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18 Nov 2002 : Column 377—continued

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): May I urge the Secretary of State to ignore the Jonahs on the Opposition Front Benches, and instead commend the excellent work that is already being done to get disabled people into work by the skilled professional advisers in jobcentres? Will he expand on the work of the action teams for jobs, such as the one in East Ayrshire, which is successfully providing minibuses for groups to get to work, and helping people with driving lessons so that they can pass their test and drive to work? All those teams are doing extremely well. Will he consider rolling out the action teams on jobs initiative to other areas, such as Girvan—an area you know very well, Mr. Speaker? Will he also confirm that one of the new, excellent pilot schemes will be in Scotland?

Mr. Smith: Yes, I hope that one of the pilots will be in Scotland. I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks about the staff in jobcentres and elsewhere who are doing such good work in helping disabled and other unemployed people into jobs. I shall listen to what he has to say as we carry forward this initiative on action teams for jobs. I shall consider carefully his recommendation for it to be extended.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): If the proposals that the Secretary of State has announced have the intended impact, they deserve to be supported. However, he seemed to be establishing a new battery of special advisers, experts and others who will help disabled people to go from welfare into work. How many new advisers does he anticipate will be required for these extensive measures, and what will that cost?

Mr. Smith: As I just said, we shall draw on the expertise that is already available from disability employment advisers. We shall need to recruit and train more advisers in the pilot areas. That will have to be a collaborative effort in those areas as the initiative gets under way. The hon. Gentleman asked a sensible question about costs. It shows the scale of our commitment to this initiative that provision was secured

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through the spending review for extra resourcing. There will be #15 million next year and #41 million in each of the two succeeding years.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): I have no doubt that the credit of up to #40 a week for people coming off incapacity benefit into work and the grant of up to #300 for the one-off costs of going into work will be a tremendous help to people who would otherwise find that transition difficult. Will the Secretary of State help me with regard to disabled people who could work but perhaps not full-time? I am thinking of severe asthmatics and people with arthritis or ME. My constituent Joe Bush is a severe asthmatic. He is a few years from retirement, and is allowed to earn up to #66 a week on top of his incapacity benefit, but only for 26 weeks, after which he must start from scratch. What is there in this package for people like Mr. Bush, who are capable of work, but not full-time, regular work?

Mr. Smith: The provisions for therapeutic earnings are not limited to the first 26 weeks. Where it is clearly to the benefit of the client, as judged by a medical professional or by their adviser, that period can be extended. Moreover, that is one of the reasons why, in the pilots that I have put forward today, the back-to-work credit—the extra #40 a week—would not depend on someone working full time and would be available to someone working more than 16 hours a week. That greatly increases the gains from working for someone with a disability moving into a job, even when they cannot work full-time.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield): I welcome some of the Secretary of State's comments about helping people who are on incapacity benefit back into work where that is appropriate, but the emphasis must be on Xwhere appropriate". I should like to ask two questions in relation to that. First, he talks of compulsory interviews in the pilot areas for all but the most severe cases. What criteria will be used to determine those cases? This year, we have seen successful appeals against decisions to withdraw incapacity benefit increase from more than 40 per cent. to a massive 53 per cent. Obviously, people concerned do not want to be forced back into work when they are not ready or capable. Secondly, all the surveys undertaken by the Government and by disability organisations indicate that 40 per cent. of people with disabilities positively would welcome the chance to get back into work if they could overcome the obstacles. Many of the things that the Secretary of State said will help in that area, but why not, rather than beginning with blanket back-to-work interviews—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman two questions. He is doing well.

Mr. Smith: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supportive remarks. It is not a question of forcing anyone to undertake work. We will be using the existing provisions that can make work-focused interviews mandatory, and, in excepting the most severe cases, we will be guided by the personal capability report. That is precisely something on which we wish to consult as we develop the proposals, which is one of the reasons why

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these are Green proposals today. We want to learn from those in the field, the wider public and those who represent disabled people.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): I welcome my right hon. Friend's determination not to write off people with disabilities, as occurred before 1997. In addition to the welcome measures to help disabled people into work, will he make sure that there is continuing support so that they can continue in work and do not find themselves back on benefits soon after getting into employment?

Mr. Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for his support. We shall examine how we can ensure that the support does not stop the minute someone starts work. That support must continue, so that they have that back-up, which is an essential part of the rehabilitation process.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Why is the Secretary of State so timid and coy in failing to appreciate the significance of the problem highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant, namely that the complexity and intrusiveness of means-tested benefits are such that one third of pensioners do not claim them? Will he recognise that that is an urgent problem that needs to be urgently addressed?

Mr. Smith: I am not aware that I was being coy. As the hon. Gentleman recognises, there is a balance to be struck between simplicity on the one hand and ensuring that available resources are used most effectively to help the poorest on the other. We have been doing that; notably in respect of the huge inroads that are being made into pensioner poverty, precisely because we have brought in the minimum income guarantee and increased it in real terms by so much.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): I welcome the benefit upratings, especially the above-inflation increases for the state retirement pension, the minimum income guarantee and statutory maternity pay. In the case of older people on benefit who want to return to work, does my right hon. Friend also recognise the problem of age discrimination by some employers? If sticks and carrots can be applied to those employers, will he

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consider bridging the gap between the current voluntary code of practice and the legislation that will not be with us until 2006?

Mr. Smith: One of the programmes that we have learnt from in devising the pilots is the new deal 50-plus, where the back-to-work credit was such a success in supporting so many people back into jobs. I am aware of the problem that my hon. Friend refers to. It is why we are running the age positive campaign. Since we launched that, the proportion of job advertisements in which an age limit is specified has more than halved. Moreover, the Government are committed to bringing forward measures to tackle age discrimination through legislation.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): A recent meeting of the all-party group on brain injury heard evidence that entirely substantiates my right hon. Friend's claim that many people with brain injuries want to work and are capable of working but lack the necessary advice and support. Can he reassure me that, among the specialisms of the new advisers that he has announced today, there will be expert knowledge on the many complex issues facing people with acquired brain injuries?

Mr. Smith: Yes. That is precisely the sort of expertise that we have drawn on in bringing forward the proposals. I referred in my statement to the medical evidence on these matters. There is the Acheson report and work by Waddell and Burton on occupational health guidelines for the management of back pain. Others have expertise in head injuries. Increasingly, the evidence shows that, in the right circumstances, the right progress back into work helps people in terms of health as well as of self-esteem. We shall draw on the expertise.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the approach tailor-made to the individual is exactly the right approach but extremely resource-intensive? Can he build on the action team for jobs and avoid the aberration where one community in one ward benefits from it, yet one equally deprived next door cannot? It has released pent-up demand and is thoroughly to be welcomed. Can he try to avoid the aberration of the postcode lottery?

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