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Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Does the Secretary of State realise that the answer to the question I am about to ask is awaited as eagerly by his hon. Friends as it is by mine. Will he use this opportunity to confirm that the Prime Minister, or the Prime Minister's office, has made representations to the Department of Work and Pensions, to his predecessor, or possibly to himself, that would have the effect of toughening up entitlement to incapacity benefit?
I am not going to talk about correspondence between the Prime Minister and me, just aslet us be clearhe would not have done when he was standing at this Dispatch Box. He can forget about that.
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Mr. Hutton: No, I am going to make this point, because the right hon. and learned Gentleman has asked me about it. I have made it repeatedly clear that the reforms that we are making are based on our manifesto and the five-year-plan strategy that my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), produced in February. It is clear to anyone that that agenda is not about cuts. I have made that explicitly clear and I do so again today.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Will the Secretary of State therefore state unequivocally that the Green PaperI appreciate that we do not yet have it and that it is now not due till Januarywill contain no proposals that have the consequence of reducing entitlement to incapacity benefit compared with current rates?
We are now experiencing progress in helping people off incapacity benefit, with new cases down by a third since 1997 and, as I said, the first falls in the total countdown by 41,000. However, we have to accept the need to modernise the way in which we deliver our services. That is why we have sought improvements in the service that Jobcentre Plus provides.
Jobcentre Plus helps almost 3,000 people into jobs every working day. It does that against a background of a major efficiency exercise. It has reduced its staff from around 86,000 in March 2002 to 74,000 in March 2005 and is on course to reduce the total number of staff employed to 65,650 by March 2008.
Ninety-seven per cent. of our customers are now being paid their entitlement by direct debit. That move to direct payment will save the taxpayer more than £1 billion over the next five years. Centralised pensions centres provide a new telephone-based service, which is designed around the needs of today's 11 million pensioners. One year ahead of schedule, the Pension Service has already achieved the target of 2.1 million pensioners in receipt of the guarantee element of pension credit by 2006. Taken with our other measures to help pensioners, including winter fuel payments, free TV licences for the over-75s and the pension creditall of which Opposition Members opposedthe average pensioner household is now £1,400 a year better off compared with the 1997 system, with the poorest third on average £1,900 better off.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman made several references to the lack of progress on welfare reform. The evidence contradicts his assertions. We stated in our manifesto that we would move further on the welfare
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reform agenda because we know that the challenges that confront our country and our people will accelerate. We are preparing the ground for that now.
Mr. Hutton: We will make a statement about our reforms for the Child Support Agency. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside said that he intended to introduce the proposals before the end of the year and I shall try to stick to that. We must discuss the appropriate format for the statementwhether we make it here or, as was planned, in the Select Committee. However, there will be a proper opportunity for hon. Members to examine the proposals and pass judgment on them.
We strongly believe that people have the right to work and the right to the support that will enable them to do so. However, alongside those rights go responsibilitiesthe responsibility, when possible, to take up the support, actively to seek work and for each person to make their contribution to the well-being of our society.
Stewart Hosie : The Secretary of State has been generous in giving way. On rights and responsibilities, the pathways to work pilots have been labour intensive. Others will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that the Renfrewshire project had 40 additional advisers plus 40 additional rehabilitation staff to help with health issues. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that, in expecting people to take responsibility, the Government will continue to contribute the correct amount of resources, and all the additional advisers and rehabilitation staff who are required so that the pilots are not perceived to be a cost-cutting exercise, but continue to be a genuine method of getting people who can work back into work?
Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman says that that was not his question, but he certainly implied that the pathways to work projects were cost-cutting exercises. He used those words quite deliberately. We shall ensure that the active support that we provide for claimants in receipt of incapacity benefit is fit for purpose and does the job that we want it to do, which is to get people back into work, when they are able to work, as quickly as possible. Of course we will provide the appropriate level of resourcing to ensure that we can deliver such an effective policy.
I was talking about rights and responsibilities. We want to continue to pursue this agenda because we want to continue to work towards our aspiration of an 80 per cent. employment rate, which will help another 1 million people to escape from the trap of incapacity benefit. That is why I wholeheartedly endorse the principles of welfare reform that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside published last month, and why
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I am committed to taking forward this reform agenda, and to building a modern, active and inclusive welfare state that balances rights with responsibilities, that matches the respect of society for the individual with respect for society by the individual, and that, above all, helps people to move away from dependency and to make their own way in the world.
In our modern world, people can do 10 jobs in a lifetime instead of one, and they might even pursue several careers. A renewed welfare state must provide the support that enables people to make the transition from one job to another, by assisting them through rapid change and insecurity, helping them to balance the multiple pressures of work and family life, and enabling them to re-establish their independence and to benefit from the opportunities that change creates.
In our Green Paper, which the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea mentioned, we shall go further to tackle exclusion from economic activity and independence across the working-age population. We shall establish the necessary steps that we all need to takeas individuals, in Government and in the wider communitiesto engage people with social and economic activity. We shall outline further measures to simplify and streamline the benefit system. We shall also develop the right support systems through which we can raise employment, skills and productivity and improve social inclusion and cohesion, at a time when the integration of communities worldwide has never been more important. As has now been made clear, we shall set out our detailed proposals in January.
Kali Mountford : My right hon. Friend mentioned dependency. I am particularly concerned about people who are in the early stages of claiming incapacity benefit. Will he take a particularly close look at how we can raise people's aspirations when they have just been told that they cannot carry on with their former employment, and ensure that, in the long term, they are properly supported in finding a different career, so that they do not feel that their life has ended at that point?
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