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Refugee Doctors

2. Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): What his policy is on the need for refugee doctors in receipt of jobseeker's allowance or income support and undergoing training courses provided by the national health service to be available for work. [96320]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): The purpose of the jobseeker's allowance is to support clients who are available for and actively seeking work. Any change in those requirements would seriously dilute the work focus of the JSA. However, the Department of Health has established a steering group on refugee health professionals. The steering group has allocated £1 million for training and support to help refugee health professionals.

Dr. Harris: Does the Minister believe that that money is all that is required to solve the problem? At the moment, up to 2,000 refugee doctors are faced with the choice of giving up either the opportunity to use their skills in this country's health service, where they are desperately needed, or the livelihood that they require to support themselves and their families as they seek retraining in the NHS to give of their skills to this country. Should that be the only choice that they face?

Mr. Brown: I accept that the hon. Gentleman is on to a good point. That is why discussions between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health continue. We are seeking a way forward, but I cannot offer the prospect of an easy way forward at the expense of the benefits system.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): While welcoming what the Government have done with regard to the steering group, there are not only difficulties for doctors who would wish to be part of delivering health services in this country but, certainly in my constituency, single women who wish to return to

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nursing are experiencing the same difficulties, which are exacerbated by the difficulties of obtaining child care. Will the steering group also examine that?

Mr. Brown: The child care issues are under discussion in a number of Departments, and we have made progress in that area. On the point about the route for health care professionals—whether nurses or those with other specialisms—discussions continue between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health. We are trying to find a way forward but, as I said to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), that cannot be at the expense of the benefits system.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): Mindful of the enormous gaps in recruiting doctors in this country, largely because the policy of the Secretary of State for Health has driven so many home-grown doctors to frustration and to leave the profession, we need to use those refugees who are here. But will the Minister also be mindful that many countries—Ethiopia, for example—have more doctors based overseas in America than in Ethiopia itself? Will he make sure that when doctors are able to return to countries where they are desperately needed, they are assisted in doing so?

Mr. Brown: The whole focus of the Department for Work and Pension's working-age services is to help people into work in the United Kingdom. I respectfully suggest that the other issues that the hon. Gentleman raises are more appropriate for the Secretary of State for Health.

Incapacity Benefit

4. Jon Trickett (Hemsworth): How many incapacity benefit recipients lose part of the benefit because they receive armed forces pensions. [96322]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): People with armed forces pensions who are in receipt of incapacity benefit are not counted separately. The latest figures show that 11,800 people who are receiving incapacity benefit have had their benefit reduced to take account of their income from an occupational pension. Incapacity benefit is intended to provide a source of income for sick and disabled people of working age. We believe that it is therefore right to take account of their occupational pensions.

Jon Trickett : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Many people may be surprised to learn that it is possible that one's incapacity benefit can be reduced as a result of serving in the armed forces. At a time of increased tension in the world, may I urge the Minister to consider the possibility that either part or all of an armed forces pension might be exempted for incapacity benefit purposes? In any event, will he please look at the case of my constituent, Mr. Allsopp from South Kirkby, who tells me that he has lost a very large amount of his incapacity benefit in that way?

Malcolm Wicks: Obviously, I am happy to look at any situation regarding the hon. Gentleman's constituent.

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War pensions paid because of disablement in service are fully disregarded when calculating incapacity benefit, but it might help to clarify the fact that the first £85 of pension income from the normal military retirement pension is totally disregarded, with only 50 per cent. of the excess taken into account. Most people would say that it is right to have regard to a significant occupational pension.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): On reflection, does the Minister think that it is not really moral to cut the incapacity benefit of a person who was in the service of the Government and whose disability has come about by serving the Government and, indeed, the country?

Malcolm Wicks: As I have said, where the disability occurs because of service in the armed forces, no account is taken of the pension in relation to incapacity benefit. What is at stake is whether, when people retire in the normal way from the military, as they might do from public service, when they take an early retirement pension and they are of working age, we should have regard to some of that money, given that incapacity benefit is intended for people of working age. Our judgment is that to disregard the first £85 and thereafter to take account of 50 per cent. of the pension is a reasonable compromise.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): It is worth the Minister bearing in mind that armed forces pensions are among the very few pensions in this country that do not kick in until servicemen and women have done between 12 and 22 years' service, which is very unusual. Perhaps it might be worth considering the situation in that light.

Malcolm Wicks: Obviously, we keep all those matters under review. I repeat again, however, that to take no account of the first £85, and then to have regard to only 50 per cent. of the excess, seems to us a reasonable compromise at a time when significant numbers of people are on incapacity benefit and a growing proportion of them—although I do not want to exaggerate the numbers—probably have quite substantial occupational pensions.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): On a point of fact, the Government's judgment was to have an exemption of £50; the other place set it at £85. Is that not just one more example of the Government betraying our service personnel by allowing their interests to slip between the cracks of the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions? As our servicemen and women form up to go to the Gulf, they have the worst level of medical cover with which they have gone to war for more than 100 years, and private insurance companies have backed off from providing insurance. Is not that pettifogging measure introduced two years ago just one more kick in the teeth for those who serve us bravely?

Malcolm Wicks: No. I have made the point that when people are disabled serving their country, no regard is taken of that pension if they receive an incapacity benefit. We are not arguing about military personnel as such, but whether all people of working age who receive an early occupational pension should be able to keep

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100 per cent. of it, or whether some of it—above the level of £85 in this case—should be taken into account when they are awarded an incapacity benefit. That is the judgment that we have made.

European Year of Disabled Persons

5. Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell): What plans his Department has for the European Year of Disabled Persons. [96323]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): This year is the European Year of Disabled Persons. I want it to be a celebration of the achievements and potential of disabled people and an opportunity to raise awareness generally of the rights of disabled people, as well as taking the chance to improve civil rights in Britain for disabled people. My Department has almost doubled to £2 million the amount of money that we are putting into celebrating the year. It is funding 171 local, regional and national projects run by groups of and for disabled people to promote rights and participation.

Mr. Challen : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, which demonstrates how deeply committed the Government are to disabled people. In Leeds, three groups will benefit from the funding: the disability modernisation scheme, People in Action and Nterplay theatre. My only fear is that, once the European year is over, we might begin to forget the achievements of it, as has been the case with many previous European years. I urge my hon. Friend to review the plans for what happens afterwards, because that is important.

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is right that sustainability of achievements is an important part of the European Year of Disabled Persons. We hope that the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on 22 January of a draft disability Bill, to be published later this year, will provide long-lasting benefit to disabled people in this country. My view is that the local projects run by disabled people in areas such as Leeds, which my hon. Friend mentioned, will continue following the end of the year to make a real impact on the lives of disabled people.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): While we welcome the recent launch in this country of the European Year of Disabled Persons, the Minister will know that we remain concerned about apparent failures to make inroads in relation to the number of people of working age who still claim disability benefits. Even if there is no target as such, what progress does she hope to make, in this year of all years, so that slogans such as "Pathways to work" reflect less of the sound bite and more of solid achievement?

Maria Eagle: I would listen to the hon. Gentleman more if his party in office had not doubled the number of people on disability benefits. The number of people of working age claiming disability benefit who are able to go into work has narrowed. The number of disabled people of working age who are now in work has increased by 4.5 per cent. That achievement needs to be

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built on by "Pathways to work", which is the incapacity benefit Green Paper. As the hon. Gentleman knows, because we have discussed it many times, the Government will trial later this year and next year new interventions that aim to assist disabled people by providing proper rehabilitation and help so that they can get into work and benefit from it. We do not want them to be excluded from the labour market as they have been all too often in the past.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): I am sure that the Minister will agree that one of the biggest barriers to disabled people getting into work is the discriminatory attitudes of many employers, who still believe that employing a disabled person is more effort than it is worth. On the back of the promise that the European Year of Disabled Persons will promote the positive aspects of disability, will she take the opportunity to ensure that employers are informed that disabled people are worthwhile members of society and would be good people to have working for them because they add a great deal to a company?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is right. For example, disabled people are less likely to take time off work sick than those who are not disabled. That is, perhaps, a little known fact. My Department will use resources this year to raise awareness among employers of the value of employing disabled people if they want to retain a good and skilled work force. Employers should also realise that by October next year, when the small firms exemption from the employment provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is abolished, it will be unlawful for any employer, irrespective of the size of the company, to discriminate against a disabled person in employment.

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