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Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): The Secretary of State talks about better rewarding those who choose to work beyond state pension age, but he is not giving them the right to do so. I know from my own experience of a 65-year-old widow, a highly competent school secretary, who was forced out of her job solely because of her age. Does the Secretary of State defend that? Does he not feel strongly about age discrimination? Should not the only criterion for keeping a job be a person's competence in it?
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Alan Johnson: Actually, I have a great deal of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point, but—[Interruption.] Yes, I can see the hon. Gentleman's letter. I can understand why the constituent would feel that she was being discriminated against on account of her age. Where do we go from the current climate in which most people are out of the workplace by the time they reach 62 rather than 65? We would greatly like to see a position in which companies have no fall-back position on pension age and people can work to whatever age as long as they are fit and efficient at doing their jobs. I do not think that we are quite in a position to be able to implement that right now, but I am also unsure about official Opposition policy on that.

With the introduction of age discrimination legislation in 2006—I do not want to upset Conservative Members too much, but it derives from a European Union directive, so it could be uncomfortable for them—we take the view that it is still too soon to have no default retirement age at all. That is why we have said that no one can be retired below 65, which is a major change; that there is a right to request to work beyond 65; and that five years after implementation, in 2011, we will conduct a review to see whether we can lift any remaining barriers. I believe that we will eventually reach a position in which those barriers have gone, but it is important to listen to the business community, employers and others who have said that it is not possible to do it in one fell swoop.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend say something about training arrangements to help people come off incapacity benefit? More particularly, what does he think about the Opposition's commitment to abolish the new deal on the ground that it is a wasteful operation?

Alan Johnson: I can tell my hon. Friend that the training aspects are, indeed, important. Pathways to work has helped twice the national average number of people back to work. It has also helped six times the national average number of people—including some who have been out of work for a long time—to get closer to the labour market through skills training. That shows how crucial it is to provide such intervention. The views of Conservative Members, who want to abolish many of the new deal programmes and privatise Jobcentre Plus, are a matter of great perplexity to me. If my hon. Friend could help me to understand them in the Labour end of the Tea Room, I would be pleased to speak to him there. However, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) seems fairly sympathetic. He is quoted as saying in today's newspapers that our proposals "look good". That being the case, I do not understand how abolishing the new deal and privatising Jobcentre Plus will make any improvement at all on the current position.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): The first year of the pilot of pathways to work—including the one in Chesterfield and north Derbyshire, which I have visited—shows that help, support and providing incentives to work can be successful where threats and sanctions cannot. It is therefore hard to understand why the Government want to extend pathways to work only to one third of the country rather than to the whole of it. In that light, will the Secretary of State clarify what he
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meant in his statement when he said that, with the extra support of pathways in place, the Government would implement a radical reform to the incapacity benefit system by 2008? Does that mean that, by 2008, pathways to work and the new system will have been extended to the whole country or only to one third of it? Or does it mean that the new system will apply to the two thirds of the country that does not have the support of pathways to work? If so, it would undermine the Secretary of State's point about the success of pathways to work.

Alan Johnson: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is a fan of pathways to work, and I shall soon visit the Derbyshire scheme. Pathways to work is essential for the reforms that we are setting out today. The Chancellor announced that the scheme will be extended to a third of the country, but the wider reforms are predicated on the operation of pathways to work across the whole country. It is a five-year plan, but we are in a three-year spending review, so we have the usual process to go through beyond 2008. We certainly hope that, by 2008, the major elements will be in place. That will include legislation to make changes so that the PCA can be accompanied by an employment ability test. Some of the linking rules will have to be changed, along with other aspects. However, 2008 will not see pathways to work extended throughout the country—only to a third—but the elements for change will be in place, ready to advance across the whole country thereafter.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a very forward-looking statement? I look forward to the imminent arrival of pathways to my constituency. Does he agree that one of the greatest difficulties for people who suffer from chronic conditions—they can, of course, fluctuate—that has prevented them from aspiring to work in the past has often been the attitude of employers who fail to understand how to get the best out an individual who is managing a condition? If we are to ensure that these welcome reforms are effective, we must work hard to persuade employers to be much less narrow minded in their treatment of people with disabilities, and achieving that change might require legislation on disability rights.

Alan Johnson: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. There is a lot of evidence of discrimination by employers, especially against people with mental illnesses. That is on top of the huge discrimination that has gone on for years against people who are physically disabled. In part, the answer lies with our disability discrimination legislation, whose passage through the House was the final fulfilment of our manifesto commitment to deal with what my predecessor called the great emancipation issue of our time.

That is not the total answer, however. The legislation may be in place, yet the inherent and underlying prejudices continue to exist. The legislation is a crucial part of the reform, but we must also ensure that we produce a society in which people are genuinely empowered, irrespective of their disabilities. We are still quite a way off that, and there is more work to do.
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Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP): I welcome the Government's action to assist people on incapacity benefit and to give them an incentive to go back to work. I also welcome their commitment to give increased benefit to people who cannot work because of chronic and serious illness. I have coped with serious back pain for short periods over the past 30 years. I have been in traction in hospital, I have worn the steel corsets and taken the painkillers. However, I have been privileged in that I have been able to pay for private treatment when I needed it. I have not had to resort to the NHS for at least 10 or 15 years.

Will the Secretary of State discuss with his colleague the Secretary of State for Health the possibility of funding people who suffer from back pain so that they    can benefit from the manipulative skills of physiotherapists and chiropractors in the private sector, where those skills are not available on the NHS?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. That was a very long question.

Alan Johnson: I listened with interest to what the hon. Gentleman said. I will talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, but the hon. Gentleman should read chapter 7 of the recent "Choosing Health" White Paper. That speaks at great length about how the attitude of the health profession has changed in respect of conditions such as his.

Condition management is a major element in helping people off incapacity benefit and back to work. It is especially crucial for people who suffer back pain, and central to it is the need to ensure that they can see NHS experts as part of a return-to-work programme that might include physiotherapy. I shall talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health about the wider aspects of using the private sector.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that pathways to work has been successful because it is voluntary and based on encouraging and helping people to go back to work? Will he also confirm that those principles will be part of the new system, and that people will not be taken off benefit compulsorily simply because they fail the interview or are unable to comply in some way with the new regulations?

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