Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I will speak briefly, as others wish to contribute. I congratulate all who have made their maiden speeches today, and those who may yet do so, and wish them well during their service as Members of Parliament. I thank the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) for his kind comments about his predecessor Valerie Davey, who is a close friend of many of us in the House. She is a person of enormous integrity, and served with excellence as Member of Parliament for Bristol, West. I really appreciated the hon. Gentleman's tribute to her work.
I want to focus on the Government's welcome proposals to help those receiving incapacity benefit and those who may find themselves receiving it without intervention, but first I want to say a little about the economy. My abiding memory of the election in Kingswood is that as we raced up and down the streets during the day, it was incredibly difficult to find anyone of working age at home. That, of course, is because the overwhelming majority were in work. The contrast between the situation in my constituency now and the situation when I was first elected in 1992 makes me wonder whether I am more shocked by the fact that the shadow Chancellor had no economic policy to put before the House, or by the collective amnesia among the Conservatives in relation to what they did to our economy when they were in office.
When I was first elected to the House 12 years ago, 3 million people were unemployed in this country and long-term unemployment in my constituency of Kingswood was at record levels. Interest rates and home repossessions were at record levels. The record now, after eight years of a Labour Government, bears interesting comparison. I am proud to be a supporter of a Government who have delivered on the economy the way this Government have delivered over the past eight years. The Chancellor and all his colleagues on the Labour Benches can be proud of that record.
It is not a questionI would say this to the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) but he is not in his placeof being complacent. There is much more to do and I will come on to that. However, the position today is radically different from the position bequeathed by the Conservative Administration.
As we all know and as is widely agreed, about 1 million people on capacity-related benefits wish to work. A lot of nonsense can be found in sections of the
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press in relation to incapacity benefit. I do not have time to go through some of the awful stuff that I have read over the years, but let me make one point. Some sections of the press seem to think that people can simply pop along to a GP, get a sick note and end up on incapacity benefit for life.
All right hon. and hon. Members will know from talking to their constituents that life is not like that. Constituents who are sick or disabled and cannot work have real difficulty persuading not their local GP but a Department for Work and Pensions-appointed doctor that they are entitled to the benefit. Of those who appeal against refusal, 50 per cent. end up getting the benefit. That does not suggest that the initial appraisal is over-generous. Indeed, it is not.
The problem is not that there are people in receipt of capacity-related benefits who should not be getting them because they do not meet the criteriathey do meet them. The problem is that, as I say, about 1 million people on capacity-related benefits wish to work. With the proper support, they can secure employment.
The obvious question is why those people are not in work now. It could be because of a lack of accessible transport, discrimination at work, inadequate adaptations at work, a lack of appropriate personalised training, or the risk of loss of benefitit could be one of many factors, which the Government have already begun to deal with. The Disability Discrimination Act 2005 deals with a number of areas of discrimination that prevent disabled people from getting to work. Under the present Government, there has been a substantial increase in funding the access to work initiative, which is clearly an important policy. We have also had the pathways to work pilot projects, which have been a great success. I was delighted the Prime Minister's strategy unit report of January on improving the life chances of disabled people emphasised the positive things that Government should do to prevent people who are running the risk of losing a job due to a disability from even going on to incapacity benefit in the first place. They included measures to ensure that they can retain their job, and help for those who are on incapacity benefit to get back to work.
I welcome the Government's promise of more financial support for disabled people who are looking for work. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will no doubt comment but I am not sure that calling it a rehabilitation support allowance is the neatest way to describe the benefit. However, the principle is rightit has probably changed its name by now. It is right that people who are accepting work-related advice should be paid more than is currently available on incapacity benefit. It is also correct that those who, sadly, will never be able to work should receive more support, as the Government propose under the scheme.
Incapacity benefit is not a generous benefit; an average of £84 or £85 a week, or £4,000 a year, is not generous by any means. Those unable to work should receive more support and I welcome the Government's commitment to that. I look forward to the draft welfare reform Bill, which will reflect the five-year strategy for the DWP that we saw earlier this year, and is something on which we can make progress.
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I am still surprised that the perception in some quarters of the popular press of people on incapacity benefit tends to be negative. I, too, will invoke the word respect. I have read things in newspapers that show no respect whatever for people who are unable to work because of their disability. That is not good enough. I welcome the fact that, under the DDA, all public sector bodies have a duty to promote positive attitudes and equality between disabled and non-disabled people, which will get people thinking positively about what people can do.
I should like the Government to reassure the House about the speed of the roll-out of the pathways to work project. From October this year, the scheme will be extended to around a third of the country. It is important that we have an assurance that there will be a nationwide roll-out of the scheme, the main vehicle for supporting people on incapacity benefit back into work, before the reforms are introduced. We also need an assurance that the work of personal advisers, which is so crucial to the scheme, will be of the highest possible quality.
I hope that as there have been close consultations with the disabled community on these matters so far, the detail of the proposals will be developed in consultation with disabled people's organisations such as the Disability Rights Commission and others.There are details that the House would wish to consider, but, in conclusion, I welcome the policy to extend opportunities for disabled people who have found themselves on incapacity benefit. We should all strongly support that positive policy and I hope that it commands cross-party support in due course.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): We have had 14 excellent maiden speeches today, and I pay tribute to them all. They showed charm, humour, clarity and sometimes passion. At least two Members mentioned their local paper. Those two will go far, I am sure.
I start by congratulating the Government on starting on their ambitious and right programme to achieve the millennium development goals and to tackle world poverty. We need cross-party support on that measure. Unfortunately, that is where my charity ends, because I have mixed feelings about this Queen's Speech. It sets a very heavy programme with some good measures that we can support, subject to detailed legislation. However, with its emphasis on quantity rather than quality, this Prime Minister's swansong leaves much to be desired.
The Queen's Speech follows the Government's modus operandi of too much legislation rushed throughand therefore with too little scrutiny, and producing bad legislation. The programme suggests that the Government have stopped listening. It drips with sickly gesture politics. There are many comments about motherhood and apple pie that we can all agree with, but they are meaningless without the detailed plans to go with them. We have seen over eight rather disappointing years that this Government have had a good way with words and with soft soap, but have fallen down badly when it comes to delivering what they promised to the people.
I hope that that extends to our pupils with special educational needs. If it does, the Government must stop their closure of special schools, and especially the MLDmoderate learning difficultiesschools, which they are specifically targeting for closure. If the parents of those special children are to have choice and quality, those excellent and caring special schools must stay open. I was delighted that the Opposition spokesman on education, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), said last night in his winding-up speech that our party policy is still to have a moratorium on the closure of all those special schools. If the Government follow that course, they will certainly have our support.