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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 7 December 2004

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Incapacity Benefit (Coalfield Communities)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Vernon Coaker.]

9.30 am

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I sought this debate because incapacity benefit is one of the most important issues in my constituency. The founding idea of IB and its predecessors is sound, in that those who are not able to work through illness or disability, whether of body or mind, should be supported by the state and supported generously. Indeed, we can judge how civilised a society is by the level of support that it provides to the disabled and those who are most vulnerable.

Contrary to ill-informed myth, which is all pervasive, IB is not a scrounger's reward. For the majority of people, IB is a contributory benefit. Apart from those who were incapacitated early in life, many of whom are the most vulnerable in society, all those who receive IB have made national insurance contributions because they have been in work. However, IB is ripe for reform. The figures are startling. When a person has been on IB for a year, he has only a one in five chance of returning to work within five years. Once the person is on IB for a year, he is on average likely to be on it for more than eight years.

Moreover, the longer claimants remain on IB, the more their mental and physical health is likely to deteriorate. Evidence suggests that one in five men who are out of work for more than six months will contract a serious depressive illness. Yet, as the Government's "Pathways to work" White Paper stated, nearly three quarters of new claimants have more manageable medical conditions such as back pain, depression and mild circulatory disorders rather than a severe, acute or degenerative condition such as Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia or severe learning difficulties.

In other words, despite its founding principles, in many communities IB saps the strength of the local economy. It makes many claimants sicker. It keeps people in relative poverty and it hinders their ambition. Nearly every extended family in the Rhondda has someone who is either on or has been on IB. Indeed, with Manchester, Central, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, and Easington, the constituency of Rhondda comes equal second of all the constituencies in the country for the percentage of people of working age on IB, beaten only by Glasgow, Shettleston. For the record, 21 per cent. of people of working age in the Rhondda are on IB, which is more than one in five and three times the national average.

Why did I include coalfield communities in the title of the debate? Well, we have to take only a cursory glance at the list of the top 25 of IB claimant constituencies to know the reason. I am talking about not only Rhondda, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, and Easington, but Aberavon, Blaenau Gwent, Cynon Valley, Ogmore,
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Caerphilly, Neath and Barnsley—a roll call of coalfield communities. Indeed, when we add that other great British industry of yore—shipbuilding—we have a virtual map of the British IB world, with six Glasgow and five Merseyside constituencies completing the list. Of course, that is no coincidence. The decline of the mining and shipbuilding industries—or their systematic dismantling by successive Tory Governments—saw vast numbers of former miners and shipbuilders consigned to the statistics. As it suited the Government of the day, who ironically were elected on the campaign slogan "Labour isn't working", to pretend that they were strong on the economy, many thousands of those former miners and shipbuilders, and subsequently their sons and daughters, were massaged off the unemployment statistics and on to the invalidity list—off the dole and on to the sick.

The Government, who have done so much to tackle the scourge of unemployment, with 2 million extra jobs and an historically low work-force-based unemployment figure of only 2.5 per cent. in the Rhondda, have a major task ahead of them, which is to tackle poverty and social inequality in a constituency such as mine by reforming IB and giving everyone a real chance in life.

Certainly, numbers have fallen; in every ward in my constituency bar one—Cymmer—the number of IB claimants in 2002 was lower than in 1998. The fall has been largest in Treherbert, one of the most geographically isolated and most beautiful wards in the constituency, where the number of claimants is down from 915 to 780. That fall came before the introduction of the pathways to work pilot scheme in my area.

However, that still lands us with a situation in which one in five people of working age is on IB. I believe that that is not primarily down to fraud. In fact, every systematic analysis of IB—as opposed to the various anecdotal back-of-a-postcard analyses that have been undertaken—shows that there is a remarkably low rate of fraud. It is less than 1 per cent; it is something like 0.5 per cent. To all intents and purposes, it is virtually and statistically irrelevant.

The real challenge is that although 40 per cent. of new claimants do not think that their health is a major obstacle to returning to work, and 90 per cent. of claimants expect to get back to work swiftly, many get caught in a vicious circle of dwindling skills, poorer health and greater isolation from the job market. It must be for a socialist Labour Government to tackle that, because the only point of a Labour Government is to tackle poverty and its root causes. Of course, in large measure, the Government are tackling the problem through the pathways to work pilot, which was launched in September 2003, first in three and then in seven Jobcentre Plus districts.

I know from my own experience that the pathways to work pilot that covers the Rhondda is having a significant effect. It is being coupled with the Jobcentre Plus roll-out, which, by bringing together the two arms of the Department for Work and Pensions, has managed to achieve a much better, client-focused approach to the needs of people presenting themselves for jobseeker's allowance or IB. That has led to a significant increase in the number of people moving off benefits and into work, which is welcome.
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At first, some criticised the mandatory job-focused interviews, arguing that their mandatory nature would undermine their effectiveness. However, the fact that those interviews have been better resourced than they were previously, the new back-up rehabilitation services and the much improved collaboration with the new deal for disabled people job-brokers have meant that claimants have seen the value of sticking with trying to get back into work, despite the many complex obstacles that there may be. Those obstacles might relate to finding a job that is local, or to their health.

Equally important has been the return to work credit of £40 per week, which has effectively overcome the traditional fear that many claimants have felt about the insecurity of work income as opposed to the security of benefits income. The results are quite impressive. In the seven pilot areas, almost twice as many claimants were helped into a job this August as were last August. More than one in 10 claimants have joined the new deal for disabled people in those pilot areas. That is more than double the national average.

I warmly welcome the announcement made last week that the Government intend to roll out the pathways to work pilot across another 14 Jobcentre Plus districts next October. Many of the other measures announced by the Chancellor last week are a step in the right direction, too. For instance, it makes sense that the permitted work rules are to change. They allowed claimants to work part-time for only up to 26 weeks, but that will now be extended to 52 weeks. There is to be a yet more generous arrangement for those with advanced or progressive health conditions. It must be good news that we are allowing people to build up their working hours over a period, allowing them to build on what they can do rather than always focusing on what they cannot do, and guaranteeing their income over a substantial period.

However, there are additional issues that we need to address. First, there are mental health issues. It is a hideous cliché—but what politician can avoid a cliché?—to describe mental health services as the Cinderella of all health services. The largest group of IB claimants in the land comprises those who suffer from mental and behavioural disorders. The latest figures suggest that there are 908,400 such claimants. Unless we significantly invest in mental health provision, we do not stand a chance of helping nearly 1 million IB claimants into work that might help their mental health. The term "mental and behavioural disorders" covers a wide range of problems, from stress to eating disorders and substance abuse, but we have to engender a sustained and deliberate assault on the wide range of mental health issues if we are to achieve success.

It is worrying that too many general practitioners are still over-prescribing anti-depressants, such as the selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors like Prozac. There were 19 million such prescriptions in England last year and we know from research undertaken for the Welsh Assembly Government that Welsh GPs prescribe on average 19 per cent. more drugs per patient than their English counterparts. So, it is a pretty good guess that there are more people on IB who are on anti-depressants unnecessarily in the Rhondda even than in England.
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For patients with mild to moderate depression, including many patients on IB, counselling would be far more effective and less addictive than anti-depressant drugs and more likely to enable people to come back into work. However, psychiatric services everywhere in the country remain under-resourced and counselling is almost non-existent in many less affluent communities.

Similarly, it will always be difficult to help someone with a substance abuse problem back into work, because they have some of the most difficult problems. However, a special pilot project in the Rhondda is trying to do precisely that and it is bearing some fruit. In large measure that is thanks to the dramatic increase in drug treatment services in the in the past year in Rhondda: an extra £1 million has been pumped in because only two years ago we had a two-year waiting list. Of course, for any young person with a substance abuse problem, who is often leading a chaotic lifestyle, having to wait two years is not an option. We saw the depressing sight of young people deliberately trying to get arrested to get into prison, because they knew that there were better drug treatments there than they would find in their local community.

I am glad to say that through the extra money—and through the opening of a new service in Llwynypia earlier this year—we now have a far more effective drug treatment service and young people are able to move into treatment. We are talking not only about a one-off counselling session, but a serious attempt to give people an opportunity to turn their lives around. However, there is still a long way to go in helping people with alcohol and drug problems back into the mainstream. Poor mental health, poor self-worth and being out of work can all too easily be a vicious circle of depression and government has a vital role in breaking that cycle.

The second largest group of IB claimants is people with musculoskeletal problems. Again, we have to invest further—and do so intelligently—if we are to tackle economic incapacity in an area such as the one that I represent. I know dozens of constituents who are ill and anxious to work, but have waited too long for operations and descended into depression and anxiety, so that the illness that they first presented with, which drove them onto incapacity benefit, has become the secondary problem in their life and their main problem is their mental health. We owe these people a health service of which they can be proud.

It is particularly depressing that two police officers in my constituency who took part in a raid on a house three years ago, during which they both fell rather badly, have had severe back problems ever since and have not been able to return to work because they do not have the health support and surgery that they need. Unless we are able to turn around waiting lists for orthopaedic surgery in south Wales, we do not stand a chance of getting many such people back to work. Of course it is good news that waiting lists for orthopaedic surgery are falling in England, but unless we can match that trend in Wales we will never get the large numbers of valleys claimants back into work, and we will have failed in our moral duty.

We need to bring forward the moment at which the first job-focused interview is held. At present, many people pass through their 20 weeks of statutory sick pay without any clear discussion of how they could manage their illness to ensure that they do not end up
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permanently excluded from the job market. We need to change that situation. The Government are right to argue that GPs should play a key role in supporting the recovery and rehabilitation of patients and, when appropriate, encouraging them to return to work. I hope that the Minister will be able to say a little more about how the Chancellor's announcement last week of help in GPs' clinics will work with the devolved parts of the United Kingdom. What discussions have been held between the Welsh Assembly Government and my hon. Friend's Department to try to make that a possibility in Wales and Scotland as well as in England?

I shall raise an issue that pertains directly to the Department for Work and Pensions, although I suppose that it is not directly relevant to IB. I am talking about the Department's own staffing. In the Rhondda we have two splendidly and elegantly refurbished Ikea-like Jobcentre Plus offices in Tonypandy and Treorchy. A brand new one is being built in Hannah street in Porth, and so swiftly that it looks as though it might even be open by Christmas.

The new office environment, which takes away screens for the vast majority of clients, has been dramatically helpful in changing people's attitude towards work; it has helped get more IB claimants off benefits and into work. However, the Department plans to take nearly 85 processing jobs out of the Rhondda and send them to Caerphilly or Merthyr Tydfil; it wants to create larger processing units so that the back offices are concentrated into units of more than 100. I understand that Ministers might think it a little churlish of me to mention that. After all, Merthyr Tydfil and Caerphilly are not far from the Rhondda and they are deprived valleys communities that suffer many of precisely the same problems as the Rhondda. However, it seems something of an own goal to deprive the Rhondda of 85 good Government jobs—some of the very few national Government jobs there—and I urge the Government to rethink any plans to take DWP jobs out of any of the 25 constituencies with the most claims for IB.

There is a phenomenal misconception that those of us calling for a reform of IB do so out of an old-fashioned campaign against malingerers. That is not my argument at all—far from it. I happen to believe those million or so claimants, my constituents among them, who say that they want to get back into work. It is the job of the Labour Government to remove every obstacle that prevents people with illness or disability from finding and enjoying a satisfying job with a decent living wage. In my experience, people are not looking for handouts; they want a chance to work, to provide for themselves and their families and to retire in dignity. They also want support when they need it, and they look to this Government to provide it.

9.49 am

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this debate on an important and major issue. The problem of incapacity benefit claimants is general across the country although, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, it is particularly focused in certain areas. If one maps the claimant numbers for incapacity benefit, one gets a clear picture of the traditional industrial areas of
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Britain that suffered wholesale job losses when entire industries were closed down in a very short space of time.

As has been said, the general problem of IB is that the number of people claiming it has increased in a quarter of a century from about 700,000 to about 2.7 million. Some two thirds of those who are claiming have been doing so for more than five years. Therefore, the average IB claimant is now long-term unemployed. We heard that where someone is claiming IB for one year, on average they will be unemployed for about eight years, and where they are claiming it for two years they are more likely to die or retire than to find work again. There is a major problem across the country, which is particularly concentrated in certain deprived and formerly industrial areas. They are the heavy and traditional industrial areas; we could be talking about steel in Sheffield, where I grew up, shipbuilding, to which the hon. Member for Rhondda referred, or engineering.

It is especially noticeable that the top of the roll-call of IB claimant areas includes most of the former coalfield areas. Parts of my Chesterfield constituency fall in the north Derbyshire coalfield and suffer from the problem, particularly the Staveley end of the constituency. Across the country there are the examples of Easington in County Durham, Sedgefield—the Prime Minister's constituency, where one in 10 men of working age are claiming IB—or even worse, as the hon. Member for Rhondda mentioned, the problem in the Rhondda, where 21 per cent. of people are claiming it.

The general problem of IB is a national one, which is particularly concentrated in certain areas. In considering it, we need to tie it in with the question of hidden unemployment. One quarter of men aged 50 to 64 across the country are economically inactive: they are neither employed nor recorded as unemployed. The hidden unemployed are concentrated in the areas of highest unemployment, be it the inner-city areas or coalfield areas. The Government tell us that there are far more in employment than ever before, which, by the way the figures are measured, is true, but there are also more in hidden unemployment than ever before. It is an issue that we need to tackle.

What is the cause of the increase in hidden unemployment and the increase in the number of people who are claiming IB? That has been ably dealt with by the hon. Member for Rhondda. The main cause that many—such as the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and, often, the Conservative party—cite is that it is all to do with scroungers, malingerers and fraudsters.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has just said that the Conservative party claims that IB claimants are fraudsters—or he used words to that effect. Does he have a quote to back that up?

Paul Holmes : I do not have any quotes with me, but I can certainly dig some up and send them to the hon. Gentleman.

Regrettably, in recent months even the Prime Minister has made what might be interpreted by many as pre-election noises—to satisfy certain parts of the press—about cutting entitlement to IB, in order to
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change the mindset of claimants. That seems partly to be predicated on an idea that many of the people who are claiming are doing so falsely or unjustly.

Chris Bryant : Does the hon. Gentleman have a quote to back up that sentence?

Paul Holmes : I have indeed, although I am unsure whether you will give me time to leaf through all my notes to find it, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, I will certainly find it and show it to the hon. Gentleman at the end of this debate, or, when I have dug it out of the pile of quotations, I will intervene later in the debate to make the point.

We hear a lot of noise from all sorts of quarters about the fact that this major problem is down—in one sense—to whether some people are malingers. As we have heard, that is nonsense. Yesterday, in his statement on the uprating of welfare benefits and other changes in welfare reform, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions pointed out to the House that this country has the most stringent gateway into IB, as measured by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Professor Steve Fothergill and Christina Beatty, of Sheffield Hallam university, who head up a renowned research unit that looks into economic and social matters in areas of deprivation, pointed out in one of their reports that it is nonsense to suggest that people can just get a "sickie" from the doctor, be on IB for the rest of their lives and live a life of luxury—the level of IB would not allow anybody to do that. As Professor Fothergill points out, that could no longer be true—if it ever was—because after six months everybody who signs on for IB has to undergo stringent medical checks. They are not carried out by the family GP, who allegedly might just sign people off on the sick for all sorts of reasons. They are formal medical assessments made by doctors working for the Benefits Agency.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle) : Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the Benefits Agency was abolished some time ago and that its functions are carried out by Jobcentre Plus or the disability and carers service?

Paul Holmes : I am sure that the millions of people who are hanging on every word of this debate and who will read it avidly are interested in the minutiae of the correct names of the departments. The doctors were initially employed by the Benefits Agency, which has since undergone various name changes and mergers.

The checks are so stringent that the number of successful appeals has risen over the past four years. I have frequently raised that point in questions, letters to the Minister and debates such as this, and I received the most recent written answer from the Minister yesterday. In that answer, the chart of successful claims against denial of incapacity benefit shows that since 2001, when about a third of appeals against denial of benefits were successful, the number has risen steadily to just under a half. People who suggest that the large number of people on IB is down to malingering and a sick-note culture are
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wide of the mark. It is not that easy to remain on incapacity benefit for any length of time because of those checks. To say that scroungers are the problem is a facile analysis.

The IB claimant rate is rising as the nation's health is improving in general. The nation's health is not improving uniformly across all groups and social classes—disadvantaged groups have experienced a smaller improvement—but in general, it is improving in all groups, yet the number of people claiming sickness benefit is increasing. What are the causes of that?

As the hon. Member for Rhondda has already mentioned, one cause is economic circumstances. Twenty-five years ago, we began a process of mass closures of particular traditional industries, such as shipbuilding, engineering, steelworks and, in this case, coalfields. Twenty-five years later, if one maps IB claimants across the country, the comparisons are stark. In the south-east, where 86 per cent. of men of working age are employed, the number claiming IB is the lowest in the UK. In areas of the country where employment was based on traditional industries, such as the coalfields, there are the highest numbers of IB claims.

There is a clear link between the traditional industries that were shut down virtually overnight and the number of people claiming IB. However, it is interesting to note historically that although coal mining was a dangerous occupation, the number of people claiming sickness benefit in coalfield areas was not especially high before the pits were closed. The surge in IB claimants came after the pits were closed, rather than when they were working at full tilt. We need to delve deeper into why there has been an increase in IB claimants.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, incapacity benefit was initially a way of massaging unemployment figures in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was much simpler to sign large numbers of people up for IB than to see unemployment figures soaring to even greater heights than they had already reached. That led to a vicious circle of expectations and lack of opportunity. Professor Fothergill has pointed out that about 1.2 million of the 2.7 million adults claiming sickness-related benefits are hidden unemployed, in the sense that they could reasonably be expected to be in work in a genuinely fully employed economy. According to Professor Fothergill, the problem is that some people have given up looking for work because they think that they are incapable of getting jobs or that jobs do not exist in their area.

That view is reflected in research carried out by the Unemployed Workers' Centre in Chesterfield. Volunteer workers went to Staveley, in the north of my constituency, which was a traditional coal mining area. They spoke to people going to Jobcentre Plus and claiming IB, and undertook a careful statistical analysis of the reasons people gave for being unemployed and why they thought they would remain unemployed. The most frequent reason given—in 76 per cent. of cases—was that there were not jobs around to apply for. An almost equally large number said that they did not believe that they were qualified for existing jobs. As long as the emphasis of Jobcentre Plus—which has dramatically improved in its new guise, as the hon. Gentleman said—continues to be on the motivation and job-readiness of the individual claimant, we will be ignoring the reality that the jobs have to exist. In places
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such as the Rhondda, County Durham or Staveley in the north of my constituency, many of those jobs simply are not there.

Chris Bryant : There are the jobs in the Rhondda. One problem is that anyone who has been economically inactive, to use the inelegant phrase, for a considerable time does not know what is going on in the job market. Their perceptions may be wide of the mark. The process needs to change; it must ensure that people have an opportunity to understand what is available out there.

Paul Holmes : The hon. Gentleman is right that the job market is changing dramatically. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, unemployment in Chesterfield was well above the national average and although it is still above the national average it has come down significantly. There are many more job opportunities, including, I am pleased to say, in the new IT industries that have been attracted into the area. Nevertheless, as one former Minister who now chairs a Select Committee recently pointed out, many of the jobs that have been created across the country are relatively low paid and low skilled.

When a 59-year-old miner, who worked in a dangerous but well paid industry, looks at some of the low-paid alternative jobs that are available—or, as the general myth has it, are all that is available—he may be put off seeking a job. There is a psychological barrier as well as the reality that in many of the former heavy industrial areas the job market is by no means as buoyant, well paid or attractive as it is in the overheating economy of the southern part of the country.

We must ask the Minister to consider—in the context of the whole Government strategy, not simply from the perspective of the Department for Work and Pensions—trying to move jobs from the south to the north. We hear today that the BBC plans to move a large number of jobs to Manchester. The strategy of moving jobs from the south to the north where possible makes sense both to the taxpayer, because the costs are lower in the north, and to the areas of high unemployment in the north.

Other areas of Government strategy need to be examined, such as the over-concentration of university research funding in science and engineering in the golden silicon triangle around London, Oxford and Cambridge, which is to the detriment of northern or Welsh universities. Such a strategy is very short-sighted. If all the money is put into a few centres of excellence, it undermines the economies of other parts of the UK. Just this last week the Government talked about creating science cities such as York, which is my old university town. That is a welcome step. We need to help the economy of areas of England outside London and the south-east. We need to alter the mindset and the job availability in those areas.

What are the other solutions, apart from general Government policy on economic development? The hon. Member for Rhondda has already touched on a number of those. The Government are now talking about putting advisers into GPs' surgeries to get around that old notion that GPs sign people off automatically. That is not a new idea. An organisation called Tomorrow's People—a private company that works in this area—has been doing that successfully for some years. That may be the inspiration for the experiment that the Government are going to undertake.
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Tomorrow's People produces statistical documentation to show how effective it is to put advisers into a GP's surgery to give assistance straight away. At least half a million of the people who claim incapacity benefit are not claiming the higher rate, which suggests that at least 20 per cent. on incapacity benefit are not barred from work in the sense of total physical incapacity by any stretch of the imagination. They are capable of degrees of work, although they may not be able to go back to the sort of job that they used to have.

Maria Eagle : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many people who get the higher rates of disability living allowance do full-time work and are perfectly capable of doing it?

Paul Holmes : Absolutely. One good example lives just two streets away from me in Chesterfield. She is a young lady who has been in a wheelchair since birth and yet works full-time. However, on top of that particular incapacity she now has recurrent multiple sclerosis, which makes things even worse. However, she still works, but without the support that she gets from the Government, such as mobility allowances, she could not do so. Even the most disabled people can often work, if they are given the assistance to overcome particular obstacles.

One step forward would be to give more advice to people at the point at which they become unemployed, whether the cause is stress, mental health, depression or back pain, because the earlier the intervention, the more successful it is.

One of the problems is the structure of incapacity benefit. That point was made in great detail in the report that was published yesterday by the Institute for Public Policy Research. Another problem with incapacity benefit is that claimants must demonstrate that they are incapable of work in order to get the benefit. Not only does that encourage the wrong mindset, but once people have obtained the benefit by demonstrating that they are incapable of work, they then risk losing it should they try to return to work. Many people who are trying to claim incapacity benefit fear that if they try to get back into work and find that they cannot manage it or cannot manage full-time work, they will then have to go through all those obstacles and hurdles again. As the Secretary of State said yesterday, those barriers are the most stringent in the OECD lexicon in relation to claiming incapacity benefit.

Maria Eagle : The hon. Gentleman is forgetting the linking rules which, although they are not as well known as we might like, enable people to try out work for up to two years in some circumstances and then to go back on to incapacity benefit at the point at which they left it, if they cannot manage the job, without having to re-qualify.

Paul Holmes : As the Minister rightly points out and the hon. Member for Rhondda mentioned, steps have recently been taken to improve the situation. The return-to-work benefit, mentioned by the hon. Member for Rhondda in connection with pathways to work, has been very successful. The personal advisers in Chesterfield, which was one of the early pilots for pathways to work, are full of praise for it, because it
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overcomes the problem that I was outlining before the Minister's intervention: that people fear going back to work and losing their hard-won benefits if they cannot manage the work or can only manage it part-time.

The situation is improving, and the return-to-work benefit is good, but it lasts for only 12 months. Given that the initial pathways to work experiments are still less than 12 months old, we cannot fully measure the effect of what will happen in the second and third years to people who have been able to go back to work because of the return-to-work benefit but might not be able to continue in full-time work without that benefit.

The Liberal Democrats have long advocated that there should be more research in that area and that the idea of a partial benefit should be examined. Some people on incapacity benefit—some disabled people—could never work full-time but could work part-time, if they were sure that a partial benefit was available. A partial benefit would mean that they could work and pay taxes for part of the week, and would be entitled to that partial benefit as well. In addition to the personal benefit to individuals, that would be a win-win situation for the taxpayer, because every extra day that someone works rather than being on benefit the taxpayer is not only not paying the benefits but is getting the tax back.

The measures that are being adopted in that area should be expanded. In general, there has been early success in the infancy of the pathways to work pilots; it is therefore welcome news that they are being expanded to a third of the country—mostly to the hardest hit areas, such as the coalfield areas. I hope that the Government will continue in that direction in the future and that they will not—as the Prime Minister seems to have been doing on and off over the past few months—pursue the tabloid newspaper headline agenda of cracking down on benefit abusers and benefit scroungers and of time-limiting the entitlement to benefits.

Finally, Kate Stanley from the Institute for Public Policy Research, who played the largest part in producing its report, said yesterday:

If the intention of getting people off incapacity benefit is to save money for the taxpayer and perhaps to put it into other things such as pensions, that in itself is not an acceptable motive for reform—[Interruption.] The Minister appears exasperated. However, the IPPR is the Labour party's favourite think-tank and is influential on the Labour party's thinking. Kate Stanley continued:

for people who lose out. Some of the reforms that are being introduced are welcome and I have given lots of support to them. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that in general, as all the statistics show, the 2.7 million people claiming IB are not malingerers or scroungers. At least half of them would be capable of getting back to work quickly if they had appropriate support and if jobs existed in the areas of the country where they tend to live.
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10.10 am

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing the debate. He represented his constituents very effectively in what he said, and we all know that he is a brave and energetic parliamentarian. Of course, he came close to losing his opportunity to represent Rhondda for ever in 1997, when he stood as the Labour candidate in the constituency that I represent. He is still remembered in High Wycombe as a former curate at All Saints, where he was before he moved on, as I have, to higher things. I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should of course say "lower things", because the Church, as we all know, is a more exalted institution than Parliament. [Interruption.] I should perhaps not be drawn into these matters more deeply.

The hon. Gentleman made a very good speech. He was right to draw attention to the serious rise in the number of mental health claimants. There has been a 53 per cent. increase in that group since 1997, and such people now account for 38 per cent. of the total. The serious problem with people coming on to incapacity benefit, which the Government now have to deal with, is those coming on to it for mental health reasons. Although the Government are relatively successful at stopping other types of claimant coming on to IB, they are not successful at all, as far as I can see, at stopping those coming on to it for mental health reasons—but more of that later.

What I particularly appreciated about the hon. Gentleman's speech was that it gave the IB nerds among us, of whom the Minister and I must count as two, a chance to concentrate on what IB nerds sometimes describe as the problem of the stock—that is, those who have been on IB for a long time. That is a rather dry way of putting it. As the hon. Gentleman reminded us, it would be more accurate to talk about the problems faced by those described as the stock, many of whom have been stuck on IB for a long time and are thereby losing the opportunity to fulfil their talent and potential. His constituents are still losing that opportunity in regrettably large numbers.

As the Institute for Public Policy Research pointed out recently in its reform proposals—I think that I am the third person to cite the IPPR—once people have been claiming IB for a year, the average duration of their claim is eight years. The hon. Gentleman alluded to this. Once people have been claiming for two years, they are more likely to die or retire than to leave the benefit for a job.

Maria Eagle : Everyone is mentioning the IPPR, but will the hon. Gentleman accept that it has taken those figures straight out of the "Pathways to work: Helping people into employment" Green Paper and that they are Government figures? That should not be a matter of controversy.

Mr. Goodman : The Minister is correct, and it is reasonable to repeat the figures often, as they go near the core of the problem. While we are on the subject of the IPPR, with which the Minister appears to have shown a little impatience, I shall take the opportunity to ask her a question. The IPPR has produced a series of interesting ideas, which Opposition Members will want to consider.
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However, I am not as well linked into the world of left-leaning think-tanks as I might be. Have the Government ruled out incorporating the IPPR proposals into their own policies?

I will return to the subject of the stock. However, as this is the first opportunity that the official Opposition have had since the pre-Budget report to do so, I shall comment on the Government's announcements on IB. We welcome the extension of pathways to work to one third of the country. We also welcome the extra £30 million for the new deal for disabled people—I will comment on that later—and the plans to place employment advisers in doctors' surgeries. Like the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), I am curious about that proposal; perhaps the Minister will tell us how many advisers she expects to be in place and by when, what the cost will be, and how many people the Government believe the advisers will get into work and keep in work.

I want to address the problems faced by the people, such as the constituents of the hon. Member for Rhondda, who are the stock of IB. Under this Government, fewer people are going on to IB but fewer people are getting off it. That is the core of the problem that Ministers and other politicians have to face. The number of claimants who receive IB pure and simple—the so-called beneficiaries—has declined from about three quarters in 1997 to about two thirds at present. The remaining third of claimants mostly receive means-tested income support with a disability premium. That is why the claimant figure has risen slightly since the Government came to power, from 2.3 million in 1997 to 2.4 million this year. Indeed, between 1999 and 2003—I shall comment on the significance of 1999 in a moment—the average quarterly figures for terminations fell from 136,000 to 113,000, cancelling out the positive effect of the rise in commencements. The figures for IB terminations for the first half of the current year show a further decline.

Why has that happened? In 1999, the Government decided to means-test IB. The consequences were exactly as we predicted at the time. People who came off IB faced the prospect of returning to it at a lower rate, as they do now. As the Minister said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Chesterfield, there is the return-to-work credit of £40 a week. However, it is little understood; indeed, the Minister said that it is not as well known as it might be.

Maria Eagle : I was talking about the linking rules, not the return-to-work credit.

Mr. Goodman : I am grateful for that correction, but I still think it is true to say that, like the linking rules, the return-to-work credit is not as well known as it might be.

That is part of the problem that the tax and benefit system has become much more complicated under this Government. Benefits were never easy for claimants to access at the best of times, but that is even more so now as the Chancellor's bewildering maze of credits—he remains the real power and architect of policy of the Department for Work and Pensions—is extremely complicated.

Chris Bryant : I am slightly confused—or maybe the hon. Gentleman is confused and is therefore confusing
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me. He seems to be arguing that there are people who make a judgment about whether to go into work or remain on benefits on the basis of whether they will be financially better off, and yet at the same time he is saying that the Government have made the system so complicated and difficult to understand that no sane and sensible person would be able to figure out whether they would be better off. Surely those two points are incompatible?

Mr. Goodman : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is confused and he is confusing me and therefore I am confusing him, but I think that both of those critiques are true. Like most of the rest of us, many claimants try to work out what will or will not make them better off. They have some difficulty trying to assess what will make them better off as they negotiate their way through the current system.

Pathways to work has had some encouraging early results, although figures are scarce, and we do not know if it will prove as effective at keeping people in work as it has apparently been at getting them into work, as it has not been around long enough for us to tell. It can also be argued that pathways is getting back into work the people who are easiest to get into work—part of the flow—rather than those who are hardest to get into work—the stock. We know that pathways is due to start on the stock soon, because the Secretary of State said so in a recent oral questions, but we will see.

Maria Eagle : The hon. Gentleman is overlooking the fact that although it is people coming on to IB in the pathways areas who have the mandatory participation, those who have been on benefit for a longer period of time can and do volunteer.

Mr. Goodman : They can and do volunteer, but we have not yet seen from the figures proof that substantial numbers of people who are on the stock are returning to work through pathways. I do not think that there have been any figures relating to that, and I will return to the matter later.

We welcome the fact that pathways is soon due to start on the stock. However, pathways alone will not get and keep enough people off the stock and get them into work quickly, because the stock is simply too big. However, there are ways of getting people off the stock and into work more quickly, and bringing people such as the constituents of the hon. Member for Rhondda into work and fulfilling their potential, and my colleagues and I have been looking at those ways very closely. Although I am too junior in the food chain to make any announcements this morning—announcements tend to be made by people who are more senior than I am; perhaps the Minister knows what that experience is like—I want, as ever, to be positive and to offer some ideas for reform.

The most effective part of the Government's programme, both for the flow and the stock, is not pathways but the new deal for disabled people. As the Minister knows, we do not support the other new deals. However, we think that the NDDP is on the right lines because it is aimed at the people who are least likely to find and keep work without it. The NDDP is not
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without its faults and problems, which I will mention later, but it is the most effective part of the Government's programme.

Chris Bryant : One of the anecdotal findings of the pilot scheme in the Rhondda, which can be seen in the available figures for the past year, is that through pathways, double the national average of people are going on to the NDDP.

Mr. Goodman : Yes, that is correct. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has given an accurate figure. As I said, we do not have figures for pathways that tell us how long the people who go into work stay in work. As he knows, that is a very big problem for disabled people once they enter the labour market.

Chris Bryant : Yes, but the hon. Gentleman is saying that he supports the NDDP but does not think that pathways to work is necessarily the right way forward.

Mr. Goodman : I did not say that pathways to work was the wrong way forward. I said that the NDDP was the most effective part of the Government's programme, although it is not without its faults and problems, which, as I said, I will come to later.

The key element of the NDDP, which the hon. Gentleman touched on in his intervention, is the participation of the voluntary sector. I pay tribute to the work of organisations such as the Shaw Trust, whose advisers have the proven expertise and commitment to re-energise people who have often been absent from the labour market for a long time. For example, the Shaw Trust's success rates to date are higher than Jobcentre Plus success rates per se. As usual, the voluntary sector is proving more effective at re-energising and motivating people than the state. The hon. Gentleman offered some anecdotal experience and I will do so, too. From talking to organisations such as the Shaw Trust, I have learned that they believe that if they can get in quickly, as it were, for people with mental health problems, they are relatively likely to be able to get them back into the labour market and keep them there.

Chris Bryant : Indeed. Where the voluntary sector can play a particularly important role—we have heard this anecdotally—is in trying to help people with substance abuse problems. The combined work of the public sector and the voluntary sector can make a dramatic difference because people have so many different routes into addiction that a variety of routes out of addiction must be provided. The voluntary sector, with its web of connections, can often be far more effective than the public sector.

Mr. Goodman : The hon. Gentleman is right about that, and that touches on a point with which he is unlikely to agree. The role of the state, by and large, is to plan and administer the system, but the voluntary sector is very often a more effective provider than the state.

Maria Eagle : I would not want to denigrate the positive impact of the voluntary sector, particularly in
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respect of the NDDP, but I presume that the hon. Gentleman is aware that one of our best and most effective NDDP providers is Jobcentre Plus.

Mr. Goodman : The figures that I have seen suggest that the voluntary providers are more effective than Jobcentre Plus. Perhaps we shall be able to exchange figures on that. However, nobody here doubts the beneficial role of the voluntary sector.

Paul Holmes : I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman, but before he moves on, could he elaborate on why he thinks that the voluntary sector does better? It strikes me, having visited several Shaw Trust projects over the past two or three years, that one of the differences is that it takes a much longer-term view. The hon. Gentleman talked about early intervention with people with mental health problems, for example, but I have seen Shaw Trust projects where a lot of long-term work, for perhaps a year, is done before even trying to get people back into employment. Those are people who have been disabled and unemployed for a long time.

Phoenix, a private company with charitable funding that started in Rotherham and now does a lot of work in Chesterfield with drug abusers, delivers Progress2work, which the Government introduced. However, before that, Phoenix helped people with long-term drug problems back into work, because it could use private charitable funding as well. They were longer-term projects, not the short-term tick-box targets of the NDDP.

Mr. Goodman : I respect what the hon. Gentleman says, and I am sure that he is right. The answer to the question that he asked me is: I do not know. I do not think that anyone has an authoritative answer as to why the voluntary sector is much more effective at close work with people than the state. The answer usually given is that the voluntary sector is closer and more motivated. I suspect that that is right, but I do not know for sure.

We think that real substantial reform is likely to have the following characteristics. First, it will spend to save. We believe that there is more capacity to spend and save than the Government appear to believe. According to the figure that I have seen, the UK spends only one fifth of the EU average on employment programmes for disabled people. Earlier this year, Ian Charlesworth, the managing director of the Shaw Trust, complained on regional television—the hon. Member for Chesterfield referred to this in an earlier debate—that the trust had been asked by Jobcentre Plus to slow down its activities, because finances were being capped. In other words, the paradox was—

Maria Eagle : Finances have never been capped. At that time, the Shaw Trust was running ahead of the total amount of money that it was contracted to provide. That is not finances being capped. What happened is that we discussed with the trust how best to deal with that and, as a result, it is continuing to do the job and there is more money available. That is not my definition of capping, and nor should it be the hon. Gentleman's.

Mr. Goodman : It was not my definition, it was Ian Charlesworth's, as I reported. While the Minister is
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right to say that the problem that she has described and about which Ian Charlesworth has complained has now been at least temporarily solved, voluntary organisations have contacted me to complain that they cannot work as effectively as they would like, because a point is reached where they are no longer rewarded for being successful because the budget is too tight.

Mr. Charlesworth warned that five Shaw Trust offices, including one in the Prime Minister's Sedgefield constituency, were threatened with closure. We gather that, as the Minister says, the problem has been solved, but we wait to see whether it will recur. As long as the new deal for disabled people continues to be comparatively under-resourced, at least compared with other European countries, as long as finances are riddled with the problems that I have just described, as long as contracts remain relatively brief and as long as voluntary providers complain of Jobcentre Plus red tape, I suspect that such problems are likely to recur.

Secondly, real reform would provide more help with rehabilitation. Pathways is starting to do that but, as I argued earlier, it is aimed largely at the flow and not at the stock. It is not clear that the NHS has the capacity to provide rehabilitation on a large enough scale to help the stock substantially.

Thirdly, real reform would also tackle those aspects of the benefit and credit system that are most likely to discourage people from leaving IB. The Minister and I had an exchange earlier about the linking rule, but as everyone acknowledges, many of the people who are currently described as the stock fear that if they left IB, they would return to it at a lower rate.

Fourthly, real reform would cut through some of the red tape that I described earlier and about which some providers have complained. Some contractors have complained that up to 20 per cent. of staff time is spent providing proof to Jobcentre Plus that clients have started employment and stopped claiming benefit, which apparently, Jobcentre Plus should know from its own records.

In short, we hope to build on some of the projects that the Government now have in place. We believe that they have been a little slow in getting round to pathways, although they are now rolling it out, and that some of the processes involved in pathways and the new deal are somewhat bureaucratic. We are not convinced that there is fully joined-up government between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury to ensure that enough funds are invested in the Government's present programmes to make an impact on the stock.

The hon. Member for Rhondda has done a great service by giving us a chance to explore the significant and lasting problem at the centre of the IB dispute: the challenges and difficulties faced by those people who are often described as the stock, who are not receiving as much opportunity as they wish.

10.33 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle) : I start by saying how much I have enjoyed this high-quality debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on initiating it and presenting his
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arguments, which were replete with the experience of his constituency as one would expect, in such a coherent and passionate way.

That passion is something that anyone who examines the issue comes to feel. We are talking about opportunities for our fellow citizens, and there can be nothing more important to a Labour Government than to ensure that everybody in our communities has the opportunity to develop to their full potential and to live their lives in a way that is satisfying to them, productive to our economy and good for our society. That is really what we are here to talk about.

I suppose that I will just about put up with being called an IB nerd by the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman). I acknowledge that we have some interest in examining the differences between us on the issue of IB but I find "nerd" a little hard to take so early in the morning. All political parties are interested in this issue; the debate has demonstrated that all parties are engaged with it, and that is a good thing.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) has gotten out of bed on the wrong side, as usual. I have accused him of that before, but the situation was worse than usual today because he forgot his quotes. That suggests that he got out of bed at the very last minute and dashed here, leaving his no doubt carefully prepared quotes behind. I expect him to write to me with full details of the quotes that he could not find when he was challenged.

The hon. Gentleman's speech was somewhat curmudgeonly. Although he did not want to, he grudgingly admitted that he agrees with a great deal of what the Government are doing. Buried somewhere in the depths of his speech, he sort of said that he approved of pathways to work. He performed a form of shadow boxing; he set up an argument that nobody was advancing, and then knocked it down. That was interesting to watch, but I am not sure how relevant it was to the detail of the debate. None the less, buried in his speech somewhere was a rather grudging acceptance of what the Government are doing. It is a shame that he could not bring himself to say, "Bravo! Well done. We support you." But then again he is not that sort of Opposition spokesman. However, I enjoyed his remarks, and look forward to the letters that I am almost certain to get as a result of treating him in such a way this morning.

The hon. Member for Wycombe made an interesting speech, as he always does. I shall take issue with some of what he said before I deal with the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, which I wish to go through in some detail. I caution the hon. Member for Wycombe against dealing with the issue using concepts such as "flow" and "stock". First, the terms are somewhat offensive because we are talking about people. However, I know that he did not intend to be offensive; he is using a shorthand—as nerds often do—for something that it would take many sentences to express. We would have run out of time by now if he had not used that shorthand.

Secondly, when using that kind of technical shorthand, and talking about flow on to the benefit, and the stock of people stuck on benefit, it is easy to think of such matters as static, and they are not. There are many people circulating around the system and coming on to
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the benefit who the hon. Gentleman would put in his definition of flow, although they are actually more like stock. Some people may have gone from being on income support with a disability premium, may have been beneficiaries in the past, or may have had some contributions. They might go on to jobseeker's allowance for a while, and then come back to IB. Many of the people whom the hon. Gentleman would say were flow have been economically inactive for some time. That is why it is not helpful to make such a division. That division undermined some of his policy prescriptions, too.

Pathways to work is innovative and is starting to look effective. We do not yet know what the long-term impact will be, so one has to be cautious about predicting too much for it until we know its impact. However, early indications are certainly very positive. Some of the graphs that can be plotted showing the impact that it can have are quite startling. The hon. Gentleman must remember that many of the people who are assisted by pathways to work have been economically inactive for many years.

We are dealing with people coming on to the benefit. That is partly because there is some churning around the system, which means that people coming on to the benefit at a certain time may have been economically inactive for some years, but also because the pathways pilots encourage volunteering. People volunteer for the pathways pilot who would not be required to do so, and they do that because they have a motivation for getting back to work. They are pleased that, often for the first time ever, they are being offered help and support, and they want to take advantage of it.

It would not be true to say that the pathways pilots deal only with people coming on to the benefit for the first time; they also deal with people who have been economically inactive for quite a long time. No doubt figures will be published as they become available, and the hon. Gentleman will be convinced then.

The hon. Gentleman also said—interestingly, I thought—that his party was thinking about supporting the new deal for disabled people. He has said that of all the new deals, the new deal for disabled people would not be abolished if the catastrophe of a Tory Government occurred in the near future.

We know that the Conservatives have some interest in the new deal for disabled people. However, may I caution the hon. Gentleman? The NDDP is not an alternative to pathways; the job-broking service that it provides is an essential part of the choices package that pathways offers to people who can benefit from it. It is a part of the process that might assist people into getting back to work. When people come forward into pathways for the work-focused interviews—to get the benefit from our specialist personal advisers about what they might be able to do, what their options are and what is available for them—one of the things offered is the NDDP. That is an essential part, just as the return-to-work credit plays an essential part in convincing people that there is a financial return to going into work. Pathways encompasses all those things, as well as the condition management programmes, which can help people understand that the condition with which they live is not the absolute bar that they may have come to
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think it is to their participation in the labour market. All these elements of pathways are an essential part of making it a success.

Different people will require different parts of that choices package. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda made clear, the NDDP is an essential part of pathways, not an alternative to it.

Paul Holmes : The Minister talked about the new deal for disabled people. What are the predictions about what share of the new deal budget will go to disabled people? At the moment, 3 per cent. of the £750 million new deal budget goes to the disabled. That seems the reverse of how it should be, as the disabled have the most trouble getting into work. Is there any prediction that a larger percentage will go in their direction?

Maria Eagle : The hon. Gentleman is seeing that in our highly successful economy, which has the lowest level of unemployment for 30 years, Jobcentre Plus is having to focus more on the economically inactive. Much of the rest of the unemployment problem has been solved. In a typical constituency there will be perhaps three times as many people on inactive benefits as there are jobseekers in the traditional sense of being unemployed and looking for work.

In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, that number is even higher, and he made that point very well. Given the circumstances in which his constituents find themselves, he is right to concentrate on how the Government can assist, because that is one of the biggest issues in his constituency. I thought that his remarks made that clear.

Traditional unemployment has declined significantly, and that has not been some kind of accident or manna from heaven; it has come about because of the extremely high-quality economic management that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has brought to his role. The number of people in employment continues to rise, more people are in work than ever before, employment has increased by almost 2 million since 1997 and the underlying trend remains upwards. We have the highest level of employment and the lowest level of unemployment in the G8, and unemployment is now at its lowest level for 30 years.

On one of the points made previously, the number of new vacancies remains consistently high. It is not that jobs are not there, but that we have to make sure that people have the confidence, ability, training and ambition to claim their rightful place in the world of work.

Chris Bryant : It is also true that in some mining constituencies people's expectation of work has had to change. In the past, work was done by a man, manually and underground, within half a mile of his home. Today, none of those factors is true for the majority of jobs, which are just as likely to be done by women, probably will not be manual and might involve computer skills. Changing that skill base is so difficult for those not in work.

Maria Eagle : I accept that point. All contributors to the debate have made fair points.
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This is a complex issue. It is not about whether people are trying to hide from the labour market, whether they are completely incapable of working because of a medical condition, or whether they are trying to avoid work; it is about a complex series of psychological and other barriers, including attitudinal barriers and discrimination against disabled people in the workplace, all of which we have to tackle if we are to solve the problem.

We are taking positive steps forward on all those things. It is just as important for my hon. Friend's constituents that the Government are setting about outlawing disability discrimination in the workplace. It is all very well having jobs, but perhaps employers do not see disabled people, or those who have been unemployed or on inactive benefits for many years, as capable of doing them, or do not regard them as desirable employees. We have to get over those myths.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was able in his pre-Budget report to announce the extension of pathways to work. We in the DWP are pleased with that because we have seen its potential. My hon. Friend  might be interested to know that in Wales the extension will include the eastern valleys, Swansea bay and west Wales, thereby ensuring that support of the pathways covers almost 60 per cent. of IB claimants in Wales. It is a huge and exciting new opportunity and we look forward to taking it forward in that nation.

My hon. Friend made many points about proposals for reform. I am glad that he welcomed the extension of pathways to work. In his own way, the hon. Member for Chesterfield also welcomed it. However, I was not sure whether the hon. Member for Wycombe welcomed it because he seemed to focus on the new deal for disabled people as the answer, whether or not it was in place. I do not believe that that would be as effective a way forward as having the NDDP in the choices package as one of the options for people to take forward with the advice of specialist personal advisers. Nevertheless, I am glad that the roll-out was generally welcomed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda made a number of points about mental health, as did the hon. Member for Wycombe. Mental health issues are predominantly leading people on to IB and my hon. Friend is right to say that the categorisation of such matters covers a wide range of conditions, issues and situations. We all recognise that that is a major issue. I have noticed that from everybody's contributions today, and any solution to inactive benefits needs to tackle that fully.

My hon. Friend made some positive points and incisive suggestions. He mentioned the over-prescription of anti-depressants by doctors—particularly GPs—and that was also referred to by other hon. Members. The role of GPs is important, not only because they initially sign somebody on to sick pay or IB for the first period, but because they are influential and important in advising their patients about what is good for their health. If we are to make a big impact on inactivity, we need to ensure that GPs thoroughly understand the consequences of what they do, not just in giving out sick notes initially—although there are good reasons why they do so—but because of the longer-term impact of being unemployed and inactive on an individual's health.
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GPs are hugely trusted by their patients, which is not surprising, and their attitude to the potential for returning to work will often have a big impact on the approach of the individual on inactive benefits..

We know that we must ensure that we take GPs and other doctors with us. We are not trying to suggest to GPs that they should not sign people off when they should be signed off, but we are trying to get across to them that work can play a very important part in restoring and retaining good health, particularly in respect of low-level mental health concerns.

One of pathways' quiet and not yet fully recognised impacts is the work that is being done between Jobcentre Plus and local health services, not only in respect of condition management programmes but in ensuring that there is a much closer understanding between local GPs and primary care trusts in England—and the relevant structures in Wales—about what is good for the person who is the patient on the one hand, and our client who is on inactive benefits on the other hand. Those are very important side effects of the impact of pathways.

Several Members asked about the pre-Budget report announcement on advisers in GPs surgeries. We are deciding on the detail of that, and I am not in a position today to give chapter and verse of how it will work. However, we are working closely with devolved Administrations, as well as with the NHS, on all aspects of our approach to tackling inactivity, and on the reform programme that we are discussing. We intend to trial giving GPs additional help on fitness for work issues through providing additional skills for specialist GPs and placing employment advisers in GP surgeries where that is requested. That is not about us camping in GP surgeries regardless of whether the health professionals want that; it is about all of us working together to improve the life of individuals who are both the patients of the GP and our clients.

We will have discussions with the GP profession on this because it is very important that GPs buy in to it. We do not want to impose it from the outside. We work closely with the Department of Health in deciding where and how we are going to trial these interventions.

One of the important things about pathways is that it has fostered much closer working between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health at national level and, in particular, at local level. In some pathways areas, GPs and PCTs have become enthused about the potential of this work. The condition management programmes are paid for out of additional moneys, so we are not taking away from local PCTs money that would be used on other services. These are additional moneys that are there to fill a gap. I hope that there will be more of that in future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda referred to our new Jobcentre Plus offices as Ikea-like. I hope that that is a compliment. I assume he meant that they had clean lines and bright colours, and that they were pleasant places to be in. It is the whole point of Jobcentre Plus that its offices are not dingy, hidden, dark and forbidding places where people have to go once every two weeks to be disapproved of for being on benefit. That is a fair description of the state in which the Conservatives left some of the estate of the Department of Social Security, as the Department was called then. I
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do not blame the hon. Member for Wycombe personally, but it is clear from the state of some parts of the old DSS estate that when his party was in power it did not intend to make claiming entitlements a pleasant experience. We are rightly transforming that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda raised the issue of the 85 processing jobs in the Rhondda and the Department's plans to move them to different valleys. I understand his point, and I am happy to examine the matter and come back to him on it. At the end of his remarks, he strongly made the point that he is not conducting a campaign against malingerers. I assure him that the Government do not think that people on IB are malingerers, and we are not conducting a campaign against them.

Mr. Goodman : I have just noticed that the Department's press release on 2 December refers to a

A sick-note culture is not exactly the same as what the Minister was saying, but perhaps she could expand on what the Government think the sick-note culture is.

Maria Eagle : That is a culture among GPs, some of whom openly admit handing out sick notes without being as careful as they should be, and is not aimed at individuals who receive those sick notes and trust their doctors. I have already made points, which I do not intend to reiterate, about the importance of my Department working closely through Jobcentre Plus pathways with our colleagues, GPs and local health services to ensure that we achieve what is best for their patient and our customer.

The hon. Member for Wycombe gave us interesting glimpses of future Conservative policy, although he bemoaned the fact that he is not in a position to make announcements because he is too low in the food chain. I would be interested to know who is trying to gobble him up, but I assure him that it is not me; I am just trying to deal with his arguments. He complained about the
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taxation and benefits system becoming more complicated, but made no reference to the fact that one role of specialist IB personal advisers is to ensure that people are fully aware of the implications of any action they might take in respect of the financial rewards that they will receive either from work or through tax credits and remaining on benefit. That aspect of the pathways' pilot has been popular among those who come through to work-focused interviews, because somebody can fully explain to them the linking rules and implications of any course of action, such as going for a job, getting training, applying for the new deal for disabled people or trying out permitted work. We are in a much better position, through Jobcentre Plus, to ensure that people do not have to do that for themselves, and can be guided.

The hon. Gentleman finished his remarks by saying that a Conservative Government, if elected, would build on some Labour projects. He accused us, with a great deal of cheek, of being slow to get started on dealing with inactivity. From the party that created that inactivity during its 18 years in office, that took the biscuit. He also said that we were engaged in overly bureaucratic practices to ensure that public money handed over to organisations providing services is properly spent. Surely he cannot be advocating handing over public money to organisations outside of Government without checking that we are getting value for money and that they are spending it correctly. I do not call that bureaucracy; I call it being careful with the public finances, which we are obliged to be.

The hon. Gentleman also argued that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury have not invested enough funds into pathways. He must have written his speech before the pre-Budget statement, because we have just invested an extra £220 million into pathways, which by anyone's estimation is a large and welcome amount of money. I am sure that once we get on with the job, that money will assist the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda and other people who for too long have been abandoned to inactivity by previous Governments who did not care. That will not continue to be the case under this Government.
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