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Disablement Awards

7. Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): What plans he has to change the medical criteria used to decide disablement awards for (a) vibration white finger and (b) chronic bronchitis and emphysema; and if he will make a statement. [123527]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): I acknowledge my hon. Friend's great expertise in this field and compliment him on his continuing efforts on behalf of his constituents who have acquired industrial disease and injury while in the mining industry.

As my hon. Friend is aware, we asked the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council to carry out a review of prescribed disease A11, commonly known as vibration white finger, and its report is expected at the end of the year. We have no current plans to change the medical examination process for prescribed disease D12, chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Mr. Clapham : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and am encouraged by the referral of vibration white finger to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. However, I encourage her to refer COPD—chronic obstructive pulmonary disease—to the council, too. She will be aware that both diseases are prescribed diseases and that there are two systems of examination—one for compensation and one for state benefit. People become confused when they are awarded compensation but denied state benefit. If she were prepared to make the change, it would set the basis for persuading the Department of Trade and Industry to introduce a no-fault liability scheme at the end of the tort scheme for COPD, which concludes on 31 March next year.

Maria Eagle: I always take a great deal of notice of what my hon. Friend says on the subject, because his interest in it and expertise are well known. He will know that the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council reconsidered the lung function test in 1999. He will also know that the social security lung function test is, in many ways, more generous than the test operated by the DTI. I understand where he is coming from, but he must be aware that the two schemes—the DTI tort scheme and the scheme that we run—are different. One is based on an individual personal injury claim going through the court. The other is a much more general collectivist scheme that is based on simpler and different tests, with different hurdles. Although I will consider what my hon. Friend suggests, I cannot promise to do as he says.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): Do the Government have any intention of extending disablement awards to former slate quarry workers? The Minister will know that slate quarrymen are already covered by the 1979 Act as far as dust is concerned, but surely there is a very

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strong case for extending those benefits to the few elderly men and widows who are left after the closure of the north Wales slate industry.

Maria Eagle: I am happy to consider that. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the requirement that one has to work for 20 years underground to obtain the benefit, but I will be happy to consider any evidence that he brings to me to convince me otherwise. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), I will listen, but I do not undertake to do as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): While it is right that the medical criteria for compensation and disablement benefits are constantly reviewed, can the Minister assure the House that those who do not meet the medical criteria do not receive a double whammy in the sense that they are then discriminated against when seeking work? What role does she see for the Disability Rights Commission? Is there a need to enhance that role?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend will be well aware that my Department has just undertaken a major push to assist more disabled to get back into work. We hope that that will involve all kinds of people, whether they have had disabilities from an early age or have become disabled because of industrial injuries or disease, for example. We aim to ensure that we reduce the number of people on sickness and incapacity benefit by ending discrimination in the workplace and ensuring that we help those people overcome the barriers that they face in returning to the workplace.

"Pathways to Work"

8. Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): What responses he has received to the pathways to work consultation. [123528]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): The Green Paper "Pathways to Work" set out a strategy for enabling people on incapacity benefits to move into work. Our response to the consultation, published on 10 June, gives details of the responses that we received, together with our plans for implementing the pilots.

I recognise that my hon. Friend has a particular interest as his constituency will be in the Bridgend and valleys pilot area, providing an exciting opportunity for the community that he represents to lead the way. I can confirm that excellent progress is being made in establishing that pilot and that I will visit it in the first week of the recess.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank the Minister for that answer. She is no doubt encouraged, as I am, by the excellent work that Bridgend and Rhondda Cynon Taff have already done in piloting many of the new initiatives designed to assist people back into work. Will she assure me that that will benefit those who have been struggling to get back to work for many years, because that is what

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we should focus on? I am sure that she will have read the report of the recent Adjournment debate on economic inactivity in Westminster Hall.

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend can be assured that I read his remarks in his debate, and naturally I agreed with all of them. I make it clear that anybody in his constituency, whether they have just come on to incapacity benefit or have been claiming it for many years, will be able to take advantage of the pilot scheme. Although it is aimed at those who are just coming on to incapacity benefit, any existing claimant who wants to take part can volunteer and will be welcome.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): As I pass from the not inconsiderable pleasure of shadowing the hon. Lady into the shadows, on this subject at least, may I ask her to fight firmly to root out any dualism in the system? The disability employment service is on target to place people, so it tends to place the easier cases and offload some of the harder ones on to the not-for-profit sector. In particular, will she remember that the situation of anybody who is incapacitated is by definition unique, in terms of both their disability and their economic situation and motivation? Will she ensure that the pilot scheme and, as she introduces it, the national scheme, are genuinely sensitive to the needs of the individual and their wish, and obligation, to get back to work if possible?

Maria Eagle: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has shadowed me. He has graduated to higher education, and its gain will be our loss, although I am sure that his replacement will make every effort to follow in his footsteps.

As the Minister responsible for disabled people, I recognise that those on incapacity benefit who want to get back to work face a range of barriers, such as a lack of skills or confidence after many years out of work, and only some of those problems can be laid at their door. The pilot schemes will enable us not only to test a range of interventions that assist the individual to feel ready and able to go back to work, both in medical and work-focused ways, but to tackle the attitudes, discrimination and other practical barriers faced by many of our fellow citizens who have spent years on sickness and incapacity benefit. We hope that the pilots will show a way forward that can be spread throughout the rest of the country.

Pension Credit

9. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): What steps he is taking to publicise the pension credit. [123529]

The Minister for Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): We began writing to pensioner households in April to explain the pension credit and invite advance applications. In addition, the 1.8 million people who receive the minimum income guarantee have been advised that they will be transferred automatically to the pension credit. Regional and national television and press advertising begins in September. We are also

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working at national and local level with organisations such as Age Concern to spread the good news about the pension credit.

Simon Hughes : Given that the figures apparently show that nearly 3 million people will not have an automatic entitlement but will have to ask for their pension credit from October, why is it that many people will be written to after October and, indeed, up to next summer? Is it not the case that up to 70,000 people may die before they claim their entitlement? Will Ministers review the timetable and make sure that everybody is written to before the date on which they become entitled to the money?

Malcolm Wicks: I hope that the House will appreciate that it is logistically impossible to write to the whole pensioner population within a few weeks or even months. We are staffing up the centres and the telephone service as best we can, and we must perform the task in the right way. The pension credit comes into force in October, and people can apply then, but we will steadily write to people. The Liberal Democrats' cynicism about what happens when people die is not worthy of the party. I wish that Liberal Democrat Members would start to be positive in debates and not always be thinking of next weekend's press release.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): Does my hon. Friend agree that welfare rights organisations such as citizens advice bureaux and local authority advice services have an important role to play in drawing pensioners' attention to their rights to benefits and in ensuring that they are calculated correctly? Will he ensure that such organisations are adequately funded? If one of his pensioner constituents came to his surgery with details of their income, would he be able to calculate for them exactly what pension credit they are entitled to?

Malcolm Wicks: As a former Minister for Lifelong Learning, I would certainly have a go. Despite being typecast as old-fashioned, stigmatising means-testing, the pension credit can be applied for over the telephone. One of our staff fills in the application, simply asking the pensioner to verify it. Minor changes of circumstances over a five-year period do not have to be reported. This is a new approach to targeting help on some of those who need it most. I hope that all Members of Parliament, who have thousands of people in their constituencies who can apply, will get behind it. We must make sure that we push take-up to as close as possible to 100 per cent. in due course.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire): The Minister talks about targeting, but does he accept that the combination of the minimum income guarantee and pension credit will increase the number of people on means-testing and reduce the number who are encouraged to save over the years? Does he accept that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) knows a great deal about the matter and has made that point?

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Malcolm Wicks: As I am trying to argue, pension credit is not the old weekly means test. The problem with the system that we inherited from the Conservative Government was that it penalised savings. People with a small occupational pension and savings in the Post Office had money knocked off, pound for pound, from their minimum income guarantee on income support. That was wrong. We want to encourage savings, and pension credit will do so.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I congratulate the Minister on his well-deserved promotion to his new role. Does he agree that the mind-boggling complexity of pension credit makes it difficult to publicise and undermines the savings culture? If he disagrees with me, could he explain, in the brief time that Mr. Speaker will allow, how to calculate the entitlement to pension credit for someone on low earnings?

Malcolm Wicks: We are already receiving a number of good reports from pensioners whom the Pension Service has written to and who have understood the leaflet and are applying for pension credit. The idea of being able to apply for it over the phone, when not the pensioner herself, but one of our staff expert in the matter calculates the entitlement, is a major advance. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his congratulations and ask him to concede that the new system is an advance on the position under a previous Secretary of State.

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