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Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has come to the House to make a statement on his plans. After all the briefing and spin of the past few days, it is right that he should come here to clear things up, and we appreciate that.

We also agree with the Secretary of State that more must be done to help disabled people into work. Of course, we also have an obligation to provide decent support for people who are seriously disabled and cannot be expected to work. We believe that it is possible to save money on the cost of disability benefits, but that should be done by helping those who can work to do so. It would be wrong to cut benefits for people who are genuinely sick or disabled. I believe that those principles are shared on both sides of the House.

After eight years, however, the Government must expect to be judged not on their words but on their record. The Secretary of State talked today about tackling economic inactivity—but can he confirm that the number of economically inactive people has risen by 300,000 since Labour came into office, and that that accounts for nearly half the fall in unemployment over the same period? The Secretary of State says that the problem is people who have moved from unemployment on to incapacity benefits instead—but will he confirm that back in 1997 47 per cent. of people moving on to incapacity benefit were unemployed, and that that figure is now up to 60 per cent?

The Secretary of State said that the number of people moving on to incapacity benefits was down. Will he confirm, however, that the number of people leaving incapacity benefits is also down, and that the total number of people claiming the benefits is now 140,000 higher than it was in May 1997?

Therefore, everyone in the House agrees that there is a problem. We agree with the Prime Minister when he says,

The trouble is, that is what the Prime Minister said in May 1999.

Anyone who has followed this Government's endless reannouncements cannot help but think of that Bill Murray film "Groundhog Day". May I congratulate the Secretary of State on his brilliant timing? In America there really is a Groundhog day—and it is today. We are celebrating Groundhog day today in the House of Commons, and what better way for the Government to mark it than by making the same promises on welfare reform that they have made again and again and again? We have heard it all before.

When I read the document that the Government published today, it had a strange familiarity. Perhaps I may quote:

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But that is from a document called "A new contract for welfare: support for disabled people", produced in October 1998. Can the Secretary of State tell the House whether he has read it, and can he tell us in what respect what he is saying today is any advance on what we were told six and a half years ago?

We know what the Secretary of State has been up to. He has been told by No. 10 to come up with some eye-catching initiative on incapacity benefits. He is an ambitious man, so of course he agrees. He goes back to the Department and says to his permanent secretary, "We've got to do something about incapacity benefits; what on earth should we do?" The permanent secretary says "Here's something I prepared earlier—six and a half years earlier." And the Secretary of State has brought it back to the House today.

Why is it that these promises of incapacity benefit reform never materialise, and why should anyone believe what the Secretary of State says today when we have heard it so often from his predecessors? It is because Ministers do not learn from their mistakes that they are condemned to repeat them. When the Government means-tested new claims for incapacity benefit, we warned that people already on the benefit would be deterred from leaving it because they would fear that they might have to go on to the new means-tested benefit at a lower rate. Our warnings have been proved correct. That is why the number of people on incapacity benefit has gone up since the Government announced their last so-called reforms. What steps will the Secretary of State take to counteract that perverse effect when he has another new regime for new claims? Does he recognise that it is possible that today's announcement could make the problem worse?

Incidentally, will the Secretary of State confirm that the measures that he has announced today apply only to new claimants, and will have no effect on the 2.7 million people who are already claiming the benefit? Why has he not announced any measures to help those already on it? Does he recognise that the fundamental difference between his approach and ours is that we want to help existing claimants? All he is talking about today is a policy that might possibly apply to new claims in 2008. That is no help at all for people who are stuck on the benefit today.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said:

Today, the Secretary of State said he was not cutting benefits. Yesterday, the Prime Minister talks tough and says that the Government are going to get rid of the long-term rate, and today, the Secretary of State says that they are not going to cut benefits at all. The Prime Minister marches people up to the top of the hill, and the Secretary of State comes to the House and marches them down again. The device that is being used to reconcile those apparently irreconcilable statements is that people will receive the new benefit only if they agree to turn up for a work-focused interview.
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Will the Secretary of State tell us a little more about the conditions for receipt of the benefit? How will he police the boundary between the two new benefits that he has announced? How many new claimants will be entitled to receive the new higher rate? How many claimants does the Secretary of State think will refuse to turn up for the work-focused interviews and settle for the lower rate? How many people does he think will lose benefits for failing to attend? How many people does he think he will get into work as a result of these policies?

Will the Secretary of State recognise that the new work-focused interviews may be no more successful than any of the existing work-focused interviews that the Government have been launching for the past few years? Does he read his Department's own appraisals of their success?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I find what the hon. Gentleman is saying very interesting, but he is making a speech. He should be putting questions, with no embellishment whatsoever. I also note that he has been on his feet for about 10 minutes, and I am expecting to give Back Benchers an opportunity to ask questions.

Mr. Willetts: There are a good many questions to ask about this policy, Mr. Speaker, but the Secretary of State does need an opportunity to answer the questions that I have already put.

Conservative Members are not sure whether, after eight years in office, the Government have really learned the lessons of their failure to reform welfare in the past. We want to know why we should believe anything that the Secretary of State says today after his failure so far to deliver any of the promises on incapacity benefit that we have heard from him.

Alan Johnson: Where can I begin, Mr. Speaker? I certainly give the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) 10 out of 10 for sheer effrontery. He asks what has been happening since 1997. The entire Conservative party should be sitting here—[Hon. Members: "Where are they?"] Probably at lunch—but if they were sitting here they should be wearing sackcloth and ashes; in fact, they would probably look better like that than they do in their normal suits.

The issues that we are discussing today are about lifting pensioners out of poverty. Who put pensioners into poverty? The Conservative party. The hon. Gentleman talks of giving help to disabled people. The Conservative party denied civil rights to disabled people throughout its 18 years in office.

Let me give another statistic. The hon. Gentleman asks what has happened since 1997. Not only have we crossed the 50 per cent. line in terms of the number of lone parents in employment, but more than 50 per cent. of disabled people are now in employment. That is an extremely important bridge to cross, given the perception of disabled people as being somehow incapable of work.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that 700,000 people were claiming incapacity benefit in 1979, and 2.6 million were doing so by the time the Conservatives left office. These, incidentally, were not people with medical
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conditions that could not be rectified; they were people who had left steel mills, shipyards and coal mines, been directed towards incapacity benefit and told to go away and be passive recipients of benefits for the rest of their lives.

What has happened since 1997? The hon. Gentleman asked about people who had been on incapacity benefit for 20 years. We have reduced the flow on to incapacity benefit by a third. None of these people are freeloading, by the way; this is not the 1980s. These are people with genuine health conditions who undergo a personal capability assessment to receive incapacity benefit. The number of new claimants has been reduced by a third. We have developed pathways to work, which I would describe as the most extraordinary development in the history of this issue. We built on Jobcentre Plus—which has had to be created over the last seven years—and the merger of the Benefits Agency and the Employment Service, which gave us a foundation for pathways to work.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to find out what we have been doing, and why ours is the right approach, he should visit a pathways to work area. He knows a thing or two about the issues—and to be fair, he is probably more to the left on them than the rest of his party. [Interruption.] I withdraw that remark immediately; but the hon. Gentleman should still visit a pathways to work area. He will be inspired, just as our staff at the front line are, by the stories that we hear there and by the help that can be given to get people back into work.

The hon. Gentleman asks what we will do to help people to try out work. They will not face never being able to get back on to benefit. That is crucial for people on existing benefits—"on the stock", as they are not very charmingly described. As we say in the five-year plan, we need to change the linking rules even further. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said in the pre-Budget report that we would relax those rules. We have introduced a greater permitted work regime to assist people in that position, but that is not all we can do for people on the stock. I confirm that these arrangements apply to new claimants of IB.

As I said in my statement, in pathways to work areas, we are already seeing people who have been on IB for many years wanting to become involved. This month, we will extend the pathways to work project to people who have been on IB for three years. We will offer the opportunity for anyone to become involved, but it would be wrong to pretend that it will be easy dealing with people who have been on IB for 15 or 20 years, because they get into a mindset. The important part of our proposals is to have a speedy process: a personal capability assessment within 12 weeks; and assistance and advice early on, so that people can be given the assistance that they need, without being, as they were previously, sent away to be passive recipients of benefits for the rest of their lives.

The plan needs to be seen in the context of what has gone on before: the development of Jobcentre Plus and pathways to work, which enables us to move even further in a climate where we have the lowest unemployment for 30 years and the highest employment of any major industrialised nation.

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