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House of Commons

Monday 16 November 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 Living Allowance

1. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): How many applications for disability living allowance are currently under review or appeal; what was the corresponding figure 12 months ago; and if he will make a statement. [58366]

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Mr. John Denham): Last year at 31 October, there were 70,181 requests for a review of disability living allowance decisions in hand and 36,895 appeals. The corresponding figures for 31 October this year are 57,035 reviews and 36,011 appeals.

Mr. Llwyd: I now have several--in fact dozens--of constituents whose cases have been turned down, seemingly for no good reason. One person who is blind has been turned down, and an amputee who has also lost the use of an arm and has terrible vertebra problems has been turned down and deemed fit for work. How does all that square with the platitudes we heard last week about helping the disabled back to work? Is it not absolute nonsense and a disgrace?

Mr. Denham: It is essential that we get decisions on disability living allowance right in the first instance and that we take action to ensure that decisions remain correct. As a result of the benefit integrity project, we have changed our procedures to ensure that cases can be reviewed, with additional evidence if necessary. We shall continue to improve the process so as to ensure that the right benefit is paid to the right people. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we recently announced that, in due course, we wish to replace the benefit integrity project with a fair and sensitive system for ensuring that DLA cases are correct.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde): I welcome my hon. Friend's promise of a fairer system, because the current criteria are not so much stringent as appallingly harsh. Can he do something to reduce the waiting time for appeals to be heard? Nothing seems to have changed in that respect, which is deeply unfair to

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constituents who have burdens enough to shoulder without having to endure a long wait for an appeal hearing.

Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend makes some important points. The gateways to DLA can be confusing, both to claimants and to those who are adjudicating the claims. That is why we are consulting on the nature of those gateways. I entirely accept that the length of waiting time for appeals is not acceptable. Following the Social Security Act 1998, we are bringing into play new procedures to speed up the system for appeals and we shall work hard to achieve that end.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): The Minister mentioned the benefit integrity project. A short while ago, we were told that that project was due to come to an end, which created in the newspapers the impression that the Government wanted to create, which is that it will come to an end in the immediate future. However, the fine text shows that that is not the case, for there is no due date for the end of the benefit integrity project--I dare say that some Labour Members will be rather shocked to hear that. Will the Minister tell us when the benefit integrity project is to come to an end and what is to be put in its place? Can we have a date, please?

Mr. Denham: It was, of course, the Conservative Government who initiated the benefit integrity project. We are keen to introduce the change as soon as possible, but it is important that we get it right. The benefit integrity project will continue until it is replaced by a new system--one which we shall ensure is both fair and sensitive. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it clear on 28 October 1998 that there would be no return to the situation that existed before April 1997, when nothing was being done to check that people were receiving the right benefit. The characteristics of the new system and when and how it will be introduced will be the subject of future discussions with the disability benefits forum.

Lone Parents

2. Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East): If he will make a statement on progress on the new deal for lone parents. [58367]

7. Laura Moffatt (Crawley): What assessment he has made of progress on the new deal for lone parents. [58372]

16. Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): What progress has been made in helping lone parents to move into work. [58381]

18. Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney): If he will make a statement on the progress of the new deal for lone parents. [58384]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling): The new deal for lone parents, which became available nationwide on 26 October, for the first time offers all lone parents on income support a personal adviser service to help them to overcome the barriers to employment. Nine out of 10 lone parents who

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attended an interview agreed to participate in the programme, and more than a quarter of those have moved into work.

Mr. McNulty: Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that all the key lessons of the pilot schemes for the new deal for lone parents will be learnt and incorporated into the national programme as it unfolds? Will he ignore the whingeing and carping of Conservative Members, who when they were in power, did absolutely nothing for lone parents?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right. The new deal in general, and that for lone parents in particular, represents a major cultural change in the actions of the Department for Education and Employment and the Government. It was wrong to leave a growing number of lone parents out of the labour market when many could be substantially better off in work. The working families tax credit, which we shall introduce next year, will ensure that every working family is guaranteed an income for full-time work of at least £190 a week, but the Conservative party wants to scrap that measure.

Laura Moffatt: Does my right hon. Friend agree with me and Gemma, a lone parent adviser in my constituency, that lone parents have enthusiastically embraced the chance to go back to work? Does he agree also that immediate work may not be the only outcome and that lone parents understand that before they can embrace the world of work, training might be necessary, and that is what they are undertaking?

Mr. Darling: Again, my hon. Friend is right. Although Conservative Members may snigger, nine out of 10 lone parents who came for an interview joined the new deal. Some went into work and others needed to upgrade their qualifications, but the Conservative party would scrap the entire new deal and leave every one of those people high and dry. That is not the right approach for modern labour market conditions.

Mr. Miller: I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that many of the failings of changes in the social security system under the previous Administration resulted from an appallingly bad level of training. Will he assure the House that when the scheme is implemented, proper training systems will be put in place?

Mr. Darling: Yes. It is very important that advisers are properly trained and skilled because often they are dealing with people who have difficult circumstances at home, perhaps because they do not have support and help to look after young children. It is important also to ensure that everybody realises the benefits that will come from the new deal, not least the fact that the Government's national child care strategy is now being fully rolled out to ensure that people have child care. The working families tax credit, in addition to ensuring that families in full-time work get at least £190 a week, provides significant help towards child care, which can be a major barrier that in the past has prevented lone parents from going into work.

Mr. Woodward: The Secretary of State will know that only 50,000 people have been invited to participate in the scheme, but the Department of Social Security's own

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research statistics reveal that only 2 per cent. have left income support. Does he agree that the scheme does not work? Will he think again, find a better scheme and tell the House the true cost, based on those who have left income support, of this scheme?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the pilot stage of the scheme has just ended and the national scheme was announced at the end of last month. I do not agree with his central premise. This country has a larger proportion of lone parents out of work than any other major European comparator country. The Government have a clear duty to encourage those who want to work to do so and to give them the opportunities that they were denied under the previous Government, which the hon. Gentleman supported. In this day and age the Government cannot stand by and watch an increasing number of people and their children be excluded from mainstream life--we would not be prepared to endorse that approach.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): Does the Secretary of State agree that when the Government tell people that they will punish them if they do not do something, that will tend to make them feel that the act is for the Government's benefit, not for theirs? Does he therefore accept that the introduction of compulsion into the new deal will not help him make progress with it?

Mr. Darling: Of course the new deal does not contain an element of compulsion. We have always made it absolutely clear that for perfectly good reasons no one will compel a lone parent to go into work. The hon. Gentleman may be referring to a different programme--the new single gateway into the benefits system for people of working age. The Government clearly have a duty to do everything that they can to help people to get into work. In turn, everybody who comes into the benefits system should at the very least be prepared to sit down and find out what is on offer.

The history of the past 10 to 15 years shows that if people stay outside the labour market for too long, they tend to stay out indefinitely, and no responsible Government can put up with that. I hope that instead of complaining about matters, the hon. Gentleman and his party whole-heartedly endorse our approach because getting people into work must be the right way to deal with the problems that we have inherited. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman agrees with that.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: There is no point of order. We are in the middle of questions.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): I agree very much with my right hon. Friend's comments about extending opportunities to those outside the labour market who are coming on to benefit for the first time. Is he in a position to tell us what penalty will apply to those who do not turn up for their interview?

Mr. Darling: As I told my right hon. Friend when I made my statement a short time ago, we believe that it is

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right that people who enter the system through the single gateway, when the system is fully operational, should be required to attend an interview as a condition of benefit.

Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful, Madam Speaker. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with his noble Friend Baroness Hollis who announced that sanctions will be put in place if a lone parent fails to attend the initial interview for the new deal for lone parents? If that is so, can he explain today exactly what form those sanctions will take? For how long will the sanctions apply? Will they apply only to child benefit or will the lone parent lose all benefits to which he or she would otherwise have been entitled?

Mr. Darling: I apologise to the hon. Lady. I was not clear why she was gesticulating at me a few moments ago. I understand that perhaps her question should have been grouped and, if that is my fault, I apologise.

Madam Speaker: It should not have been grouped. I expected to reach question No. 17, but it will now be withdrawn because I have called the hon. Lady.

Mr. Darling: I appreciate that, Madam Speaker. As to the hon. Lady's question, there is no compulsion in the new deal--as I have made clear. We are talking about the single gateway into the benefit system. That programme will be piloted over the next two to three years before it becomes a national scheme. When the single gateway is operational, it will be a condition of receiving benefit that people agree to attend an interview.

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