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Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East): The Leader of the House has undoubtedly seen early-day motion 466 in support of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill.
[ That this House notes that the second reading of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill on Friday 10th February 1995 is an historic opportunity to introduce full citizenship rights for the United Kingdom's 6.5 million people with disabilities; further notes that the Bill has the sponsorship of Right honourable and honourable Members from nine political groups in the House; recognises the support the Bill also has from the Rights Now Consortium, the TUC and many other groups and individuals; welcomes the Bill's inclusion of a Disability Rights Commission so that comprehensive
anti-discrimination provisions can be activated and advanced on the same basis as those designed to tackle discrimination on the grounds of gender and race; and further welcomes the Bill's measures aimed at increasing accessibility to voting and to polling stations as the vote is the fundamental building block for the operation of democracy and civil rights. ]
That Bill is now supported by hon. Members from all l0 political groups in the House, including from the two Conservative parties. Will the Minister clarify the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), in which he said that the Government would support its own Bill, the Disability
(Discrimination) Bill? Does that mean that they will oppose the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill on 10 February?
Mr. Newton: I thought that I had made the position clear by referring to what my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People said on Second Reading of the Government's Disability
(Discrimination) Bill on 24
Column 1229January. I may not have made it clear that I was quoting his words from column 153 of Hansard , to which I refer the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a statement on the shocking revelations made on Scottish Television yesterday evening that thousands of British families who were formerly living in Northern Ireland have been driven into exile by kangaroo courts of paramilitary organisations during the period of the troubles? Why have none of the organisations, such as Families Against Intimidation and Terror, a non- sectarian group representing those who have been oppressed, been asked to be involved in discussions on the future of Northern Ireland? They must be involved if the real people of Northern Ireland, not the paramilitaries, are to decide how that structure will come about and people can return from exile to their homes.
Mr. Newton: I did not see the interview to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I make the obvious point that avoiding such a position is among the objectives of the Government's efforts to ensure future peace in Northern Ireland. I imagine--obviously, I cannot know--that many of those involved in the organisations to which he refers are, in some way, members of political parties in Northern Ireland, and they clearly have a part in the process.
Mr. Mike O'Brien (Warwickshire, North): In the light of the prison fiascos at Whitemoor and Parkhurst, may we have an urgent ministerial statement on the report of Judge Tumim into the privatised prison at Blakenhurst, which showed inefficient management, insufficient and
Column 1230untrained staff, and lack of control of prisoners? Does he agree that privatised prisons are not only an expensive folly but a dangerous folly?
Mr. Newton: I shall simply say that the difficulties experienced at Blakenhurst are of the kind often experienced when a completely new prison is opened, whatever the arrangements under which it is opened. I understand that those difficulties have now been resolved. The hon. Gentleman did not refer, as I would, to the fact that the chief inspector praised the quality, high motivation and enthusiasm of the Blakenhurst staff.
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): I thank you, Madam Speaker, for leaving me until last.
Madam Speaker: Of course, I recognise that, but Front-Benchers are always left until the last, in my mind.
Mr. Foulkes: But the exercise is particularly welcome as well. On a more serious matter, may I assure the Leader of the House that Scottish Members of the United Kingdom Parliament would welcome more time to debate issues concerning London, particularly Westminster city council. May we have a debate to discuss not only the gerrymandering but the recent revelation, surprisingly--or perhaps not so surprisingly--in the Daily Telegraph , that £30 million was wasted on housing repairs? That brings disgrace not just to Westminster, but, as Parliament is situated within that London borough, to the whole country. Should not we be given time to debate that matter fully and have an explanation from Ministers?
Mr. Newton: After that, I do not think that I can say that I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for calling the hon. Gentleman. However, I shall bring his representations to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
Sir Terence Higgins (Worthing): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I had evidently misunderstood the reply of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to my request for a debate. We should have an opportunity in the House of debating the issue of whether there was a legal impediment on banning the export of live animals for slaughter. My right hon. Friend referred to a statement by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food yesterday. I searched in vain in Hansard , looking through written answers and everything else, but could find no trace of a statement. I understand that the statement was made outside the House. May I ask you, Madam Speaker, to confirm that a statement outside the House is no substitute for a debate within it?
Madam Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. I often, from this very Chair, say that any statements that are made should first be made in the House and to hon. Members. I am glad to have the support of the right hon. Gentleman in that. I see that the Leader of the House wants to make a further point and, although I will not allow a debate on the subject, I think it only right to allow the Leader of the House to answer.
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton): My right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) knows that I would always want to consider carefully such a point when it is made by him. If I misled him in any way--and certainly if I implied that there had been a statement in the House--I give him an unqualified apology. I think that it is well known that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food yesterday set out fairly fully the legal advice that he had received. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing would want to acknowledge that.
Madam Speaker: Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will table a parliamentary question, so that we may all know the legal advice that has been received.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I share the concern about statements made outside, rather than inside, the House--we have suffered from that for years. I seek some guidance. I understood that it was the tradition in the House that, if an issue affecting a region was raised, a representative of that region would be called. I had Question 10 on today's Order Paper and began to rise in my place when Northern Ireland was mentioned in the first question. I was not called although four other right hon. and hon. Members were called and were able to speak about Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) even mentioned my colleague, the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross)--I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was advised in advance about the reference. Significantly, the hon. Member for Londonderry, East also failed to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, on Tuesday last. My I have some guidance on the matter?
Madam Speaker: Yes, of course. It is almost impossible for the Chair to call an hon. Member simply because his or her region, town or constituency has been mentioned in Question Time. Of course, during a debate,
Column 1232I would hope that hon. Members would give way and allow an intervention. But if the occupant of the Chair were always to allow such an intervention during Question Time, I am afraid that we would seldom make any progress through the Order Paper. Hon. Members can see the layout of today's Prime Minister's Questions on the Order Paper. I saw the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) stand up, but he had tabled question 10 on the Order Paper and I could not call him in advance of that question.
As for matters yesterday, if the hon. Gentleman looks at Hansard he will see that, not only were a good cross-section of English, Scottish and Welsh Members called, but all the Northern Ireland parties were called to question the Secretary of State. I kept the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box for almost an hour to ensure that a cross-section of the House questioned him properly.
Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your guidance about the conduct of Business Questions. Is it not correct that some time ago you ruled that there should be no duplication of questions during Business Questions? This afternoon there were four questions on precisely the same subject--lorry safety and the BRAKE campaign. There were three orchestrated questions relating to Iain Vallance and two questions relating to the Forth bridge.
Madam Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing that to the attention of the House. We do not want repetition because it means that Business Questions go on for much longer than necessary. At the same time, if there are two or three questions on the same subject it indicates to the Leader of the House and to the Government the strong feeling that there is in the House about a certain matter.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your guidance. During Prime Minister's Question Time misinformation was given to the House about the appointment of Rothschilds by the Department of Transport. In fact, Rothschilds have been and remain advisers to Railtrack, and no new appointment has been made. What remedy is available to hon. Members to set the record straight about that matter?
Madam Speaker: I think that hon. Members might pay particular attention to the Order Paper and put down either an early-day motion or a parliamentary question to the appropriate Department so that the matter may be corrected, if indeed it needs correcting.
The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. William Hague): I beg to move,
That the draft Social Security (Incapacity Benefit) (Transitional) Regulations 1995, which were laid before this House on 30th January, be approved.
I understand that with this it will be convenient to discuss motion No. 2:
That the draft Social Security (Incapacity for Work) (General) Regulations 1995, which were laid before this House on 30th January, be approved.
The regulations provide for the introduction of the new incapacity benefit, which will replace sickness benefit and invalidity benefit from 13 April 1995. The Social Security (Incapacity for Work) (General) Regulations describe the own occupation test and the new all work test of incapacity and how they will be applied. The transitional regulations describe the arrangements for preventing cash losses when current invalidity benefit and sickness benefit recipients transfer to incapacity benefit.
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so early in his speech; he is very patient. Is he aware that no fewer than 160,000 people in Wales are dependent on invalidity benefit, largely as a result of the old industrial structures and the industrial diseases that went with them? Will he give a categorical assurance that none of them will be out of pocket as a result of the changes? If he cannot do so, will he say what proportion of those 160,000 people will lose out?
Mr. Hague: I can certainly give an undertaking that there will be no cash losses at the point of change; the Government have explained that on many occasions and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with our undertaking.
People may be tested subsequently under the all work test--although about half the current recipients will be exempt from the test--who will not receive incapacity benefit in future because they are found to be capable of work, just as people are discovered to be no longer eligible for invalidity benefit after a certain period. They will be entitled to receive other benefits, and I shall describe some of the arrangements that will be made. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be no cash losers at the point of change.
The hon. Gentleman asked how many existing recipients may not receive incapacity benefit in future because of the operation of the new test. I have published a figure of 220,000 for the whole country for the first two years of operation. I am not sure whether figures are available specifically for Wales, but if they are I will give them before the end of the debate.
It is important to remind the House of the background to the changes. Invalidity benefit is the fastest growing contributory benefit. The number of people in receipt of it has doubled in the past decade from 740,000 in 1983 to 1.6 million in 1993, and expenditure has more than doubled in real terms in the past 10 years from £3.1 billion to £7 billion in 1993-94. That dramatic growth has occurred at a time when the nation as a whole is becoming healthier. There is widespread concern that invalidity
Column 1234benefit now goes to people for whom it was never intended originally. No responsible Government could allow that growth to continue unattended. If we did so, spending could increase to up to £10 billion by the end of the century. That is why the provision of invalidity benefit was the first area that we examined in our long-term review of the social security system.
The Social Security (Incapacity For Work) Act 1994 introduced the Government's reforms to incapacity benefit provision. It provides the structure and powers for creating a more coherent, affordable and sustainable system of incapacity provision, with better targeting of benefits on those who are genuinely incapable of work because of their medical condition.
The tests of incapacity for work set out in the draft Incapacity For Work (General) Regulations 1995 will be used to determine entitlement to incapacity benefit, severe disablement allowance and the disability premium in the income-related benefits, where paid on the grounds of incapacity.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): As the transition, the new test and the 32-page application form for new claimants will require considerable staff training and patient explanations to applicants, will the Minister give a categorical assurance that there will be no repeat of the shambles that accompanied the introduction of the disability living allowance?
Mr. Hague: The Department recognises the great difficulties that accompanied the introduction of DLA, from which a good many lessons were learnt. Much of the expertise gained in resolving those difficulties is being put to use in preparing for incapacity benefit. Much time and effort is being devoted to the matter, and the hon. Gentleman will find that the administrative and other procedures will work efficiently and properly, as the House intended. I will spend a good deal of my time ensuring that they do.
Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney): I understand that 140,000 appeals are expected in the next few months. Will the same speed and efficiency that the Minister claims for adjudication and testing apply to the appeals procedure?
Mr. Hague: Appeals will be largely in the hands of the independent tribunal service. It is well aware that there is likely to be a considerable increase in appeals and is preparing for that eventuality. I hope and intend that appeals will be considered expeditiously.
In most cases, for the first 28 weeks of sickness a person's capacity will be judged, as now, against their ability to do their own job. After 28 weeks, the new all work test will apply. Consideration of all work is not new. In the current system, after a reasonable period, capacity is assessed against a wider range of work. The new all work test is the key to our reforms. Our main objectives are to focus provision on those who are genuinely unfit for work, to provide a simpler, fairer and more objective assessment of incapacity and to meet the expressed concerns about the current role of general practitioners as gatekeepers to the new benefit. The all work test is the culmination of an extensive programme of development work undertaken over nearly two years. After initial in-house studies using nearly 1,000 case studies and open consultation with a wide range of
Column 1235interested parties, a panel of 80 experts was convened to assist the development work. The group consisted of experts in fields relevant to incapacity for work--practitioners from various disciplines in medicine and occupational health, academics specialising in disability issues and members of disability organisations. The panel took part in a series of exercises to help establish an accurate means of measuring functional impairment and gauging its effect on capacity for work.
The data that emerged from the panel's work were used to devise a method of assessment that was tested in two evaluation exercises involving nearly 900 existing invalidity benefit claimants. The sample of volunteer claimants used was broadly representative of the normal flow of cases called for medical examinations. The Government are most grateful to the members of the expert panel for their help in designing the detail of the all work test. All the data that they produced were taken into account in the final proposals.
In developing the mental health assessment in the new all work test, we were advised by and have carefully taken into account the views of representatives of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. We are grateful for that help and intend to keep in touch with the Royal College of Psychiatrists about the new test when it is implemented.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): I am interested to hear that the Government set up a panel of experts to look at changing the system of benefits, and that they are investigating people who, it was suggested, were not sick. Is the Minister aware that there are two different classes in our society? Some people have to work for a living and do not get paid if they do not attend. Many of them finish up on invalidity benefit when they are sick. Can the Minister tell me how many of the experts who sat on that panel ascertaining whether a working man or woman was fit or unfit for work were those who had to work for a living, and whom do not get paid if they do not attend? If a Member of Parliament does not come to work, he or she still gets paid. If a miner does not go, he does not get paid. I find it more than odd. It is hypocritical that the Government chose that group of people, as probably none of them has experienced the problem of having to work hard, suffer losses and claim invalidity benefit. Yet they are the very people who decide what kind of benefits are given to those wealth creators. How many?
Mr. Hague: Let me clarify something about the panel. The purpose of the panel was not to decide who was sick or incapable of work but to help in drawing up a test that would be fair and objective and to take into account the expertise of people on that panel. Many members of the panel would resent the suggestion that they have never had to work hard--
Mr. Skinner: I did not say that.
Mr. Hague: At one point I think that the hon. Gentleman said that.
The hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about the way in which members of the panel were paid for their regular employment. I am not familiar with the way in which each member was paid, but if information is available on that I shall certainly let the hon. Gentleman have it. I am sure that he will be extremely interested in it.
Column 1236I am trying to show that the development of the new test has been an open process. We have consulted widely. We have involved outside experts--
Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South): Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Hague: I shall give way once more, but then I must make some progress with my speech.
Dr. Bray: The consultation and treatment of the mentally ill has been continuing, as the Minister says, and I hope that it will continue. Is he satisfied that the manuscript addition of a mental illness in regulation 10 is the only amendment required to cover the ground that he has been discussing with the Royal College of Psychiatry, or are there other amendments on, for example, the disqualification for misconduct and so on, which seem to overlap with other legislation on the treatment of the mentally ill?
Mr. Hague: I believe that the insertion of severe mental illness in that regulation is the only change necessary, but no doubt if the hon. Gentleman manages to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he may have other changes to advocate, and I will listen carefully to what he has to say.
The all work test will assess the effect of a person's medical condition on his or her ability to carry out work-related functions. It will focus on medical factors alone--the only relevant consideration of medical incapacity for work. Non-medical activities, such as education, skills and experience, may affect the ability to get a job, but they are not a cause of medical incapacity. It is the medical condition that distinguishes the long-term sick from the unemployed. To include non-medical factors in the assessment would reintroduce the problems of the current system. It would mean that incapacity benefit would be paid to people because they are unemployed rather than incapable of work. We have protected the position of the most seriously ill and disabled by making them exempt from the test. We have consulted leading disability organisations on the list of exemptions. Again, I am most grateful for the help that we have received.
We have recognised the particular problems caused by mental illness by designing special procedures for claimants with a mental health problem. Those with a severe diagnosis will be exempt. Those with a mild to moderate problem will be interviewed by a Benefits Agency medical services doctor who will have received special training in this area. There are arrangements to ensure that the claimant's own doctors will be able to give full relevant information on each case, including, if relevant, the possible effects of being found fit for work. We have also made provision for the small number of conditions where incapacity cannot be measured functionally. The arrangement here will cover such things as people awaiting major surgery or who could be suffering from a previously undiagnosed condition or who have an uncontrolled or uncontrollable condition.
In most cases, claimants will be able to give their own assessment of the effects of their medical condition in a questionnaire. Their doctors will be asked to provide a statement of diagnosis and of the principal disabling effects of the condition. If necessary, we will ask doctors to provide further information. I want to make it quite clear that any information given by claimants' own
Column 1237doctors will be taken fully into account in the assessment, but we will no longer ask the GP for an opinion on capacity for all work. That change meets the concerns that GPs and others have expressed about their current gatekeeper role.
The majority of claimants will be asked to attend an examination by a Benefits Agency medical services doctor, who will have been fully trained for his crucial role in the assessment. An independent adjudication officer will weigh all the evidence--from the claimant, his doctor and the Benefits Agency doctor--and will apply the all work test to find out if the claimant is capable of work.
We will ensure that there are effective sanctions for those customers who do not comply with the requirement to return the questionnaire for the all work test or to attend a medical examination, if this is necessary. If they fail without good cause to do either, they will be treated as capable of work. There will be six weeks to return the questionnaire and at least seven days' notice of an examination unless they agree to a shorter period of notice. However, we will ensure also that no one will be disallowed where good cause exists.
We recognise that sick and disabled people may have difficulty in complying because of their condition. Good cause is not defined in legislation, but existing case law explains that consideration should include any facts that probably would have caused a reasonable person to act as the claimant did-- for example, the claimant's knowledge of the social security system and information that the claimant has received or could have obtained.
In addition, regulation 9 of the general regulations introduces a requirement, when considering good cause, to include whether the person was outside Great Britain at the relevant time, the person's state of health and the nature of their disability.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): The Minister explained that many of our unemployed constituents have managed to get themselves on to this benefit. Many of us know that before the 1987 election there was an enormous drive in employment offices to get people off unemployment benefit and on to this benefit so that the electorate could see falling unemployment rolls before they went to the polls. The advantage of our constituents drawing this benefit is that not only is it slightly higher than they would otherwise get, but it allows their wives to work and therefore to raise family income. The Minister has told us of the savings that he expects to make, largely as a result of kicking unemployed people off this benefit roll. Did he ask his Department to undertake a similar calculation of what would be the fall in the number of beneficiaries if the Government managed to reduce unemployment to its level in 1979 when they took office?
Mr. Hague: As we have seen during recent months, the Government are making huge progress in reducing unemployment. In the past year, an additional 220,000 people have taken up full-time work. Employment in almost all or all regions is substantially improving.
That does not get us away from the fact that invalidity benefit and incapacity benefit, as it is to be from April, is intended for people who are medically incapable of work.
Column 1238The reforms are designed to reassert that and to assure that for the future. The Government believe that that is what we have to do if the budget for incapacity benefit is not to run out of control and if taxpayers are to be assured that the money is being properly used.
Mr. Frank Field: The Minister has not answered my question. We accept the line that he is putting to us, but might he not achieve his objective of a fall in the number of claimants if unemployment fell substantially--back to the level of 1979, when the Tories took office?
Mr. Hague: If we agree, as I think we do, that some people are now receiving invalidity benefit because they are unemployed rather than because they are medically incapable of work, an improvement in employment- -particularly one on the scale of the current improvement--would have an impact on the number of recipients of invalidity benefit as it is currently designed. We are discussing a long-term reform of the system, however, and we cannot anticipate every future movement in the economic cycle. We may be entering a period of much better prospects in the employment market, which will help the overall budget, but we cannot be sure that economic developments occurring several years later would not produce the contrary effect. We cannot base the future of the benefit on the calculations that the hon. Gentleman encourages me to make. The detail of the test is laid out in part III of the general regulations, and was also set out in a report entitled "The Medical Assessment for Incapacity Benefit", which we published in September. I do not propose to dwell on the detail of all the provisions in the regulations, which are explained in the guide "Notes on Regulations". The regulations describe the circumstances in which the two tests will apply, the information and evidence required in connection with the test and the structure and scoring system. There are, however, a number of provisions that I wish to cover in some detail. Part II of the regulations introduces the exemptions from the test for claimants who are terminally ill or suffering from one of a specified list of serious conditions. The exemptions ensure that the most severely disabled--in whose cases incapacity for work can never be in doubt--will not be subject to the test. I make it clear that the exemptions cover people suffering from severe mental illness. It was always our intention to exempt them, but because of the varying nature of some of the conditions we originally intended to achieve that procedurally. We have now decided to put the matter beyond doubt, and to include severe mental illness in the list of exemptions. That is why we withdrew the original draft of the regulations and submitted new ones early this week.
Mr. Miller: Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Hague: I have already given way generously, and many hon. Members wish to speak. I may give way before the end of my speech, but I must make some progress; otherwise I shall take up a lot of time. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) is anxious to speak.
Part II also makes provision for claimants to retain incapacity benefit while doing a limited amount of therapeutic work on doctor's advice, doing voluntary work or serving as a member of a disability appeal tribunal or the Disability Allowance Advisory Board. We have made arrangements to ensure that the hours limit
Column 1239does not apply to certain people undertaking therapeutic work, and that when the limit does apply it can be averaged over a number of weeks. I know that those arrangements have been welcomed by hon. Members and by many people outside the House who have worked actively for the introduction of such provisions. With the associated improvements in disability working allowance, they demonstrate our desire to provide help for those who want to try to return to work. Much concern has been expressed, in the House and elsewhere, about the potential for a "black hole" or "twilight zone", as some have called it, between incapacity benefits and benefits for the unemployed. I wish to reassure the House on that. The threshold for benefit in the new all work test is not the point at which a person can do no work at all; it is the point at which a person should not be expected to work. We all know of people who are blind or use a wheelchair, but who are perfectly capable of, and do, full-time work. We do not think that those people should be required to register for work if they need to claim social security benefits. We think it important, however, that disabled people should have a choice: there will be special arrangements to ensure that people who are judged incapable of work by the test, but who choose to register as unemployed, can be deemed capable.
Let me reassure the House that a decision on capacity will apply across the social security system. If a person is judged capable by the new test and then chooses to register as unemployed, the adjudication officer in the Employment Service cannot then decide that that person is not capable of work. A claimant must, of course, be available for and actively seeking work to qualify for unemployment benefits. That does not mean that claimants must be able to do every possible type of job; minor impairments that restrict ability will be recognised within the system and accepted by the adjudication officer. Everyone looking for work will be offered an initial in-depth interview with an Employment Service client adviser. A person who had some difficulty walking, for example, would not be expected to take a job as a postman.
Mr. Miller: Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Hague: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman once more.
Mr. Miller: I am grateful to the Minister. Before he leaves the subject of this complicated series of procedures, may I take him back to the question of definitions? What is the definition of severe mental illness? Would, for example, a schizophrenic who could not get a job because employers--regrettably--treat such people as unemployable be considered to have passed the test? How are such people expected to find their way through the reams of regulations that the Minister has described?
Mr. Hague: The severity of such conditions can differ greatly from case to case, but those concerned must be diagnosed as suffering from a severe mental illness. I do not think that we shall encounter any difficulties, because those people will be exempted from many of the arrangements; and procedures have been carefully set out for people who suffer from mental illnesses but do not fall into that category, so that they are properly and sympathetically assessed.
Column 1240Our overriding aim is to ensure that no one on sickness or invalidity benefit will experience a reduction in benefit at the point of change. When incapacity benefit is introduced on 13 April, existing sickness and invalidity benefit claimants will be transferred to short-term and long-term incapacity benefit respectively. Claimants will retain entitlements to allowances paid under the sickness benefit and invalidity benefit schemes. For those who were in receipt of invalidity benefit, the benefit will continue to be upgraded annually, with the exception of the earnings-related additional pension, which will be frozen. In addition, the incapacity benefit paid to those who were in receipt of invalidity benefit will not be subject to income tax.
The regulations provide for the entitlements of nearly 2 million people. They are necessarily very technical and complex, to ensure that there are no cash losers when incapacity benefit is introduced. Part VI of the regulations contains provisions for the new all work test of incapacity for work to be applied to existing cases. The process will take place over a period of two to three years. It would not be right to exempt all existing cases from the test when there is widespread concern that some people are capable of work and should not be receiving invalidity benefit. Those people are in the minority, and the new test will identify such cases fairly. The new arrangements may create anxiety among people currently on invalidity benefit who are genuinely unable to work because of their medical condition. Some have been on the benefit for many years. Let me reassure them. Regulation 31 introduces an exemption from the test for existing claimants continuously in receipt of invalidity benefit since 1 December 1993--the date on which the changes were announced--and aged 58 or over on the day on which the new benefit comes into force. That is in addition to the exemptions from the test that are set out in the general regulations, to which I have already referred.
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mr. Hague: I will give way for the last time.
Mr. Duncan: Does not the introduction of the all work test allow my hon. Friend to give some reassurance to general practitioners who, in the past, were the unfortunate judges of whether their patients should be eligible for benefit? The all work test is a great improvement on the previous system.
Mr. Hague: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The current test has placed GPs in an invidious position on many occasions; under the new system, their views and information will still be taken very much into account, but they will no longer be in that difficult position. I was referring to the exemptions from the test set out in the regulations. The exemption in regulation 31 of the transitional regulations reflects our recognition that loss of benefit would inevitably cause greater difficulties for people who are near to pension age. In choosing the age of 58, however, we also had to take account of the growth in the number of people aged over 50 who were receiving invalidity benefit, and the evidence that the benefit was being paid to some who were not medically incapable of work.
Column 1241Nearly 50 per cent. of existing claimants will not be subject to the new test. Of those who do take it, we believe that the majority will satisfy it. We shall ensure that no one will be found capable of work by the new test without first having had, or been offered, a medical examination by a Benefits Agency medical services doctor. There will be, of course, a right of appeal against any decision to disallow benefit after the application of the new test. In any appeal where the all work test is in question, the social security appeal tribunal will be assisted by an independent medical assessor. Those facts should help to reassure people who are currently on invalidity benefit and who are genuinely incapable of work.
The reforms that we have introduced represent a major change to the way in which we make provision for people who are incapable of work. Implementing such a change is a major undertaking involving complex computer programmes, thousands of civil servants and hundreds of departmental doctors. However, it also involves about 2 million of our fellow citizens.
I wish to emphasise the Government's continuing commitment to a contributory, income-replacement benefit, paid to those who are unable to work because of sickness or disability. It is only by focusing resources on those people who need them most that we can provide an affordable system that will be sustainable into the next century. The regulations before us today would ensure that that aim and commitment can be met and I commend them to the House. 4.51 pm
Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden): The Opposition social security ranks often labour apparently in vain. Therefore, I shall allow myself a small indulgence and congratulate my hon. Friends who serve on the Committee considering the Jobseekers Bill who today achieved a concession from the Government. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) moved an amendment to ensure that carers in receipt of invalid care allowance will get credits so that when they cease caring they will almost certainly be entitled to the--admittedly rather reduced--jobseeker's allowance. Carer groups have been pressing for that concession for a long time, so I congratulate my colleagues on the Committee on their success. The regulations deal with an area of real difficulty. I am not one of those who would pretend that it is a simple matter to strike the right balance. It is clear that a great deal of thought has gone into the matter, not just in the Department--although it has reached some mistaken conclusions--but among the many groups of people who have been involved in the consultations and debates.
I hope that the Minister will not make the mistake of assuming that because people of genuine expertise and good will have had the staying power to remain in the panel system that reviews these matters--despite the fact that they might have fundamental disagreements with it--in the hope that they might at least wring some improvements out of the process, that in some way means that they endorse the principle of what we are discussing. I hope that the Minister understands and accepts that point.
Column 1242One of the problems with regulations is that they come on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. All that we can do tonight is to state our concerns during the debate and underline the strength of them in the Lobbies. In doing so, we are reflecting a good deal of unhappiness and the wide sweep of informed opinion.
The simple starting point--I speak only for myself--is the belief that the change has been designed purely to exclude from benefit people who have previously enjoyed entitlement to it. In some cases, there will be victims who should not be victims. The casualty list will be lengthy and the wrong people will be on it. If we look objectively, there can be no argument about that.
The Minister and I are at one on some of the figures; it is always satisfying to be able to quote his figures for the scale of the problem. Over the next two years some 220,000 people currently receiving invalidity benefit will lose entitlement because they do not measure up to the new incapacity test. Some 55,000 new claimants over the same period will fail the test, although they probably would have been entitled to invalidity benefit under the present regulations.
I say genuinely to the Minister that I am not trying to raise unnecessary fears, but there is no doubt that there is a great deal of anxiety about this matter. Although I get many letters to which I think I can honestly respond that I believe it unlikely that the right to benefit is threatened, there are many cases where I cannot do that. I know from personal experience that the issue is causing a great deal of worry and anxiety.
I recognise that the exemptions are important. The last figure I was given for that was 850,000. I accept that that represents a substantial and important group of people. A large number of people aged over 58 in receipt of invalidity benefit on 1 December 1993--on an almost continuous, if not continuous, basis--will be relieved of a great deal of worry. There are other specialist groups and I welcome their inclusion, but the figures that I have just quoted will not entirely relieve public anxiety and concern.