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Today, as a result, there are more people in work than ever before—2.5 million more than in 1997, with the biggest increases in the neighbourhoods and cities that started in the poorest position. Overall, there are 1 million fewer people on benefits, and 2 million children and 2 million pensioners have been helped to escape the poverty line. As last month’s Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report showed, not only do we have the highest employment
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rate among the G7 countries but, for the first time in 50 years, we have the lowest combination of unemployment and inactivity rates.

Of course, there is more that needs doing. The challenge that we face today is how to build a modern welfare state that allows people to exercise their fundamental right to work, when our economy and our society are changing more rapidly than at any time since the industrial revolution. While the pace of such change can seem daunting or even terrifying, the forces that lie behind it, in my view, represent progress, not decline, and they hold out more opportunities than threats. If we can take full advantage of them, they will extend the chance to reduce poverty and social exclusion in our society.

We must act to meet that challenge, which is why we have set ourselves the aspiration of an 80 per cent. employment rate, with 1 million fewer people receiving incapacity benefits, 1 million more older people in work and an extra 300,000 lone parents off benefit. That is why we are taking forward through secondary legislation the measures in our welfare reform Green Paper to provide more support to lone parents and to break down the barriers experienced by older workers. And that is why we have introduced the Welfare Reform Bill, which will enact crucial elements of the proposals that we set out to the House in January.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): My constituency is 15th in the table of constituencies with the highest number of incapacity benefit claimants, so I welcome the attempt to get more people into work. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a key aspect of the process involves changing attitudes among some employers towards the employment of people with disabilities? A written answer in the other place recently stated that 15 per cent. of disabled people of working age who want to work are not in employment, compared with 4 per cent. of the non-disabled working age population. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that must be a key aspect of the welfare reform programme?

Mr. Hutton: I agree that that is true. However, we are making steady progress in bringing to the attention of employers the tremendous pool of skilled labour available among people who are claiming incapacity benefit. It is a mischief and a mistake to assume that if a person is on incapacity benefit they have no skills, talents or opportunities—far from it. I have been tremendously encouraged by the agreements that we have reached with major national employers that are prepared to offer people on incapacity benefit a second chance to return to the labour market. We want to see more such agreements, and we will do everything we can to speed up the process.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): How will the Bill help the unemployed in Shropshire? In the past year unemployment in the county has risen by 30 per cent., and it is rising in the west midlands, too. Is it not the case that unemployment is now at a four-year high? How will the Bill help those people?

Mr. Hutton: Unemployment is a lot lower than it used to be, when the Conservative Government were in
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office. Labour Members remember that unemployment twice reached 3 million under the stewardship of the Conservative party.

The hon. Gentleman asks what the Bill will do for jobseekers. The Bill primarily focuses on the needs of people who currently have some functional limitation and are unable to work. The thrust of the proposals is to encourage the speedy return of those people to the labour market. Any of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who currently claim incapacity benefit will have access, in the next 18 months to two years, to the pathways to work programme—the first attempt by any Government, Conservative or Labour, to do something practical and positive for people who are out of the labour market because of incapacity and who desperately want to return to it.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): My right hon. Friend knows that I support the Bill. Will he accept that this is a unique opportunity to create a new consensus that belies the rather carping intervention by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), and which states that we agree about the right to work and the duty to work? It is the Government’s role to provide the facilities to allow people to work and to ensure that employers can cope with the extra needs of those who are currently on incapacity benefit and who should be able to work. However, such a consensus will work only if the Opposition parties endorse my right hon. Friend’s strategy.

Mr. Hutton: I hope we will see that later. Certainly, it has been indicated so far that Opposition parties broadly support the proposals in the Green Paper.

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): Not the Liberal Democrats, surely.

Mr. Hutton: I understand that that is in fact the case— [ Interruption. ] I should ask some of my hon. Friends to write my speeches for me, as they would be much more entertaining.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I am interested in the Minister’s comments. I agree about the need to work with employers to get more disabled people back to work. However, one of the things that struck me about the Bill was the lack of any clear idea of how people will be helped once they have obtained a job, rather than in getting a job. Many people, particularly those with mental disabilities, require long-term help after they have been appointed to a job. Can the Minister tell us about his proposals in that regard?

Mr. Hutton: That is precisely what pathways to work currently provides. It is true that the details of that are not spelt out in the Bill, but we recognise the need for the Department and for Jobcentre Plus to provide such ongoing support. In Scotland there are now fewer people claiming incapacity benefit than there were in 1997.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to congratulate the staff of the Glossop and Buxton jobcentres, and others throughout Derbyshire and in the other five pilot areas, on pathways to work? In my area they have vastly
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exceeded expectations not only in getting back to work many people who were not expected to be in the programme, but also in providing much job satisfaction for jobcentre employees.

Mr. Hutton: I am happy to congratulate those staff. I visited the pathways to work scheme in Derbyshire a few months ago; it has probably been one of the most outstandingly successful examples of how this type of intervention can work. What was significant in Derbyshire, as we heard a few minutes ago, was that cognitive behavioural therapists were directly employed to fast-track the provision of help and support for people with mental health problems, to give them the self-confidence to represent themselves to employers and to secure work—and many have succeeded in doing so. That is a model of what more needs to be done, and what we are keen to extend across the country.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, East) (Lab): I am grateful that my right hon. Friend took the time to visit Glasgow and see at first hand the terrible problems facing the city. As he knows, my constituency has the highest number of people on incapacity benefit in Great Britain: more than 11,000 of the tragic Glasgow total of 60,000. Is he aware that the working links pilot in Parkhead and the partnership action team for jobs in Glasgow, East have come to an end despite being very successful? Will he consider extending those two projects to work in tandem with his reforms, in order to tackle successfully the most serious problem in my constituency and other constituencies in Glasgow?

Mr. Hutton: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the problem facing many people in Glasgow who are on incapacity benefit and want the opportunity to work again. I know how actively he is involved with this issue in Glasgow, where, in conjunction with the city council and local employers, a huge amount has been done to move people off incapacity benefit back into employment. Some 11,000 to 12,000 people in Glasgow have been helped to re-enter the labour market over the past few years. That is a great tribute to Jobcentre Plus, local employers and the local authority.

We took the decision to end action teams and roll up funding into a new deprived areas fund, which will allow access to a similar level of resources to support such initiatives in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I am sure that local Jobcentre Plus staff would be happy to explain to him how they are taking that forward.

Mr. Khan: My right hon. Friend knows that more and more people cite mental health problems as the chief reason for claiming incapacity benefit. Will he confirm that the new personal capability assessment will be more sophisticated, the better to identify people with mental health conditions and tailor the help that they require more effectively?

Mr. Hutton: That is our intention. We have convened several groups involving mental health stakeholders to work with us to design a better, more accurate and fairer assessment of people’s mental health problems
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when they present with a claim for employment and support allowance. It is important to find a way forward. The fact that the current arrangements do not do that properly has been the subject of continuing concern. We are anxious to try to find a way of resolving it.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the public sector has a huge role to play in helping people get back into work? Indeed, Lancaster city council has been involved in projects for the long-term unemployed. Does he also accept that it is sometimes difficult for private companies, which are small businesses, to employ someone who has, for example, been on incapacity benefit and may require several days off sick because of a genuine illness? That is sometimes one of the biggest barriers to people going back to work. Are there any measures to deal with illness once someone returns to the workplace, and with the need for time off?

Mr. Hutton: That is a genuine problem. However, it does not lend itself to any quick legislative fix. The Bill contains nothing that would directly tackle the concerns that my hon. Friend raises. We have responsibilities in Jobcentre Plus to ensure that we do everything we can to support people with mental health problems in staying active in the labour market. We will continue to discuss with my hon. Friend and others ways in which we might improve on those methods.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Bridgend has been an incredibly successful pathways to work pilot scheme area. Unemployment is 2.6 per cent., with fewer than 1,200 unemployed, but more than 5,000 people are on incapacity benefit. On Friday, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and I met the mental health matters group from Bridgend. Its members were worried about whether the personal capability assessment recognised that their capacity to cope changes daily. Even a change in medication or moving to a cheaper brand of medication can affect their performance and capacity to attend for interview. Will that be taken into account, and not lead to people losing their right to benefit because of a fluctuation in capacity?

Mr. Hutton: It is important that the personal capability assessment is more than a snapshot. It is especially difficult to craft the assessment as my hon. Friend suggests for those who are mentally ill. We are working hard to try to reach agreement on the best way forward and we will continue to discuss that fully with all the relevant stakeholders. We need employers to co-operate with Jobcentre Plus, and I strongly believe that the evidence shows that they are willing to do that. My hon. Friend referred to pathways to work, which has been another great success in south Wales. I hope that we can build on that.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in giving way. Clauses 41 and 42 refer to recovering overpaid benefits. In his statement an hour or so earlier, he announced that the Child Support Agency would no longer be with us. As a critic of that agency for many years, I am
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pleased that it will finally be buried, even if the funeral is somewhat delayed. We are clearly dealing with some sensitive client groups in recovering those overpayments. Although the taxpayer must be protected, will the Secretary of State give some assurance that his officials will handle those cases sensitively and with appropriate discretion?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, of course.

Part 1 provides for the new employment and support allowance, which will replace the current system of incapacity benefit. It places additional requirements on new claimants to be actively engaged in preparing for a return to the labour market in return for new support, by embedding the values and principles of the successful pathways to work pilots into the structure of the new benefit. We know the difference that pathways to work can make. In the first year of the pilots, the number of recorded job entries for people with a health condition or disability had increased by approximately two thirds compared with the same period the previous year. The pilots’ 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 that of non-pilot areas. This early success has underpinned our achievements in helping people off incapacity benefit, with new cases down a third since 1997, and with the first falls in the total count, now down 61,000 in the year to November 2005.

Mr. Weir: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Hutton: Not at the moment.

At present, nine out of 10 people who come on to incapacity benefit expect to get back into work. Yet as we all know, if they have been on incapacity benefit for more than two years, they are more likely to retire or die than ever to get another job. Little is expected of claimants, and almost no support is offered to them. The gateway to the benefit is poorly managed, and a person gets paid more the longer their claim continues. Even the name of the benefit sends a signal that a person is incapable, and that there is nothing that can be done.

The Bill seeks to change that. It provides for a transformed medical assessment as the gateway to the new benefit, with an assessment process that for the first time properly looks at a person’s potential capability to engage in the labour market, rather than simply measuring the level of their incapacity. It provides for a new benefit system founded on the concept of measuring and building up each individual’s capability rather than writing them off as incapable, and a radical extension of the support available, which will be underpinned by the extension of pathways to work to every part of Britain by 2008.

We are continuing to review the design of the new medical assessment, and we are particularly conscious of how important that process is for people with mental health problems and learning disabilities.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): The National Audit Office has found that 77 per cent. of cancer patients are not given information about the financial support to which they might well be entitled. Will my
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right hon. Friend comment on whether Jobcentre Plus staff will now routinely ensure that such advice is given to cancer patients?

Mr. Hutton: We do all we can to bring an entitlement to benefit to the attention of such people, but I will reflect on what my hon. Friend has said and see whether there is anything more that we can do. We are not in the business of giving advice, but it is our responsibility to ensure that people are at least aware of the various entitlements that might be available to them.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I know that my right hon. Friend is coming to an important part of his speech. Many people who have been long-term recipients of incapacity benefit have received doctors’ lines time after time without any form of investigation into their illness. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the new system will ensure that that can no longer happen?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. It will be important that, apart from having access to the support group, people have a regular face-to-face medical examination of their condition, so that we are able to provide them with the right measure of help and support that they need. This is a failure of the present system. I know that there are some of my own constituents who have not seen anyone for some considerable time, and that is not an acceptable way to run our welfare state.

My hon. Friend said that I was coming to an important part of my speech. I am not sure how he knew that, but I have been trying to get to it for quite a while. I would like to remind people of what I was saying about the design of the new personal capabilities assessment. We have created review groups, involving both technical and stakeholder experts, to look at the mental health and physical components of the assessment. We intend to complete this work by September so that we can provide a clear view of the new assessment during the Bill’s Committee stage.

The new personal capability assessment will identify those who are capable of undertaking work-related activity and the support and interventions that will be necessary to help them get back to work. It will identify separately people who are so limited by their illness or disability that it would be unreasonable to require them to undertake any form of work-related activity.

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I notice that on several occasions the Secretary of State has referred to getting people back into work. Will some of the proposals that he is spelling out today also apply to people who have never enjoyed paid employment? They include people with learning disabilities, autism or mental health problems, who might well be in their 20s or 30s, and who would like to work but have no previous experience of doing so.

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