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Disabled Children

3. Mr. Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton): What progress he is making in improving support for disabled children. [58368]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Stephen Timms): In our consultation document on support for disabled people, we announced two particular proposals that will help the families of disabled children: first, the disability income guarantee, which is based on a new premium and income-related benefits for families with disabled children with the greatest care needs; and, secondly, the extension of the higher rate mobility component of disability living allowance to children aged three and four for whom claims have not been accepted in the past.

Mr. Dobbin: While I support and welcome the Government's intention to extend the disability living allowance higher rate mobility component to three and four-year-olds and I support also the Government's commitment to protecting the poorer members of society, can the Minister assure me that those disability groups will be part of a real and proper consultation process so that they will be able to shape the legislation?

Mr. Timms: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support, and I can give him the assurance that he seeks. The disability benefits forum met last week and considered in detail the proposals in our consultation document. It will meet again next week and there will be a series of discussions with the disability organisations

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to which my hon. Friend referred about how to take the proposals forward. The proposals have been widely welcomed. They are a clear example of our resolve to re-focus the benefit system in order to provide additional help for those who need it most.

Family Credit

4. Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): If he will make a statement on the number of families who are currently eligible for family credit. [58369]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): In May 1998, 767,000 families were receiving family credit, which is 72 per cent. of those eligible but 84 per cent. of the maximum take-up if measured by expenditure.

Mr. Brazier: Can the Minister confirm that the programme currently costs about £3.5 billion, which is £1.5 billion less than the projected cost of the working families tax credit that should replace it? On what assumptions on employment is that projection of substantial increased cost based? Is it assumed that there will be a rise in such employment, or simply that the tax credit will reach much further up the income scale?

Angela Eagle: The working families tax credit, which will replace family credit in October 1999, is more generous. That is why it will cost £5 billion instead of the current cost of family credit. That will mean that it makes work pay for 400,000 more low-paid families.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): Does the Minister accept that one of the great strengths of family credit is the fact that it copes well at the time of relationship breakdown, in that, typically, the money is paid to the mother in a couple, and therefore continues when the relationship breaks down? Does she accept that, when family credit is abolished and replaced by a benefit paid, typically, to the father in a couple, that will produce hardship for mothers and children at the time of relationship breakdown?

Angela Eagle: In fact, couples can choose who the working families tax credit will be paid to. The hon. Gentleman should also know that, in 50 per cent. of such families, the mother is the main breadwinner, so, generally, the benefit will be paid to her anyway. The hon. Gentleman is worrying overmuch about a system that is far more generous than is the existing system to those who are low-paid and want to work.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): Does the Minister agree that one of the biggest problems with the current social security system is the fact that it places barriers in the way of people who want to work? Can she confirm that, under existing family credit regulations, people can be worse off if they work more hours, and can she confirm that that distortion will be removed by the working families tax credit? Will she reassure the House that the Government will progressively work, through the social security system, to ensure that such anomalies are ironed out once and for all?

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Angela Eagle: I agree with my hon. Friend; he is exactly right. The working families tax credit has far more generous tapers in income than does family credit--down from 70 per cent. to 55 per cent.--so the credit is withdrawn in a more generous way. It is also more generous in that it begins higher up the income scale, at £90 instead of £79 for family credit. It starts to tackle the unemployment traps, the benefit traps and the significant barriers to work that those who are on low pay or who may work part time currently face.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): The Minister has failed to answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). Every year, the Government will spend on working families tax credit £1.5 billion more than has been spent on family credit, and in doing so they will make a mess of many of the main features of family credit. The Minister still has not said that the Department of Social Security or the Treasury have figures to show by how much the working families tax credit will increase employment and how much the Government will save in the medium or long term as a result of introducing that tax credit. Will she give us the answer now? What is the saving? How many extra jobs?

Angela Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is against working families tax credit, and has said that he will abolish it. That will mean a tax increase for 1.5 million hard-working families of up to £17 a week.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Minister has not answered the question. The question was, what forecast has the Department made? If the Department is saying that it is prepared to spend an extra £1.5 billion a year, it must be predicated on an assumption of a saving elsewhere or more jobs; which is it? Or is the answer, "It may do this or it may not"? We have heard of the green shoots, but now this seems to be a policy of "The Darling Buds of May".

Angela Eagle: I think that the green shoots of economic policy were spoken of by a Conservative Chancellor, not a Labour Chancellor. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman will be quiet for a minute, I shall answer his question. The working families tax credit removes barriers to work and creates incentives for those who are on low pay to work. It is not intended to create more jobs. It is simply intended to make work pay for those people currently on benefit, who face levels of marginal deduction from benefit of considerably more than 100 per cent.--the legacy of the uncaring Conservative Government.

Disabled People

5. Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): What proposals he has to improve work opportunities for disabled people. [58370]

8. Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North): What assessment he has made of the willingness of disabled people to move from welfare into work. [58373]

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The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling): We know that more than 1 million disabled people receiving state benefits want to work. Together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, we have introduced the new deal for disabled people and proposals for a single gateway. I have also proposed reform of the all-work test. These and other measures will greatly improve opportunities for disabled people.

Mrs. Humble: One of the main problems facing disabled people seeking work is that they fear that they may lose benefits if the job does not work out. Can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the Government are taking action to make sure that the protection offered by the benefit system is not withdrawn as soon as a disabled person takes the risk and goes into work?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend raises an important point. Disabled people especially may be afraid to change their circumstances because in the past they believed that that would be to their disadvantage. Not only do we have advisers under the new deal who will give advice, but the 12-month linking rule will ensure that someone coming off benefit and going into work will be protected. However, I notice with deep regret that the Conservative party is opposing that rule. The disabled persons tax credit will also provide a guaranteed minimum income, in the same way as the working families tax credit. The Conservatives are against that as well. We are introducing other practical measures that will help to reduce the barriers that face many disabled people going into work. Our objective is to ensure that as many people who are disabled and who want to work can do so.

Mr. Rooney: The Secretary of State will be aware that many Labour Members have campaigned for many years for the right of disabled people to work. Will he confirm the amount of money that will be available under the new deal for people with disabilities, and how many people he expects to be placed in work through it?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend will know that £195 million is being spent on the new deal. The disabled persons tax credit, as I explained earlier, will mean that many disabled people will be substantially better off in work. That will operate together with other practical forms of help, some of which were announced a couple of weeks ago, such as the job introduction scheme, the disability rights commission and the supported employment programme.

Right across the board, we are doing everything that we can to make it easier for people with a disability to get into work and to stay in work. We are also, of course, encouraging employers to do everything that they can to keep people in work, rather than letting them go when a problem arises. The Government are committed to improving the situation that faces disabled people, and it is a matter of deep regret that many of the practical measures that we are introducing are bitterly opposed by the Conservative party.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): Everyone will support and encourage schemes for getting disabled people who are able to work back into work. However, like the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy

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(Mr. Llwyd), I have encountered in my constituency recently a number of cases of people who have been on disability living allowance for a considerable time, from whom that has been withdrawn under the new criteria, and who have been told that they are fit to go back to work. I interviewed them myself as a layman, and it is obvious to me that they are not fit to go back to work. Will the right hon. Gentleman look at the criteria again and make sure that they are not too harsh?

Mr. Darling: I shall try to deal with the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. First, disability living allowance is not an out-of-work benefit. It is designed to provide help with extra costs, whether someone is working or not. Secondly, no new criteria have been introduced. The benefit integrity project, which the hon. Gentleman will no doubt recall was introduced in the dying days of the previous Government, resulted in a number of people being excluded from benefit who probably should not have been excluded. That is why I want to replace that scheme with a fairer and better scheme that ensures that we get benefit right first time and avoid the situation that we inherited, where a third of people receiving DLA have no medical evidence to back up that award. The benefits system that we inherited, as the hon. Gentleman should know, left an awful lot to be desired. Our objective is to improve it.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman says that everybody would support measures to help people to get back into work. He had better have a word with those on his Front Bench, who are opposing measures that will come before the House tomorrow to institute the 12-month linking rule, which will be of great advantage to people with disabilities.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): Can the Secretary of State tell the House how many jobs he believes will be created from the £195 million under the pilot scheme for the new deal? Has the Department thought beyond that and recognised that billions, not millions, of pounds will be needed to tackle the 1 million disabled people who are able and want to get back to work?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman misses the point. The new deal is not a job creation programme of the sort that we have seen in the past. Its object is to ensure that people are equipped and have the skills to get work. Many disabled people face additional barriers that others do not face. The point of the new deal and the other measures that we are introducing is to ensure that the disadvantages that have been visited upon disabled people are removed. I should have thought that he would do better supporting that proposition, rather than carping at its objectives.

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North): Given that people with very serious physical disabilities and learning difficulties are enabled to find employment through supportive employment projects, will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that there are not enough places and resources for such projects and, therefore, resources are spent on social security for people with disabilities who want to be in work? Is there scope for usefully transferring resources from my right hon. Friend's Department to the Department of Education and Employment so that we can have sensible social policy in this area?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend will know that both I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for

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Education and Employment are constantly examining ways in which we can ensure that people are in work and not on benefit. Our objective is to ensure that the bills that we have to meet because people are out of work who could be in work are reduced. We have taken considerable steps so far and we shall have further announcements to make. The supportive employment programme is primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment rather than for my Department.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): The Secretary of State failed to answer the questions asked by the hon. Members for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) and for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). I suggest that they might care to read Hansard, where they will find that although the Government keep quoting that 1 million disabled people want to get into work, the figures for the projects that have been initiated by the Government suggest that the number of disabled people being helped into work by these projects is fewer than 20,000. Meanwhile the Government are changing the rules for incapacity benefit for those out of work because of their disability.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that in a full year 170,000 disabled people who now would qualify for incapacity benefit will, as a result of the Government's changes, be denied that benefit? Is this not just a callous attempt to redefine people off benefit to cover up the fact that the Government have failed to deliver real welfare reform?

Mr. Darling: I shall deal with the two points that the hon. Lady makes. First, on incapacity benefit, she must know that during the past 18 years when the Conservative party was in power it cynically used the incapacity benefit system to get people off the official unemployment figures and move them into statistics which received less attention.

The previous Government systematically went about trying to undermine the system that had been in place to ensure that help was there for people who were in work and became disabled. Incapacity benefit was never intended as an early retirement scheme, which is what the previous Government intended for it. If welfare reform means anything it must mean modernising the benefit system to ensure that benefits go to those who are entitled to them and to those for whom they were intended. That certainly did not happen under the previous Government.

Secondly, the hon. Lady asks about the working families tax credit and the new deal. The Conservative party is against both measures. It is against any measures that are designed to help people who have been excluded from the labour market. I remind the hon. Lady that at present there are about 200,000 vacancies notified in job centres and that some disabled people could go into them. The object of our reforms is to ensure that some of these vacancies can be filled by those who have disabilities. Unfortunately all these measures are opposed by the Conservative party.

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