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25 Nov 2002 : Column 5—continued

Incapacity Benefit Assessments

3. Linda Perham (Ilford, North): What representations he has received regarding incapacity benefit assessments carried out by SchlumbergerSema. [81271]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): We have received a number of representations from my hon. Friend, other hon. Members and members of the public about personal capability assessments carried out

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by SchlumbergerSema. A small proportion of medical assessments—about 0.5 per cent.—result in complaints about the doctor.

Linda Perham : I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and for seeing me last week in the case of Mrs. Gray. In the light of her case and continuing concerns expressed by disabled constituents about the quality of service provided, will he assure me that the assessments will be closely monitored, especially when the contract comes up for renewal?

Mr. Brown: We closely monitor the work of SchlumbergerSema, so I know that the number of complaints is going down. A set of standards has to be met and, so far, all the targets are being met.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Although I acknowledge that there has been progress in achieving a smoother and less judgmental assessment system, would the Minister not be prepared, in turn, to acknowledge that many claimants still resent intrusion, particularly in recurrent cases and those where perhaps the matter could have been resolved on evidence from the patient's own GP? But is he not even more concerned that, for all the Government's talk of welfare reform, there are almost as many claimants for incapacity benefit as five years ago, while there are no fewer than 250,000 extra disabled claimants for income support? Is that not a rather shameful failure to deliver?

Mr. Brown: If the previous Government had undertaken more pilot schemes on rehabilitation and other pathways to work, this Government would not have to undertake the necessary studies to try to achieve—I do not mean to make this a partisan point, tempting though that is—what I know we both believe in, as we have had exchanges about this before: helping those who can work into some form of work that they can comfortably undertake.

Employment Statistics

4. Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): What assessment he has made of the most recent employmentstatistics. [81272]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): The employment level is holding up well, given the world economic slowdown. We have record numbers of people in jobs thanks to economic policies for stability and labour market policies that keep people engaged with the job market, whatever the stage of the economic cycle.

Mr. Martlew : Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating those at the jobcentre in my constituency who in the past five years have seen unemployment drop dramatically, especially youth unemployment, which has dropped by more than 40 per cent.? But does he acknowledge that, at present, many people—not just in Carlisle, but throughout the country—who wish to

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work are on incapacity benefit? Will he outline the Government's proposals to help those people and support them back into work?

Mr. Smith: I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Jobcentre Plus staff and all the associated partners on the good work that they are doing in Carlisle. The number of young people unemployed for more than six months has fallen by 70 per cent. or more—a great tribute to the efforts of all concerned. In relation to incapacity benefit, I announced the consultation document last week, which will suggest a more intensive programme of interviews and other support for people going on to the benefit in the proposed pilot areas. We will introduce groundbreaking rehabilitation collaborative work with the national health service and a new £40 a week back-to-work credit in those pilot areas for the first year of employment. My hon. Friend is right: 90 per cent. of those coming on to incapacity benefit expect to get back into jobs. Those proposals will help them to do just that.

Ann Winterton (Congleton): Is the Minister aware of the growing number of white-collared unemployed who do not show in the statistics because they do not as yet qualify for benefits? What assessment has his Department made of that problem?

Mr. Smith: White-collar employees qualify for benefit on the same basis as anyone else, and the full array of programmes to help them—the new deals and Jobcentre Plus—are at their disposal, as well as the action teams for jobs. We also offer extra help through the new deal ambition initiatives, one of which includes collaboration with the IT industry, which would help precisely the sort of unemployed people to whom the hon. Lady has referred.

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): I thank my right hon. Friend and the Government for the low unemployment rate in this country, which is lower than that in most other comparable European countries. There is, however, a small number of long-term unemployed. What steps will be taken to change the new deal 25 plus to help those people into work?

Mr. Smith: We are refining and improving the new deals and our wider array of Jobcentre Plus programmes all the time. As work-focused interviews are rolled out with Jobcentre Plus, they are making a big difference, and the extra discretionary help that we are now able to put in the hands of the front-line advisers is producing good results in helping sometimes very long-term unemployed people who face considerable barriers to employment back in to jobs. As my hon. and learned Friend says, we are making good progress: thanks to initiatives of that sort, 100,000 more people are in jobs than were at the beginning of this year.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): In the last quarter, what percentage of new jobs were created in the public sector?

Mr. Smith: A significant proportion, as we fulfil our promises to invest in the national health service, education and rebuilding the nation's transport

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infrastructure. We make no apologies for keeping our promises to invest in public services and public infrastructure—if the Conservatives had done some of that when they were in office, we would not have had the mess that we have had to deal with.

Pensioner Poverty

6. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): What action he plans to take to assist older people living below the official poverty line. [81274]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): We have brought in the minimum income guarantee, winter fuel payments and free television licences for the over-75s, so that single pensioners are at least £18 a week better off and couples have gained by more than £27. Of the £6 billion extra that we are spending on pensioners compared with 1997, £2.5 billion is being spent on the poorest third of pensioners.

Mr. Cunningham : I am sure that my right hon. Friend would want to know that most people appreciate the fact that 650,000 pensioners in the west midlands have gained from the fuel poverty allowance. However, when he considers proposals on old-age pension increases in April, is he satisfied that when those increases are implemented, they will be a step in the direction of eliminating pensioner poverty?

Mr. Smith: Yes indeed. The increases will help us further to address pensioner poverty, and taken together with the introduction of the pension credit next October, all the measures that we have introduced mean that the average pensioner household will be £1,150 a year better off, and the poorest third of pensioner households will be £1,500 a year better off. Of course there is more to do, but that represents substantial progress in helping the poorest pensioners in our country.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire): The Secretary of State is absolutely right that we have to fight pensioner poverty, but does he accept that the minimum income guarantee and the pension credit make it rather difficult to achieve the target to which the Minister for Pensions committed himself today, that in future pensioners should receive approximately 60 per cent. of their income from private sources?

Mr. Smith: As I just said, we can always do more. We take seriously the recommendations of the National Audit Office's excellent recent report, which pointed to the need to build on local strategies targeted on those who are not getting everything to which they are entitled; to reduce duplication in the information that we request from people; to measure non-take-up better; and to spread information about pensions and benefits as widely as possible. We are doing that by sending out 2 million copies of the pension guide and by creating the Pension Service, a dedicated service for pensioners which will provide a more sensitive and user-friendly source of information and advice.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): Does my right hon. Friend accept that, while the minimum income

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guarantee and the pension credit are welcome, a great number of pensioners will not receive those benefits? Despite the current take-up proposals, does he accept that further work is needed, and will he set out what measures are being taken to increase take-up?

Mr. Smith: I accept that we need to build on the substantial progress that has already been made by intensifying take-up activity in precisely the way that I just outlined. My hon. Friend will have noted that in its report the NAO states that it was

The report also underlines the importance of doing all we can to encourage pensioners to contact the Pension Service or other advice agencies, stating that those pensioners who had made such contact

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): The Secretary of State will be aware that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said that

How can that happen when the Chancellor of the Exchequer raids the savers' funds? How can that happen when the extension of the means-testing that the Chancellor has introduced creates massive disincentives to savings? How can that happen when vehicles such as stakeholder pensions become such a flop that nine out of 10 of the schemes have no members at all and respected companies are simply giving up selling them? How will the Secretary of State encourage private saving?

Mr. Smith: Those remarks would have a lot more credibility if the Opposition and the hon. Gentleman had a single positive alternative to any of our policies. They do not.

To address the specific points on means-testing, is the hon. Gentleman advocating either spending more out of taxation and public spending or cutting some of the help that goes to the poorest pensioners? Judged by the Opposition's record, they would cut that help. He refers to stakeholder pensions. More than a million of them have been sold so far. Although we need to do even better than that, that is very good progress for a new pension product across the first year. Conservatives Members should support our efforts to build confidence in private pensions rather than carping at them.

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