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18 Nov 2002 : Column 374—continued

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North): I welcome the thrust of the statement, but one of the biggest barriers preventing those with disabilities, especially mental disabilities or illnesses such as epilepsy, from getting work is the attitude of employers. What work will my right hon. Friend do with his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry to challenge those prejudices, which, sadly, apply to all too many employers?

Mr. Smith: I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes our proposals. We shall continue to work closely with employers through, for example, the Disability Rights Commission, to promote the responsibilities imposed by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, including those that will apply to small as well as large firms from 2004. We shall also work through the National Employment Panel to encourage and support employers who recruit more disabled people.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): As the Secretary of State knows, when it comes to the quite proper allocation of further resources to the uprating of benefits and new resources to welfare-to-work schemes, his Department's accounts have been qualified owing to the huge amount of social security fraud; yet only 5 per cent. of fraudsters are prosecuted. Has he any plans to change the policy?

Mr. Smith: We take every opportunity to bear down on fraud, and to minimise the amount of fraud. As for the qualification of the accounts, we are working closely with the National Audit Office to end the present situation.

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): I welcome the changes in incapacity benefit administration. As an old industrial area, my constituency contains a significant number of men over 50 who will be helped by the new scheme. My obvious question is this: when will it be rolled out nationally so that Dudley can benefit?

Mr. Smith: The first three pilots will begin in October next year, and three more will follow in April 2004. We shall need to learn from that experience what works best and how cost-effective the programme is before deciding on when to roll it out, but the new approach promises a great deal, and I hope that we shall be able to extend it more generally.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): Today's statement ranged more widely than the traditional uprating statement that the House has come to expect at this time of year. Along with outside bodies that take an interest in these matters, we shall have to examine the Secretary of State's words carefully to ensure that what he has proposed will actually happen.

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May I invite the right hon. Gentleman to answer the question posed by the shadow Secretary of State about the timing of the Child Support Agency reforms? May I also point out that his proposals for incapacity benefit are almost identical to those in the last Conservative party manifesto? Why does he not go the whole hog and introduce a proper integrated system?

Mr. Smith: Ours are consultative proposals, and we shall work closely with outside organisations. We shall listen to their comments, and make sure that what is implemented works well. As for the timing of the child support reforms, I wrote to all Members in September updating them on the progress of the testing of the new system. I cannot say more today, but I assure the House that, as soon as I can say when the new system will be operating, I shall seek to make a statement here.

I was not aware of a resemblance between our proposals and those of the last Conservative Government. If I had been, I might have expected a warmer welcome from Conservative Members today.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington): I particularly welcome my right hon. Friend's emphasis on the importance of piloting reforms such as these. As he will know, the ONE reform was piloted very successfully in my constituency. One thing that emerged then was the advantage of targeting and tailoring services according to the needs of individuals. Will that approach be extended to my right hon. Friend's reform of incapacity benefit?

Mr. Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome and, like him, I think that there are important lessons to be learned from the ONE pilots. Indeed, I was pleased to visit the office in his constituency when the ONE pilot was being established there. The approach needs to be individually tailored, drawing on the personal capability report as well as medical advice and advice from other occupational health specialists to ensure that we meet the needs of the individual. The barriers that people face, whether of confidence, skills or health, are very individual and the programme needs to be individually tailored.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Will the Secretary of State take another look at how welfare to work impacts on the more able end of the spectrum of those with learning disability and those with ongoing mental health problems? He will understand that a rather different approach is required, because they are not necessarily people who have had something wrong with them or have fallen sick and recovered. They need time. In that context, will he re-examine his changes to the therapeutic earnings rule and how it affects those people? I seek for them not jobs that are just make-work schemes, but real, paid jobs. That extra time would make a difference to them.

Mr. Smith: The hon. Lady makes some good points, and we shall continue to develop our policies in ways sensitive to those whom she describes as being at the able end of the spectrum. That is very important indeed.

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In relation to the therapeutic earnings rule, it is important to understand that when an adviser or health support worker thinks that there is continuing health and personal development benefit from that work experience, it can extend beyond the initial 26 weeks and the second 26. We need also to consider those matters in line with what the hon. Lady says about the potential of those at the able end of the spectrum to see what we can do to enable them to move to self-sustaining employment. I would have thought that the right support and training for people who have been taking advantage of therapeutic earnings for up 16 hours would help them to move beyond that, extending opportunity rather than denying it. That is what the pilots are intended to provide.

Dr. Jack Cunningham (Copeland): Should not everyone welcome the important benefit upratings that my right hon. Friend has announced today and the changes in procedures that his statement envisages? Will he be rigorous, however, in ensuring that the Government's intentions and our constituents are not let down by information technology system failures, on which Whitehall, sadly, does not have a good record? Is it not obvious that, with 2.7 million people receiving incapacity benefit, many tens of thousands of them would like to work if the opportunity were there for them? I therefore welcome his imaginative proposals to give those people help, professional guidance and encouragement to rejoin the labour market. But do not they also need a new deal from employment and recruitment agencies to ensure that outdated prejudices against people with disabilities are swept away once and for all?

Mr. Smith: Yes, indeed. I thank my right hon. Friend for his welcome and the points that he makes with characteristic eloquence. He is right about changing attitudes—that is one thing that we hope the initiative will do. It is perhaps not sufficiently realised that, every year, some 150,000 people move off incapacity benefit and into jobs. Reference has been made to the new deal for disabled people, which has already helped 14,000 people off incapacity benefit and into work, so with the extra support and the tailored advice, many more people, as he advocates, can progress to jobs. As to sorting out IT system failures, my Department is working night and day to get it right.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): I also welcome the moves to help people with disability back to work, representing as I do an area of low economic activity that contains a large number of people with disabilities.

May I ask the Secretary of State about areas of high unemployment and extreme rurality? The statement talks about an era of full employment and a tight labour market, but that certainly is not the case in parts of the UK, parts of Wales and parts of my constituency. How will the pilot schemes address such questions in areas of high unemployment? On areas of extreme rurality, he referred to bus passes. According to the 1991 census, in my area at least, about 2 per cent. of the working population travel to work by bus. People with a

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disability will find it difficult to travel to any jobs that might be appropriate. How will the scheme in the six areas address those questions?

Mr. Smith: I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point about the challenge not just on unemployment as conventionally recognised, but on labour market inactivity, especially in some parts of Wales. I very much hope that we will be able to operate one of the pilots in Wales precisely so that people trapped in inactivity can have a greater opportunity to get into jobs. The initiatives that we are already implementing through the action teams in the most disadvantaged areas have a lot to commend them, and I would certainly urge strong local collaboration between Jobcentre Plus and the health and occupational specialists, and with employers. There are vacancies even in areas of high unemployment, and it is crucial for people who have been trapped out of the labour market to be able to access them.

The discretionary support available for travel is not confined to bus passes. I gave that as an illustration. It can help with travel to work by other means.

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