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For the lay man, they would apply to someone who has been told that he cannot work, although he wants to work, and who feels that he can work and can prove that.

The amendments would continue the current rules, which enable a person who appeals against a decision that he or she is incapable for work under the personal capability assessment to claim income support on the grounds of incapacity, albeit at a reduced rate, until the appeal is heard. As I read it, there is no equivalent provision in the Bill. Not including such a provision could increase the risk of poverty, given the poor
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standard of personal capability assessments at present. I doubt that it is the Government’s intention to make people suffer in reduced financial circumstances that may have occurred through no fault of their own, so if the Minister is unwilling to accept the amendments, how does he propose that the anomaly in the benefits system be removed?

I have some sympathy with new clause 3, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander). Having said that, I have never been enamoured of annual reports, which usually end up being crammed together in the week before they are due, and which never meet the aims that everyone wants them to meet. If an annual report is simply there as a target, it should not be required.

Adam Afriyie: Does the hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that if an annual report is requested, and there is a requirement to report on progress in certain areas, it tends to focus the minds of the people in an organisation, especially if the report is to be put before Parliament, too? It tends to enable people to focus on the things on which they were intended to focus.

John Robertson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but my experience is that people pick whatever they want out of an annual report. They concentrate on the points on which they want to concentrate, and those points rarely bear any resemblance to those that the ordinary person in the street wants them to talk about. Having said that, the Government should introduce a mechanism that enables an external body to ask them questions, to which they must supply answers, but that happens anyway, and my hon. Friend the Minister would want his Department to supply that information. I should expect the relevant bodies that deal with people with disabilities to want to ask questions, and I expect that they would issue their own reports, saying whether the Government—or in this case the Department—were doing their job.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend not concerned, however, that evaluations are carried out by Atos Origin, and it is difficult to get access to independent information because of problems with commercial confidentiality? Is it not important that the Government propose a mechanism to overcome that problem?

John Robertson: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I agree with it, but the Data Protection Act 1998 opened the way for Members of Parliament to receive information, in answer to questions, that we could not receive in the past. Will the Minister say whether, if we asked questions on behalf of the relevant groups, we would receive answers, despite the fact that my hon. Friend thinks that there would be some difficulty because of the 1998 Act and confidentiality issues? Obviously, medical conditions are a completely different matter; we could not get medical information. However, if an individual asked me, as their Member of Parliament, to act as their representative, could I get the necessary information? If
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I could not, and if the relevant bodies could not, how could we get the information that we were asking for, particularly given confidentiality considerations in medical cases?

The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) made some good points about human rights. Unfortunately, although I wished to talk about human rights issues under part 1, my amendments were not chosen, but I think that I can sneak in my concerns about people who are terminally ill in our discussions on part 1. Their assessments are very difficult, and the great fear, of course, is the length of time that the assessments take, from start to finish. Will the Minister comment on that, even though the matter has only a tentative link to the amendments that we are discussing? It is an important question that needs to be answered. Members in the other place will ask such questions, so I am helping my hon. Friend the Minister by asking it. I urge him to look favourably upon my amendments, and to consider the concerns expressed by Members on both sides of the House. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) on the excellent points that he made about his fine proposal, which, like my amendment, is a probing amendment.

4.45 pm

Mr. Redwood: When I first read new clause 3, I had two worries about it. First, I was concerned that the system would become a little bureaucratic year after year, if and when it settled down. Secondly, as I told the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander), I was concerned that it would be too late if there were deep troubles in the transitional period. I have been swayed, however, by the moderate and sensible words of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), who has made an excellent job of understanding disability issues and speaking up for that community, and by the statesmanlike silence of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), whose judgment I usually back. Consequently, I believe that there must be something in the proposals advanced by new clause 3, and it is not worth while rebelling.

In the words of “Yes, Minister”, the proposals are very brave and even heroic. If I had the difficult job of implementing them as a Minister, not only would I welcome the backstop provided by an independent body that could act as a conduit for criticism and appraisal but I would want a day-by-day feedback mechanism in the early months of the transition to make sure that I would receive a clean report from the longstop. The advantage of the longstop for the Minister is that it might enable him to fend off more urgent and telling requests from Parliament. I hope, however, that if things do not go well, Parliament will probe and ask questions before the annual review is produced. It would be sensible for the Select Committee to undertake such work, because we would want to stand up for the many vulnerable people who would suffer stress or distress if the transition was painful and difficult. In addition to the backstop, therefore, the Minister will definitely need intelligence day by day on the number of complaints, delays in the system, how much strain there is on staff, the relationship between outcomes and his perception, which surely informed the Bill, of the veracity and
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firmness of existing disability benefit claims, and the likely future pattern of such claims. He will need that intelligence as we go along.

My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) has made a proposal relevant to our debate, because the excellent principles of new clause 1, which we are not debating, should help to inform the production of a good annual report, which is mentioned in new clause 3. Such open principles put the disabled person first and accept the Government’s important point that many disabled people would like to work and would be better doing so, but need help and encouragement to find work. That should be the spirit of the annual report that would be produced under new clause 3. I should be grateful if the Minister responded to my intervention about the balance of the annual report. Its main purpose should be to protect the vulnerable and make sure that they are treated well and sympathetically, but there is a general policy point to be made about the fact that, wherever possible, work is preferable to other ways of spending one’s time. The concept behind the legislation, which is accepted by Members on both sides of the House, is that we wish to promote sensible work for people with certain disabilities, and we think that we can do better than the systems adopted in recent years by various Governments.

I will not embarrass my hon. Friends by praising them more or criticising their new clause. I can live with it, but the success or failure of the proposal will be determined by detailed implementation, strong ministerial control of the regulations, and an immediate feedback system so that if things go wrong the Minister will know at the earliest opportunity and can come to the House, make an honest confession and change the regulations.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I am sure it is true that all hon. Members have some experience of the operation of incapacity benefit and the way that the assessment process affects their constituents, but I suspect that those who have the most regular experience of that mainly sit on the Labour Benches, apart from the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies), who is in his place and who perhaps one day will be an hon. Friend. Most of those who represent seats where incapacity benefit has coagulated in the most extreme sense over the past 20 years are Labour Members. In particular, that is because in former mining, ship building or iron and steel constituencies where those industries have collapsed over the past 30, 40 or 50 years, there are now a very large number of people on incapacity benefit.

I had not intended to speak in the debate on the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) because many of the issues have already been set out. However, if I had gathered the same number of constituents from my constituency to have the same debate, it would have been entirely different from the tenor of the debate that we have had so far this afternoon. Many would agree with the view that the present system of assessment is wholly unfit for purpose, but they would do so from two completely different perspectives.

Many who are users—who are in receipt of incapacity benefit—would say that the system of
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assessment is wholly unfit for purpose because too many people are losing incapacity benefit, but many other constituents would say that it is wholly unfit for purpose because it grants incapacity benefit to an awful lot of people who many of my constituents would consider not to be due recipients of that benefit. What that does to the economic life of the constituency and the economic expectations of young people coming out of school can often depress not just the local economic culture, but our economic aspirations.

I wanted to speak in the debate because I have a strong memory of one man coming to my surgery three years ago. He stormed in and said, “It’s outrageous. I had a heart attack in 1986 and I have been in receipt of incapacity benefit or invalidity benefit”—there have been various versions—“ever since. Now the doctors, on behalf of your Government, have said, ‘You’ve got to go to work because you’re fit to work.’” As other hon. Members would have done, I discussed with him whether the processes had been carried out properly, but eventually I had to say that I was not a doctor and could not judge whether he was fit for work or not. I could not make such an assessment.

The man replied, “I knew it. You lot are a shower—a complete waste of time. The worst thing about your Government is that the benefit that you pay is so little that I have to go and mix cement on a building site every single day of the week!” I know hon. Members will laugh, but what is extraordinary is not so much that he said that, as that he chose to say it to me, and that he believed it was a perfectly legitimate complaint for him to make. He believed that he had worked all his life and that he should be in receipt of that benefit, in order to make his weekly package add up and to make his life worth living, in his regard.

Of course, the vast majority of us, if not all of us—perhaps not all of the community that I represent, but the vast majority—would say forcefully that that man was working and should not have been in receipt of benefit, and that that form of fraud is the worst form of theft because it is against the whole community, not just against individuals. That is why it is vital that we change the system of assessment in the way that the Government suggest.

Lynne Jones: In citing that example, does my hon. Friend agree that it is important not to give the impression that there are large numbers of people in receipt of incapacity benefit who are fit for work? In all my time as a Member of Parliament, I have never experienced anybody coming to my surgery who would in any way fit into that category of claimant.

Chris Bryant: I agree that it would be utterly inappropriate for us to suggest that the vast majority of people who are in receipt of incapacity benefit are shirkers who are deliberately trying to avoid the world of work. In my experience, the vast majority would like to be in work if there were a means of the state helping them to get into it. The single most important thing that I would like to inject into the debate is the passion felt in many communities that have had a very rough time, resulting in historically high levels of deprivation, which want to get back up off their knees. They will only be able to do so if more people are able to get off benefits and into work.

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The hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), in a splendid speech, made an important point in response to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) when he mentioned the possibility that the Government’s system of assessment might be thought to have been designed to reduce the number of people on incapacity benefit or its successor benefit. That clearly should not be the case. The Government should not be trying to use their assessment process to force people off benefit and into work. However, it is equally right—many Labour Members will feel this more acutely than others because we have higher numbers of people on incapacity benefit—that the Government should be desperately seeking to enable more people who are on those benefits to get into work.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): I would back up the hon. Gentleman by saying that not only Labour Members feel that. I appreciate that historically, as he said, many people claiming incapacity benefit and its predecessors coagulated in seats held by his party, but he should appreciate that one of the fastest growing causes of incapacity benefit claims has been failing mental health, particularly the fluctuating conditions mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt). Those people are found in many other parliamentary seats—notably, perhaps, in seaside towns such as the one that I represent. The problem is shared on both sides of the House, and I am sure that all Members would want to reflect on the matters that he mentions.

Chris Bryant: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. However, he will make a mistake if he presumes that the reason for the high level of incapacity benefit claims in my constituency is that people have residual musculoskeletal problems from working in the mines, because remarkably few people of working age living in Rhondda have ever worked in a mine. More than 50 per cent. of people on incapacity benefit in my constituency are in receipt of it for mental health problems, and 50 per cent. of those are women. The pattern of incapacity benefit claims has changed dramatically, but the level is extraordinarily high—between a fifth and a quarter of all people of working age in my constituency are on incapacity benefit. However, I think that the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent has the highest level of claimants in Wales. All sorts of hobbling, to use a valleys word, may go on, with elements of the black market making it possible for families to survive, but it is important that we try to change that culture of expectation; otherwise, I will feel that a Labour Government have failed in a socialist duty to tackle one of the greatest causes of poverty, which in my constituency results from incapacity benefit.

Mr. Weir: The hon. Gentleman is making a fair point, but is he not also illustrating how the current system has lost the confidence of those who are using it and of the general public? It is important that we get the personal capability assessment right, and new clause 3 would ensure that the new system is not subject to the same failings as the current one.

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Chris Bryant: I agree with the first half of the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but disagree with the second half. It is clearly true, as I said earlier, that the current system has fallen foul of incapacity benefit users—those who are in receipt of it—and of the wider community, but that is why we need to get the system right now, not review it so frequently as to further undermine confidence in it because it changes year after year. Of course we need a system of review, but although I sympathise with the thrust of the new clause, I disagree with the idea of having an annual review, because such a constant process of change would not allow people to regain confidence in the system. I also believe, as the right hon. Member for Wokingham suggested earlier, that the review process should not be subcontracted to some other body but undertaken by a Select Committee, because the greatest expertise resides there.

5 pm

Mr. Weir: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Chris Bryant: I shall, but my last sentence was to have been the final one in my speech.

Mr. Weir: Review does not necessarily mean change. It means ascertaining whether something works. That is important—conducting a review does not mean that the system will change every year, but it would ensure that the new system was not failing in the same way as the existing one.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman makes his point, but I would prefer a review every five years because when reviews take place and there is no change, people tend to question the point of reviewing.

Lynne Jones: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Chris Bryant: There is a general rule that one should use the word “final” only once in a speech but I shall now have to use it again.

Lynne Jones: New clause 3 calls not for an annual review but for an annual report, which is different.

Chris Bryant: Reports, reviews—there is not much difference between them. My point is broader and concerns the role of Parliament. I believe that the role of reviewing, revising and ascertaining whether we have got the assessment process is right should reside with the House and should not be subcontracted to another body. I shall therefore oppose the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey.

Adam Afriyie: There is no doubt that hon. Members of all parties generally welcome the Bill, which acknowledges that viewing the capacity to work positively is an important step forward. That focus is crucial if we are to tackle some of the long-term problems that we are experiencing with incapacity benefit. The Bill is perhaps also an acknowledgement of the fact that the existing policy was not effective in removing people from long-term incapacity benefit. I cannot remember the exact figures, but the numbers increased hugely for people who had been on incapacity benefit for more than five years. The Bill is therefore an acknowledgement of a problem and of a failure of existing policy.

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