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House of Commons

Monday 9 January 2006

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Mr. Speaker: I regret to have to report to the House the death of Rachel Squire, Member for Dunfermline and West Fife. I am sure that Members on all sides of the House will join me in mourning the loss of a colleague and extending our sympathy to the hon. Member's family and friends.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Inactive Benefits

1. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): How many recipients of inactive benefits moved back to work in the last year for which figures are available.[40157]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): In the year to May 2005, the number of people receiving inactive benefits has fallen by 76,000.
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The number of incapacity benefits recipients has fallen by 41,000 and the number of lone parents receiving benefits by 34,000.

Steve McCabe: I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that the best route out of poverty is a decently paid job for those who can work. In that context, will he share with us his latest thinking on what will happen to those on incapacity benefit who can work, as well as on safeguards for those who will not be able to work?

Mr. Hutton: My hon. Friend is right and I am sure that he speaks for the majority of Members when he says that, ultimately, that is the best type of welfare-to-work reform on which we can agree. I suspect that there will be a disagreement between us on the means to that end, but we remain convinced, building on the experience of the new deals—actively opposed by Opposition Members—that if we work with benefit recipients, develop their skills, capacities and capabilities and provide them with the appropriate level of support, that will be the best way of getting people out of benefits and into well-paid jobs. The proof of the pudding comes from the pathways to work pilot schemes that we have been testing up and down the country since 2003, which have produced positive results.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): In an area such as mine, most jobs require high skills. Those who have been out of work due to incapacity often require new skills, but the learning and skills councils and colleges of further education now seem to be focusing more and more on the 16 to 19 age group and less and less on providing skills and qualification training for adults. I do not believe that the learning and skills councils have got a grip on this. If people are to get the skills they need to get back into work, they will need some encouragement to acquire them, and the routing is not there.

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I agree that, wherever possible, we should make sure that there is proper co-ordination between Government
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Departments that share a broadly similar agenda. Tackling worklessness is a shared responsibility between myself and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. When we publish our proposals in the welfare reform Green Paper, we will set out how we promote better co-ordination between various Government agencies to produce the results that the hon. Gentleman and I would welcome.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is aware that, contrary to common understanding, the majority of people in the north-east on incapacity benefits are women. Also, a large number of people on incapacity benefit have mental health problems. How will he address their needs and help them get back into work?

Mr. Hutton: My hon. Friend is quite right to talk about some of the characteristics of incapacity benefit claimants. We shall soon be setting out a series of detailed proposals for reforming incapacity benefit and these will draw on our experiences to date from the pathways to work projects and take forward what we have learned from the new deals. I am sure that if we can provide the right help and support for people on incapacity benefit, we can make a significant contribution to tackling some of the levels of deprivation that can be seen in her constituency, in mine and in many others.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): In terms of the proposals in the welfare reform Green Paper to be published later this month, the Secretary of State has talked about the experience from the pathways to work areas. Will he assure the House that when the Green Paper is published, there will be sufficient funding behind the roll-out of the pathways to work schemes across the country to ensure that incapacity benefit recipients all over the UK can benefit from the scheme?

Mr. Hutton: Yes. We have £150 million of funding to facilitate the extension across the country of the pathways to work schemes, which have proved to be successful. The proposals that we shall bring forward in the Green Paper will of course be fully funded.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Are not the Secretary of State's constituency and mine similar to practically all constituencies represented in this House, in that for every one unemployed claimant, there are three incapacity benefit claimants? Most Jobcentre Pluses still spend most of their time helping the unemployed back into work. When he publishes the Green Paper, will he assure the House that all Jobcentre Pluses will give a disproportionate amount of time to those who form the largest part of the dole queues?

Mr. Hutton: My right hon. Friend is right to describe as he does the scale and depth of the problem that we need to tackle. As part of the reforms, which will be set out later this month, it will be very important that Jobcentre Plus supports the voluntary sector and some commercial and private sector providers, in order to provide a stronger and better menu of support for those of his constituents—and mine—who are claiming incapacity benefit. When he sees the Green Paper, I hope that he will give it his very strong support.
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Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I welcome the last part of the Secretary of State's answer, but does he accept that voluntary organisations such as the Shaw Trust have a much greater success rate than the statutory sector? Can he say now what steps he will take to ensure that jobcentres do not keep in-house work that could be farmed out to such very successful organisations?

Mr. Hutton: I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the Shaw Trust, which is doing excellent work for us in a number of very important areas. Again, he will have to wait for the publication of the Green Paper, but a very important part of the reforms that we want to introduce is that we learn to draw on the expertise and skills of a wider variety of organisations that can help us to get people off benefit and back into work. The voluntary sector will have a very important role to play in helping us to do that.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): On benefits and welfare to work, does my right hon. Friend agree that one thing that would have given my friend the former Member for West Ham the most satisfaction—he worked very hard for the people of the east end for more than 20 years—was the work that his Labour Government did in taking so many people in the east end out of poverty?

Mr. Hutton: I agree very strongly with my hon. Friend and I am sure that I speak for every person in this House today when I say that we mourn the death of Tony Banks, who was an outstanding Member of Parliament. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] We will miss him very much.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): First, I should like to associate myself and my colleagues with the Secretary of State's last remarks. We welcome his commitment to publishing the Green Paper on incapacity benefit reform before the end of this month, and provided that he stands firm in tackling the problems in the current system and does not allow himself to be deflected by potential rebels, we look forward to engaging in a constructive discussion with him on it. But why does he think that so many of his Labour colleagues appear to need so much convincing of the merits of a set of proposals designed to help people out of benefit dependency and into work?

Mr. Hutton: I first welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities; it is a bit like old times for him and me. We spent many years—it felt like many years—debating care standards legislation in Standing Committee, so today brings back happy memories for me. [Hon. Members: "Give details."] I could—believe me, I could; it is tattooed on my brain. It is not at all a case of having to convince my right hon. and hon. Friends on this issue. We see in our constituencies the failures of the current system, which, to give the hon. Gentleman credit, he fairly said last week has led to a culture of benefit dependency. Of course, it is a system that his Government set up, and it has spectacularly failed millions of people throughout the country. I am sure that I will have support on the Labour Benches for my proposals, and I point out to the hon. Gentleman—
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as he probably expects me to—that I do not believe that he or his colleagues have anything to contribute to this debate, given their history in 18 years in government.

Mr. Hammond: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his words of welcome and it is indeed like old times, but we will take no lectures from him. His Government have been in office for nearly eight years and have done, in the words of his own Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, sweet nothing to tackle this problem in that time. Given that the total number of incapacity benefit claimants is higher than in 1997, does he agree that the forthcoming Green Paper must address not only the flow of new claimants but the stock of existing ones, many of whom want to work and could do so if they were supported? Would it not be a betrayal of those currently trapped in dependency by this benefits system if he were to fail to address in the Green Paper the issue of current claimants?

Mr. Hutton: I agree, and that is why the Green Paper will also address the issue of what extra help and support we can provide for existing incapacity benefit claimants. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that we have done nothing to address the failures of the system that his party put in place, and the proof that we have done something is clear from the figures. For the first time for 25 years, the number claiming incapacity benefit has begun to fall, precisely because of the extra support and investment that we have made—all of which were opposed by him and his colleagues. He mentions the numbers, and it is true that since 1997 the total number claiming incapacity benefit has risen by 4 per cent., but last year saw the first fall. Between 1979 and 1997, the number claiming incapacity benefit rose by 232 per cent. That figure speaks volumes.

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