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We should remind ourselves what has happened since 1997. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said we had done nothing since 1997. He is a lawyer, and he should know the importance of studying evidence and drawing conclusions from it. Let me put my evidence to him. There are now more people in jobs than ever before2.3 million more than in 1997. Unemployment is at its lowest level for nearly 30 years, with long-term youth unemployment 90 per cent. lower than in 1997. With almost three quarters of the working-age population in work, our employment rate is the highest of any of the G8 countries. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, not surprisingly, failed to mention any of those facts. I suspect the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) is likely to follow suit, unless he quickly amends his speech to take into account what I have just said.
By supporting people in work and providing financial security for those who cannot work, we have helped 2.1 million children and almost 2 million pensioners escape from levels of absolute poverty since 1997. That is a positive record. We have done it, first, by building on a strong and stable economy, with low inflation, low interest rates and consistent growthwhich the Opposition consistently failed to manageand secondly, by embarking upon a radical transformation of the welfare state, introducing the most comprehensive menu of support ever provided. It is a menu of support tailored to the needs of the individual, focused on the right to work as the best route out of poverty, and balanced by a clear set of responsibilities on the individual seeking benefit.
The new deal has helped more than 1.2 million into work since it was started in 1998. The lone parent employment rate has increased by 11 percentage points since 1997. Independent studies have shown that half of the increase in the lone parent employment rate since 1997 can be attributed directly to the impact of the new deal. Because of the measures that we have taken, there are now nearly 1 million lone parents in work and the numbers of lone parents on income support have fallen by more than 200,000 since 1997. When the Conservative party was in power, lone parents were stigmatised rather than supported. It now says that it wants to end its war on lone parents, but it has its work cut out to convince anyone that that is so. The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) talks instead of
The new deal for lone parents has helped nearly 320,000 lone parents back into work, yet Conservative Members have confirmed again today that they would scrap it, and so would the Liberal Democrats. Independent research shows that that would not even save money, as the new deal for lone parents saves the Exchequer £40 million a year through reduced benefit payments and increased tax revenues resulting from getting people off benefit and back into work.
If the charge of incoherence can be levied at anyone today, it is the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea who is most at risk. We share neither his analysis of the problem nor his proposed solutions. We believeour welfare reforms are proving thisthat Britain can best seize the opportunities and respond to the challenges of social, economic and demographic change, if we support all those who can and want to work to enable them to make their own contribution to our society.
Liz Blackman (Erewash) (Lab): The pathways to work pilot in Derbyshire is doing particularly well at supporting physically disabled people back into work, but it faces much more of a challenge in supporting those with mental disabilities and mental illnesses. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will give more thought to how we can correct that imbalance?
Mr. Hutton: I shall certainly do so. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that that is one of the biggest challenges that we face in tackling the problems that we are discussing today. Some 40 per cent. of new incapacity benefit claimants have a mental health problem, and the matter requires a broader response than the work of the Department for Work and Pensions. We must actively involve the national health service and other partners, particularly local authorities and the voluntary sector, in the future reforms of the relevant support packages.
Edward Miliband : Will my right hon. Friend comment on whether pathways to work allows existing incapacity benefit claimants to take up the scheme? I understand that it does, but in his speech the shadow Secretary of State categorically said that it does not.
Mr. Hutton: My hon. Friend is right not to believe everything that the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea, who has a closed mind on all those issues because his agenda essentially concerns withdrawing active support from people who need it to get back into work, has to say on the matter.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman spoke for 35 minutes, but he was unable to provide a single policy option or indicate his strategy on providing more support for people who want to work and who feel that they can work. My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband) is right to say that the pathways to work pilots have made a significant difference to employment rates and the sustainable employment rate, which is the most important thing.
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Ed Balls : To be fair to the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), it is not right to say that he made no policy proposals at all, because he confirmed his support for the abolition of the new deal, which is a policy proposal. I think that my right hon. Friend should correct the record.
Mr. Hutton: I stand corrected, but in my book the abolition of the new deal is not a serious policy proposal; it is a giant step backwards that flies in the face of all the evidence on what works. If the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea wants to convince anyone of his sincerity about his policies on welfare reform, he should start by studying, rather than ignoring, the evidence on what works.
Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): As the Secretary of State is fresh into his job, I appreciate that he may not have had the benefit of studying the evidence on pathways to work, which we all hope produces the results that he anticipates. However, the evidence is not clear cut, because only three out of the seven pilot areas have been going for more than 12 months, so to argue that those schemes have already produced sustainable jobs is a little premature.
Mr. Hutton: It is a nice experience to be patronised by the hon. Gentleman. I am sure he will have other opportunities to do so in future. I point out to him that there is a growing body of evidence about the effectiveness of the pathways to work pilot. He says that the he wants them to work. He needs to have a conversation with the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea, who has already decided that they are failing and wants to cut their budget.
Huw Irranca-Davies : Will my right hon. Friend accept my invitation to visit the pathways to work project in my area in the near future? To confirm what was previously said, not only is the scheme reaching out to its target audience, but 1,000 individuals on long-term incapacity benefit have self-referred themselves on to it and are getting into work.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the difference between the two Front Benches is typified by the fact that the constituency of the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) is 214th in the incapacity benefit league table, whereas my constituency is 14th? There are more lessons to be learned from my constituency than from Kensington and Chelsea.
Mr. Hutton: Yes, indeed. I look forward to accepting my hon. Friend's invitation. I hope that he is aware that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform is due to visit his constituencytomorrow, I believe, but either way she is on her way to South Wales. That is my first decision.
When we came into office in 1997[Interruption.] Conservative Members are huffing and puffing because they do not like to hear what we have been doing. This debate was apparently motivated by a concern that the Government have been doing nothing on welfare reform. I am simply trying to set the record straight.
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When we came into office in 1997, there was something that we wanted to put right. I am sorry to say that, having had 18 years to try to get it right, the Conservatives spectacularly failed to do so, despite 14 attempts to produce legislation. Only the most blatant forms of direct discrimination against disabled people had been outlawed. Sadly, there was still no protection for disabled employees in small firms or for disabled pupils and students. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 loungedthat is the only description for iton the statute book. It fell significantly short of its potential and provided no champion to help people to enforce their rights or to give employers advice and guidance on how to meet their legal obligations.
In March this yearagain, before the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea returned to this House, so he might not be aware of itthe Disability Discrimination Act 2005 completed the most far-reaching programme of disability rights legislation that any European country has put in place. It fulfilled our manifesto commitment to deliver enforceable and comprehensive civil rights for disabled people, and represented a major landmark on the road to a world in which disabled people can be empowered to live independently and be respected as equal members of society.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the new deal. Our new deal for disabled people has seen nearly 75,000 job entries since its launch in 2001, with 200,000 disabled people helped into work through our total package of new deal programmes. We are seeing very encouraging early results from our pathways to work pilots, which bring together Jobcentre Plus, the health service, GPs and employers to improve the package of support that we offer to people on incapacity benefit.
In the first year of the pilots, the number of recorded job entries for people with a health condition or disability had almost doubled compared with the same period in the previous year. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will think that that is a step in the right direction. Their continued success has driven a significant increase in the proportion of people leaving incapacity benefit in the first six months of their claim, compared with non-pilot areas. We are now achieving progress in helping people off incapacity benefit, with new cases now down by a third since 1997 and the first falls in the total count, which is down by 41,000 in the year to May 2005.
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