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Employment Advisers

5. Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effects of placing employment advisers within general practitioners' surgeries on encouraging people into work. [209975]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Alan Johnson): The Government's vision of supporting more people in the move from incapacity benefit back to work can be delivered only in close collaboration with general practitioners. We believe that giving GPs access to employment support in their surgeries will help them to deliver this role more effectively. As announced in the pre-Budget report, the Department will be piloting the placement of employment adviser support in GPs' surgeries, building upon a number of initiatives currently in operation.

Miss Begg: Did my right hon. Friend see an article in The Scotsman last Friday, 21 January, which gives the impression—wrongly, I believe—that the Government have been moving people off the unemployment register on to the incapacity register to massage the unemployment figures? The article is written with a particular skew. Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to rebut the allegations in the article, and tell the House how the Government are developing policies that will get people who are on incapacity benefit back into work, including the innovative approach of putting employment advisers into GPs' surgeries?

Alan Johnson: I did not see the article in The Scotsman, but that part of it is patently ridiculous. The simple facts are that in Scotland the claimant count has fallen by 71,000 and over the same period the number on incapacity benefit has fallen by 1,000, so it cannot be the case that people are being moved from one to the other. That is why in 1979 there were 700,000 people on incapacity benefit and by the time we came to government there were 2.6 million. If I may just add to the gaiety of the nation, the inactivity figures in last week's labour market statistics also showed a reduction, so we have not only cut the number of people coming on to incapacity benefit by a third; we have also, virtually for the first time, reduced the number of people who have been on incapacity benefit for many years: a small amount—9,000—but we are heading in the right direction. That is mainly as a result of the pathways to work project that is operating in one part of Scotland and will soon be extended to a third of the country.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I recently had a complaint from one of my constituents who had found a copy of the Government's pre-Budget report in the doctor's surgery. No doubt if she had been pestered by one of these employment advisers she would also have complained about that. My constituents go to
 
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their GP because they are sick, not to be pestered with a plethora of Government propaganda and advice. Will the Secretary of State please put a stop to that?

Alan Johnson: I did not know that the pre-Budget report had replaced Punch in surgery waiting rooms all over the country. I advise the hon. Gentleman to lie down in a darkened room and take a tablet with a glass of water. His constituents will not walk into a surgery to find an employment adviser lurking behind the curtains when they are asked to take their clothes off, or sitting on the desk swinging a stethoscope. They will be placed outside the surgery. The hon. Gentleman may have seen the article in last Thursday's Financial Times on an important project called the James Wigg practice in north-west London, where this has been happening for quite a while, and it is very successful. We should do whatever we can to try to help people on incapacity benefit back into work. This is one part of it and, linked with the Department of Health's White Paper, it has the opportunity to be very successful. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend accept that the evidence shows that over 90 per cent. of people who are in receipt of incapacity benefit want and expect to go back to work? They state clearly in the evidence that getting appropriate advice is not easy. Placing an employment adviser in a GP's surgery to give that advice would be innovatory, and I would support that. What else is the Department considering doing?

Alan Johnson: First, on that important point, chapter 7 of the Department of Health White Paper is devoted to how the NHS can work much more closely with the employment services to get away from the concept that work is bad for one. The advice from the medical profession has changed. Four years ago, if one had a bad back, the advice was to lie down in a darkened room. Now that is considered to be the worst thing one could do. As a form of tackling depression, to tell people to disconnect from society and sit down in a room on their own is just about the worst advice that anyone could possibly give. The medical profession and the Department of Health recognise that.

This is one of a number of initiatives being taken to stem the flow of people on to incapacity benefit. These are people who want to work. The statistic that says that if one is on incapacity benefit for a year, one will be on it for six years, and if one is on it for two years, one will be on it for the rest of one's life, requires politicians to tackle one of the most serious political issues that we face in this country.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): Talking of what the Department may be planning, the Institute for Public Policy Research, in a recent pamphlet that the Secretary of State will have read, suggested that incapacity benefit should be paid at a single fixed rate to new claimants. Has the Secretary of State ruled that out?

Alan Johnson: No, and when the hon. Gentleman sees our five-year plan he will see what kind of ideas we are developing to progress the issue. The fact that the longer
 
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one is on incapacity benefit, the more one gets, and that there are all kinds of complications to it, is one reason why the whole matter needs a radical overhaul.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend points out, the longer people are in receipt of incapacity benefit, the more difficult it is to regain entry to the labour market, particularly as attitudes towards work harden over time. When he is monitoring this particularly innovative and useful way of introducing people back to the labour market, will he also monitor its effects in rural constituencies such as my own, which have particular problems when they are so isolated from all the resources that people in urban areas enjoy?

Alan Johnson: I will give my hon. Friend that reassurance. We are covering only 10 per cent. of the country at the moment with the pathways to work pilots, which are producing some extraordinary results. I do not think that we have really tackled rural areas yet, but we will do so in the expansion to a third of the country. I give her the reassurance that she is seeking: we will look at the specific issues that she mentions, especially for those in rural parts of the country.

Carers

7. Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): If he will make a statement on financial support for carers. [209977]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): Depending on their personal circumstances, carers have access to the full range of social security benefits. Those who provide regular and substantial care of at least 35 hours a week for a severely disabled person receiving attendance allowance or the equivalent rates of the disability living allowance care component can be entitled to a carer's allowance and, if they are on a low income, to the carer premium in the income-related benefits or the carer's additional amount in pension credit. Support for carers is also available through the carer's grant arrangements, which enable them to take a break from caring.

Mr. Hoyle: I thank my hon. Friend for reiterating the benefits that are available to carers, but I point out that the problem that we face is that millions of pounds each week go unclaimed, because the money and entitlements are unfortunately not getting to the carers. Does she agree that carers are the unsung heroes and that we should try to explain how and when they can claim any moneys that are due to them, and get that money to them? Without them, the pressure will come back to the health service and social services. I wonder whether we can ensure that the money is there and that we get it to those people, and ensure that respite is made available to them to give that much needed break to their families.

Maria Eagle: I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in this matter as president of Chorley Mencap. I agree that carers do a fantastic job, and they do not do it for money; they do it out of love for the person whom they are caring for. The number of recipients of the carer's allowance has increased by 14 per cent. in the
 
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past five years. We are now encouraging those who may be eligible to apply to do so and are succeeding in ensuring that more people get the money to which they are entitled. He may be referring to a Carers UK report setting a figure on unclaimed carer's allowance. For reasons that I shall not go into now, but which I can explain—they are rather lengthy—we do not agree with the figures because of the methodology and assumptions that are used, but the essential point is correct: we need to ensure that those who are entitled to benefits get them, and this Government do just that.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Minister has given a good reply so far to this very important question, but as patron of the Macclesfield and district Crossroads association, I am particularly interested in how we look after carers. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) mentioned respite. Does the Minister agree that carers, many of whom are not given anything for the care that they give to the relation or friend whom they are looking after, require more attention than they have been getting? These people save the taxpayer of this country hundreds of millions of pounds a year. Will the Government look more closely at the availability of respite care for carers and also at the funding of the Crossroads organisation?

Maria Eagle: On the latter point, one suspects that this would be a matter for the Department of Health through the section 64 grant funding system; we do not have money that we give out in that way at the Department for Work and Pensions. The hon. Gentleman clearly has a lot of experience in his constituency of the issues involved. Carers need respite and they need to take breaks from caring in order to keep them going. In that regard, the carer's grant has amounted to some £325 million over the past five years, and it will be about £125 million this year, going up to £185 million next year. So we are providing more money to give respite and breaks to carers—something that they and their organisations have emphasised that they need.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): My hon. Friend gave us an excellent and very full reply, but will she comment on a case that was brought to my attention on Saturday involving a family in my constituency? The mother has had a stroke and she requires full-time care. Her daughter has given up her job in order to give that full-time care and a nurse calls in twice a day, but as yet the family has not been able to replace the wages that the daughter has lost through giving up her job. However, tomorrow, the mother could be put into a nursing home, which would cost the state a great deal more money than the daughter needs. This is an unfortunate turn of events, and I shall write to my hon. Friend about it.

Maria Eagle: I cannot cope with the praise that I am receiving—things are bound to go wrong later in the afternoon. I will be happy to look into any particular case raised by my hon. Friend. Even on the basis of those facts, it is difficult to know what might be available to assist that family. It may be difficult for carers who are faced with a burden of caring, which they perhaps did not expect, to get everything sorted out. We must ensure that we do the most that we possibly can to ease them through that process.
 
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