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Incapacity Benefit

3. Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): What steps he is taking to encourage people claiming incapacity benefit back into employment. [218084]

6. Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): What steps he is taking to encourage people claiming incapacity benefit back into employment. [218087]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Alan Johnson): We are committed to ensuring that significantly greater numbers of people on incapacity benefits are helped into the labour market. Pathways to work is the most significant initiative designed to meet this objective. We have recently set out our plans for fundamental reform of incapacity benefits in our five-year strategy. We want to create a new framework of support for people who can return to work, while offering greater security to those who probably cannot.

Mr. Borrow: Although my constituency has full employment, hundreds of people who are still on incapacity benefit there would like to get back to work. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the staff of the Leyland Jobcentre Plus office, who have helped more than 90 people back into work since April last year? Will he also look at ways of helping them to provide even more support to help more people back into work in my constituency?

Alan Johnson: I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the staff at the Leyland office. It is a tremendous achievement to get 90 people off incapacity benefit and back into work in an area that is not part of our pathways to work project, given that pathways areas have double the success rate of non-pathways areas in putting people into jobs. Without the expertise, dedication and almost evangelical approach of front-line personal advisers, we would not achieve such results, so I pay due tribute to the staff involved and to my hon. Friend for taking such an interest in these issues in his constituency.

Mr. McCabe: While I welcome the aims of my right hon. Friend's policy, I also seek two assurances from him. First, will he do all that he can to ensure that bureaucrats do not reinterpret those aims, as seems to have been the experience of my visually impaired constituent, Steven Buckley? He is doing everything he
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can to get to work, but the access to work people seem to prefer him to give up his job. Secondly, will my right hon. Friend give me a categorical assurance that there will be no attempt to limit the period for which people can claim incapacity benefit?

Alan Johnson: I invite my hon. Friend to write to me about the specific incident that he mentioned. Obviously I am not denying that problems arise in the system, but I think that in general we get the balance just about right between those who need assistance and those who will probably not be able to work again.

I can reassure my hon. Friend that we will not introduce time-limiting of incapacity benefit. That is not part of our five-year plan, and not part of anything that the Government propose.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): Will the Secretary of State confirm that, according to his plans, by 2008 new incapacity benefit claimants will receive a lower holding benefit but will be able to increase it to a higher rehabilitation support allowance if they successfully complete a work-focused interview and establish an action plan for seeking work? Is it not the case, however, that in two thirds of the country they will not benefit from the assistance of the pathways to work scheme, which provides more support?

Alan Johnson: The hon. Gentleman is wrong on two counts. The holding benefit will be the same as the current benefit, which is about £54 a week, the same as jobseeker's allowance. Whereas the current benefit applies for 26 weeks, however, we plan to achieve completion of the personal capability assessment in 12 weeks. We are already achieving that in pathways to work areas. The process will become much quicker.

As for the move to other benefits, the idea is to ensure that pathways to work is in place throughout the country. That underpins the whole plan, and we will not introduce the new procedures until it has happened. The point is important, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised it. What we have said is that by 2008, when a third of the country will be covered by the pathways to work scheme, we intend to have in place legislation enabling us to change to the new system—which must be primary legislation—as well as training for GPs, occupational health provision overseen by the Health and Safety Executive, and linking rules so that people who take the huge step of giving up incapacity benefit know that they can return to the same position. All those proposals are crucial to making this a success. After 2008, we will roll out the rest of the pathways to work scheme and implement our proposals fully.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): We have published proposals to build on the Government's new deal for disabled people, expanding the role of the voluntary sector. Our proposals would reduce the number of existing claimants by 400,000 over the course of a Parliament. Would what the Government recently announced reduce the number by more than that, or less?

Alan Johnson: I find it difficult to take those proposals seriously. Today I wrote to the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) to try to clarify the position. It appears
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that the Conservatives are saying that they will take 65,000 staff out of Jobcentre Plus, close 600 offices, and give those on the new deal a better deal while ensuring that less money is available to provide that better service. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's figures do not add up.

Conservative Members do not seem to realise that a third of the Jobcentre Plus programmes are already in the private sector. Their figures do not take that into account. We expect to return far more people on incapacity benefit to work than would be possible under a half-baked proposal to close offices and cut schemes but improve services at the same time. We know the Conservative party's record, and we expect it to be replicated in the unfortunate event of their return to office.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Last week I had the pleasure of visiting my local Jobcentre Plus office and Stockton Blind People's Voice. I was there when Blind People's Voice introduced to all in Stockton its "into work" project. Its members were very pleased about much that Ministers are saying, but they wanted me to ask a question. Does not going into work require an enormous leap of confidence for blind and other disabled people? They ask for that to be acknowledged, so that they can work and receive benefit, but can work for as many hours as they can manage rather than a statutory number of hours. If they can work for four hours, that should be accommodated until they can manage 16 or more. I should greatly appreciate a response to that question.

Alan Johnson: I remind my hon. Friend—I accept her interest in these matters—that we have changed the permitted work rules precisely because of some of those issues. We need to see whether we need to do anything further. People with the most severe disability want to reconnect with the world of work. They were previously thought to be incapable of doing anything but sit at home. She is absolutely right. We need to use their skills and talents. That is what the Disability Discrimination Bill is all about. That is what the changes in the permitted earnings rules are all about. We need to go even further perhaps to make it easier for those people to take what is, as she says, a very difficult step.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): The Secretary of State is right to say that more people in the United Kingdom should be economically active both for their financial benefit and to have something to do with themselves during the day. In answer to a previous question, he recognised that for many people it will be quite frightening to go back to work. There will be great anxiety as to whether they can go back to what they previously did, which is more comfortable, if it does not work out. Can he set out in more detail at what point people who find that their attempt to go into the labour market does not work will be able to go back to their more comfortable life, as they will see it, on incapacity benefit?

Alan Johnson: The hon. Lady raises one of the crucial issues. Now in the pathways to work experiments, we are reaching out not to people who have been on IB for 12 months, who were part of the initial pathways to
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work, but to people who have been on IB for longer—for up to two years. Ten per cent. of people participating have been on IB for much longer and are volunteers. The crucial aspect is the £40 a week in-work credit to allow them to get over that problem. Because of the linking rules that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the Budget, they will have the opportunity to go back to where they were if it all comes to grief, rather than going through the whole IB process again. That only needs to apply for a certain amount of time—

The Minister for Work (Jane Kennedy): Two years.

Alan Johnson: Up to two years, as my right hon. Friend reminds me. If someone has managed to get past those barriers and to be in work for two years, we can safely say that they are back in the world of work and on the road away from that terrible existence on the princely sum of £74 a week, sitting at home disconnected from society. I hope that the hon. Lady accepts that we are seeking to tackle what she is right to say is a real and relevant problem.

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