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House of Commons

Monday 2 July 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Work and Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Pension Credit (North-West Leicestershire)

1. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): How many pensioners in North-West Leicestershire (a) qualify for and (b) receive pension credit. [146344]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Peter Hain): In February 2007, an estimated 3,650 households—4,470 individuals—in North-West Leicestershire were receiving pension credit, but the numbers eligible are not available at constituency level.

David Taylor: I am delighted that my right hon. Friend survived the shuffle and did not have to register with what has proved to be his new Department.

The recent report of the Public Accounts Committee into the DWP’s progress in tackling pensioner poverty highlighted a wide variation in benefit take-up rates around Great Britain, with the lowest rates in pockets of deprivation located in rural and otherwise prosperous areas. Can the Secretary of State tell the House what initiatives are planned to provide funding for community, voluntary and not-for-profit organisations in such settings to increase take-up among vulnerable and other hard to reach groups?

Mr. Hain: I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said at the beginning, and for his message of support. We constantly look at initiatives and opportunities, including the use of the voluntary sector, which can often play an absolutely vital part, especially in assisting senior citizens. Over recent years, we have visited 1 million households to try to push the pension credit out further. We are constantly phoning people, because it is now easy to take up pension credit over the telephone rather than having to fill out a form. I urge everybody concerned—those who may be watching the debate and colleagues throughout the House—to make sure that every pensioner in their constituency who may be entitled to pension credit is put in touch so that they can claim it.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State and his new team to the Treasury Bench, along with a couple of older faces— [Interruption.] Experienced faces.

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The Secretary of State will be aware that many people who have lost their occupational pension over the past 10 years are concerned about ending up on means-tested benefits. As the new Administration are supposed to be listening and learning and changing policy, how does he intend to respond to the almost universal condemnation of the financial assistance scheme, and will he be able to respond positively when the Pensions Bill comes back amended from another place?

Mr. Hain: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. I think he accepted the correction that an experienced team has joined the newcomers like me.

It has clearly been a scandal that people lost their pension as a result of their company going bust and taking the pension fund down with it. That is a scandal, but we have put £8 billion into providing assistance for people in that position and we shall continue to support them in a way that was never done before. We shall obviously consider the House of Lords amendments when the Bill returns to this place, but whatever issues need to be worked through we should recognise the big picture: £8 billion has been put in to rescue people from the plight they would otherwise suffer.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend. Although he did not get the job I wanted him to have, I am glad that he has a job that is so important for this country.

Whether in North-West Leicestershire or any other part of the country, it is clear that we must listen to people who represent pensioners in taking forward important cases, so I urge my right hon. Friend to sit down as soon as possible with representatives of the National Pensioners Convention, to get them on side in the work we are trying to do to make things better for all our people.

Mr. Hain: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The National Pensioners Convention plays an absolutely vital role in championing the interests of senior citizens. I was concerned to hear that apparently there was no Labour party representative at the last conference, which I think was in Blackpool. We shall have to put that right in future, because we want to work with the convention and other representatives from pensioners organisations to make sure that the policies deliver what is intended—justice for pensioners.

Employment (Disabled People)

2. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): What steps he is taking to provide more opportunities for people with disabilities to work. [146345]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): We have a number of programmes designed to provide help to disabled people, and in the year to April 2007 those programmes supported more than 50,000 people both to get into and retain employment. We are currently reviewing our employment services for disabled people and intend to consult on our proposals later in the year.

Julie Morgan: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I am pleased that she is still in the same position as she speaks up very well for disabled people.

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Has my hon. Friend made any assessment of the effectiveness of the pathways work-focused interviews for incapacity benefit claimants? Many of them are enthusiastic and keen to work but are understandably anxious because they feel the nature of their condition may not be fully understood. Recent DWP research seems to indicate that, too, so does my hon. Friend think that the carrot may be more important than the stick?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that question. As she will be aware, one of the changes that we will implement—linked to the successful implementation of our pathways to work pilot—relates to the welfare reform proposals. Linked to that are the changes in the personal capability assessment, which will reflect far more accurately some of the issues that disabled people—particularly those who have a mental health condition—and their organisations have raised with us. Organisations and individuals told us, over a consistent period, that they did not feel that the personal capability assessment quite reflected the fluctuating nature of mental health conditions, and we worked with those organisations over a number of months to ensure that the new personal capability assessment recognises the issues that are particular to those with fluctuating conditions.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): May I, through the Minister, welcome the Secretary of State to his new work? I hope that he is able to fit his new duties in around his job as Secretary of State for Wales.

What would the Minister say to Liberal Democrat Assembly Member Peter Black, who said this morning in the Western Mail

Does she agree with him?

Mrs. McGuire: No, I do not. My apologies for not having read the Western Mail this morning; I was busy reading The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald. May I correct a discourtesy? I did not thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) for the kind words at the beginning of her question.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we want disability benefits to be used to support people who have indicated that they want to move into work. That is why the new welfare reform proposals are so crucial. We recognise that many people who are on incapacity benefit, for example, want to get into work. The issue is not their express desire to get into work; the real difficulty is breaking down the barriers involved in their getting into work. Some of those barriers are created by attitudinal issues relating to employers and those in the community who look continually at what people cannot do, not at what they can do. The issue is about changing that perception and that reality.

Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the Minister on keeping her job and continuing her role as a champion for people with disabilities. I think that everybody in the House would agree that, where possible, it is more important to get people into mainstream employment than into sheltered employment, but what guarantees have we got, in the context of the changes that are coming to Remploy, that some of the vulnerable people in sheltered employment will not be forced into compulsory redundancy?

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Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend, not just for his question but for the sterling work that he did to support the Department for Work and Pensions team as a DWP Whip. I am delighted that he has not lost his voice. Having been in the Whips Office myself for an extended period of time, I know how difficult it is. Members who have been Whips sometimes feel as though they have actually lost the ability to speak in the House. He has clearly not lost either that ability, or his incisive style of questioning. I can reassure him that, first, the Remploy proposals are just that—they are proposals. Secondly, we have always been clear that we want to ensure that disabled people have a choice. Thirdly, we still see a role for supported factories. Finally, both the previous Secretary of State, the current Secretary of State and I have stated that there will be no compulsory redundancies for disabled people who are currently employed by Remploy. They will have protected terms and conditions, including a final salary pension, through to their normal retirement age. The proposals, however, are the subject of discussion between management and the trade unions at this time.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): I, too, welcome the new Secretary of State to his post and congratulate him and his team of Ministers on their appointments. We look forward to a constructive engagement with them on the many important issues in his in-tray. The Freud report sets out a funding model for extending the reach of welfare-to-work programmes to include hundreds of thousands of people trapped on inactive long-term benefits—not least people with disabilities—by engaging the private and voluntary sectors. Can the Minister tell the House where the new Government stand on the implementation of the Freud report?

Mrs. McGuire: “The new Government” is a bit of embroidery; we are the same Labour Government who came in with the intention of tackling unemployment, reducing the barriers that many disabled people and those on long-term benefits had to put up with for many years, and turning round the situation in which the number of people put on incapacity benefit tripled during 18 years of the Conservative Government. Our intentions regarding the Freud report will be made entirely clear to both the House and the hon. Gentleman when we issue our response to it.

Mr. Hammond: I appreciate the hon. Lady’s difficulty because she is serving a Prime Minister who has made it clear that he expects unswerving loyalty to the party line, yet the party line on this issue is not clear. The Prime Minister harangued David Freud in his office before the report was published. He then sat on a platform with David Freud and implicitly endorsed the report, after which his Chief Secretary wrote to the then Secretary of State to make it clear that he would not fund the implementation or piloting of the proposals in the report. After 10 years of Labour promises on welfare reform, may we please have a straight answer: when will we be told whether the Government will back Freud, or block him?

Mrs. McGuire: May I say, with the greatest courtesy to the hon. Gentleman, that he should at least give the Government true recognition for aiming to tackle some of the legacy that we inherited of people being placed
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on incapacity benefit and abandoned? The number of such people tripled under the previous Government. I would be interested to know which particular fly he was on the wall as he seems to be giving us chapter and verse on what happened during a conversation that was private to those who participated in it. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that he will find out our comments on the Freud report and the way forward when we issue our Green Paper on it.

Mr. Hammond: When?

Mrs. McGuire: The hon. Gentleman will find that out when we issue the Green Paper. I will not be held to a timetable by him.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I am delighted that my hon. Friend is still in her post as Minister for the disabled.

The Minister knows that 66 per cent. of the blind and partially sighted want to be in work, but remain outside work. Visage, Action for Blind People’s employment programme, and access to work, the Government’s employment programme, are excellent. What is she doing to encourage employers to take on board both those programmes and to persuade them that blind and other disabled people should be looked at never for their disablement, but for their ability?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for the kind comments at the beginning of her question. She has done an enormous amount to highlight the difficulties that those with visual impairment and blindness find when trying to move into work. I am delighted that she highlights the access to work programme. The Government have quadrupled the value of that programme since we took office in 1997, and some £60 million is spent on supporting people to move into work and retain employment.

My hon. Friend highlights the important point that there is under-employment among those with a visual impairment and blindness. We need to change employers’ attitudes—this links with the answer that I gave the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams)—so that they start to appreciate that disabled people bring skills and experience to the work force. We continue to do that through our general work, and later this year we will launch the “Employ Ability” initiative, which will focus on employers looking at people for what they can do, not what they cannot do.

3. Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the prospects of employment in Northumberland for people with disabilities. [146346]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): Opportunities for disabled people both to get into and retain employment are better than ever in Northumberland and elsewhere. We have a substantial range of programmes to help disabled people to get into work and to help those in work to stay in work. As always, we are looking to improve our services so that people who want to work can work.

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Mr. Beith: Is the Minister aware that even now Northumberland remains a difficult place for jobs, especially for disabled people? My constituents who work at the Remploy factory in Ashington are worried not only about their positions, but those of the people who might come after them. In an area where employment is not so readily available, should not the Remploy factory have a continuing role in some kind of training capacity to enable disabled people to go into employment?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for asking that question, and in that context. He is right to identify the issue of a continuing role for Remploy, but I remind the House that Remploy is not just about the supported factory network; there is also an employment services element. He might be interested to know that in the north-east Remploy factories, some 463 people are in the supported factory network, but there are nearly 300 in the employment services element of the Remploy operation. Remploy management are obviously negotiating on the proposals. I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman has taken up an offer to meet the chief executive of Remploy, but if he has not done so, I hope that he will.

Incapacity Benefits

4. Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): What progress has been made in reducing the number of people on incapacity benefits. [146347]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Hain): Claimant numbers more than trebled between the late 1970s and mid-1990s. We have reversed that trend, and the position is very different now. New incapacity benefit claims have dropped by more than a third, and in the year to November 2006 the number of people on incapacity benefit was down by 38,000.

Dr. Kumar: I welcome the Secretary of State to his new post and wish him well for the future. In my constituency, a large number of diagnoses made by GPs to determine eligibility for incapacity benefits are now going to appeal. What measures are taken to ensure that such diagnoses are accurate?

Mr. Hain: Obviously, we need continuously to monitor the situation, but the personal capability assessment remains the most robust system that we have devised for assessing incapacity at work. A number of cases—I think around half—succeed on appeal if they have been initially rejected under that process of assessment because there is then more information available than there was at the time when the assessment was made. We need to ensure that the system works fairly, that all the doctors involved are fully trained in applying the terms of personal capability assessment and that their reports are regularly monitored.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman use the opportunity of his new arrival at the Department to look again at the way in which those who lose an arm and therefore do not have the use of a hand are treated compared to those who lose a leg? At the moment those who lose an arm are very much less generously treated and sometimes have great difficulty finding work.

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