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25 Oct 2001 : Column 472

Social Security

4.11 pm

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): I beg to move,

The motion—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber quickly and quietly? We are beginning an important debate.

Mr. Willetts: The motion was tabled so that the House would have an opportunity to scrutinise the Government's proposals on changes to incapacity benefit and other regulations. Indeed, we tabled it during one of the emergency recalls in order to secure an early debate.

The purpose of the debate is to bring some clarity to the confusion spread during the past four months about the Government's proposals on incapacity and other benefits. It is a sorry tale that has left many disabled people uncertain as to what the Government are proposing by way of changes to the benefit regime that affects so many millions of them.

The story begins with the Queen's Speech on 20 June which announced legislation on the matter, including a welfare reform Bill. A few days later, during parliamentary questions, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made it clear: he said that

The proposal was for primary legislation as part of a welfare reform Bill.

In a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Secretary of State expanded on his proposals. The press, of course, expanded on them even more, but the right hon. Gentleman said

That was the position at the beginning of July.

The Secretary of State encountered considerable concern and distress, not least owing to the clumsy briefing to the effect that the proposals were MOT tests for disabled people—hardly a helpful way of discussing welfare reform. The Conservatives support measures to ensure that disability benefits are awarded only to people who are genuinely disabled, but we do not think that is the way to tackle a serious reform.

The issue came up during Prime Minister's questions on 4 July. The Prime Minister said:

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He went to make a comment that we often hear from Labour Members:

I want to offer the House a brief history lesson. Incapacity benefit was introduced in 1995 as a reform introduced by the then Secretary of State for Social Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley).

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): It was a new name.

Mr. Willetts: No; it was not simply another name for a previous benefit; it was a significant change in the regime.

The number of people on incapacity benefit fell steadily from the introduction of the benefit in 1995 until 1998, since when, under the present Government, the number of people in receipt of incapacity benefit has started to increase. Therefore, under us the number of people on incapacity benefit was falling; under the present Government, the number of people on incapacity benefit is rising. The number of people whose claims were terminated by reason of failing the personal capability assessment was running at approximately 40,000 per quarter. That number is now down to 20,000. Almost half of the decline in measured claimant count unemployment is matched by an increase in the number of people claiming incapacity benefit under the present Government.

I would gladly give the Secretary of State the opportunity to repeat the claim that he always makes: that those statements may be true—of course, they are true—but the explanation is that more and more women have a contributions record that entitles them to incapacity benefit. That is not the whole story. It is true that some of the increase in incapacity benefit claimants is among women, but there are now 24,000 more men claiming incapacity benefit than there were when the number of recipients reached its lowest point. In fact, there is now a steady upward trend in the number of people claiming incapacity benefit and I believe that the Government, instead of making false claims about the history of the benefit, need to explain clearly why, while they are in office, the number of people claiming incapacity benefit is rising.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): I very much hope to catch your eye later in the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I want to point out now that no history of incapacity benefit that starts in 1995 can possibly be complete. The total case load of incapacity benefit is far too high, and to a large extent that is because a very large number of people went on to the then invalidity benefit in the 1980s. The problem was that those people were given no help or advice to return to work; the then Tory Government simply dumped them on that benefit to disguise unemployment. If we are going to have a history lesson, let us have a complete history lesson.

Mr. Willetts: It is certainly one effect of the calling in for interviews of people who claim unemployment benefit, and it was undoubtedly an effect when restart interviews were conducted in the mid-1980s, that some

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people who are classified as unemployed are discovered to have disabilities that mean that they receive disability benefits. I should be interested to hear whether the Secretary of State will deny that that happens today, when some people are claiming jobseeker's allowance or income support on the grounds that they are not in work. Is the right hon. Gentleman willing to deny that, in benefit offices all around the country now, staff are saying, "We have discovered, from the interviews that we have been conducting with you, that you have a disability, so we believe that it is more appropriate that you be on a disability benefit"? Of course that goes on. That is part of the day-to-day business of scrutinising benefits and ensuring that people claim the benefits to which they are rightly entitled. I am asking the Secretary of State to explain why the incapacity benefit case load is now rising, and rising among men as well as women.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): The hon. Gentleman's figures appear to suggest that all the scare stories that he and the Liberal Democrats were putting round in 1999 have come to nothing, but I want to take him back to the Queen's Speech, which he mentioned at the start of his contribution. Is it not the case that the Queen's Speech talked about enhancing the civil rights of disabled people even further, and would that not include the right to work for people who can, the right to benefit and support for people who need it, and the right to high-quality advice, and are not they all embodied in the Secretary of State's proposals?

Mr. Willetts: I entirely agree with all those propositions. It is important that people who are suffering from disability are helped into work whenever that is feasible; I accept that. The question that I hope to come to during my remarks is whether the Government's proposals will be effective in achieving that objective.

While the Prime Minister was on his feet in this Chamber on 4 July, claiming that people were going to be on incapacity benefit for 10, 15 or 20 years without any attempt being made to investigate whether they were genuinely entitled to it—while he was perpetrating nothing short of a myth—the Secretary of State's colleague, Baroness Hollis of Heigham, in the other place at almost exactly the same time, was adopting a different tone, perhaps because, unlike the Prime Minister, she knew the facts. She said

Indeed, a well-established provision in legislation enables any benefit officer who suspects that someone on incapacity benefit might be capable of work to require that person to have a medical reassessment.

The Minister's predecessor, who is sadly now on the Back Benches, the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), when discussing medical incapacity testing in Standing Committee D on 15 April 1999, said

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That is the regime that applies at present. That description from the previous Minister responsible for disability benefits in the then Department of Social Security is an accurate description of the present regime.

What the Prime Minister said in oral questions and the accounts that were spun to justify the Government's measures were not an accurate account of that regime. It is worth hon. Members on both sides of the House being aware of the facts about how the present regime works, as it enables us to scrutinise this measure properly.

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