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House of Commons

Monday 27 April 1998

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Disability-related Benefits

1. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): How many meetings she has had in the past three months to discuss disability-related benefits with organisations representing the disabled; and if she will make a statement. [38475]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. John Denham): During the past three months, my ministerial colleagues and I have met on 10 occasions with national organisations and umbrella groups representing people with disabilities.

Mr. Llwyd: I welcome the belated conversion of the Secretary of State and her Ministers to engaging in reasonable dialogue with disability groups. In the light of the admission by Ministers and civil servants to the recent Social Security Committee that there had been some bad errors of judgment in respect of decisions on the benefit

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integrity project, will the Secretary of State confirm that every single decision involving the withdrawal or lowering of benefits before 9 February will now be reviewed?

Mr. Denham: Yes.

Madam Speaker: I call Mr. Duncan Smith.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) rose--

Mr. Denham rose--

Mr. Duncan Smith: I have not asked a question yet. Perhaps the Minister would like to hear it before answering. During his meetings with various disability groups, was the subject of taxing disability living allowance raised and, if so, what was his opinion as to what should happen?

Mr. Denham: A wide variety of topics were discussed at those meetings. The hon. Gentleman will have seen that there is no such proposal in the welfare reform Green Paper.

New Deal (Disabled People)

2. Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): What estimate she has made of the number of people with disabilities who will be helped back to work as a result of the new deal programme. [38477]

The Secretary of State for Social Security and Minister for Women (Ms Harriet Harman): The new deal for the long-term sick and disabled aims to help the 1 million disabled people who are not in work, but who want to work.

Mr. Oaten: Does the Secretary of State agree with me and many disability groups that the £195 million allocated to the project is not enough to get disabled people back

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to work? Does she accept that, although the numbers involved vary greatly, on average just £100 per disabled person will be made available? Will she give the House a commitment that if the project fails to get people back to work, in a year's time she will allocate more resources so that more disabled people can return to the work force?

Ms Harman: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the aim of trying to help people with disabilities back to work. The £195 million that has been allocated is intended not to help all disabled people back to work, but to finance pilot projects to ascertain what works best to help people with disabilities or health problems get into work and stay there. However, I can give the hon. Gentleman and the House the undertaking that, when we find out what works, we shall roll it out nationally. It is seedcorn money for pump priming and its purpose is to find out what will work with a view to making it national.

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must be ambitious about the programme? In the borough of Croydon, people with serious learning difficulties, including young women with Down's syndrome, have been successfully placed in employment. Does my right hon. Friend agree also that we must consider the poverty traps that can affect people with disabilities, particularly those in residential care? Will her Department study the particular poverty traps facing people with severe learning difficulties who want to re-enter work?

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. We should be ambitious about the opportunities for people with learning and other disabilities to work when they want to do so. It is not good enough for us to write people off and not consider their capabilities and abilities. The Keyring project in my constituency helps people with learning disabilities to do what they consider an important job. The Shaw trust also provides a number of projects, as does Mencap, to help people with learning difficulties have the shape, self-respect and dignity of work in their lives. At present, the benefits system traps people with health or disability problems out of the labour market. In the Social Security Bill, we are taking powers to strip away the benefit disincentive and recognise, as we do for people on the jobseeker's allowance, the ambitions of people on incapacity benefit to work.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): When the Minister for Welfare Reform came before the Social Security Committee a couple of weeks ago--he came on his own on that occasion, which may, in retrospect, have been a mistake--he said that the Department of Social Security was conducting a survey into the incomes of recipients of disability living allowance. The Minister said that the reason for the survey was to assess whether it was worth while taxing DLA. Does the right hon. Lady agree with that approach? What is her opinion about whether DLA should be taxed?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman is not engaging in the constructive opposition that we should like to see, as some hon. Members are. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State is being completely misquoted--he did not say that we were considering taxing DLA; he said that we needed the fullest information about people on benefits and their income levels. That is our responsibility, and one which we are discharging.

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Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is my right hon. Friend aware that, for many years, there has been a system of providing welfare to work for disabled people, known as Remploy? During the 18 years of Tory Government, I went on marches with those disabled people round towns such as Alfreton, in an effort to prevent the Tory Government from closing Remploy factories. I suggest that, in her review, my right hon. Friend considers building more Remploy factories in other parts of Britain. There is no doubt that they work, and disabled people like to attend.

Ms Harman: I pay tribute to Remploy. In the years when the previous Government were not interested in concerns about opportunities for people with disabilities to work, Remploy carried forward that flag and provided much-needed opportunities. We are determined to build on the good work of Remploy. With the new deal for long-term sick and disabled people, Remploy's work will be to provide new challenges for people with disabilities.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Given that the right hon. Lady has talked a great deal about what the Government are planning to do to bring disabled people back into work, and in the light of her comment about constructive opposition, will she tell us whether, given the new deal plans, she will be measured by whether unemployment among disabled people is lower at the end of this Parliament than it was at the beginning?

Ms Harman: We want to be judged on the success of our programme to help people with disabilities tackle the barriers between them and the world of work, so the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is yes. We have four ways of dealing with that: first, active help to get people into work through the pilot projects that we have announced; secondly, removing discrimination in the benefits system against people on incapacity benefit; thirdly, the disabled persons tax credit, which will help to make work pay for people with disabilities; and fourthly, making the workplace disability friendly. Through that package of four thrusts of policy change, a greater percentage of people with disabilities will go into the world of work. Obviously, we must aim for a greater percentage because the figure will depend on how many disabled people there are.

Income Support

3. Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): What assessment she makes of housing costs in setting levels of income support. [38479]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Keith Bradley): Help with housing costs for people receiving income support is given through specific allowances within income support, mainly for mortgage interest, and through housing benefit and council tax benefit. Those are assessed according to the circumstances of the individual concerned. Housing costs are not met through personal allowances and premiums within income support, and are thus not taken into account in setting the levels of those payments.

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Mr. Burden: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply.I have been corresponding with him over the past few months concerning the non-dependant deduction rule whereby, if tenants in receipt of housing benefit have someone come to stay with them who does not qualify for housing benefit but is in receipt of income support, they could stand to have their housing benefit reduced by up to £7 a week. That is an anomaly; it implies that the personal element of income support contains an element for rent, which it does not. That can increase poverty among many of the families affected. Will my hon. Friend re-examine the interrelationship between housing benefit regulations and income support regulations, with regard to that particular rule?

Mr. Bradley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for again raising that matter with me. As he rightly says, he has been in lengthy correspondence with the Department on the matter, and I assure him yet again today that the interrelationship between income support and housing benefit will be reviewed in the light of our general review of housing benefit and housing policy. I assure him that the matter that he has brought to my attention will be included in that review.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): In the spirit of constructive opposition, and on behalf--I guess--of the whole House, I acknowledge the Government's positive work on welfare to work generally. After the introduction of the working families tax credit, housing benefit, as currently constructed, will be the biggest obstacle to getting people off benefit and into work. The Minister said that there is a benefits review. When will the housing benefit review be completed? Will he give a guarantee that housing benefit will be reformed before the working families tax credit is introduced?

Mr. Bradley: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's constructive contribution. He is absolutely right to say that housing costs represent a significant barrier to a successful return to work under the welfare-to-work programme. I assure him that further work is continuing as fast as possible to ensure that we investigate clearly the implications of that barrier and the way in which housing benefit is structured. As soon as we have completed that analysis, we shall feed it through the housing review so that it is harmonised with other reform programmes, especially welfare to work, to ensure that any impediment to people moving successfully from welfare into the workplace is removed.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Are controls or further restrictions on rents in the private and voluntary sectors being considered as part of the housing and social security reviews? If they are not, tenants will be further punished at the end of the exercise.

Mr. Bradley: The review that we are undertaking is, as my hon. Friend is well aware, a joint review with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I assure him that all aspects of housing benefit, and crucially the interrelationship between housing benefit and housing policy, will be considered. That obviously includes the level of rents. I assure him that his point will be brought to the attention of the review.

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