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Housing Benefit

7. Miss Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale): How much central Government contributed to Lancaster city council in the year 1999-2000 for exceptional hardship payments for housing benefit. [129326]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): We made £20 million available to enable local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales to make exceptional hardship payments of housing benefit during the financial year 1999-2000. Lancaster city council's share was £79,000, of which, I am told, it spent 3.7 per cent.

Miss Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. As she is aware, Lancaster city council spent only £1,577 on exceptional hardship payments during 1999-2000, so the most vulnerable people in the area have missed out on those payments. What steps does her Department intend to take to make sure that exceptional hardship payments reach the people at whom they are targeted?

Angela Eagle: Realising that not all the money was being spent, we issued enhanced guidelines last year to encourage local authorities to use the money. They are also allowed to use another £30 million from their own resources, and clearly they are not doing that. In the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill, which is currently going through the House, we are changing the law to ensure that if local authorities do not use the money for the hardship scheme, we will take it back from them; currently, they keep it.

Disablement Benefits (Appeals)

8. Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): If he will review the guidelines used by the Benefits Agency to ensure consistency of policy by doctors who consider reviews and appeals on disablement benefits on behalf of the agency. [129328]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley): Doctors do not make decisions on benefit entitlement. Reviews are conducted by trained Benefits Agency decision makers. Appeals against the decision makers' decisions are considered by independent appeals panels.

Mr. Wigley: Is the Minister aware of the widespread dismay in north-west Wales--and, I suspect, elsewhere--that people who have been awarded incapacity benefit or disability living allowance, perhaps only in the past year or two, and sometimes for life, find that those benefits are being taken away from them despite the fact that their medical condition has worsened, sometimes significantly? Will he look at the guidelines that have been issued by the chief medical adviser for use by examining medical practitioners to ensure that there is consistency? It seems that some examining medical practitioners have a different interpretation of those guidelines; indeed, many of the cases in my area can be identified as arising from one person, who seems to take a very stringent view.

Mr. Bayley: In the Government's response to the Social Security Committee's report on medical services, we undertook to take four steps to drive up the quality and consistency of the medical advice given by medical services doctors. One of those four targets will require Sema to provide all its doctors, within one year, with training in behaviour, attitude and sensitivity when dealing with claims and assessments for people with disabilities, mental health problems or musculo-skeletal

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problems. That is part of a national programme to train doctors to operate and give advice according to nationally determined standards.

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun): Does my hon. Friend have any plans to monitor successful review and appeals decisions in order to ascertain whether such decisions relate to any particular doctor's reports?

Mr. Bayley: I know that many hon. Members have suggested that, but there would be problems in tying the outcomes of appeals to the advice of individual doctors because the decision is made not by the doctor but by the decision maker. Nevertheless, it is on occasion clear to the appeals panel that the report provided by one of the Benefits Agency doctors is deficient. We have started talks with Judge Harris from the appeals service to find out whether there are ways in which he can notify our chief medical adviser when appeals panels believe that an inappropriate or inadequate report has been made by medical services doctors, so that we can take further action.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley). Is it still the case that more than 50 per cent. of appeals are successful? If so, does not that suggest that there is something seriously wrong with the initial assessments?

Mr. Bayley: The proportion of successful appeals varies from benefit to benefit, but I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we want to get more decisions right first time. That is what our decision making and appeals procedures are doing, by ensuring that correct medical and other evidence is collected at the outset of a claim, that it is properly assessed by the decision maker, and that the right decision is made. There will always be more scope for different interpretation with disability benefits, because they are more subjective than, say, income-related ones. One can look at somebody's bank account and it contains either more or less than the capital limit, whereas decisions on disability benefits are based on the advice of a doctor about whether, for instance, a person is unable, or virtually unable, to walk. That is more subjective.

Lone Parents

11. Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): What assistance his Department is giving to help lone parents find work. [129331]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): The new deal aims to make work pay, making it a practical choice for lone parents. The new deal for lone parents offers them help and advice on job-search, training, child care and in-work benefits. That is just one of a raft of measures that we have introduced, including the lone parent benefit run-on, the national child care strategy, the working families tax credit, and, of course, the national minimum wage.

Mrs. Gilroy: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply; I think that she knows that the legacy left in Plymouth by my Conservative predecessor was the poorest ward in

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England. Indeed, such was the poverty that one of the two Oxfam projects in this country operates in the city. I thank my hon. Friend for the programme. Will she join me in congratulating the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service, which, with the active help of the local evening paper, the Evening Herald, have delivered the new deal to lone parents in such a way as to enable 238 of them to enter employment in the past year, and several hundred more to take the first steps on the pathway out of poverty, which the new deal for lone parents represents?

Angela Eagle: It gives me great pleasure to congratulate the authorities in Plymouth. Their outreach programme has been very effective. I know that the Benefits Agency and various other authorities work closely together to ensure that the benefits of the new deal for lone parents are made as widely available as possible. They hire a bus, operate from community centres and playgroups and go where lone parents and their children are. That is one of the more effective ways of getting the message across.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given the fact that, as was emphasised earlier, it would take 26 years for all participants in the new deal for lone parents to secure employment, and furthermore, that there is evidence that those outside the scheme have a better chance of securing work than those inside it, why does the hon. Lady not abandon her bluster, give up the unequal struggle, admit that the scheme is an expensive failure, and move to abolish it without delay?

Angela Eagle: The scheme pays for itself and it is successful. I will not accept counsels of despair from a complacent Conservative party which caused the problem in the first place.

Social Fund

12. Mr. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East): If he will make a statement on the role of the social fund. [129332]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Angela Eagle): The social fund is targeted at the most needy. It provides crucial help through grants and interest-free loans to people on benefits who would otherwise have trouble affording essential items.

Mr. Goggins: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, and welcome the decision to double the social fund maternity grant from March. Will she tell the House what impact a cut of £90 million would have on the work of the social fund? Does she agree that the fact that the Conservatives are now making such a proposal demonstrates that when it comes to paying for their policies, they are still more than ready to penalise the poor?

Angela Eagle: I can tell my hon. Friend that the current annual budget for community care grants is £100 million, so if £90 million were cut, those grants would be almost wiped out. That would mean, for example, that a pensioner who needed a special sort of bed to remain in his or her home, or a disabled child's parents who needed

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new bedding, or a washing machine, would find that the money was not available. The day the Conservatives announced that they would take that huge chunk out of the social fund, the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who is an Opposition health Front Bencher, said that it was essential that we had a social fund which could help people when they were in real need, because "every mother knew" that a washing machine was an "essential piece of kit". Yet the Conservatives would destroy that fund.

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