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Incapacity Benefit

13. Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South) (Lab): If he will make a statement on helping people on incapacity benefit to get back to work. [160849]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): Tackling jobseeker's allowance unemployment had to be our first priority in 1997, but we have already gone further than any previous Government to give people on incapacity benefits help to move into work. That said, inactivity remains our greatest challenge. As part of our welfare to work strategy, we are piloting pathways to work, a groundbreaking approach that gives people on incapacity benefit access to a comprehensive range of work-focused support, rehabilitation and financial incentives. The scheme is already generating encouraging feedback and will be extended to a further four districts next month.

Mr. Marshall : I thank my hon. Friend for that full response. Does she agree that the positive policies that she has outlined to the House today are in stark contrast to the policies pursued by previous Tory Administrations who, in effect, used incapacity benefit as a means of fiddling the unemployment figures? As a consequence, the number of people claiming incapacity benefit increased threefold between 1979 and 1997.

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is exactly right: there was a 300 per cent. increase during the Conservatives' tenure of office—not that I would seek to make party political points on such an occasion.

The number of people coming on to incapacity benefit has fallen by a third since 1997. At the same time, the number of people in jobs has increased by 1.7 million and 700,000 people have left the unemployment register. Any Government would be proud of that record. We are starting to put right the mess that the Conservatives made when they were in office.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op): I was tempted to speak on the previous question, but like the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman), I would have had to declare an interest. This question is more appropriate, but I have been pre-empted by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall), who made the sort of Tory-bashing attack that I really enjoy, so instead I will have to ask—[Hon. Members: "A question."] Indeed.

Many people in my constituency are on incapacity benefit. They are principally retired miners who have got out of the habit and routine of work. Does my hon. Friend agree that the pathways to work project needs to give them financial incentives and the self-confidence and self-belief that they can do something so that they get back into work? What can she do to achieve that?

Maria Eagle: I always enjoy listening to my right hon. Friend, whether he is asking me a question, bashing Tories or whatever. He is exactly right that one problem of long-term incapacity is a lack of confidence. In that regard, I am very encouraged to hear individual stories of people's experiences, which at this stage are anecdotal because it is too early to evaluate pathways to work. For example, a lady in south Wales who was on incapacity benefit for 25 years has just gone back to work as a result of pathways. Such stories give us hope that there can be a breakthrough and assist those on incapacity benefit, many of whom want to work, to get back into the labour market.

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Economic Inactivity

15. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): If he will make a statement on the level of economic inactivity in the economy. [160851]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): Since 1997, the general growth in employment for the most disadvantaged groups has been greater than the growth in overall employment. There are now 170,000 fewer inactive lone parents since May 1997, and since that time the number of people moving on to incapacity-related benefits has declined.

We still have more to do. The employment rate for sick and disabled people remains significantly below that of the overall working population. That is our next challenge. Our strategy will continue to focus on the principles that have delivered so much labour market success. We will continue to make work pay and continue to put more inactive people in touch with the labour market through our new pathways to work pilot, which the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear will be extended to cover his constituency next month.

Bob Spink : That is all well and good, but the hon. Lady has not addressed the problem of young people. Is she not aware that more than 1 million young people are not working, training or studying? Does that not show that the new deal is failing?

Maria Eagle: I am very much afraid that the hon. Gentleman has disappointed me. I thought he was going to say that he was pleased that youth unemployment in his constituency is down by 68 per cent., that unemployment is down by 70 per cent., that long-term youth unemployment is down by 88 per cent., and that long-term unemployment in general is down by 92 per cent. He must have got out on the wrong side of the bed this morning.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): One cause of economic inactivity throughout the country is the significant increase over the past 10 years of the number people going on to incapacity benefit owing to emotional stress, depression and psychiatric illness. Will the Government put together a specific project to get more of those people into work, many of whom would desperately love to work if they possibly could?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is right. Stress, mental illness and behavioural difficulties form one of the big three main disabling conditions of those who come on to incapacity benefit. In that respect, some of the rehabilitation and condition management programmes that are piloted in pathways to work concentrate on that group of people. It is too soon for me to say whether those intervention programmes will work, but I can say that for the first time in this country we are addressing that problem. We hope to develop programmes that will really tackle that difficulty and enable that group of people, who for far too long have been abandoned to benefits for ever, to get back into work, which is what most of them want to do.

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Employment Policies

16. Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the contribution of his Department's policies towards increasing levels of employment. [160852]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): As a result of both economic stability and our radical reform of labour market policies, 1.7 million more people are in work than in spring 1997—almost exactly the number of jobs that Opposition Members warned would be destroyed if we introduced the national minimum wage, a further increase in the level of which was announced today. Our tax and benefit policies now ensure that work pays. Through Jobcentre Plus, active labour market support has helped individuals move into work, especially through the new deal, which has helped lone parents, the young and long-term unemployed, the disabled and the over-50s move off benefit. That has benefited the economy to the tune of £500 million a year.

Ms Buck : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. The Government deserve great credit for the success of those policies. However, is he aware that unemployment in London has fallen less than it has across the economy as a whole? Indeed, there are now more unemployed people in London than in Scotland and Wales put together. Despite very strong employment growth, there is still a mismatch in the labour market, so many London unemployed are locked out.

In view of the report of the analytical study of London that the Government are due to consider in the near future, will my hon. Friend assure me that his Department is putting considerable effort into finding ways to ensure that the London unemployed are able to fill London jobs, and that we tackle the two big cost barriers of housing and child care, which are locking them out of such jobs?

Mr. Pond: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. She has worked hard to ensure that she can help people in her constituency as well as in London as a whole to find the rewarding and quality employment that all of us on the Government Benches want. We do not underestimate the challenges that we face in getting people in London and throughout the country into work, but through measures such as the new deal, work-search pilots, in-work credit, the lone parent job grants—they will come into effect in October—our changes in housing benefit administration to make sure that we get people smoothly off benefit and into work, and the national child care strategy, we are meeting those challenges.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): In a spirit of constructive opposition, may I say to the Minister that one of his Department's policies that I welcome is the creation of Jobcentre Plus facilities? One of those was promised in Droitwich Spa in my constituency, but is he aware that as a result of a decision by the Department of Health to withdraw funding for the proposed health centre, which was to be part of a one-stop service incorporating such facilities plus police and local council services, the Jobcentre Plus

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facilities are threatened? I urge him to make representations to his colleagues in the Department of Health in order to save a very important facility for my constituents.

Mr. Pond: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive approach and his welcome for Jobcentre Plus, which, by bringing together the Employment Service and the benefits service, is providing, especially through the role of personal advisers, a tailored service to help ensure that people know not only about job opportunities and training but about the availability of child care and other support that they might need to get into work. That is contributing greatly to continuing the drive to moving people into employment. I shall certainly be happy to discuss further with him the role of the Department of Health, to get further details, and if appropriate to discuss it with colleagues in the Department of Health.

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