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5.26 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Alistair Darling): I apologise to those of my hon. Friends who had hoped to speak in the debate, but it is a short debate and if I do not speak now I might not be able to answer some of the points that have been put.

It is interesting that in neither of the speeches by the principal Opposition speakers did we hear one shred of policy for dealing with a problem that successive Governments have had to confront. I understand the difficulties that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) has in opposing what is before the House, because I have just reminded myself what the Conservative spokesman said about the single gateway to the benefit system and work-focused interviews when we debated the primary legislation in 1999:

Who said that? It was the present Leader of the Opposition, so I can see the difficulty for the hon. Member for Havant

It might be helpful if I set out what the regulations do. They provide that everyone of working age who makes a new or repeat claim to benefit at a Jobcentre Plus office should take part in a work-focused interview as a condition of receiving benefit. Jobcentre Plus offices are replacing the Employment Service and Benefits Agency offices; the first 49 opened for business on Monday, and that number will be extended throughout the country, starting from next year.

Yes, this is a new approach. For the first time there is a single gateway to the benefit system, and we want to make sure that everyone of working age has the opportunity to find out what help there is to help them to work, if they can work. At the same time, that gives us the opportunity to get more help to people who cannot work.

We are making the changes because we want to ensure that the help and advice previously available only to people getting jobseeker's allowance are now available to other people of working age, too. During this short debate we have discussed the position of lone parents and people

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with a disability. In the past the problem was that we did not do nearly enough to ensure that those people got the sort of help that they needed.

We have heard about the fact that the Disability Rights Commission referred to the labour force survey that shows that there are about 1 million people with a disability who are not in work, but would like to work. If anyone in the House asked us today what we do to ensure that we help those 1 million people, the answer would be that we do not do enough. That is because until now we have never sat down with people, addressed the problems that they faced, and helped people with a disability get back into work.

I understand some of the difficulties that Members have raised about the availability of jobs, and the fact that we are dealing with people who may have a range of conditions, not just one particular condition. I understand the difficulties, but I say to my hon. Friends and the rest of the House that the Government are prepared to do everything we can to try to help people who for years have been excluded, and have been denied the sort of help that they ought to have had throughout those years.

That is what the regulations are about—providing help and support. However, that is possible only if we can see people in the first place and tell them what is on offer.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): The trouble is that in constituencies such as mine, where the pits and the textile industries have closed—some during the past four or five years—the number of people who are really unemployed, if we count them all, has hardly shifted since 1997. The problem in those areas—the Labour party has identified at least 25 of them—and it is reflected in some of the voting patterns, is that we badly need employment. I made a proposal for about 9,000 jobs on a pit site in Derbyshire. I have been trying to get that show on the road for four years. People say to me that the Government should be finding them work. After meeting those interviewers, in their sharp suits and Italian shoes, and going through the exercise, a lot of people are going to say, "Where are the jobs?" The Government can try as hard as they like in some areas, and it may come to fruition. I do not like the culture that surrounds the proposals but, that notwithstanding, it will be almost impossible to make them work in areas such as mine. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) put his finger on the point: when unemployment figures, sadly, start to increase generally—I hope that does not happen—the position will get worse.

Mr. Darling: I fully accept the points made by my hon. Friend and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field): there are real difficulties in some constituencies in some parts of the country, but that does not mean that we should not try to do everything we can to help those people to get into work. For example, there are constituencies in London, such as Tottenham and in Hackney, where unemployment remains extremely high, yet not far away there are employers with acute skill shortages.

Mr. Skinner indicated assent.

Mr. Darling: I am glad that my hon. Friend agrees.

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The whole thrust of the Government's policy is to ensure that mechanisms are in place to enable us to match people with those jobs. It is difficult in some parts of the country, but it is important that we try.

Mr. Frank Field: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Darling: I should like to make some progress—[Interruption.] If I have time, I shall get back to my right hon. Friend. With due respect, he spoke earlier and I want to deal with some of the points that were raised during the debate.

The difference between us and the previous Conservative Government is that through measures such as the new deals and the single gateway we are doing far more to meet people and to give them the help and advice they need to get them into work. That is why youth unemployment has come down by 75 per cent. That is why we have got 95,000 lone parents into work. Even in its pilot form, the new deal for disabled people got 40 per cent. of people into work. Most of those people would not be in work had we not been able to offer them the help and support that we are giving them.

Many Opposition Members asked why we introduced the proposals. The reason is that experience—in particular, through the new deals—has shown that unless we can sit down with people and tell them about the help and support that are available, far too many of them do not know what is on offer. For example, when we set up the new deal for lone parents, we found that when people attended an interview and found out what was available about 89 per cent. joined the new deal. The problem was that the vast majority of people did not go for an interview so they did not know about tax credits, the benefit run-ons for lone parents or the working families tax credit. Unless we can get people to attend an interview so that we can tell them what is on offer, including the help available for those who cannot work, a situation that is intolerable to most of my right hon. and hon. Friends, whereby a whole generation was written off for year after year after year under the previous Government and given no help, will continue.

I shall address directly some of the concerns that were expressed in this short debate. The first point is that we must treat individuals as individuals. That is where I have some difficulty with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). She had a good point to make but she spoilt it by over-egging her argument—as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) pointed out. I repeat a point that I have made time and again and which is also clear from the guidance and the memorandum that we placed in the Library: we must treat people sensitively. We must avoid a severely disabled person who has no prospect of working and who would gain no benefit from work being alarmed unnecessarily. The hon. Lady must accept that to treat everybody who receives incapacity benefit— or, indeed, everyone who might be affected by the regulations—as though they were completely unable to deal with an interview is wholly unreasonable. I repeat—

Mrs. Browning rose

Mr. Darling: I shall give way to the hon. Lady in a moment.

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The regulations and guidance issued to our staff make it absolutely clear that, first, there is power to waive or defer interviews and, secondly, contrary to what the hon. Lady said, we will not remove benefit from someone simply because they do not turn up. There are provisions to ensure that we act reasonably at all times. After all, decisions of our staff are subject to appeal, so I do not accept the rather over-argued case that the hon. Lady advanced. She also asked the perfectly good question whether we would treat people sensitively and ensure that our staff were trained; I readily assent to that.

Mrs. Browning: I did differentiate between certain hypothetical situations. Will the Secretary of State confirm one point? On 23 October, The Independent printed the draft guidelines for officers deciding waivers and deferrals, which provided that deferrals should be used "infrequently" and waivers "very rarely". How does the right hon. Gentleman square those words with the rather sympathetic approach that he is now explaining to the House?

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