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5.1 pm

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): My point links to the one made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney). One of the real achievements of the party that is now in opposition was to change the debate about unemployment. It managed to focus the public mind on the fact that a considerable number of people were unemployed because they wanted to be, rather than because no jobs were available. We have lived through a period of about nine years during which the number of jobs in the community has continued to rise. It may be that we are now in a period during which, in the country as a whole, the number of people in work will begin to fall.

When I was in opposition, I supported the policy of linking claimants to the labour market—it was called supply side reform—and I continue to do so now that we are in government, but we are beginning to enter a different period. I recently received a parliamentary answer showing that in 266 of our constituencies the

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employment rate is now lower than when we were first elected in 1997. In other words, while there will of course be some jobs, even in Birkenhead, it is becoming more difficult for claimants to find work, even if they want to. That will be generally true of the country as a whole, but particularly true of areas where there are already job scarcities.

As we support joined-up government, the Secretary of State will have no problem with my plea to him, which is to tell the Chancellor that, while Labour Members support those moves that continue to develop the services that we provide for people who are seeking work, it is getting even more difficult to find work in some of our constituencies, quite simply because there is a shortage of jobs.

Of course we support the development of the supply side policies to help people into work, but I hope that it will not be long before the Government begin to think of measures that they can introduce to encourage reflation at a local level, so that those of us who represent seats where the employment rate is lower than when our Government were first elected—that is, about a third of hon. Members—will see that such policies go hand in hand with policies to try to increase the number of jobs in areas with severe job shortages.

5.4 pm

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): In order to try to decide what the regulations are designed to achieve, it is worth considering the circumstances in which they were brought into the public view. On the day when the Secretary of State made his speech to the think tank about the regulations, catching the disability organisations on the hop, the newspapers, before he spoke, were running headlines about MOT tests for the disabled.

Ministers shook their heads when the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) raised the issue, but when we read on the day of a Minister giving a speech, that

I suspect that there has been some communication between the newspapers and the Department. The same phrase, "MOT for the disabled", appeared in the Evening Standard one day and in The Times the next day, and although that phrase was not in the Minister's speech, it makes me wonder what role the briefers had to play.

Mr. Darling: I regard the phrase "MOT for the disabled" as deeply offensive in that context. If the hon. Gentleman reads the article, he will see that it is not attributed to me, but it is directly attributed to someone else. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would tell the House who said it, because that person should be ashamed of himself.

Mr. Webb: If the Secretary of State's spinners, when they leak speeches to the newspapers, produce such headlines, he should have better people spinning for him.

Mr. Darling: I am not going to let the hon. Gentleman get away with that. As he is entitled to do, he has referred to a newspaper article. Will he now please tell us who made that remark, because it is attributed to someone by

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The Times. He has the article and, for the sake of completeness, I hope that he will tell us who made that offensive remark.

Mr. Webb: The article says that Joe Korner of the Royal National Institute for the Blind was worried that the Secretary of State was proposing MOT checks for the disabled. All the subsequent press coverage—and the Government have some influence on what is written about their policies—[Hon. Members: "No."] Perhaps the Government have no influence on what is written and I have misunderstood. The coverage of what the Secretary of State had put in The Times before his speech led to grave concern among disabled people. The Secretary of State may claim innocence of that, but that was the result. Disabled people opened their newspapers in the morning to read the coverage that arose from the Secretary of State's briefing about the speech.

The next day, the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Walsall, North (David Winnick) challenged the Prime Minister at Question Time. Extraordinarily, the Prime Minister had believed the spin from the Department for Work and Pensions. As the hon. Member for Havant said, the Prime Minister said that people could not be left for 10, 15 or 20 years on benefits, but the fact is that the situation is extremely atypical except for the most severely disabled people. The Prime Minister thought that the regulations had something to do with getting people who were not really disabled off benefit. They are nothing of the sort.

The Secretary of State must take responsibility for the way in which he briefs the press when he launches an initiative. The Government are proud of the way in which they manage the media, but if that management disturbs genuinely disabled people, the Secretary of State should examine his conscience on the issue.

On which points do we agree with the Government? When it comes to Liberal Democrat criticism of his policy, the Secretary of State is fond of setting up straw men and then knocking them down, so I shall make our position clear. We support efforts to help disabled people who want and are able to work to get back to work.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): So do we.

Mr. Webb: So that is the Conservative party's position as well. However, should not the Government be doing more to make it easier for disabled people to get back to work allowing people to combine part-time work with part-time benefit?

Mr. Darling: Tax credits.

Mr. Webb: Those are received by a handful of people compared with the 1 million whom we are told want work. Four years ago, the Government said that 1 million disabled people want to work but are not doing so. Today, we heard the same figure. What have the Government been doing? They have achieved nothing in four years.

The key issue—which was properly raised by the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney)—is how the compulsory issues will affect disabled people. More than a quarter of the people receiving incapacity benefit have mental health or behavioural problems, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said. What effect will the regulations have on them?

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On 15 October, I asked the Secretary of State to supply me with the guidance notes that he will issue to his officials to administer the scheme. Those guidance notes still have not been forthcoming.

Mr. Darling: They should be.

Mr. Webb: The Secretary of State says that they should be, but I asked the Library this morning. At that time, the staff said that they had received nothing. Later, they rang to say that they had received the two-page memorandum, but they had not had the jobcentre guidance for officials. So I had to get it from somewhere else. Tabling a question in the House of Commons and giving it ten days is obviously a waste of time; I had to get a leaked copy from somewhere else. That is appalling.

I was staggered when I read the guidance, which has not been in the public domain until this week. There is a section on people with mental health problems, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton said. Paragraph 58 deals with the threat of suicide, and says that

That is the guidance for those who will be forcing people with mental health problems to come in for interviews on pain of loss of benefit. The guidance says:

Why has not any of this been laid before the House for us to see? The Government are telling their own officials that, potentially, they will have real problems when they deal with people with mental health problems. [Interruption.] I will not repeat what was said from a sedentary position; it would be unparliamentary. It is clear that people with mental health problems will have concerns about this matter. What will the Government do for them?

What about severely disabled people? A number of hon. Members are concerned about who will be allowed what they call "waivers" at the interviews. The astonishing thing is that we have referred to the primary legislation—the Act that allowed the regulations to be introduced—but it did not say who would be exempted. We have looked at the regulations, which do not say who will be exempted.

The memorandum that came to the Library this morning says that, for example, people with a terminal illness, people who have been recently bereaved or people about to start a job should be exempted. But who else? We do not know and we have no way of controlling it, because it is not in the regulations. It is down to the guidance; the guidance that was not laid before the House and which is not subject to parliamentary scrutiny. It is down to the discretion of individual decision makers.

The Government say that they are concerned about the rights of disabled people. Why do not they have these rights in the regulations? Why is it down to the individual discretion of the decision maker? What protection do those involved have? Do they know that the interviews

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can be waived at all? Will anyone tell them? If they fell in a definite category because of a particular condition, they would have some security. However, they have no security under the proposals. The hon. Member for Havant said that the research evidence is clear that these schemes do not actually work. He referred to research report No. 149, but did not read out the title.

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