant to become volunteers and that those who are already volunteers are giving it up as they fear that it will affect their entitlement to benefit. It has given a couple of examples, and it is worth putting them on record so that we understand the debate in relation to the amendment. NACAB cites a case in the west midlands where a volunteer was asked to attend an interview with the Benefits Agency about his medical condition. That individual suffers from osteoarthritis, and clearly had some days when he had great difficulty walking. The man had previously been in industry but had to give up because of his health. He fears that he is to lose his benefit.
Another example--again from the west midlands--is that of a volunteer who received a request to return her invalidity benefit book to the Benefits Agency because of her work at a NACAB office in the west midlands. She had previously contacted the Benefits Agency to confirm that she could do such voluntary work, and she had obtained a
Column 226note from her doctor which stated that it was therapeutic. The Benefits Agency did not even question her first, and her benefit was subsequently reinstated. However, she suffered two weeks of distress as she clearly thought that she was to lose her invalidity benefit. In a previous debate on the rates of benefit, we set out the level at which the rates are being paid at the moment under invalidity benefit and the rates which are to be paid. Those are not princely sums, and they do not make people feel like millionaires. They are not walking around with pound notes coming out of their pockets, but when someone feels that he is to lose benefit, it causes him great worry.
That is the underlying import and purpose of the amendment. It is important, and I am sure that the Minister will genuinely respond to it, but we need a clear statement tonight from the Government that nobody need fear losing their entitlement to invalidity benefit, or incapacity benefit, by carrying out voluntary work. Many disabled people benefit from their work in the voluntary sector, and the voluntary sector also derives extensive benefits. It is not just a case of input from the person with the disability. Everyone else benefits greatly from working with disabled people.
Those areas have the benefit of the disabled volunteer in terms of the valuable input which those people can make to an understanding of the wide range of issues dealt with in advisory groups and committees. Those people make major contributions, and it simply cannot be right that they have any fear hanging over them. That fear, of course, denies the rest of the community the invaluable input of an important group of our citizens.
By accepting the amendment, the Government will send out a clear message in advance of the debate which is to take place in the House on Friday. It will be another step forward for disabled people, and they will benefit from knowing that they are to be welcomed into the voluntary sector. That would give them confidence and the understanding of their fellow workers that they are to be welcomed into the work place. It would give them an understanding that there is a future for them.
The amendment deals with such issues, and tries to set out the way forward. If the Government are not prepared to accept the amendment, I hope that we will hear tonight whether they are prepared to have it debated elsewhere, and to allow it to be reconsidered during the final stages of the Bill. I appreciate that Ministers are reluctant to accept amendments tabled by the Opposition but, if they are not prepared to accept it, they should at least give a message that they are prepared to accept the principle underlying it.
Mr. Alan Howarth : Like the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), I welcome the Government's decision on the social security uprating that volunteers on incapacity benefit will be able to do up to 16 hours of voluntary work a week without losing their benefit. I speak personally on the matter, and on behalf of the all-party parliamentary panel on charities.
There is no question that people have been deterred by the rules of the benefit system, which effectively discourage them from undertaking voluntary work. I will mention one instance from a report sent to the hon. Members by the Cleveland council for voluntary service. A volunteer called Anne says :
Column 227"I have had serious problems with my health and confidence. I went to Middlesbrough Volunteer Bureau because I wanted to do something that would help my confidence. I got involved with an organisation which takes aid to children in a Romanian orphanage. I really wanted to go to Romania myself to see what my fundraising had achieved. I was told that if I went my benefit would be suspended while I was away. I promised that I would take a mobile phone so that I could be contacted if a job came up but the benefit office still would not let me go and pay my benefits."
Like the hon. Member for East Kilbride, I hope that the Government may find it possible to bring in the new concession earlier so that it applies to recipients of invalidity benefit as well as incapacity benefit. That would be a graceful and appropriate feature of the Government's new initiative, "Make a Difference", to encourage volunteering. I think that it can only have been an oversight that it was not announced when the initiative was launched last week. I know that an explanation was given in another place that it would be impractical to do so because the concession would depend upon the operation of the new objective test, but I do not understand why that should be so. I hope that the additional change will be made. Clear advice should be given at all events, to the Benefits Agency medical service to disregard voluntary work. It must be clear to all concerned that there can be no presumption that someone who undertakes those hours of voluntary work is fit for other work on account of that. There is a qualitative difference between voluntary work and paid employment. Voluntary work can be much more varied and flexible than paid employment is likely to be. The psychological frame of mind associated with voluntary work is different because there is always the feeling that if the stress and strain becomes too great, it is possible for the volunteer to withdraw.
Nor should we insist that voluntary work must be "therapeutic", although I believe that it is--in almost every case such work enhances the well-being of the person who undertakes it.
As has been argued, we should extend the exemptions. I welcome the extension to include people who undertake voluntary work as councillors, members of disability appeal tribunals and members of the disability living allowance advisory board, but I want the concessions to go much further and to cover the whole range of public service committees and organisations, which have been substantially extended, as we know. As long ago as the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, the desirability of disabled people serving on such committees was stated, but we are a quarter of a century on and we need to make better progress.
The deregulation task force has a sub-group on volunteers and benefits. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister will want to listen carefully to what it has to say, perhaps shortly.
Charitable and voluntary activity benefits the giver and the receiver. Like the unemployed, retired people and many others, the disabled are able to give something to society in that way and to gain new skills and fulfilment. The bonds of our society are strengthened in the process. Voluntary work by the disabled is not only of direct and immediate value to society but, by enhancing their skills, morale and health, should be seen as an investment. My right hon. Friend the Minister may tell us, however, that a cost problem is associated with bringing the
Column 228concession forward. I very much hope that if that is the problem, he will share it with us and explain the cost-benefit analysis that his Department has made.
A year ago, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said : "We must do more to recognise, support and encourage the habit of volunteering, which cements together our society and is one of the great glories of our lives."
Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West) : It gives me great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth), as I entirely agree with his remarks. I also welcome the opportunity to follow the many excellent comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram).
I sincerely hope that there will be no opposition to amendment No. 23 and that the Minister will feel able to support it. Clearly, it is in the public interest that disabled people should be able to give us all the benefit of their experience and abilities.
Clause 6 takes into account that a person's incapacity for work should not prevent him from making a valuable contribution to the community as an elected representative or a councillor. All hon. Members present must know of people who are suffering from chronic illness or disability, but who serve their community as elected representatives and in many other capacities.
Hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill, who are unfortunately notable by their absence from the Conservative Benches, may recall that I quoted in support of my argument a senior Member of Parliament asking the Government to consider such an amendment. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon quoted the Prime Minister, and I have here a press release issued in 1987 by the then Minister of State for Social Security and the Disabled, who subsequently became the Prime Minister, as hon. Members know. At that time he said :
"Experience shows that people with long-term sickness or disability can give valuable services as councillors even though they cannot undertake normal employment. It would be wrong if they were deterred by the rules of the benefit system from contributing to local democracy as elected representatives."
I certainly hope that the Prime Minister will recognise that that is what the amendment is about. It recognises the valuable contribution that people can make through voluntary work and appointment to serve on public bodies. That involvement and that contribution should not make someone fear that he will lose his benefit because he will be judged fully capable of paid employment. All hon. Members have had considerable dealings with voluntary groups and community organisations in their constituencies. I am sure that hon. Members may have referred constituents with problems to the relevant voluntary group and community organisation for their support and expertise. There is no doubt in my mind that groups that deal with cancer, arthritis, heart disease and so forth can be an instant source of support. We should recognise the contribution made by volunteers who join such groups.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride has produced many valuable arguments. For example, he welcomed the Minister's announcement that volunteers who receive incapacity benefit will be able to do voluntary work for up to 16 hours per week, but said that we want that concession to be introduced as soon as possible, so that
Column 229it can apply to recipients of the existing invalidity benefit. My hon. Friend also made many splendid remarks about the range of organisations to which volunteers may contribute and the essential role that disabled people can play by advising certain committees and by being consulted in fulfilment of the terms of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride also mentioned the fact that disabled people who wish to be volunteers fear that they will lose their benefit by doing such voluntary work. He quoted some examples that were cited by citizens advice bureaux. Once again I remind the Minister that two people may well be able to get out of a chair, sit down again, perhaps walk 50 yards, use their hands and carry out what we regard as the other normal physical functions, but that there may be vast differences in the time, effort and discomfort involved. A person with chronic arthritis may need three or more attempts just to get out of a chair, whereas somebody like me can get up in 10 seconds flat without any difficulty. This distinction must be recognised when we are dealing with the contribution that people can make as volunteers, as opposed to paid employees.
I have mentioned the public's interest in the Government's acceptance of this amendment, but there is also the personal interest of the disabled person doing voluntary work. It can only benefit individuals to have their worth and their contribution to the community recognised, reaffirmed and enhanced through voluntary work. There is no substitute for the help and support that a disabled person can provide for someone else who has recently been afflicted with the same or a similar disability. That is why there are so many voluntary groups providing specific support.
The Government have made great play of attracting people to serve on public bodies. Opposition Members tend to refer to such bodies as quangos. In any case, the Government have tried to demonstrate how eager they are to attract a diverse range of people and of experience and a cross-section of the community. If the Government are serious about that, they ought to support the amendment and, thereby, ensure that no sick or disabled person will lose benefit because he or she contributes to a public body or will be deterred from serving.
Mr. Pike : Many councils are about to devolve housing functions further down the line. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be wrong if a disabled person were unable to play a voluntary role in that sector? Such people could make a special contribution by representing the interests of the disabled in general.
Ms Squire : My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is vital that disabled people be given an opportunity to make a full contribution to the development of housing. We have all seen new buildings that were supposed to make provision for disabled people but whose doors are not wide enough to take a wheel chair. Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, I remind the Minister that on Friday of this week the House will deal with the Second Reading of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. I understand that, earlier today, the Prime Minister suggested that the Government might
Column 230actually support that Bill. Unfortunately, I missed the right hon. Gentleman's comment as I had to deal with other business. There is no doubt that, if the Government tell a disabled person, "Your choice is between voluntary work with no incapacity benefit and benefit with no voluntary work," they are indulging in gross discrimination. By doing that, the Government will deny sick or disabled people valuable opportunities to live a normal life, to rebuild their confidence and to gain the skills that could eventually help them to return to paid employment. That is discrimination of a deeply offensive nature. How can the Government claim to be caring, compassionate and committed to community care if they behave in such a way? How can they close the doors of opportunity and benefit to the individual and to the community as a whole?
I urge the Government to recognise, encourage and applaud the unique contribution that disabled people can make to the community and to support the amendment.