Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd):
If there is so much concern on the Conservative Benches about this issue, how come only eight of the 169 Conservative Members have turned up today?
The main debate today was introduced by the Liberal Democrat party and we know how boring debates introduced by the minor parties on their Supply days are. The hon. Gentleman will find that Conservative Members never flock here on such days.
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton):
May I remind my hon. Friend that had he and his colleagues not prayed against the measure, we would not have had any debate on it?
That is correct and it is another matter with which I hope to deal.
By 5 July the Secretary of State had announced that the Government would introduce primary legislation and establish fixed time limits for the receipt of incapacity benefit. They justified their policy through seriously misleading claims about the way in which the present regime was operated.
As we all know, there was widespread concern and confusion about what was proposed. Lord Ashley of Stoke was accurate when he pointed out in The Times that
"The Government has the power to repeatedly reassess if it wishes, and it undoubtedly uses it. The proposed changes are unnecessary."
One of our criticisms of the Government is that it is not the regulations that have caused problems with securing reliable and prompt medical assessments and reassessments under the present rules for incapacity benefit; the problem has been getting access to medical assessments and reassessments when benefits offices want them to be carried out. The real problem has been with the delivery of those assessments.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury):
Does my hon. Friend agree that the difficulties with the medical assessments that he mentions are partly caused by the way in which the Government have messed about with the remuneration and administrative arrangements of the medical officers involved, as one of my constituents recently wrote to tell me?
A very powerful Select Committee report on precisely that subject was published during the previous Parliament. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
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The Government got themselves into a serious mess, and on 12 July, The Guardian reported:
"Government sources privately recognise the presentation of the proposal did not go as well as hoped".
That is a fairly accurate account of the mess that the Government had got themselves into by 12 July. At that point, the climbdown began. First, we learned in a parliamentary answer from the Secretary of State that he had lost his nerve about introducing all these measures as part of primary legislation, which is where we began. Primary legislation would not be used, and he announced that
regulations under the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999 would be laid before both Houses in the autumn."[Official Report, 11 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 567W.]
So I should be grateful to the Secretary of State if he could confirm that, contrary to the assertions that were made, this matter will not form part of the welfare reform Bill that we expect to be introduced in the next few weeks? That was the first climbdown.
The regulations that were then tabled include a memorandum that states:
"The regulations will not result in claims being time limited."
So I should be grateful to the Secretary of State if he could also confirm that, contrary to what he told the House during oral questions before the summer recess, claims for incapacity benefit will not be time limited under the regulations.
In answer to an oral question that I asked last week, the Secretary of State said:
"Medical examinations are indeed appropriate and we are not proposing to change the regime in that regard, although the administration of the examinations is being improved."[Official Report, 15 October 2001; Vol. 372, c. 911.]
Has the regime for medical examinations under incapacity benefit changed? Hon. Members on both sides of the House and many representatives of disabled people are entitled to an answer to that question, not least because the UnderSecretary of State for Work and Pensions appeared to suggest in a written answer to a question asked by the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) that
"in certain circumstances, the new triennial review could lead to an additional medical test."
So there seems to be a difference between what the Secretary of State said during oral questions and the Minister's answer.
There has been confusion about whether the measures would be introduced under primary legislation or in regulations. There has been confusion about whether there will be a fixed period for incapacity benefit claims. There has also been confusion about whether there will be extra medical tests. To add to that confusion, the Government even seem to be confused about why we are debating the confusion.
On 4 October, Conservative Members tabled early-day motion 216, which Liberal Democrat Members also signed, to try to secure a debate on these regulations. We made it clear at the time that that was why we tabled the motion, and I have a copy of it here. We were very surprised therefore to hear the Secretary of State say on the "Today" programme on Monday this week that
"by the middle of last week I discovered that neither the Tories nor the Liberals had asked for a debate so I asked for our Whips to arrange a debate. The first slot I could get is this Thursday. Getting a slot on the Floor of the Commons is difficult at the best of times, but we've got that."
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We are holding this debate because we tabled a motion objecting to the regulations and we then pressed for a debate through the usual channels, so the Secretary of State has been consistently wrong and misleading not only about the purpose of the regulations and how they will work, but about why we are debating them today in the House of Commons.
Uncertainty and distress has been caused by the four months of confusion about the regulations, but, as has been said, the crucial, underlying question is whether they will have any practical effect in helping people who are disabled and receive incapacity benefit to find work.
The Government are supposed to be keen on what they call "evidence-based" policy. That is one of new Labour's buzzwords. We have much evidence in many research reports from the Department of Social Security about the impact of the ONE programme and what effect piloting of work-focused interviews has had on benefit claimants.
I shall quote to the Secretary of State the research produced by his own Department, evaluating the impact of ONE. Research report No. 140, published this year, says, for example:
"ONE did not seem to challenge or change the expectations of those jobseekers with previous experience of claiming. They largely perceived the service to be the same 'process' they had experienced before and, in some instances, compared the advice received unfavourably with that offered through the Jobcentre."
The report states as a summary:
"there was no change in the attitudes and/or behaviour of those already in work".
The researchers were not able to detect any change. The summary also states:
"Personal advisers were able to change a few participants' attitudes to work".
That, I suppose, is progress of a sort, although the summary continues:
"These impacts, however, are an exception to the wider experience of those participants who did not feel work was an option."
Labour Members believe that the Government have cracked the problem of helping people on benefits into work by introducing compulsory interviews. I invite those who genuinely believe that to consider the evidence in the Government's evaluations of the piloting of the schemes.
Research report No. 126 found that in areas subject to the piloting of the scheme, where, it is worth pointing out, it has been going on for some time,
"Respondents in the sick or disabled group who had not participated in ONE were more likely to be in work than were participants".
So, before Labour Members tell us that they have cracked the problem of helping disabled people or others into work by introducing compulsory work-focused interviews, they need to explain why they do not believe the Government's evaluations, which the DSS has helpfully produced. As the researchers say,
"This finding is not easy to explain",
but that is their finding.
I shall quote from other research reports, and refer Members who wish to pursue the subject to research reports Nos. 126, 140 and 149.
"Among sick or disabled clients whose background or circumstances might hinder entry to the labour market, there was no evidence that those in the pilot areas were more likely than the controls"
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those who did not have ONE job-focused interviews
"to be working or looking for work at the second survey interview about 10 months after their claim".
Therefore, the evidence is that the proposal, which after all the confusion and distress the Secretary of State has finally put before the House, is unlikely to have any practical effects on the prospects of people in receipt of benefit, especially disabled people, subsequently entering work.