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Column 185a condition, or who has seen the person a number of times, might know that, under stress, in certain circumstances or more often than not, that person will not be capable of performing those functions. We are trying to secure justice. If the new clause stands as it is, I, like the hon. Member for Croydon, North-West, fear that, in the months and years to come, many more constituents will come to our surgeries asking how in the world it was ever accepted. We shall have to say that some of us warned of the problem at the time. We hope, having issued the warnings, that the Minister is prepared to listen and to do something about it.
Mrs. Dunwoody : One of the hazards facing any legislation is either that it slips through the House of Commons late at night or that it is fairly lightly examined. I am afraid that the Bill and its implications are in grave danger of not being properly examined. I do not find it surprising that there are no former members of the Committee present on the Government Benches. I remember being stunned in Committee by a Conservative Whip when, in a voice which carried round the room, he said to one of his own Members who was making what I thought was a coherent speech "Sit down you little blank' and shut up." I remember being even more astonished when the Member did as he was told. It illustrated simply the difference between Her Majesty's loyal Opposition and Her Majesty's Government, because had I, as a Whip, endeavoured to say such a thing to a Labour Member, I suspect that I might have been in a highly dangerous position.
We are discussing a Bill which will affect some of the most vulnerable people. I find it a horrifying suggestion. It is a cynical move, which is made clear in the Bill by the suggestion that large sums of money are to be saved by the change in the legislation. If it were a straightforward matter of changing a medical examination and of ensuring that general practitioners were not put under unnecessary pressure to support their patients when they did not believe that it was justified, the Government should be able to spell out in exact detail the sort of tests which are to be applied, the kind of hazards that the applicant will have to face and exactly how the applicants will be expected to respond. That has not happened.
Regulations are increasingly used as a trick to hide from Members of Parliament the implications of changes in legislation. It is not the first time that that has happened ; it is an increasing habit. The Government consistently introduce regulations, not on the basis of a full discussion of the Bill in Committee, but in subsequent moves after the Bill has reached the statute book. That is not only unhelpful but positively misleading.
The Child Support Agency is an interesting example of that process. We were told of its principle and the House of Commons took on trust the ideas that Ministers presented as a clear impression of what was to happen. We are told that the legislation before us will not damage the interests of the disabled, but that it is simply a matter of ensuring that the medical tests are set out clearly, that people have to comply with certain conditions and that if they are in receipt of the wrong benefit, all that will happen is that they will find alternative forms of benefit or will receive alternative forms of support. Frankly, I do not believe that.
When two of the nicer members of the Government are sitting on the Front Bench, it is difficult to be as vicious as
Column 186one would want to be in the debate, but I do not believe that the Government are bringing forward the medical tests because they think that they will improve the lot of people who are receiving the wrong benefit : they are looking to save money. If they were not, they would have no objection to the new clause, which sets out a number of sensible, straightforward ideas. What is the objection to telling Parliament how many people attended a medical examination, or what number of people, having attended an examination, were determined to be incapable for work ? What is the difficulty ?
The Government intend to do something much more straightforward--to try to save money from those who are already among some of the poorest people in our society. We do not have to consider the proposed changes to know what will happen. In case after case in our constituencies people are referred to tribunals. The length of time before their cases are heard is becoming longer. When they eventually get to court, a number of them receive verdicts that they do not accept and they undergo the whole procedure again.
A number of general practitioners support the claimants because they know that the claimants are telling the truth and finally, as happened today, one receives a letter from the agency--not even the Department--saying that it is correct that that man or woman, who has gone through an enormous amount of highly complex bureaucratic machinery, is to be given back their benefit, but only after a long time.
Ministers seem to think that, if people are deprived of their benefit for a number of weeks or, in some cases, for months, giving them a sum of money is all that is necessary. That does not begin to deal with the difficulty.
Mr. Burt rose
Mr. Burt : The hon. Lady mentioned that case a little while ago. I had not heard of it previously. What she says disturbs me and I am more than happy to consider the circumstances. I should not like her to think that I consider that what she has described to be normal or just. I shall certainly look at the circumstances.
Mrs. Dunwoody : I must give the Minister his due. I do not believe that he would consider it normal or just, but the reality is that his Government have introduced legislation which has precisely the effect of that case. The fact that the Minister does not accept it cheers me up only marginally.
Increasing numbers of people who are in receipt of benefit are being destabilised because they are being told that they will have their right to benefit questioned in such a manner that they will have to go through a great deal of re-examination, that they may have to present the case over again, that they may lose their benefit, that they may have to reapply and that it may take some months before the case is cleared up.
In a civilised society, I do not regard that as an acceptable way to conduct matters. It means that, if people are already on benefit, they will tend to try to borrow and beg from everybody they know to keep themselves going while their benefit is stopped, and when they finally receive the money they will be in such difficulty that they will
The new clause addresses the important question about the medical test. The House of Commons ought to be informed at every level of what is happening to those who are in receipt of benefit. When the Bill was introduced, I was horrified by the suggestion that general practitioners were not altogether to be trusted and that, if they had people on their list who were to be in receipt of benefit, we could not wholly take their word on a person's medical condition, because they might be influenced by their relationship with the patient. h
In 22 years of general practice, I have met all sorts of general practitioners--some pompous, some intelligent, some less intelligent, some hard-working and some who were not overwhelmed with a desire to kill themselves with hard work. However, one thing that they all had in common was their ability to talk to their patients to a greater or a lesser degree. The idea that they will not be able to tell their patients honestly about their medical condition and about their right to receive benefit is a crazy and ill-founded idea.
I would rather that the House did not pass the Bill because I have grave doubts about it. If we accept the new clauses, we may go some way towards giving ourselves a fall-back position because I suspect that, in a year, the House of Commons will have to re-examine the entire legislation to see whether it is working and what effect it is having on recipients of benefit.
I take the Minister's word for it that he is happy to investigate specific cases. That is helpful, and I shall take him up on it. However, I tell him firmly that I think that the change in the law is not about entitlement to the correct benefit--I wish that I thought it were--but about saving the Treasury money. The Treasury has lost a lot of money and it has to get it back. People in receipt of benefit are a jolly good target.
I must also tell the Minister that I do not think that the Bill will have that effect. I do not believe that it has been thought through. We may find that at the end of its first year of operation the medical tests are not producing the saving of money, and that all that has happened is a change in the circumstances of the people at present in receipt of invalidity benefit.
I regard the Bill as a most unacceptable move. It is doubtful in intent, and I believe that it will be unworkable. The people who will pay for it, as always, will not be all those Tory Members of Parliament who are not here tonight, but the people who are most in need--the people now in receipt of benefit.
I rise to speak with some regret at the fact that the Secretary of State has left the Chamber. He is the villain of
Column 188the piece and the architect of the legislation, and he should be forced to sit through the debate and hear the truth about it being aired--he should even forced to defend it.
As I said in Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security and the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People are the acceptable face of the Department of Social Security, and it is unfair on them that they should have to sit through 25 or 30 hours of Committee proceedings, and then come to the Chamber, to defend the indefensible.
In Committee, I drew an analogy with the present Government ban on Sinn Fein, under which we see Gerry Adams speaking but cannot hear his voice, so his words are spoken by an actor. In fairness to the two Ministers present, it would have been better if, during proceedings on the Bill, the voice of the Secretary of State had been piped in. It is clearly not those two humane and compassionate junior Ministers who are forcing through the legislation. No, what we see is the hard heart of the Secretary of State in action.
I regret that the Secretary of State has left the Chamber, partly because on Second Reading he said, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich has also said--it is worth repeating--that the legislation affects the most vulnerable people in our society. The Secretary of State finds it difficult to recognise vulnerability or compassion, so when he recognises who are the most vulnerable, we must be well aware what we are dealing with.
The amendments concern the most vulnerable people in our community, so they require great concern and great thought. If the Minister is really so compassionate and so worried about individuals having such a long wait for their appeal hearings, and the consequent effects on their benefits and their families--I shall touch on those later--the best way in which to show that his concern is genuine would be to accept amendment No. 26, which would ensure that appeals would be heard within 10 working days. That would show a real acceptance of the vulnerability of the people concerned.
I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, become understandably worried that we are straying from the chosen path when we refer to the Child Support Agency, but there is a valid analogy with the Bill. One of the reasons behind the amendments is the fact that the Bill will adversely affect individuals ; it will not affect whole communities, so there will be no great uproar as there was with the poll tax. Like the Child Support Agency, the Bill will adversely affect individuals who may be isolated in the community. The argument is exactly the same as the argument about the Child Support Agency. We can discuss the principle and largely agree on that, but it is the operation of the detail, and its effect on individuals, that will cause the problems.
Because of your knowledge of your area and the industries in it, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will know that any cut in invalidity benefit, such as the cut that will result from the introduction of incapacity benefit, will have dramatic effects on the standard of living of families whose head is someone who, through working in one of the industries with which you are familiar, has suffered accidents or strains on the body, and who is unable to get the money.
I know that you worry when we keep referring to the Child Support Agency. It is because the same principles
New clause 4 calls for an annual report, which would reveal the facts and figures to enable the House to see the individual distress that will be caused throughout the country.
The Bill is a disgrace, not only because of the content that I have already mentioned, but on constitutional grounds too. Even according to the Government's figures, it is estimated that 250,000 people out of the 600,000 on the existing benefit who will be referred for medical tests will lose their benefit. On constitutional grounds, I worry about the House of Commons passing a law the heart of which is unknown to its Members.
I shall give a brief illustration of how bad the constitutional effects are. Clause 5 introduces a new section of the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992 that has seven subsections, most of which begin with phrases such as "Regulations may provide". Subsection (2) begins :
"Regulations may make provision as to".
Subsection (3) begins, "Regulations may provide", and so does subsection (4). Subsection (5) begins, "Regulations may prescribe". I could go on.
Those subsections deal with a crucial part of the Bill--the "Test of incapacity for work"
which is related to the medical test, yet six out of the seven do not contain provisions that we can argue about with objectivity and detailed knowledge, because everything will be subject to regulation. The detail is not here. It is difficult to deal with the details of the medical tests, because we do not have them.
It is interesting that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) referred to Stephen Hawking. Stephen Hawking makes a mockery of this Bill, because, with his disabilities, he would clearly be eligible for one of the fast-track cases under the legislation. He would go through--he would not be subjected to a medical test, and he would get the benefit.
The Minister may say that he would get the benefit because the Government are not taking age, experience, education and previous work into consideration. I ask the Government what would happen if an ex-coal miner got the same disease as Stephen Hawking.
Mr. Mudie : Exactly, but he would not get the benefit because of age, experience and so on--he would get it on purely medical grounds. One of the factors that is wrong with the Bill is that the medical test will be the be-all and end-all, and no other factors will be taken into consideration. Incredibly, here we are in March after a long session in Committee--I think that it was 25 to 30 hours.
Can I tell the House anything about the medical test ? I cannot do so, because it is not spelled out in the Bill. Can anyone tell the House about the medical test ? No. The details of the medical test will come before the House after
Column 190the Bill has gone through, when we are on holiday in August. The Bill will go to another place, although there are no details of the medical test--and they are not expected until August.
I think that Madam Speaker was in the Chair when my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) was explaining who will draw up the test. There are 80 faceless people drawing up the test. The Minister is so confident about the legislation and its principles that the medical test is being drawn up in secret, and he will not allow the names of the people who are drawing it up to be made public.
In Committee, when we discovered that two of the 80 experts did not wish to have the Minister's protection and were prepared to make their names public, we were told that they were forbidden to do so. Therefore, the disabled organisations which wished to have a dialogue with the experts to ensure that the medical tests were the best that could be worked out among everyone involved could not do so, because the identities of the people who are drawing up the tests are secret.
This secret medical test will be coming in August, and we are discussing the Bill in March. If that is not defensible in the country on a matter that will take benefit away from 250,000 people, I do not know what is indefensible. [Interruption.] If the Under-Secretary wants me to give way, I shall sit down.
I shall refer to amendment No. 26 briefly, because I do not wish to take up the time of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich spoke in telling terms about the amount of time it takes to hear appeals. If the amendment is accepted, it will mean that appeals must be heard within 10 days. I am pleased to know that I have the right amendment for once. This is an historic moment in my speaking history in the Chamber, and I hope that it will allow the Chair to relax. I even know the contents of the amendment, which makes a welcome change.
Amendment No. 26 says that any appeals would be heard within 10 working days, and individuals would be allowed to be represented. Both parts of the amendment are important, but I wish to talk about the first part, because it is especially important. As a result of the Minister's intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, I hope that he will tell the House that he accepts the amendment.
If the information provided by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux is genuine, the Government's statistics show a distressing situation. According to the information provided to hon. Members, the length of time for hearing appeals increased from 21 weeks in 1986 to 30 weeks in 1992.
I shall go a bit further in terms of the repercussions for an individual. If an individual has been turned down for benefit and has lodged an appeal, he cannot get unemployment benefit or income support, and is therefore incomeless. I was grateful for the sign of humanity--I do not say this lightly ; it is accepted--that brought the Under-Secretary to the Dispatch Box to ask my hon. Friend for details, because the present situation is not acceptable.
At present, it takes 30 weeks for an appeal to be heard, which can mean 30 weeks without income. If the Government's figures are accepted--I intend to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in the debate on a later
Column 191amendment--they show that the average benefit paid is £79. If a person who is sick long-term appeals against a decision and is turned down, how does he run his home ?
I understand that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, get very excited when we refer to the Child Support Agency. However, the same Department takes a decision which lands on people who lead very ordinary lives with very ordinary budgets. It takes a decision that has a frightening financial effect on people, and the Government wonder why there is an outcry.
I challenge the Minister to come to the Dispatch Box and accept that 30 weeks translates into seven months. Would the Minister, without warning-- even though, after his considerable time in the House, he may have built up considerable savings--like to have to go without income for the next seven months ? That can be the effect of a decision. If that happened to me, without the considerable savings that I am sure the Minister has, the effect on my domestic expenditure would be devastating. However, that is what is happening.
This is no game ; this is not semantics. When hard-working people in communities all over the country--according to Government statistics, we are talking about people over 50 on average earnings, manual workers and people who are often in occupations without sick schemes--are off work because of illness, they face up to seven months before a decision is taken and they can get some money flowing into the family. What effect does that have on rent, hire purchase and mortgages ? What family's income could withstand seven months with a block on one income ?
I am grateful that the Under-Secretary leaped to the Dispatch Box, and I would not for a second challenge his compassion, but I want now to see the proof of it. That proof would be his acceptance of amendment No. 26, which would impose on the bureaucrats who run the system that two weeks is a sufficient time for anybody to be without income, and that an appeal should be heard within two weeks. Although I said that it was less important than my previous point, the question of representation is important. I recently appealed to a Child Support Agency tribunal, and I made the point that both the child support officer and the chairman of the tribunal seemed to have a thick handbook. I made the point informally after the hearing that it would have been better if they had warned me, as a representative, that they would be using that handbook. It might have saved hours in the hearing.
Incredibly, I was told that representatives are not told, because it is difficult for them to understand those books. Those involved with the tribunal have trouble in understanding them, so the representatives would not be able to understand. They may have got that right in my case, but, as a general principle, it is rather patronising. It seems to be symptomatic of the objection to representation and of a culture in which representation is a nuisance.
In 1990, the Public Accounts Committee looked at invalidity benefit. The Committee's report showed that people with representation had greater success than those who were not represented. The technicality of the proceedings and the regulations makes that straightforward. That point should make amendment No. 26 even more alluring to the Minister, and I look forward to him joining me in the Lobby.
This is a deeply flawed Bill, which has no central heart. We are passing the bare bones of the legislation. We know that the Government are saying-- as they said often in Committee--"We are the Government, trust us." Some of us take a rather cynical view of that promise. They have said again and again that they are nice chaps. There was wonderful praise in Committee for the two Ministers who are on the Government Front Bench today. They are saintlike and give all of their salaries to the poor.
We pointed out that there are other people on that Front Bench who are absent now. Those people help to make up the Government's soft man/hard man technique, which is well-known for interrogating prisoners. The prisoner gets pummelled into one state by the crude savage, and then the nice man comes in and offers him a cup of tea and a bag of sweets. That is the kind of psychological treatment that the House and the country are getting from the Ministers. The Secretary of State--who is absent--is a terrifying sight when we see him in full colour on television. At the Nuremberg rally--the Conservative party conference--he threatened everything under the sun. That was the last time that he descended to bad German and barbed French--"Ich bin ein Fu"hrer", or "Apre s moi, la de luge." It was a terrifying sight. The right hon. Gentleman did not have the list that he had before of all the scapegoats that he was to pursue in the coming year.
The great problem for the Government is translating the party rhetoric into legislation and, in their attempt to do so, they produce atrocious legislation. The new clause gets to the heart of the Bill--the test for incapacity for work. I have sat through many hours of the Committee--as have many of my hon. Friends--and I still do not know the answer to the central conundrum.
It is good to know that Government Back Benchers are unanimous in their support of the new clause--they speak with one voice, it may be said. They are saying that they will approve the new clause, and that is splendid. We must test whether we believe the Government when they say, "We are the Government, trust us." They have enunciated a new heresy today. An entirely new part of the Government's policy has been announced, and can be described as the right to lie. I have heard of the right to buy, in housing --my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) is pursuing an interesting case where the right to buy has become the right to steal--but the right to lie is something quite new. I understand that the Minister with responsibility for open government told a Committee that, in exceptional cases, it is necessary to say something untrue in the House of Commons. The little trust that we had in the Government will be shattered.
Are the Government telling the truth now about the Bill ? Our cynicism suggests that the new clause is needed. It asks for very little. It provides that there should be a report to both Houses of Parliament that would reveal the
Column 193effectiveness or otherwise of the test for incapacity. The Government still want to proceed with the all-work test, which is based on a fundamental misconception--perhaps the Minister can try to explain it to us again. The misconception is that the capacity for work can be defined as an objective test that applies to everybody, regardless of his education, training, work history, personality, age and ability to cope with the consequences of ill-health and disability.
An anonymous army of experts is meeting, perhaps in a secret cave at midnight, to decide on the score sheet on which people will be classified as capable or incapable of work. That is a fundamental absurdity. The case of Stephen Hawking was quoted at length during the Committee. Another case quoted was that of someone who was blind and might not be able do his work, but who might be able to become a Front-Bench spokesman for the Labour party. It is nonsense to suggest that there can be any test for incapacity for work.
Traditionally, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in the industries where you and I worked before we entered this place, young men who were healthy, fit and in the prime of their lives did the hard manual labour. Towards the final years of their working lives, they would have lighter jobs, such as sweeping up or possibly clerical work, which would be made available to them if their health was failing. That can happen to many of us. We can all go through periods of incapacity from the moment we come into this world, and we can have failing capacity throughout our lifetimes.
In these hard, Thatcherite days, if someone can no longer do his full work, he is thrown out. There is nothing left, and there is no alternative. However, we are entering an age when many alternatives are available. I wish that the Government would take seriously the opportunities provided by the new supercomputers, which will provide thousands of jobs on the information highway. It looks as if we will lose out on that, as we have lost out in many other industrial developments.
Those opportunities will, however, produce work that requires little physical effort. A keyboard must be operated, but little is required in the way of physical strength. That does not mean that anyone can do it. Someone in the unfortunate state that Stephen Hawking is in could not ; his brain functions very well, but he can hardly even use his voice.
Some people can work in such jobs and can contribute richly to our society. However, many people could not do so because of their background and often because of an objection--based on their generation--to using high-tech machines, which now affect all available work. People who used to do manual jobs in a heavy industry find that there is nothing else that they can do and that they cannot move to the sunrise industries that are taking its place. The Bill will have a catastrophic effect on certain areas of the country where many people receive invalidity benefit. That is not because doctors in those regions operate a different regime but because there is a tradition of heavy industry, which crippled and maimed the people who worked in the mines, quarries and steelworks. When workers in those industries finished their careers they were generally very run down and greatly damaged by their work.
The Bill will not only damage people in those areas ; it will hit their communities. We shall be taking a vast sum of money--millions of pounds-- from small communities. We shall be taking away money that went straight into the local economy. It was not invested in Lloyd's, or on the stock exchange, or spent in Penang ; it was spent in local shops and went straight into the local economy. We shall be taking that money out of the economy.
The effect of social security legislation on the great British press has been mentioned. Tonight, one newspaper is carrying a headline about a Minister's right to lie to the House of Commons, but no newspapers will report the debate tomorrow. I once heard hon. Members who take an interest in social security described as social security buffs, as though they collected stamps, were interested in steam engines or must be a special breed to be interested in such an obscure subject. However, that subject involves the livelihood of tens of millions of people and the small disposable income on which they depend on. Few parts of our work can be more important or have a more profound effect on the lives of millions of people. The Bill will not affect the lives of members of the press, however, as few of them receive invalidity benefit.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes) : Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I have looked closely at the new clauses and amendments and he seems to be very wide of them. Will he return to the subject under discussion ?
In Committee, we discussed the medical test that lies at the heart of the legislation. The consultation document was the only written sign of Government thinking and certain organisations were invited to respond to it. However, even that document was modified between its publication date and the closing date for responses. We are therefore being asked to approve legislation that is merely a sign of what the Government will do and that does not contain any of the details. We could argue that the test is not so much a medical test, as has been claimed, as a mechanical test. It is a test of a person's ability to perform certain activities. It does not make sense to have that type of test unless there is some way to relate it to the type of work available in the area, to the job that the person concerned can do and to his or her training and ability. That is our fundamental objection.
We are asking for very little in the new clause. We want "an account of the number of people who attended a medical examination under that part of that Act and a description of . . . such an examination".
The House has been down this road many times before. Hon. Members have referred to the deficient Child Support Agency legislation--the Child Support Act 1991. I cannot find a Back-Bench Member of Parliament who admits to being a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Child Support Bill. There must have been a Committee stage, but no one confesses to having been a part of it, apart from Front-Bench Members, who are the guilty men
Column 195Will it be difficult to provide such an account ? The information must be available. The Department must have some way to keep a record of how this disastrous legislation unfolds in the years to come. Millions of people will be affected by the Bill. We need to know how many people have medical examinations.
When questions were tabled about the progress of other new legislation and about disability working allowance, we found that the results were quite different from what the House had expected. When the Bill is enacted we know that there will be confusion and that people will be upset by the unfairnesses of it. It is essential for Parliament to have information about how it is working at regular intervals.
In new clause 3, we are asking for
"an account of the number of people who having attended such an examination were determined as incapable for work".
That is crucial because we believe that the legislation will be a disaster. The Bill is a means to cut expenditure and it will take people off one benefit and put them on another.