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House of Commons

Monday 4 April 2005

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Incapacity Benefit

1. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): How many incapacity benefit claimants there were on average in (a) 1997 and (b) 2004. [224409]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Alan   Johnson): In 1997 2.54 million people of working age were receiving incapacity benefit. At the end of 2004 there were 2.64 million. The substantial growth of   that number during the 1980s and 1990s has been brought under control with the inflow reduced by one third. The latest statistics show a small but significant fall of 22,000 in the total number of people on incapacity benefit over the past year.

Bob Spink: But is the number of working-age claimants higher or lower than in 1997?

Alan Johnson: I believe that the number of working-age claimants is marginally higher, but I will check that statistic. The point is that if the trend in the growth of the number of people going on to incapacity benefit had continued, more than 4 million people would now be on that benefit. The fact that we have reduced the inflow by one third and reached that significant figure—the total figure—with a small but significant improvement must be a cause for celebration on both sides of the House.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that information on the trend of incapacity benefit claims and the welcome news that it has fallen, but should we not be doing more by ensuring that people who need benefit in the long term are properly supported with incentives and supporting those who may, in the short term, be able to work again and return to the productive life that they should be used to?

Alan Johnson: I agree with my hon. Friend. We must not be complacent. I am not complacent about simply reducing the inflow by one third or about the small but   significant fall. That is why pathways to work is so
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important. When it is rolled out throughout the whole country we can build on that with radical reform of the   incapacity benefit system so that future generations never get into the same position of being written off for the whole of their lives as passive recipients of benefits. We can do more and we have set out radical proposals in our five-year strategy to meet those objectives.

Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (LD): Does the Secretary of State accept that the success or otherwise of pathways to work rests on the effectiveness of personal advisers or disability advisers, particularly in areas with more incapacity benefit recipients, as there are regional disparities in some parts of the country? Is he satisfied that enough support and personal and disability advisers are available to do the job properly, even if the policy is right?

Alan Johnson: No, the number is not adequate and we need another 10,000 people in front-line personal adviser roles. We are learning lessons all the time from pathways to work—it covers only 10 per cent. of the country at the moment but is being extended to one third of the country—about the package of support we need to provide for personal advisers. It would be disastrous to reduce the number of personal advisers and go backwards.

The hon. Gentleman may be attending his last Department for Work and Pensions questions. May I   pay tribute to him for his work with the Work and Pensions Committee on this subject?

Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): May I welcome the imminent arrival of pathways to work on Merseyside? One of the more interesting aspects of our experience of the pathways programme to date is that many people who have been on incapacity benefit are volunteering to join the programme because they want the chance to get back into meaningful work. Does he agree that that is one of the most interesting and significant aspects of what we have learnt from the process?

Alan Johnson: I agree with my hon. Friend. Ten per cent. of those coming on to the pathways to work scheme are not supposed to be covered by it because they have been on incapacity benefit for long time, but are asking to take part. When we look at the success of placing in work those who are on the scheme—the number is double that in non-pathways areas—we see that a large proportion of them are volunteers who have been out of the work force for a long time.

Just last month we introduced that part of pathways that brings in those people who have been on incapacity benefit for three years, having initially started with those in their first 12 months. Although it is early days, we are already, and once again, seeing that people with genuine medical problems want to work. Given help and encouragement and the brilliant work of our personal advisers and the national health service condition management advisers, we can really crack the problem and transform those people's lives.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): We have announced that our opportunity first scheme will get 400,000 people off incapacity benefit and back into work
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over the course of a Parliament. Will the reforms that the Secretary of State has announced get more people or less people off incapacity benefit and back into work?

Hon. Members: Fewer people.

Alan Johnson: We are reminded to use the correct grammatical term.

The hon. Gentleman asked that very question at the last Department for Work and Pensions questions. I do not doubt for a minute that Conservative Members really want to take 400,000 people off incapacity benefit and put them into work. However, the problem is that it is difficult to take their proposal seriously, and I am sorry about that. It is not just their record in government that was appalling—from 700,000 to 2.6 million people on incapacity benefit—but also the fact that one struggles to think how one could get 400,000 people off incapacity benefit and into work while simultaneously cutting the number of staff by 50 per cent., closing 600 jobcentres, cancelling the whole new deal and privatising Jobcentre Plus. I would like to have a modicum of faith in what the hon. Gentleman says, but I do not believe it and I am pretty sure that the British public will not believe it.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): I can tell the House that I have not had to claim incapacity benefit in the past two and a half months while I have been away from this place.

In my constituency, as in many others, there are people on incapacity benefit who definitely want to get back into work. There are also constituents of mine who   tell me about people who are on incapacity benefit and who, judged by the activities that they are seen performing, are perfectly capable of going back to work. However, they stay on incapacity benefit. What will my right hon. Friend do to tackle both types of people so that we get both back to work?

Alan Johnson: There are two issues. First, we independently measured the amount of fraud with incapacity benefit in about 1998–99. It was tiny; it was infinitesimal. However, there is no doubt that in the 1980s and early 1990s—we all know this from experience in our constituencies—many people who should have had an active working life in front of them were encouraged to move on to incapacity benefit. That group presents the greatest challenge because, in a sense, those people—and sometimes it is whole generations of the same family—have got used to being out of work. That is why the success of pathways in dealing with the most difficult-to-reach people is so encouraging.

The lessons for both groups are the same: to offer personal assistance; to offer them help and support to get into work, including the £40 a week in-work credit; to offer NHS condition management; and to give these people the confidence and dignity that they often lack and to help them in the process. The message for both groups is the same, but the challenge of one group will be much harder than that of the other.
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New Deal

2. Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): if he will make a statement on the effectiveness of the new deal 25-plus. [224410]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): Our successful economic and labour market policies have cut long-term unemployment by three quarters to its lowest level for 30 years. New deal 25-plus has played an important role in this success, so far helping more than 210,000 people into work. I suspect that the l,650 people who have been helped into work through the new deal in Newark, including 250 people through new deal 25-plus, will be disappointed to learn that their Member of Parliament supports a plan to scrap it.

Patrick Mercer: I am particularly grateful to the Minister for illustrating his reply with points from my constituency. The fact remains that, in surgeries in both Newark and Retford, I find that a number of people are being readmitted to the scheme for a second time. That is borne out by the fact that about a third of people nationally have to come back to the scheme for a second go. Could the Minister confirm that the scheme is designed to introduce people to permanent employment and not simply to act as a revolving door?

Mr. Pond: There is one very effective way to prevent people from going back on to such schemes, and that is to scrap them altogether, which is, I assume, the hon. Gentleman's proposal. We do not propose to do that. Given that we are talking about people who face some of the greatest barriers to entering and remaining in work, inevitably, in a dynamic labour market, some of them will need continuing help before finding themselves in long-term sustainable employment. Our commitment is to ensure that we reach out so that even the hardest to help get the help that they need to join the growing ranks of people in long-term sustainable employment.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): The Minister is probably aware that my constituency has one of the lowest levels of GDP per capita of any in the UK, yet more than 91 per cent. of people on long-term unemployment benefit since 1997 have been found employment in Barnsley, East and Mexborough. Will he   ensure that successful schemes, like the new deal 25-plus, will continue under his watch?

Mr. Pond: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that reassurance. Indeed, he will know that we have extended the help for new deal 25-plus even further. Last year, we   extended early entry to the scheme to more disadvantaged groups, including lone parents, people with basic skills, ex-service personnel and refugees. Frankly, we have no intention whatsoever of scrapping such a scheme, which has helped hundreds of thousands of people, or the new deal as a whole, which has helped 1.2 million. I can reassure him that that help will continue.
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Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): Has the Minister plans for compelling mothers whose children are below 16, with the youngest reaching perhaps 14 or even 11, to leave income support and go on to jobseeker's allowance?

Mr. Pond: No. We are looking to give that group of people additional support because many of them want to get back into the labour market. We have no intention, however, of making that compulsory. We will ensure that they get all the help necessary, and we will   make a proper assessment of their needs to see what help they need to get into work.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that although it is natural for us to argue over figures, our electorate will be much more interested in the fundamental change that the Government have been trying to make of moving the welfare state from one that merely pays benefits to one that, wherever possible, ensures that people can work?

Mr. Pond: Yes, and I worked for long enough with my right hon. Friend in a different guise to know how committed he, too, is to that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned the attempts that we are making to ensure that we have a nation of active citizens rather than those who are consigned to being passive recipients of benefits. That is why we have one of the best records on employment in the industrialised nations and why we have the best record on employment in three decades. We want to ensure that we build on that record.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): While the general run of new deal programmes is little better, will the Minister acknowledge that less than 25 per cent. of those starting on this particular new deal programme reach their objective of unsubsidised employment? If he were a football manager and his team lost 3–1, would that constitute a success, as he claims, or, rather, a failure?

Mr. Pond: We are talking about a group of people   who have considerable barriers to entering sustainable long-term employment. The record in those circumstances is pretty impressive. Nearly 40 per cent. of those on new deal 25-plus have obtained a job while on the programme. We are determined to ensure that still more reach that success. In circumstances in which the barriers are considerable, we are helping people to get over them and get into the long-term sustainable employment that we want them to enjoy, and which I   hope that the hon. Gentleman also wants them to enjoy. However, the solution to these problems is not to scrap the scheme and the help altogether, which appears to be his proposal.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): In contrast to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), the High Peak area is not traditionally a region of high unemployment. Nevertheless, is my hon. Friend the Minister aware that no fewer than 1,060 people in my constituency have found employment or training through the new deal? It has been valuable indeed. Is he
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also aware that those people, their families and those who may, unfortunately, have to follow them would be astonished and dismayed if this Government or any other proposed scrapping the new deal?

Mr. Pond: Indeed, they would be shocked and astonished to hear that. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he has done in his constituency to promote the effectiveness of the new deal and the work of Jobcentre Plus, which has delivered that high employment not only in his constituency but across the country. The warning has to go out to my hon. Friend's constituents and others that if this scheme and others were scrapped, there would be no continuation of that success, and we as a nation would pay a heavy price for that.

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