Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (LD):
Does the Secretary of State accept that everything that I have learned about benefit reform in the past 20 years leads me to conclude that the most important
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thing to do in the next five years is to make a serious effort to simplify the system? The introduction of tax credits and the pension credit has improved poverty levels, but it has also increased complexity. Will he undertake to give due emphasis to such simplification during this five-year programme, and in view of the widespread interest in incapacity benefit proposals, may I make a bid, from the departmental Select Committee point of view, for draft clauses to be published and pre-legislative scrutiny to be allowed in the next Parliament?
Alan Johnson: The answer to the first question is yes and the answer to the second is probably. Such matters have to go through the usual channels, but I certainly see the benefit of publishing draft clauses and of ensuring that this necessary legislationwe cannot implement the proposals without itcan be scrutinised in full before we publish it. With that caveat, I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks.
Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): The detail of the Government's proposals will obviously have to be carefully considered, but I warmly welcome the provision of additional help in getting back into work those people who can work, not least because, as we have noted, incapacity benefit is not a generous benefit. Indeed, those on it are living on the margins of poverty. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the benefit system will have the capacity to distinguish between those more able to work and the less able, and that personal advisersa crucial component of this very welcome packagewill have the skills, expertise and sensitivity to ensure that such people's needs are met properly?
Alan Johnson: I welcome my hon. Friend's comments. He has far greater experience of dealing with these issues than I have, and I can only learn from it. On the capacity to distinguish between the more able to work and the less able, 20 per cent. of people who go through the system are already classified as personal capability assessment-exempt. They are so chronically sick that it is considered perverse even to ask them to go through the PCA, and they are an obvious 20 per cent. who flow into the second category, to which very little conditionality is applied. The medical profession carries out the PCA, and I certainly do not want to hand over such assessment to civil servants or anyone else.
We are extending the capacity of individuals working in Jobcentre Plus all the time. On meeting a personal adviser working outside a pathways area, one would conclude that they have an enormous amount of expertise, as indeed they have, but those who work in pathways areas receive extra training. Not only are staff motivated and enthused by such training, it transforms the service that the customer receives. So I can reassure my hon. Friend that we will ensure that personal advisers have the necessary skills and sensitivity to carry out their important role.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con):
The Secretary of State will know that there have been conflicting messages in the past few days. For the sake of clarity, can he point to anything in his statement that will benefit existing claimants of incapacity benefit, not new ones, or to anything that will be detrimental to themor is there no change?
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Alan Johnson: Let me be absolutely clear: this is about new incapacity benefit claimants. I may be wrong, but I doubt whether any such change has ever been applied to those who are already in the system. Because the new system is predicated on pathways to work, it provides help and support for people who are already on incapacity benefit. It enables them to participate in work-focused interviews, make use of the assistance provided, take advantage of the £40 a week in-work credit if they are taking up a job that pays less than £15,000 a year, and take advantage of the condition management that health professionals provide as part of the service. I am absolutely sure that people in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and in mine, who have been on IB for some time will want to participate voluntarily in the new system.
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): As politicians, we can say today that this is the right way forward and that it is very important that people who have been out of the workplace because of disability or illness should get back into work. The real test, however, will be the experience of the people themselves, and it is word of mouth that will sell the Secretary of State's proposal. Some of the people to whom I speak who fall into this category still fear that they will be somehow worse off, or that coming off incapacity benefit and taking up work is too risky. They do not realise that the linking rules and the permitted work rules have changed. What can the Secretary of State do to allay those fears, so that everybody presently on incapacity benefit, severe disablement allowance or any other disability allowance will know that if they take that first step across a jobcentre threshold, they will have nothing to fear and everything to gain?
Alan Johnson: My hon. Friend raises an important point. Many of even those who are considered the most chronically sick want to work. As she well knows, severe disability does not prevent people from working and it should not prevent them from being helped to find work, which is why we need to get such people to attend a work-focused interview. For the most chronically ill, the only condition that applies in pathways to work areas is that they should attend such an interview occasionally. That allows us to explain to them the rules on linking and allowed earnings, and the various other parts of the package, which makes it clear that they can put their toe in the water. If they are worried about taking that step, they can see how they get on without losing their right to benefit. The work-focused interview with a highly trained and professional personal assistant is a crucial part of this system, whatever level of benefit the person in question is on.
Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP): It is strange that the only reference to pensions in a five-year strategy plan is the rather wimpish statement that the Government will set out the principles on which pension reforms will be based. Is that happening because the Chancellor is fighting a last-ditch attempt to save the rather discredited means-tested pension, rather than moving towards a citizen's pension? If so, what does the Secretary of State intend to do about it?
Let me be absolutely clear. When the hon. Gentleman has had a chance to read the five-year
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strategy, he will see that we have lifted 1.8 million pensioners out of poverty. It also makes it clear that whereas earnings have increased by 12 per cent. net, pensioners' incomes have increased by 19 per cent. net, and that the introduction of the pension protection schemeone of the most radical changes ever taken to protect occupational pensions and to deal with auto enrolmenthas helped to transform the pensions scene. I accept that we have not said much about pensions today, but that is because we are concentrating on one specific issue. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he will hear lots about pensionsnot just in the coming weeks up to what may well be a general election, but beyond.
Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North) (Lab): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement and on his openness to receiving ideas and advice over the past few months? I particularly congratulate him on his comments about occupational health in the workplace and his linking of that issue with the public health White Paper. What prospects can we offer people whom so many employers abandon for the 28 weeks during which they are on statutory sick pay? More specifically, what role does he see for the excellent voluntary sector occupational health projects up and down the country?
Alan Johnson: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and for his input as chairman of the Back-Bench parliamentary Labour party Department for Work and Pensions group. First, let me tell him that we can offer people assistance in the workplace. A third of those on incapacity benefit come directly from the workplace when their statutory sick pay runs out after 28 weeks. Suddenly, they are on something called incapacity benefit. We then put a good deal of time and effort into trying to get them back into the job that they occupied in the first place.
There is a lot to be done, and today's announcement that the Health and Safety Commission will be allotted £26 million to expand its work on occupational health issues will help employers better to manage the problem. Employers should not just stack up the days lost through sickness absence, but actively engage with individuals to find out what is wrong and help them back to work. It is also important to create a healthier workplace, which might prevent employees from becoming sick in the first place. Once my hon. Friend has had time to read the five-year strategy, he will see that we are also looking further into statutory sick pay to establish whether a change could support the overall aim of helping more people to either stay in work or return to it.