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This autumn, as the Prime Minister looks fretfully at his legacy, he seems to be thinking quite radically about incapacity benefitat least, if his leaked October memo to the then Work and Pensions Secretary is anything to go by. I shall quotefrom a transcript that appeared in a national newspaperthe words of the Prime Minister to the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who was then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. The Prime Minister said:
"We should publish information on the number of sick notes signed by GPs, and audit the top ten per cent . . . Employers should have a right of appeal when an employee is signed off sick . . . We could propose taking sick note certification away from GPs and create a new specialist service . . . Incapacity benefit should be paid at £56 per week, the same rate as the jobseeker's allowance"
"Given the cost of employment programmes, it seems that the only funding option might be to widen the scope of means-testing the system . . . Alternatively, part of the benefit top-up could be paid as a voucher"
I quoted at length for a simple reasonthose proposals are anathema to the majority of Labour Members. We know that they object to that radical thinking, and those proposals are certainly radical. Some of them may be worth mature and serious debate and discussion, and some of them may be to the liking of the Conservative Opposition. As my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said, if the Prime Minister comes up with good ideas, we will back him. The question is: will his own side back him?
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As I have indicated, there is much opposition to the Prime Minister's radical thinking on welfare. We may have to support his ideas; who knows? However, we know that the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) resigned his position rather than implement radical reform as dictated by No 10. We also know that when the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions he fought a pitched battlehe won that oneto rule out the time-limiting of incapacity benefit from the strategic five-year review that he published.
We have already heard from our Front Bench about the delays in the Green Paper. First, the Prime Minister said that it would be published before the summer recess. Then, the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, who is in the Chamber, said that it would be published later in 2005. Finally, last week, the Prime Minister said that it would be published some time in January. We might think that we needed no more evidence, but there is more to come. We know that the Secretary of State for International Development did not want to take the job of Secretary of State for Work and Pensions because he knew that he was on to a loser. He would have had to defend and argue for radical reform that his own side could not stomach. Perhaps most depressing of all for the Prime Ministerit really shows that he is beleagueredis that he cannot even install his No. 10 hawk on welfare policy, Mr. Gareth Daviesthe gentleman who wrote the memo to which I referredas a director in the DWP serving the Secretary of State, due to opposition from the civil service. As was widely reported in the Financial Times and elsewhere, Sir Richard Mottram, the permanent secretary, blocked the appointment of Mr. Davies. One of the newspapers reported:
Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this very important debate. I did not think I was going to be called in the end, but I am very grateful to you.
I also thank the Opposition for tabling this motion on welfare reform, and on incapacity benefit in particular, because it gives Labour Members a great opportunity to showcase the many developments that we have seen since 1997. [Interruption.] Oh yes.
The reason why the Government have placed such a consistently strong emphasis on welfare reform is that the inherited system of benefits led to the most appalling social exclusion. Welfare is, by definition, for the poorest and the most vulnerable, but welfare should also be about well-being, and for most people, work is still
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the best route to both. Work is how we build our self-esteem, learn more skills and self-reliance and develop our social life. It is something that every Member of the House takes for granted.
Labour's welfare reform agenda is about helping those who want to find work find a good job, but it is also about giving extra support to those who cannot work. We have had a consistent, targeted and tested welfare agenda since 1997, with a range of successful new deal programmes. A welfare system cannot be tinkered with, but nor can it sustain massive overnight change, which I think that the Opposition have asked for. But I think everybody agrees that our welfare system must change.
A person who has been claiming incapacity benefit for over two years is more likely to die or retire than to work again, ever. That is so wrong, and that is why we must reform our incapacity benefit system. Not just as a Government but as a society, we should be ensuring that everyone has the opportunities that we have.
The vast majority of people claiming incapacity benefit would like to return to work, but the current system is stacked against them. Once on incapacity benefit, there is no expectation that an individual will look for work, even if it would help to improve their condition. The system that we have inherited means that 2.8 million people have effectively been consigned to a life of poverty and lack of opportunity. That is not just a criminal waste of talent; it is a crime against equal opportunities. Unfortunately, we still live in a society that does not give everyone the same chancesa society that still discriminates against sick and disabled people. It is no surprise that having a serious health condition is a barrier to work, so it is no surprise that benefit claimants have real problems getting a job.
Our ongoing welfare reforms, of which the reform of incapacity benefit is a vital part, have been targeted and tested in those parts of the country where benefits claims are the highest. Derbyshire was one of the three initial pathways to work pilots, and covers the constituency that I represent. The pilot was introduced in 2003, through Jobcentre Plus, and I shall go into a bit of detail about this because I have heard a lot today that has demonstrated that the Opposition are not too clear in their minds about the details of pathways to work.
Pathways to work is aimed at cutting the number of people moving on to incapacity benefit in the first place, as well as moving people who are already on benefit into work. I apologise in advance for all the jargon that I shall use now, but it is part of pathways to work. Through work-focused interviews, using specially trained personal advisers and a varied choices package, a claimant can access professional and tailored information, advice, guidance and support. The choices package is really important, because it recognises that claimants have a range of different barriers to work. People are being helped to manage their conditions by working with primary care trusts and GPs, and they are given suitable training to ensure that they are ready for jobs. This condition management programme is arguably the most imaginative and successful part of pathways to work. It recognises that an individual's condition is what initially brought them on to incapacity benefit, but it also recognises that work is sometimes the best way of dealing with a deteriorating illness.
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Fundamentally, the pathways to work programme is such a success because it focuses on what people are able to achieve rather than writing them off as incapacitated. There are hundreds of stories to illustrate that. When people who have been off work because of sickness for many years arrive reluctantly for their first work-focused interviews, they are nervous and lacking in self-confidence, but they are being given the chance to rebuild their self-esteem through condition management and work, and they have the feeling that their life is being given back to them.
To get even more parochial, at the start of the pathways to work pilot in Derbyshire, the Staveley neighbourhood management project commissioned the Derbyshire unemployed workers centre to carry out a study of barriers to employment. Staveley had a long history of coal mining and heavy manufacturing, which used to make up the majority of the work. The pit closures and the loss of manufacturing continue to have a devastating impact on employment in the area. Many of those people in Staveley who are now long-term incapacity benefit claimants would have been usefully employed in light duties when we still had a mining industry in North-East Derbyshire. There is no mystery behind the high number of people claiming incapacity benefit, as there is no mystery behind the high crime levels and poor health.
The unemployed workers centre's study is a very small study of about 10,000 people, but interestingly, it reflects absolutely what is happening nationally. The vast majority of people want to go back to work and the vast majority of them have welcomed the pathways to work pilot. Most people who had claimed incapacity benefit before the start of the pathways to work pilot had received no help from employment services. Now those same people welcomed work-focused interviews with Jobcentre Plus and looked forward to a return to work.
Every month, Jobcentre Plus personal advisers in Derbyshire interview about 700 incapacity benefit claimants. These figures are small but they are really significant. Of those 700 people, 150 find work every month. This is not scratching the surface; this is real success, and the feedback is positive not just from those who are being helped off benefits and into workadvisers and employers are massively enthusiastic about being involved in these pilots.
One of the really exciting developments in Derbyshire is the pathways agreement with Tesco, which is offering tasters and in-work support to benefits claimants. If we can roll out to the rest of the country not just the pathways to work models but the enthusiasm that comes with them, we shall be taking a huge step towards greater social inclusion and greater equality. This is the right direction for welfare reform. It is not a punitive agenda designed to force people into work; it is a positive agenda, which helps people to stay in work and allows them to develop themselves and improve their economic circumstances.
To conclude, I want to point out again that our welfare reforms have been ongoing, they have been targeted and they have been coherent since 1997. We have tried wherever possible to break down barriers to work. We have recognised that health does not have to be a barrier to working. Over 3 million people with long-term illness or disability are at the moment in work.
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Work and well-being are two sides of the same coin. Our welfare system must be flexible to suit changing needs, but it must provide opportunities for people to work and greater support for those who cannot work. Our Labour Government's answer is to make policy to suit individual need. Pathways to work, which has been rolled out to a third of the country, has demonstrated that a personal advice strategy to help people into work has meant that twice as many people leave benefits and find jobs as before. Most important, they are staying in those jobs.
The Opposition day motion calls upon the Government to deal with the increasingly urgent need for welfare reform. We are reforming welfare, and we have been doing so since 1997. I hope that after this debate the Opposition will support us both in our progress and our successes to date.
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