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Incapacity Benefit

4. Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): If he will make a statement on progress in reducing the number of people claiming incapacity benefit. [113150]

6. Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): If he will make a statement on recent changes in the number of people claiming incapacity benefit. [113152]

The Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform (Mr. Jim Murphy): We have already made significant progress on incapacity benefit. After two decades of continuous growth—by the mid-1990s, the number of people on incapacity benefits had trebled—inflows have dropped by more than a third. However, we have more to do, and that is the purpose behind our Welfare Reform Bill currently before Parliament.

Ann McKechin: May I take this opportunity to congratulate local DWP staff in Glasgow on exceeding their targets to cut the number of incapacity benefit cases? However, I am mindful of the fact that the Secretary of State recently said that areas with a high number of claimants often have a high number of vacancies. DWP staff in Glasgow tell me that many applicants often have problems with basic literacy and numeracy skills, and that many are reluctant to admit to having these problems. What will my hon. Friend’s Department do, working with its partners, to tackle this very serious problem and to make sure that as many benefit applicants as possible can be ready for the job market?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend, who is all too well aware of the situation in Glasgow, is absolutely right. Despite real and significant improvement, Glasgow still has two of the top five parliamentary constituencies for the number of people on incapacity benefit. She is also right to say that renewing personal confidence and improving or refreshing skills is key. DWP staff in Glasgow and elsewhere, and private sector providers, are working hard to ensure that such support for literacy and numeracy skills is available. I have visited a number of such projects, not least those at Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers football clubs, who, in different environments, are working together in a way that they perhaps have not always done to ensure that people’s potential and aspirations can be unlocked. Adults going into the football stadiums can learn the skills that they perhaps missed out on the first time through formal education.

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Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): It was suggested in a press release last week that single mothers with new-born babies and people with the most severe disabilities should be treated as unemployed and should be made to look for work. Will my hon. Friend the Minister join me in condemning that claim, which is being made by the Opposition?

Mr. Murphy rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That question is out of order. I call Mr. Garnier.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): The Minister will understand —[Interruption]—if he is listening, that the number of people claiming incapacity benefit is likely to go up as a direct consequence of the ill effects caused to them by their loss of occupational pensions. Will he please tell the House how he can on the one hand say that he is dealing with incapacity benefit, and yet on the other be part of a ministerial team that is ignoring the ombudsman’s report on occupational pensions?

Mr. Murphy: I am not sure that I followed the logic, if there was any, of the hon. and learned Gentleman’s point. The incapacity benefit test is based on medical assessment, not on someone’s pension entitlement. Nevertheless, I will do him the service of trying to respond to whatever element of a question he asked. We are determined to reduce the number of people on incapacity benefit by a net 1 million over a decade. We have already made progress through pathways to work and the progressive support that has been put in place, but the Welfare Reform Bill that is going through Parliament now—with belated cross-party support—will be an important additional element of our approach of no longer writing off anybody in the labour market.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): How many people have now been claiming incapacity benefit for five years or more compared with 1997? Does the Minister agree that the fact that the figures are so much higher now is a prime example of the way in which welfare dependency has become so rife under this Government?

Mr. Murphy: The facts on incapacity benefit are clear. If someone is on incapacity benefit for one year, they will be on it for nine years on average. That is the nature of incapacity benefit and, unfortunately, the culture of many families. However, we are addressing that through the Welfare Reform Bill. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman suggests about a culture of benefit dependency, 1 million fewer people are now on out-of-work benefits in the UK than a decade ago. The numbers on incapacity benefit are falling, the number of lone parents claiming income support is falling, the most recent figures on jobseeker’s allowance show that unemployment is falling and there are more people in work than ever before. That is in stark contrast to what went before during the 18 years of Conservative government.

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that the current system of assessment for entitlement to incapacity benefit has not been fit for purpose for many years and that therefore the new
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personal capability assessment, as set out in the Welfare Reform Bill, should be subject to effective, long-term and independent monitoring?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend speaks with great experience and authority on such matters and he is right to say that the present incapacity benefit assessment process has not served the needs of our customers or society effectively enough. In particular, it has indefensibly ignored the needs of those with learning disabilities. Work is now being done to ensure that we find a better role for those with learning disabilities in the labour market. It is essential that we have a better process to monitor the operation of the personal capability assessment and I look forward to discussing the details of that with my hon. Friend as the Bill continues its passage through the House.

Departmental Expenditure

5. Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): What assessment his Department has made of the likely effect of planned changes in departmental expenditure on service delivery. [113151]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. John Hutton): The Department’s planned expenditure to March 2008 was settled in the spending review 2004. Departmental performance was reported in the autumn performance report that was published on 14 December 2006, copies of which are available in the Library. Over the comprehensive spending review period in 2007, we will extend the service we provide through the introduction of the new employment and support allowance and improvements in child support and pensions.

Mr. Rogerson: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. My constituency is in an objective 1 area and efficiency plans from the Department and agencies that will lead to the loss of high quality jobs will deliver a bitter blow to the local economy. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that any future plans will not have a negative impact on customer service or remove much-needed local employment in low-income areas, such as mine?

Mr. Hutton: We want to provide the best possible service we can to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and those of every hon. Member, and we work hard to try to do that. There are five Jobcentre Plus offices in his constituency, four of which are full time. One has become part time and, whenever such changes are necessary to improve the overall quality of the service we provide and achieve the best value for money for the taxpayer, we will always try to ensure that suitable and proper arrangements are in place—for example, for those of his constituents on JSA who may need to travel further to sign on.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State correctly announced the abolition of the Child Support Agency and its replacement by a new body that will be legally established in 2008 and operational in 2010. Will he give the House an assurance that that body will be properly resourced through his departmental expenditure, so that the problems that beset the CSA will not affect the new commission?

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Mr. Hutton: Yes, I can certainly give my right hon. Friend that assurance. The combined effect of the reforms will, I hope, be a drastically reduced inflow of new cases to the new child maintenance and enforcement commission. That in turn, I hope, will lead to a reduced need for investment from taxpayers’ resources in that new commission, but the resources needed to provide a proper high-quality service for all our constituents will be available.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): As the Gershon review was about greater efficiency in the delivery of maintained departmental services and as we know that its implication is a net loss of about 30,000 jobs in the Department, will the Secretary of State tell the House what action he proposes, through training or other initiatives, first, to maintain staff morale and, secondly, to ensure that departmental services are not subject to further degradation?

Mr. Hutton: It is possible both to reduce the total number of people employed in a Department and at the same time improve the quality of the public service that we provide. The two things are not necessarily contradictory, provided of course that they are done sensibly and properly. We are doing that. So far, I think that we have had to make only one person compulsorily redundant in the nearly 21,000 jobs that have been lost since the 2004 spending review, and we very much want to continue in that vein. In relation to the future, I agree strongly with what the hon. Gentleman said; it is important to maintain the morale of the Department’s staff, who do an excellent job in all parts of the country, and we work hard with the trade unions and others to make sure that that continues to be the case. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that maintaining the quality of the service we provide is our No. 1 priority. As well as reducing staff, we are transferring more staff to the front office so that they can deal with and interact with our constituents more directly. That is the right and proper thing to do.

Welfare Reform

7. Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to ensure that welfare reform does not penalise (a) jobseekers and (b) claimants with mental health problems. [113153]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Our welfare reform policies are about providing people with the skills and support they need to return to work as soon as they are able to do so. Everyone will be treated as an individual and with sensitivity—no one will be forced to work at the expense of their health. The underlying principle of the reform is that rights should be balanced with responsibilities.

Meg Hillier: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. In Hackney South and Shoreditch, we have the second highest number of incapacity benefit claimants of any London constituency, with 63 per cent. under 50, a high number of whom have mental health problems. Recently, I met some of those claimants, who have two main concerns: first, the time scale requirements for coming off welfare and going into work, which many
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of them want to do; and, secondly, the expertise of front-line staff at Jobcentre Plus. Can my hon. Friend answer those concerns for me and my constituents?

Mrs. McGuire: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point in highlighting the high percentage of people with mental and behavioural conditions who make up the IB case load. The number may not be as high across the country as it is in her constituency, but the current case load is about 40 per cent. We are conscious of the fact that people with fluctuating conditions, such as mental health conditions, need the right advice and support at the right time, as well as recognition that, as my hon. Friend indicated, there will be occasions when a job opportunity may not work. We have to make sure that we reinforce the support we give to those who find themselves in that position.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): What practical steps is the Minister taking for co-ordination with the Department of Health and mental health trusts in view of the evidence that has emerged from Lord Layard and others that the introduction of more psychotherapy would greatly increase the ability to work and reduce calls on benefits?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue, as it allows me to say that DWP Ministers and the appropriate Ministers at the Department of Health are working closely on those matters, and not only at ministerial level—our officials recognise the importance of co-ordinating our approach, because we all share the ambition to ensure that as many people as possible, particularly those who have suffered from mental health conditions for a long time, should have the opportunity to move into work.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the number of scare stories circulating about the implementation of the Welfare Reform Bill and about the Bill’s implications, particularly for people with mental health conditions. Will she take this opportunity to reiterate the fact that no person will be forced to have medical intervention to avoid their benefits being cut?

Mrs. McGuire: I am delighted to be given the opportunity to confirm what my hon. Friend has said. My hon. Friend the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform and I confirmed it in Committee, and I am delighted to do so again on the Floor of the House.

Disabled People

8. Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): What plans he has to improve services for disabled people. [113154]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I am pleased to advise my hon. Friend that the disability equality duty, which took effect on 4 December, will mean significant improvements to services for disabled people. My Department’s first disability equality schemes were published on 1 December, and they set out actions that we intend to take over the next three years to improve services for our disabled customers.

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Mr. Khan: I welcome the answer given by my hon. Friend. I am sure that those of us who have a passionate interest in equality will welcome the huge progress made in this area over the past 10 years. Will she describe what impact she expects the new disability equality duty to have on services provided by local authorities, as many disabled people across the country receive such services?

Mrs. McGuire: It is crucial to highlight, as my hon. Friend has done, the importance for disabled people of local authority services across a range of activities. Most local authority people would accept that services were often geared to the provider and not to the individual. I hope that the new disability equality schemes, some 44,000 of which have been published, will allow local authorities, and public authorities in general, to review how they provide services, as they are legally obliged to do, and how they involve disabled people in the development of those services—they should not be involved only at the end of the process.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware that many disabled people are either denied or obstructed from using services simply because able-bodied people park their cars in restricted disabled bays. Given that local authorities and the police are somewhat limited in what they can do to stop this bad practice, will she offer any encouragement to disabled drivers who suffer the frustration of it?

Mrs. McGuire: I do not know what my hon. Friend is asking me to encourage disabled people to do. In a recent case, somebody let down the tyres on the car of someone who had parked in a disabled parking bay, but I would not recommend such action. However, he raises an important issue: if we accept as individuals that disabled people have the right to access services through the provision of specialist parking places, it is incumbent on all of us to recognise that such a service is provided specifically for disabled people, and that non-disabled people should not nip in and out of disabled parking spaces to suit their convenience. People should allow the serious mobility issues that the blue-badge scheme and similar schemes are meant to address to be dealt with.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Minister referred to the responsibility of local government in reply to an earlier supplementary. She was right to do so, but if local government is to meet its obligations under legislation passed by this place, is it not essential that it should receive adequate resources to enable it to do so? Even if it wishes to raise money through the council tax, it is limited by capping, so it is in grave difficulty in dealing with these important groups of people.

Mrs. McGuire: First, I hope that the hon. Gentleman and most others in the House would accept that this Government have invested in public services provided by local government. May I say to him that on the disability equality duty and the disability equality schemes, there is not necessarily an issue of finance? There is an issue of culture and process, and this is about getting public servants—be they in local authorities, the police
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service or the health service—to recognise that they need to involve disabled people at the beginning of their policy planning and not at the end.

We are trying to shift the balance away from provider-led services, which say to disabled people, “You will take what you can get and be thankful for it,” to a process that involves disabled people from the beginning. That is what the disability equality duty is intended to do. It is not a matter of money.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): Could we not improve services for disabled people by working even more closely with specialist voluntary sector organisations such as DIAL UK, which runs disability information and advice lines? Should we not require each local authority to employ a designated access or disabilities officer, especially given their new responsibilities? Many local authorities do not employ someone with that specific responsibility. Will the Minister discuss the matter with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government?

Mrs. McGuire: In fairness, many public authorities have started to consider how to put in place people with a special and specific responsibility for disability equality. To echo what I said to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), the issue is not just about giving responsibility to one person within a public authority; it is about a change of culture, and embedding disability equality within public authorities. That is what the disability equality duty is about, and that is why the disability equality duty was agreed to overwhelmingly as part of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.

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