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18 Nov 2002 : Column 367—continued

Mr. David Willetts (Havant): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and welcome the uprating of benefits. Despite his devoting only seven sentences of his statement to the uprating of all social security benefits, it is important for the House to ask about the right hon. Gentleman's overall strategy for benefits, before turning to what he said specifically about incapacity benefit.

Next year, #19 billion of benefits for families, including child benefit, will have been handed over to the Treasury to satisfy the Chancellor's strange obsession with tax credits. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that they will be covered in any future uprating statements? More importantly, will the Secretary of State pledge that the different tax credits for families which will replace benefits will all be uprated annually, at least by inflation?

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The benefit system is to go through enormous change over the next 18 months, with more means tests and more tax credits. I regret that in his short remarks about the uprating, the Secretary of State did not describe the measures that he was taking to deliver those changes. There is widespread concern about their practicability. The pension credit has already been delayed from April 2003 to October 2003—and the computers will not be ready even then, so the complicated new formula is supposed to run on the old computers for at least two years. Is the Secretary of State confident that he can deliver that?

With child support, the position is the other way around: the new computers are available, but they are supposed to be operating on the old formula, and we still do not know when that will start. The child support changes have already been delayed from October 2001 to April 2002. Then, a few days before that deadline, they were delayed a second time, so millions of families still have no idea when the new rules for child support will take effect. Is it this year, next year, some time or never? The uprating statement is an opportunity for the House to be informed about that.

As if the pension credit and child support changes were not enough, there are all the changes to family benefits as well. Millions of families were told that they would receive the Chancellor's new tax credits in 2003, but that plan has been abandoned. Instead, the move to the new system is supposed to take place in three stages—in April 2003, October 2003 and April 2004. Can the Secretary of State assure us that that programme for the former family benefits, for which he is still responsible, is on track?

In April 2003, the Government will start the process of paying benefits into bank accounts. Hon. Members in all parts of the House will know that that has caused great concern, especially to pensioners in our constituencies. However, we still do not have reliable information about the post office card account, and none was offered today. Will the account indeed be available, ready and operational in all post offices for April 2003? We need to know from the Secretary of State whether it will be ready on time.

We would not mind all those changes to just about every main area of benefit if they were going to give us a better system, but the reason why the Government are having such difficulty in implementing them is that they are so complicated. That is because there is so much means testing. That is what we have got—more means testing for more families, and people simply do not like such tests. Does the Secretary of State accept that that is the reason why take-up of his benefits is falling? Is that why he has not even dared to publish his figures for the take-up of benefits even for the year ending April 2001, despite the fact that they are long overdue? When will he report to the House on the take-up of benefits?

Mr. Brazier: Answer.

Mr. Willetts: Quite right. What we want from the Secretary of State, with the minimal information about the benefits system in his uprating statement, is some answers. We need to know how many people he thinks will take up his new benefits. Will he confirm that buried in his Department's own forecast is the expectation that

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only two thirds of pensioners eligible for the pension credit will receive it? How many families eligible for his family credit will receive it? In the Chancellor's fantasy world, he tackles child poverty—an admirable objective to which we know he is personally committed—but he does so by assuming 100 per cent. take-up of his benefits. In the real world, there is nothing like 100 per cent. take-up, which is a very serious problem.

The Secretary of State devoted most of his statement not to the uprating of benefits, but to his particular proposals on incapacity benefit, about which I should now like to ask some questions. Will he confirm that the number of people on incapacity benefit has now been growing for two and a half years? That has happened despite the Government already having introduced some means testing of incapacity benefit claimants and years of briefing about crackdowns on disabled people who are not working, including the notorious spin last summer about the MOT tests for disabled people. Despite his glossing over the issue, the number of workless households is now rising again.

We very much hope that after years in which Ministers have talked a lot but delivered very little on disability benefits, things might be starting to change. However, in order to improve the system and genuinely to reform it, they will have to be much more honest about the problems that they have already encountered. The Secretary of State spoke as though a new deal for disabled people had not already been introduced, as well as the ONE programme and work-focused interviews for disabled people.

May I remind the Secretary of State of the evidence from his own attempts at piloting the very sort of schemes that he has once again announced today? I sometimes think that I am the only person in the country who ever reads his Department's research reports. Maybe I should have better things to do with my time. None the less, let me remind him of what his own research reports show. He talks as though there had never been a new deal for disabled people, but it has been in place for four years. I should like to quote from an evaluation of the letters sent to invite incapacity benefit claimants to interviews. His research states that, of the disabled people on incapacity benefit who received letters asking them to work-focused interviews,

He had only a 3 per cent. success rate in even getting people to the interviews under the new deal for disabled people.

Why will the new interviews be any more successful than those that the Secretary of State has already piloted, launched and, indeed, already evaluated? If people turn up for the interviews, what will happen then? Again, an evaluation has been produced by his own Department. Let me remind him what it found when it compared the pilot areas—[Interruption.] I am asking him whether he is learning the lessons from his own evaluations of his own pilots. That is the question. I shall quote. In the pilot areas

in these interviews

The research continues:

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In other words, the right hon. Gentleman's compulsory interviews were not effective. Why does he think that things will be any different this time round? We have had announcements, crackdowns, evaluations and pilots before. We hope that it will be different next time round, but given the Government's record I doubt very much it.

We need to know from the Secretary of State how many people he expects to participate in his pilots. How many people does he expect to find work as a result of the new schemes that he has announced? We hope that he will make a success of things. We hope also that he will learn from the many charities that work with disabled people. We hope that he will learn from the commercial sector that is involved in commercial disability insurance, such as Unum. Above all, we hope that the right hon. Gentleman will finally break free from a cycle of overspin, overhype, failed pilots and failed initiatives. If he can break free, we will support him.

Mr. Smith: I glimpsed one or two questions in the hon. Gentleman's speech. He might have started by welcoming the fact that this is the third year that the state pension has been increased by more than the retail prices index. The Conservative Government conspicuously failed to do that during every year that they were in office, except the year that they were taking money off pensioners with value added tax on fuel. Since 1997, the basic state pension has increased by #275 a year above the rate of inflation. The hon. Gentleman should welcome that.

As I have said, I glimpsed some questions. Pension credit has not been delayed. It is on course to be delivered next October, as was promised. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the stages for phasing in the introduction of the credits were on course. The answer is yes. If he does not understand why it does not make sense with such a great change to phase in the introduction, it is clear that he learned nothing from the Conservative Government's administrative failings.

The hon. Gentleman asked about post office card accounts and whether they would be ready. As I have reported to the House previously, we concluded contracts with the Post Office on the universal bank. The Post Office has assured us that the card is on course for delivery.

The hon. Gentleman referred to complications. Surely he should have learned from the lessons of the Child Support Agency. There was support on both sides of the Chamber for the original, over-complicated approach. We have had to simplify it and bring forward child support reforms.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the publication of benefits statistics. As he knows, take-up is a matter for the Office for National Statistics. I am as anxious to see the figures as he is. I hope that before the end of the month I shall be able to tell him when they will be available.

Eventually, the hon. Gentleman got round to the announcement that I have made on help for those with illness and disability.

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