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20 Jun 2007 : Column 1379

Disability Benefits (Single Assessment)

12.32 pm

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): I beg to move,

Disability benefits are complex and convoluted; they are not something that any rational person would want to spend a huge amount of time trying to understand unless they had to do so, but 6 million disabled people in the UK have to do just that, including up to 400,000 families with disabled children. For them, the benefit system is simultaneously a lifeline and a nightmare. I suggest to the House that it is time we did better.

I will not test Members’ patience by going into enormous detail about the complicated differences in eligibility criteria for the disability living allowance, the attendance allowance, the disabled facilities grant, the community equipment fund, the carer’s allowance, the independent living fund, the industrial injuries disablement benefit and incapacity benefit. I wondered whether the complexity of the system might be a function of the complexity of disability itself; but why, when we spend £26 billion annually on benefits for disabled people, are there so many complaints?

There are complaints from taxpayers who, despite the fact that they want their money used to support the most vulnerable people in society, constantly read stories in the media about disability benefits being claimed by people who are patently not disabled. There are also complaints from disabled people themselves, who all too often have to put up with a system that lets them down, frustrates them and humiliates them by asking them to repeat information about their disability a thousand times over, squandering money on official error, waste and fraud, and all too often failing to reach the very people it most needs to reach: those most at risk of falling into and becoming trapped in poverty.

In my research, I discovered that most unusual of things in modern politics: a relatively simple solution that does not cost any money. I will return to that later, but first let me give the House an example of the crazy complexity of the current system. A couple of weeks ago, I met a man who, a few years earlier, had been going to the shops with his daughter. He was walking along his local high street when a car careered off the road and crashed into him. He was carried some distance. Fortunately, his daughter was unharmed, although she had severe psychological trauma, but he ended up in a coma and when he came round he had an acquired brain injury. As a result, he was unable to continue with his job. Someone in that situation is eligible for up to eight different benefits. If he were to apply for them all, he would have to answer a total of 1,275 questions over 352 pages.

Let me put that in context. An A-level student doing maths, physics and chemistry has to answer 510 questions. Someone applying to do a masters in law at Harvard has to answer 54 questions. So, our welfare state, which is supposed to be the pinnacle of a civilised society, makes a man with an acquired brain injury answer more questions than our brightest
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A-level students or our most ambitious lawyers. That cannot be right. I wondered whether, because disabilities are complicated, we needed to ask all those questions, but in fact 80 per cent. of the questions are repeated. A third of the questions are repeated twice and a quarter are repeated four times. Think not about the waste of employing Department for Work and Pensions officials to process the same information over and over again. Think not about how that money could be put to much better use. Think instead of the man with an acquired brain injury and the signal that this sends to him about our willingness as a society to help him piece his life together. Think also of those parents who discover that they have a child with severe disabilities and the signal it sends to them that we ask them to answer more questions than if they were applying for a mortgage, a credit card or a bank account.

The most pernicious outcome of the complexity is not the frustration that it causes disabled people; it is the fact that it makes it so difficult for them to get back into the world of work. All the benefits have different rules about how much work someone is and is not allowed to do. On incapacity benefit and carer’s allowance, one can earn £87 a week. On income support, it is £20 a week. On housing benefit, after £20 a week, a person’s benefit is deducted at a marginal rate of 65 per cent. On council tax benefit, it is 20 per cent. The result is that for many disabled people the simplest and safest thing is not to work. That leads on to another problem: poverty. We know that, according to the Government’s preferred measure, child poverty is increasing. A third of parents of disabled children say that they are put off applying for the disability living allowance because of the complexity of the application form.

My Bill will not solve all those problems at a stroke, but it will transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people by requiring the Department for Work and Pensions to get its computer systems to talk to each other, so that, if a disabled person consents to it, they need only supply information about their disability once and that can be used across all the different benefit streams. Every year, the Department for Work and Pensions processes 7.2 billion questions from disability benefit applicants. Nearly 6 billion of those are repeated questions. This measure will save money in administration costs, but, more importantly, it will save huge frustration and aggravation for disabled people.

The Government do not have a good record on technology projects. However, that should not obscure the fact that technology can transform the lives of the most socially disadvantaged. Why should the IT revolution benefit only the BlackBerry generation of adults or the MySpace generation of children? Why should it not benefit disabled people as well?

We cannot remove people’s impairments, but we can remove the obstacles that the state needlessly and carelessly puts in their way that make it more difficult for them to find a job, to live independently, or to hold their family together. Only once should disabled people have to supply information about their disability, unless or until that disability changes. Only once should a family with a disabled child have to supply information about that child’s disability, unless or until that
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changes. Only once should that information be processed by the Department for Work and Pensions. My Bill is a modest measure. It would not get us there all in one go, but it would allow progress to be made in the right direction. For that reason, I urge the House to support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jeremy Hunt, Natascha Engel, Greg Clark, Malcolm Bruce, Michael Gove, Ms Sally Keeble, Stephen Hammond, Anne Milton, Mr. Graham Stuart, Mr. Stewart Jackson, John Penrose and Mr. Paul Goodman.

Disability Benefits (Single Assessment)

Mr. Jeremy Hunt accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for a single assessment process for disability benefits; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 128].

20 Jun 2007 : Column 1382

European Affairs

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Liz Blackman.]

12.42 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I returned yesterday from the General Affairs Council. Tomorrow and on Friday, the Prime Minister and I will attend the European Council, which is the final summit of the German presidency. Discussions at the General Affairs Council were wide-ranging. In that, they reflected the pivotal role that working with and through the European Union plays in meeting the domestic and foreign policy priorities of this country. Not least of the subjects discussed was the ongoing and extremely difficult situation in the Palestinian occupied territories. I expect that the topics covered by the European Council and included in the final conclusions will be equally broad. If I may, I will return to some of them a little later.

There is no doubt that the main issue at stake at this European Council will be treaty reform. During my first pre-European Council debate in the Chamber, I recall that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said that he hoped that I would enjoy his speech because he feared that I would hear it on a number of occasions, since such debates tended to be attended by the same people and to have almost exactly the same content. However, this debate might be a little different.

Specifically, two years on from the rejection of the proposed constitutional treaty by Dutch and French voters, the Council must consider what treaty adjustments would help the European Union to work as effectively and efficiently as possible in the interests of its 27 member states. The report of the discussions that the German presidency produced last Thursday showed there were still significant differences among European countries about what those next steps could or should be. In the next two days, Europe’s leaders will be looking for a way to reconcile those differences.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Margaret Beckett: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I would like to get a little further into my argument.

Those negotiations cannot be conducted in public, let alone in advance of the Council itself. I could not and will not attempt to prejudge what the outcome of those negotiations might be, but I will be as plain and unequivocal as I can about what the Government’s position going into those negotiations will be.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Margaret Beckett: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me—normally I do give way, as he knows, and I will give way during my speech if he still wishes to intervene, but it would be helpful for the House if I give an indication first of where we are.

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First, we want a European Union that is able to deliver and that makes a positive difference to people’s lives, but we want a European Union of sovereign nations, not a superstate. We want greater efficiency and more accountability. We want more say for national Parliaments and Governments. Above all, we want a European Union that takes action where it is needed, on issues like climate security, economic reform and energy, and leaves national Governments in charge of key areas including taxes, foreign policy, defence and the domestic economy.

In short, we want a European Union that delivers jobs, security, growth and influence in a globalised world—a Europe that helps to equip citizens in every member state to meet the challenges of, and to thrive in, the 21st century. That is our positive vision for Europe’s future—a clear conception of an EU that we want, and that we believe this country needs.

Let no one be in doubt that the reason we place so much emphasis on taking the right decisions over the next two days is nothing to do with the blocking tactics that we have seen in previous years. It is the exact opposite. We want a strong and effective Europe, but we want one that is focused on delivering results, not building bureaucracy. So let me be clear on some of the specific issues that we are likely to have to resolve over the next two days.

We support a charter of fundamental rights that brings together existing rights found in the European convention on human rights, current EC treaties and other instruments. We support qualified majority voting to unlock decision making in those areas where it is in Britain’s interest. Despite ridiculous claims that are sometimes made that no change at all must be made, let me remind the House that it was Lady Thatcher who first gave up the veto, and that under her, qualified majority voting was extended to 12 articles, and under her successor, John Major, to 30—three zero—policy areas. I do not criticise them for those changes. They made them because they knew that sometimes it was and is in Britain’s interest to do so when, for example, change that we in the House may all believe is wanted and needed might otherwise be blocked by those who resist that change.

We are in favour of a Europe-wide response both to organised crime and to international terrorism. I imagine that that, again, is common ground across the House. In fact, more than that, we think a Europe-wide response is a vital necessity, but we are equally clear that any EU initiatives should not affect fundamental aspects of our criminal justice system, should not undermine our ability to safeguard national security, and should not weaken control of our own borders.

We believe in a common foreign and security policy that will boost our collective influence abroad, but not in a single foreign policy. It must be based on consensus, by which I mean unanimity. We would support a reform of the Commission that promoted effectiveness, efficiency and strong leadership. We would like to see the subsidiarity mechanism in the current constitutional treaty proposals strengthened. We believe it will help us to find the best balance between action at regional, national and European levels, and in so doing will better connect Europe to its citizens. We would support a full-time Chair of the European Council with the same role and powers now
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exercised by the Council president of the day, because we believe it could help to ensure greater coherence and consistency in the EU’s agenda.

If we are able to agree such a package at the Council it would make the EU stronger and better able to deliver on its priorities. The House should make no mistake—that would be of direct benefit to the people of the UK.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving way. Officials in Brussels yesterday agreed a draft intergovernmental conference mandate which says that the object of the discussions will be to seek to clarify

At Foreign Office questions the Foreign Secretary said she hoped that

That was in relation to the common fisheries policy. Is she going back on that position, or has it become clear in the past few weeks that there will be that degree of delimitation in the final agreement this week?

Margaret Beckett: I think that there is a misunderstanding. I hope that I heard the hon. Gentleman correctly, because I do not want to correct him if I did not, but I think that he said that officials had agreed a mandate, and that is not the case. The document produced in Brussels yesterday was the German presidency’s proposal, and that is what we will be discussing at the weekend. It has not been agreed by anybody.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I have the document in front of me and it clearly says that the word “Community” will throughout be replaced by the word “Union”, that it will be stated that the two treaties constitute the treaties on which the Union is founded and that the Union replaces and succeeds the Community.

There cannot be a much more fundamental change than that, so will the Foreign Secretary agree that, on that basis, unless the proposals are rejected, there will be a referendum on them?

Margaret Beckett: I can only say—I do not say this as a criticism—that I find it absolutely inconceivable that anybody could make proposals that the hon. Gentleman would not believe required a referendum. Whether one agrees is quite another matter.

It is perfectly possible to bring in these improvements to the way in which the EU works by building on and amending existing treaties, and without engaging major questions of national sovereignty or competence.

Europe has a choice. It could agree an amending treaty—that path is proven; it has delivered on many occasions in the past. Or it could try to bundle important and necessary reforms into a wholly unnecessary constitutional cloak—that path is very far from proven; indeed, it was explicitly rejected by the people of France and the Netherlands just two summers ago.

Mr. Hands: At this same debate exactly a year ago, the Foreign Secretary said that

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Other than simply imploring that that happen, what efforts has the Foreign Secretary made in recent months to ensure that the EU really does reconnect more closely with the people of Europe?

Margaret Beckett: For one thing, the very strong effort made by the Government over a considerable period of time, but made with particular strength in the run-up to the spring Council, to get the EU to agree to take a position well ahead of the pack in terms of energy and climate security, is exactly the kind of thing that reconnects the EU to the people of Europe. For a start, it is so clearly an area where no nation state acting alone can be effective, yet also an area that is of real concern to people when they think about their own future and that of their children.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): On the subject of reconnection, do not we in this place have to look anew at how we debate EU proposals? In particular, is there not a political case to be made for one Minister to be answerable for all the various deals being reached in Brussels and to have a question and answer session on that?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. However, it might be rather more difficult to achieve than it sometimes sounds. I am reminded of the debate that always takes place, particularly around issues such as the environment, about whether this, that or the other policy area should be included, because surely this crosses them all. In the end, there is no substitute for having a Government and having different people who deal with the detail of what is being agreed, because otherwise we would get into considerable difficulty.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary mentioned the principle of subsidiarity. Will she, in her negotiations, support proposals to enhance the powers and involvement of national Parliaments in European decision making?

Margaret Beckett: Yes, we will look with great sympathy at the proposals that have been made, for example, by the Netherlands. Not everyone thinks that this is the right course of action, but certainly this Government very much approve of efforts to increase the role and the opportunities of national Parliaments to contribute.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Even if we accept only part of what we have read in the media in the last few days, it is clear that the Government have a fight on their hands in defending this country’s national interest in these negotiations. In those circumstances, was it not weakening our position for the Prime Minister to say that we would not be having a referendum on the results of these negotiations? Could we therefore conclude that, given that the Minister is now sketching out carefully the grounds where the Government are intent on not giving way, if they are forced to do so in the negotiations, the British people will be able to reconnect with the Government and in Europe in having a say in what happens?

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