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Huw Irranca-Davies: The right hon. and learned Gentleman probably knows that areas in my constituencyBridgend and Rhondda Cynon Taffsaw the rolling out of the pathways to work pilots. It is right to say that since the Government have been in power the number of incapacity benefit claimants has risen from 2.6 million to just over 2.7 million. However, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that if the trend established under the Conservatives had continued, the increase would have been from 2.6 million to 4 million? This Government have tightened up the system and helped people back into work under the pathways to work pilot.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: The hon. Gentleman might think that he is being logical, but he should remember that logic is the art of going wrong with confidence. He should not use that sort of nonsense argument if he wishes to impress the House.
This is a debate about incapacity benefits, which are received by many millions of our fellow citizens, the majority of whom are sick or disabled. I am proud to have been a member of a Government who introduced improvements to the financial security and wellbeing of millions of our fellow citizens who, through no fault of their own, are sick or disabled. Of course, when one introduces such improvements, there is an initial high take-up, but that should be welcomed because it improves the wellbeing of our fellow citizens. However, the Government cannot rest on that case. When they came to office in 1997, they said that the number claimingthe hon. Gentleman rightly said that it was 2.62 millionwas far too high. The Prime Minister said then, and has said every year since, that 1 million of those people should be in employment and not on benefit
The starting point that we have is a Labour party which said that the number of claimants was far too high at 2.62 million and that it was an overwhelming priority
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of a Labour Government to reduce that figure byit hoped1 million. What has been achieved in the past eight years?
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: No. The hon. Gentleman does not want to be reminded of the facts, but he will be reminded that far from reducing the figure by the million that the Government sought as their target, the number of people claiming incapacity benefit has gone from 2.62 million to 2.74 million120,000 more claimants than when the Government came into office.
The situation is even more alarming than that. The biggest increase in that overall total is in the number of people who have been claiming IB for stress or depression, subjects that by their nature are far more difficult to prove or disprove and where general practitioners have the greatest difficulty in establishing the reliability of the claim. The figure was 592,000 in 1997, but it is now more than 1 million, a 39 per cent. increase. That is the mark of the Government's failure.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I appreciate the right hon. and learned Gentleman's generosity in giving way again on that point. He did not accept my figure of 4 million if the Conservative policy had continued, but will he accept that since 1997 the Government have succeeded in tightening up the gateway so that although people already on incapacity benefit will, as part of our policy, be increasingly well protected, the trend for people going on to incapacity benefit is downwards? That was certainly not happening under the Conservatives.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Only the hon. Gentleman, or perhaps some of his colleagues, could claim that an increase of 120,000 is a downward trend[Interruption.] He will be difficult to persuade because he uses a system of grammar that is not known to the rest of the human race. That is a matter on which we will have to agree to differ.
By the Government's own standards, they have failed over the past eight years. There has been a remarkable collapse. Each year, Ministers have to say the same thing. In 1997, they were saying that a million people needed to be found jobs and in 2004, after they had already been in office for seven years, there were still a million people who needed to be found jobs. Only last year, the Secretary of State's predecessor found yet another million people who still had to be found jobs, yet nothing has happened and that is typical of the Government's approach.
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I was interested to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman say that he was proud to have introduced incapacity benefit. The reason for reform is that the benefit itself has put barriers in the way of disabled people who want to get back into work. How can he be proud of that?
Sir Malcolm Rifkind:
I did not say that there is no case for reform. Of course there is, as there would be for any other major innovation. I am saying that the Government have completely failed to meet that case; they have completely failed to deliver the policy that is required.
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At the beginning of the year the Government announced a major new strategy, launched by the right hon. Gentleman who is now Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. That was two Secretaries of State ago; it is difficult to keep up, as the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will appreciate. On 2 February, when the Department of Work and Pensions five-year strategy was launched, the Government announced, with the hype typical of them, that they were launching the
First, we found that all that the Government proposed to do was to publish a Green Papernot a White Paper. One might have thought that if they had already worked out how to implement the greatest reform in incapacity benefit it would have been followed by a White Paper, which could have gone out for consultation. But no, we were promised only a Green Paper.
Secondly, the new policy would be implementedif it ever wasnot in 2005, or even 2006 or 2007, but in 2008, three years from now. Thirdly, the most extraordinary part of the announcement, which is, I think, still Government policy, is that all the marvellous new benefits would not apply to a single one of the 2.7 million existing IB claimants but only to new claimants.
Very good. None the less, not one severely disabled person currently receiving the benefit will have the ghost of an opportunity to enjoy any of the new benefits. The same announcement stated that there would be
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I will, although I would have been happier to give way to the Secretary of State if he wanted to correct or change that policy, but as he remains silent and is on a learning curve I will give way to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) instead.
As always, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is trying to teach us all something. He tried it the last time he was here. Unfortunately, I think he has got it wrong. My understanding from people that I have talked to in the DWP is that anyone who is on incapacity benefit at the moment who believes that they can have the benefit of those extra resources will be granted them. I have asked and been told that that is the case.
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