The House being met, the Clerk at the Table informed the House of the absence of Mr. Speaker from this day's sitting, pursuant to leave given on 21 June.
Whereupon, Sir Alan Haselhurst, The Chairman of Ways and Means, proceeded to the Table, and after Prayers, took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.
The following Member made the Affirmation required by law:
John William Patrick Smith, for Vale of Glamorgan.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Before I call the first hon. Member, may I remind the House of Mr. Speaker's recommendation that he expects questions and answers to be short and concise? We can thus proceed more briskly through Question Time, to the advantage of all hon. Members. I would appreciate hon. Members' co-operation; let us start as we perhaps mean to go on through the Parliament.
1. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West): What plans he has to reform the social fund. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): Since 1997, we have increased the gross discretionary social fund budget by 30 per cent. In 1999, we introduced reforms to make the budgeting loan scheme simpler and faster. Consequently, 82,000 more people got a budgeting loan than in the previous year.
Gareth Thomas: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment to a new and important Department. In view of the heatwave, today may not be the appropriate day to ask this, but will he reconsider the case for extending winter fuel payments to the disabled? Will he re-examine the claim by the predecessor Department that existing
Malcolm Wicks: I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but we have no plans to extend winter fuel allowances to disabled people. However, I hasten to assure him that as the popular and effective winter fuel allowances go to everyone over the age of 60, the majority of people with disabilities are covered. Fuel allowances go to those over 60 because research shows that older people are physiologically most at risk.
Disability benefits, including the disability premium and the disability living allowance, provide extra resources for those with disabilities to meet costs which could include heating.
Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): May I add my welcome to the Under-Secretary, who is knowledgeable about social security matters and will be a great asset to the team?
I want to take up the theme of winter fuel payments. Today, in lovely weather, the Department issued a press release encouraging people to claim next winter's fuel payments. That is welcome, but does the Under-Secretary accept that there was a big problem with take-up last winter? How many people who were entitled to payments missed out as a result of the imposition of a deadline of 31 March for claims for last winter? How much money did the Government save by imposing that deadline?
Malcolm Wicks: In fact, take-up of winter fuel allowance is very good, but we are not complacent and we will always do more to encourage take-up. I understand that since we do not have names on records for men aged 60 to 65, there may be a particular issue and those people therefore do have to claim. As with all social security rights, we urge everyone to claim what is justly theirs.
3. Derek Twigg (Halton): If he will make a statement on assistance for the long-term unemployed. 
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): In the previous Parliament, the new deals and other measures saw growing numbers of people move off benefit and into work. Through the new agency Jobcentre Plus, we shall continue that work in this Parliament. The new agency will provide a new, work-focused service for all benefit recipients of working age, enabling those who can work to do so.
Derek Twigg: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. One of my concerns relates to the ability of people with learning difficulties and those who are suffering from or recovering from mental illness to get into the jobs market when they want to work. As my right hon. Friend knows, work is an important route to social inclusion and we are committed to full employment. Does he agree that there is more scope to improve and build on our support and employment schemes?
Mr. Darling: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. There are a large number of people of working age in this
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his new title and new responsibilities and wish him every success--within the confines of wishing a political opponent well. I want to start by asking him a very simple question: is it now Government policy to encourage the long-term unemployed on to incapacity benefit?
Mr. Darling: As this is the first Question Time of the Session, may I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes and wish him well no matter who the new leader of the Conservative party may be?
So far as incapacity benefit claimants are concerned, the hon. Gentleman seems to be confusing our policy with that of the previous Conservative Government, which was quite cynically to shift people off unemployment benefit and on to incapacity benefit. That is one of the reasons why so many people--especially older people--are on incapacity benefit. It is the Government's policy, through Jobcentre Plus, to ensure that everyone of working age who could work is helped to get back into work. Indeed, the Queen's Speech announced a welfare reform Bill that will include measures to ensure that more and more people are invited in for interview, so that they can see what options and choices there are to enable them to get back into work. I also attach considerable importance to stopping the trend that developed in the 1980s and early 1990s whereby people who could work and who should have been helped back into work were quite cynically put on to incapacity benefit.
Mr. Pickles: The right hon. Gentleman cannot have been looking at the figures, because there has been a growth in the number of people on incapacity benefit; in the past 18 months that figure has jumped by 65,000. Coincidentally, the figure is at exactly the same level as it was when the Government wrote, in "New ambitions for our country: a new contract for welfare", that incapacity benefit
Mr. Darling: There is a fourth explanation, and it is the right one. It is that, because more people are living longer and more women are eligible for incapacity benefit than in the past, there has been a 0.3 per cent. increase in
One of the reasons why we have introduced the Jobcentre Plus regime, which will ensure everybody of working age has to come in for interview, is that we believe that there are people on incapacity benefit who could work and who could be helped to get back into work. In the past, those people got no help whatever. They simply got a benefit cheque and were told to get on with it. Under the new system, that will not be possible, and we will ensure that everyone who can get into work is given the right help to do so. It cannot be right, as the hon. Gentleman says--I agree with him on this point--that a country such as ours has large numbers of people on incapacity benefit and other non-jobseeker's allowance benefits who could be in work if they were given the right support. That is why we have introduced Jobcentre Plus, the new deals and other measures.
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): For 18 years, that lot on the Opposition Benches ripped the heart out of mining communities in my constituency and threw thousands of people out of work, many of whom are still long-term unemployed. Under this Government, unemployment has fallen by 40 per cent. under the new deal. That is an absolutely fabulous start, but there are still pockets in which there is a huge amount of long-term unemployment. Will the Secretary of State tell us what plans he has to help those long-term unemployed people back into work?
Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right and, representing part of the south Yorkshire coalfield, he knows that many people who lost their jobs in the 1980s went quickly on to incapacity benefit and were simply left there with no help whatever. As I told the House a few moments ago, the Government intend to introduce a new agency--Jobcentre Plus--that will bring together the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency. Its first 50 offices will open this October. People living in those areas will have to come in for a work-focused interview to see what help is available to channel them back into work as quickly as possible. In the following 18 months to two years, all the offices will be converted, and a much tougher regime will be there to help people.
We cannot allow the situation to continue in which many people who could work are simply written off--or allow themselves to be written off--for want of help. That new regime will be introduced and, together with other measures targeted at helping people get back into work, will in time steadily reduce the number of dependent people who could be independent and looking after themselves and their families.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): The Secretary of State is right to promote an active welfare policy that engenders a culture of work, but does he not accept that, if that is pushed too far, he could stigmatise those who are not able to get into the labour market? In particular, is he as concerned as I am about recent figures that show that, leaving aside students and
Mr. Darling: On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I do not believe that the policy is stigmatising people who cannot work--far from it. He knows that, in the last Parliament, we increased the benefits payable to many people who could not work and had no chance of working. Just as the Government should step up their efforts to ensure that all those who can work do so, we should do more for people who are not able to work. However, I agree that we must also redouble our efforts and increase the help available to those economically inactive people of working age who have been out of work.
That is what Jobcentre Plus and the increased conditionality in the benefit system will achieve, because many people who want to work do not know what help is available to them. Lone parents are a classic example. People said that it was not possible to get more lone parents into work, but we are well on the way to achieving that. We have increased the level of lone parents in work from about 50 per cent. to 70 per cent., which is more akin to levels in comparable countries.