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Bearing in mind that commitment, will the Minister confirm that the amount of time allocated for interviews with national insurance number applicants has been cut from one hour to 45 minutes, and that interviewers have been instructed to accept photocopies of passports and other documents, instead of the originals? Despite the
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message from the Balham project, Lord Grabiner’s warnings, and Jeff Rooker’s commitment to the House, the Government have continued to weaken controls over the issue of national insurance numbers to foreign nationals.

Mr. Plaskitt: There were a great many points in the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I shall respond to one or two. He said that national insurance numbers were issued willy-nilly: that is simply not the case. If our officials are aware of false documentation, national insurance numbers are not issued. He should bear in mind the fact that 20,000 applications for national insurance numbers were declined last year. The powers to which he referred in his long question are more robust following our implementation of Grabiner’s recommendations, as there is now a four-stage process, which did not exist under the previous Administration. For third-country nationals, the first stage covers telephone discussion; the second stage establishes residency; the third stage involves a face-to-face interview for identity purposes; and the fourth stage involves additional evidence. An applicant may be required to submit up to 20 documents as proof of their identity.

Incapacity Benefit (Nottingham)

4. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What discussions he has had with One Nottingham regarding the establishment of a city strategy on incapacity benefit; and if he will make a statement. [76096]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): Earlier this year, at the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), I attended a conference held by One Nottingham where local plans for helping people on incapacity benefits return to work were discussed. We intend to announce next month the first wave of cities to take forward the new approaches outlined in the Green Paper.

Mr. Allen: I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform for their personal interest in pursuing that application. We promise them that that will be forthcoming in the very near future. There are over 30,000 people in Nottingham on incapacity benefit and related benefits, and the strategy presents a great opportunity to impact upon that. Does my right hon. Friend agree, though, that the strategy must lie alongside other strategies on deprivation and regeneration, such as teaching youngsters social behaviour at school and tackling the 50 most difficult families, which One Nottingham is doing? Further to the question from the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) about cognitive behavioural therapy and helping people get back on the bridge into to work, it may produce tight bottlenecks in the national health service as we try to tap into the supply of those therapists. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that there are sufficient cognitive behavioural therapists available to make his strategy a success?

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Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the leadership that he is showing in his own city, taking forward those proposals. I have no doubt at all that Nottingham will provide a high quality bid when the process for applications has come to an end. There is a strong local partnership in Nottingham, and one of the things that struck me when I was there was the appreciation of the extent to which any successful strategy must be based on a broad approach. I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of cognitive behavioural therapy. In the neighbouring pathways to work scheme to his in Derbyshire, the same problem of access to CBTs was encountered and the solution was to contract that service from the private sector. Where that can deal with the bottlenecks that my hon. Friend mentioned, it is the sensible way to proceed.

Remploy (Dundee)

5. Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): If he will visit the Remploy factory in Dundee to discuss funding. [76097]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): We announced to the House on 16 March 2006 the Government’s intention to appoint independent consultants to conduct a strategic review of Remploy’s future business options. I have no current plans to visit the Remploy factory in Dundee.

Mr. McGovern: Last Tuesday the Minister announced that the review of the Remploy organisation is to be extended. The review has been extremely controversial in Dundee, where many of the Remploy workers feel that it is no more than a convenient cover to close down the Remploy factory network, particularly the Dundee factory, which has one of the best business cases not only in Scotland, but in the UK. Will my hon. Friend agree to visit the factory with me to reassure those workers and reaffirm that the review is not simply about closing their factory?

Mrs. McGuire: I know of my hon. Friend’s great interest in the Remploy factory in Dundee, both as a Member of Parliament and previously as a full-time officer of the GMB, which is the predominant union in the Dundee factory. Working closely with the trade unions and other stakeholders, we have tried to ensure that there is no pre-judging the outcome of the review. I await the result of the PricewaterhouseCoopers review, and at an appropriate time I will be delighted to visit Dundee and to include a visit to my hon. Friend’s factory.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Over 80 towns and cities in Britain have Remploy factories. Does my hon. Friend agree that those considerable assets in terms of buildings and the skills of the staff there could be used to establish a much closer relationship than has existed hitherto between Remploy and the other Department for Work and Pensions agencies, such as pathfinders to work?

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Mrs. McGuire: That depends very much on the local relationships. In some areas there is a close relationship between Remploy and its interwork, as well as its factory network, and Jobcentre Plus or pathways to work. We want to ensure that we maximise the impact of the support that we give to disabled people seeking employment. I certainly take my hon. Friend’s comments on board and will ensure that as far as possible we have a close working relationship not just with Remploy, but with other supported factories and workstep through the country.

Incapacity Benefit

6. Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): What percentage of incapacity benefit recipients have had a full medical examination in each of the past five years. [76098]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): We carry out periodic reviews to monitor ongoing eligibility for benefit. The frequency of those reviews depends on claimants’ circumstances and conditions. Approximately 65 per cent. of new claims involve medical examination.

Mr. Lancaster: Citizens Advice has warned that plans to reform incapacity benefit in the welfare reform Green Paper will fail unless changes are made to the way in which people are assessed. Will the Minister concede that significant improvements are needed to the medical assessment gateway?

Mr. Murphy: I am tempted simply to say yes, but that would do the hon. Gentleman’s question a disservice. Citizens Advice has carried out its work thoroughly, and it welcomes the approach in the Green Paper. We need to review the personal capability assessment, because we need to assess every individual’s ability not to rely on benefit for life, but to get closer to the labour market and participate in active employment.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): As the Minister knows, the tests of people on incapacity benefit sometimes consist of no more than a chat across a table, after which claimants are sometimes refused incapacity benefit. Will he allay my fears and assure me that doctors will do the job properly and that proper guidelines will be introduced to ensure that people are not called to tests for the sake of it?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is right. If he has particular examples of the practices that he has described, I would obviously be willing to meet him and discuss them. Doctors have conducted more than 493,000 examinations of incapacity benefit claimants, and the number of complaints about their conduct is very small—in extreme cases, such complaints have led to doctors being struck off. We must get the matter absolutely correct, and we intend to do so as we move towards the introduction of the employment and support allowance, which is identified in the Green Paper.

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Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): In many cases, NHS examiners directly contradict claimants’ GPs and consultants. Since half of appeals are upheld, surely more radical action is required to raise the professional standards of the people who carry out those examinations for the NHS.

Mr. Murphy: The medical profession is involved in different ways in such cases—the individual’s GP carries out the diagnosis and the medical examiner assesses the impact of that condition on that person’s ability to work. As Citizens Advice has pointed out, we must get such cases right first time. About 8 per cent. of cases end up going through the appeal process. That percentage is too high, and we intend to act further to reduce it as we move forward with proposals in the Green Paper.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): On Friday, I discussed that issue with a GP in my constituency, who made it clear that he does not want a role in assessing whether someone is fit for work, because he thinks that that might ruin his relationship with his patients, but he would welcome others working alongside his practice to encourage people into work. Will my hon. Friend consider redesigning the personal capability test to make it wider than a medical examination and to take into account social factors, which is what disabled groups are calling for?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend has correctly identified some of the past weaknesses in the assessment process. We are involving stakeholders and professionals in order to ensure that we get the review of the personal capability assessment absolutely right. Again, if my hon. Friend knows about case studies from her constituency or wants to feed in the experience of local GPs, I am happy to listen. She has made the important point that GPs are involved in diagnosis with patients while medical examiners currently assess the impact of a condition on a person’s ability to work, and we remain committed to that important distinction. We must work more closely with GPs, and we will.

Child Support Agency

7. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): If he will make a statement on the recent performance of the Child Support Agency. [76099]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said, the overall performance of the agency is still not acceptable. However, there have been improvements in some areas. The agency’s operational improvement plan, published in February, set out the immediate priorities for improvements in client services and enforcement. Also, as we have already announced, Sir David Henshaw has been asked to report on his proposals for a redesign of child support policy and delivery before the summer recess.

Mr. Holloway: Staff at the agency say that the current reorganisation will lead only to more backlog. When Sir David Henshaw concludes his report, that may lead to further disarray. This situation has been an
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absolute nightmare for many of my constituents and, I guess, those of Members on both sides of the House. When do the Government think that they are finally going to sort out this farce?

Mr. Plaskitt: I know that many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents are frustrated about the state of the CSA, and I think that that feeling is shared by our constituents across the country. However, the staff inside the agency, who work very hard to deliver its services in difficult circumstances, are right behind our drive to improve its performance. They want to be part of a successful Child Support Agency.

I reject the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the backlog. Although it is still considerable, at more than 300,000, it has fallen over the past year. The additional staff whom we are putting in should enable us to bring down that backlog even further as we move forward with the improvement programme.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): Many of us have come to the reluctant conclusion from our constituency casework that the CSA is essentially broken. That being the case, and as we await the Henshaw review, can the Minister give us an absolute guarantee that Ministers will come to the House prior to the summer recess and give us a statement about exactly what the Government plan to do, bearing in mind that their previous statement promised only yet another review?

Mr. Plaskitt: As I said in my initial answer, we have asked Sir David Henshaw to report before the summer recess, and we intend to make a statement to the House about that.

8. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): If he will make a statement on the length of time taken by the Child Support Agency to secure court hearings for non-resident parents who are not making the child support payments required of them. [76100]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): The operational improvement plan sets out the immediate priorities, including improved enforcement. The agency has already established a working group with the Magistrates Association, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Justices’ Clerks Society, aiming to develop a faster and more effective court referral process. As a further step in speeding that process, we will pilot the centralisation of magistrates courts’ cases.

Andrew Selous: My constituent, Lorna Leech, has sought justice from the CSA for more than 10 years. She is owed more than £30,000 of child support, and now her children are nearly grown up. Does the Minister think it acceptable for the CSA to wait for more than eight years to take that case to court, and then to seek an adjournment of a subsequent hearing? Does he agree that children are only young once, and that justice delayed is justice denied?

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Mr. Plaskitt: I agree with the hon. Gentleman—that is an unacceptably long wait for action. I am aware of some of the details of Miss Leech’s case. I understand that the agency has brought four separate liability orders in respect of her case, over a considerable period, but there is still no action in the courts. That is an unacceptable delay. I hope that the process will be speeded up. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to go into the case in more detail, and I will offer any help to him and his constituent that I can.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Is it not the case the Sir David Henshaw’s brief has been restricted, and that he is therefore unable to undertake the root-and-branch review of the CSA that would allow him to consider the entire structure of child support in this country? He could, for example, look to other countries with a much more successful record in payment, such as Australia. Is that part of his brief, or not?

Mr. Plaskitt: I do not know where the hon. Gentleman got his information, but it is nonsense.

Jobseeker’s Allowance

9. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): How many people have outstanding claims for jobseeker’s allowance in Coventry, South and the west midlands. [76101]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): For the week ending 2 June, there were 153 people with outstanding claims for jobseeker’s allowance in the Coventry and Warwickshire district, and 5,291 in the west midlands.

Mr. Cunningham: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but can he tell me what he is doing to reduce the waiting time in relation to the processing procedures for those claims?

Mr. Murphy: Specifically in the west midlands, we are using facilities and staff in other parts of the country to clear the backlog to which my hon. Friend persistently, and very effectively, refers. The new figures from Jobcentre Plus on the clearance and processing of benefits will be out tomorrow. If they have not improved to the extent that he and I wish and expect them to, I am happy to meet him to discuss what further can and should be done.

National Insurance Numbers (Illegal Immigrants)

10. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): What estimate he has made of how much has been paid in benefits to illegal immigrants issued with national insurance numbers in the past five years. [76102]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): An employment-related national insurance number would usually be issued to third country nationals only if they presented proof of employment. If our officials had grounds to suspect illegal working, the matter would be
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referred to the immigration and nationality directorate. Our proposed right-to-work check will strengthen those arrangements.

Furthermore, possession of a national insurance number in itself is insufficient evidence to gain access to social security benefits. Robust checks to confirm identity, as recommended by the Grabiner report, are in operation.

Mr. Jones: The Minister has already quoted Lord Grabiner. However, is he aware that last week Lord Grabiner said:

Is not the Minister’s inability today to give an estimate of the benefits paid to illegal immigrants a further indication of the utter incompetence with which the Department has handled the issue?

Mr. Plaskitt: I will again refer the hon. Gentleman to what Lord Grabiner said in his report, which is that

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