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Mr. Hain: I would be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman if he could provide me with any details, especially of his constituents and others whom he knows to be affected in that way. The situation will depend on the individual assessment, but we do not want to treat anyone unfairly. If he has any information that would enable us to deal with his question, I would be glad to receive it.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position. We are doing a great deal of work to help those people who have only recently come on to incapacity benefit. What plans does my right hon. Friend have for people who have been on incapacity benefit for a great number of years, and who are not very confident about going back to work?

Mr. Hain: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s welcome. As she knows, we are rolling out the pathways to work programme nationally over the coming period. In the Rhondda valley in south Wales, near my constituency, it has been hugely successful in getting people on incapacity benefit back into work. My hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to another matter, which is that the longer people are on incapacity benefit, the more likely it is that they will never come off it. That is one of the reasons we are addressing the issue of reform in the arrangements for welfare to work, especially in respect of disabled people, so that they have the opportunity to work, and so that we can encourage them to do so.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that many people claiming incapacity benefit suffer from back pain and stress. Although those conditions are serious, does he agree that there is a small fraudulent element claiming that benefit, which needs to be investigated more? How robust will he be with people who are making fraudulent claims?

Mr. Hain: Obviously, anyone making a fraudulent claim should be identified and that should be exposed and dealt with robustly. As the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt), has just reminded me, the number of fraudulent claims is down significantly, perhaps as much as two thirds. That shows that we are being tough on fraudulent claims, but we must also make sure that people are treated fairly.

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position. I am very pleased that he is at the Department for Work and Pensions. May I invite him up to North-East Derbyshire, where part of the first pathways to work pilot in Derbyshire took place, which was also the first in England, and the most successful in the country, obviously? We have a project in Staveley where the welfare rights organisations are working closely with Jobcentre Plus to identify the skills needs and the jobs that will be available in the next 10 years, which is one of the key elements in getting people off incapacity benefit and into work. If my right hon. Friend would like to come and visit the project, we will make him a cup of tea.

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Mr. Hain: I thank my hon. Friend. As she voted for me for the deputy leadership, the answer to her invitation must be yes. I congratulate her on her wisdom and good judgment in that vote, by the way. She has identified an extremely important issue, and I will gladly look at the project when I come to her constituency.

Benefits ( Disabled People)

6. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): What measures he has introduced to simplify the assessment process of benefits for people with disabilities. [146349]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): For people with health problems and disabilities, we will be introducing the new employment and support allowance, which will be a single benefit combining earnings replacement and the income-related elements. We are also committed to simplifying the claiming process for disability living allowance and attendance allowance customers, and have already made substantial improvements.

Richard Ottaway: I am pleased to hear that. Is the Minister aware that disabled people have to answer 1,351 questions across 412 pages to get up to 10 benefits? Is she aware that less than 20 per cent. of those questions are unique, 40 per cent. of them are repeated at least three times, and 16 per cent. are repeated at least twice? She must agree that that is inefficient duplication. Will she please explain what she intends to do about it?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I want colleagues to know that I discern a split in the Conservative ranks on the matter. The shadow Minister for Disabled People, the hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mr. Hunt), said that there were 1,200 questions over 352 pages, which sits at odds with the statistics that we have just heard. We in the Government know that we must simplify benefit application forms, but we should not give the impression that every disabled person applying for a benefit has to answer all the questions that the hon. Gentleman highlighted.

We can play around with statistics, but the danger is that such a numerical approach may create a fear among disabled people that it is almost impossible to get through the benefits system. In fact, 2.8 million people in Britain claim disability living allowance. We try to make it as easy and as straightforward as possible. We work with organisations that will assist and support individuals claiming the benefit. We offer a form-filling service through the disability and carers service, and we offer a very supportive helpline. Yes, we need to look at simplification, but no, we should not—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for the way that she has supported the disabled people at Carlyon Print Service in my constituency, 23 of whom are out of work owing to the lack of foresight on the part of the local Liberal Democrat and Conservative council. Will my hon. Friend condemn that short-sighted move by the council, and ensure that when those people are making the transition from work in those sheltered surroundings back to unemployment, their benefits transition is facilitated as much as possible?
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May I invite her to the reception that I will be hosting for those individuals later this month in the House of Commons?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know that he has made a commitment to the Carlyon print factory in the face of the local council’s decision. I would, of course, be delighted to attend the reception. Jobcentre Plus and the DWP will do all they can sensitively to support his constituents’ transition from work to benefits and, we hope, back into work.

Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con): In the course of reviewing that assessment, will the Minister re-examine the anomalous treatment of those who are physically disabled and are perhaps in wheelchairs and those who are totally blind or severely visually impaired? At the moment, those who are visually impaired or blind do not qualify for the higher rate of mobility allowance. The Minister will no doubt have noted that more than half the Back Benchers in this House have signed my early-day motion on the subject, and I wonder whether she will reconsider the matter.

Mrs. McGuire: The hon. Gentleman and I spoke at the lobby of Parliament undertaken by the Royal National Institute of the Blind. We are engaging in discussions with the RNIB to consider the issues and to decide whether we can develop criteria that meet some of the RNIB’s demands in relation to people who are totally blind. I will, of course, keep the House apprised of the outcome of those discussions.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Although simplification of the assessment process for benefits, and especially for the disability living allowance, is important, the length of time that that assessment takes is equally important. The Princess Royal Trust for Carers in my constituency has told me that the process takes far too long. I appreciate that my hon. Friend may not have the figures to hand—I would therefore appreciate it if she were to write to me—but will she disclose the average time it takes to process a DLA claim? If she believes that the process takes too long, what does she intend to do to speed it up?

Mrs. McGuire: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I do in fact have the figures to hand: the average clearance time for DLA claims under the normal rules is 36.8 days, and many claims are handled much more quickly than that. The average clearance time for attendance allowance claims is 16.6 days, which is just over two weeks. Those who apply under the special rules procedure—those who have a terminal illness or condition—have their claim turned around in five days.

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): I, too, welcome the Minister back to her post. Her length of service may soon rival the length of the forms filled in by disabled people. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) has referred to the complexity of the disability benefit system. The matter involves not only the frustration felt by disabled people in having to fill out those forms, but the barriers to work that those forms create. What would the Minister say to a young man in his 20s from Northern Ireland
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who has cerebral palsy and whose father told me at the weekend that his son wants nothing more than to be able to work? Because of the complex rules covering how much work that young man can do, he knows that if he works for more than four hours a week, his benefit will be docked.

Mrs. McGuire: Of course we recognise that the benefit system must support people who want to move into work, which is one of the reasons we have moved to the new employment support allowance. We use all sorts of means to get the message across to disabled people that there are opportunities in the labour market. I do not know the specifics in Northern Ireland, because, as the hon. Gentleman knows or should know, social security in Northern Ireland is managed discretely from social security in Great Britain. The matter is not as straightforward as he likes to make it out to be, and it involves more than simply reducing the number of questions, because many benefits need to be tailored to the needs and demands of the individual. We need the information to make the right judgment at the right time to get the right benefit to the right person as soon as possible.

Lost Working Days

7. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What steps he is taking to reduce the number of work days lost through sickness. [146350]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): The Revitalising Health and Safety strategy was set in place in 2000. It adopted a target to reduce the number of working days lost from work-related injury and ill health by 30 per cent. by 2010. The strategy is working. Taking ill health and injuries together, the number of working days lost per worker has fallen from 1.8 days in 2002-03 to 1.3 days in 2005-06. Over the past decade, total working days lost have fallen from 40 million to 30 million.

Ben Chapman: While that progress is very much to be welcomed, the absolute figures remain staggeringly large. Wirral, for example, has a relatively poor record in terms of getting people who have been sick and injured back into employment. Does my hon. Friend accept that getting back to work is the final step to full rehabilitation, but that to achieve that one must have employer, individual and Government working together? What more is to be done in that regard?

Mr. Plaskitt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the fact that this involves everybody. Of course, we want to help people who have suffered injury or illness to get back to work. There is clearly a part for Government, which is why we have the strategy in place. There is a part for employers—small and medium, as well as large—with whom we work on the delivery of that strategy. In respect of helping individuals, training, advice and awareness campaigns are important. That is why we do a lot to promote the prevention of these things in the first place, and why the occupational health service regularly visits employers to help to promote best practice, such as the better backs campaign, which in itself has led to a reduction of 1.5 million in the number of working days lost as a result of back injury.

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Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): I shall not congratulate the hon. Gentleman on keeping his job, because more importantly I want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) for being a constructive and terrific Whip on the Welfare Reform Bill, and to the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy), who is not in his place, but who was an extremely thoughtful Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform.

The issue of sick notes is a big one, because it condemns too many of our fellow citizens to benefit dependency. Too often, sick notes are signed off too easily by some GPs. In January 2006, the Government’s Green Paper rightly said that the sick note culture needs to be tackled, and they proposed incentives to GPs to help people back into work through a reformed primary care trust contract and the use of employment advisers in surgeries. I wonder why those policies have not been implemented—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That could have been said at the beginning and we would not have had the speech.

Mr. Plaskitt: We got there eventually, Mr. Speaker. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous comments about my colleagues at the start of his question.

All the statistics show that the measures that we are taking are helping more people who have been the victims of sickness or injury at work to get back into work more quickly than before. In the past five years alone, the number of working days lost as a result of workplace injury has declined by 2 million, and those as a result of ill health at work by 7 million, so a total of 9 million extra days have been added to the economy. The measures that we are taking, in conjunction with the health service, are helping to reduce lost working days and to help more people back into work more quickly.

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend is right to point to the fall in numbers, but that still equates to 100,000 full-time employees having a year off. Has he studied the system in Holland, where it is incumbent on employers, through legislation, to engage in rehabilitating employees who have fallen sick or ill? Getting greater involvement of employers, especially with occupational therapies, could have a major impact on the figures.

Mr. Plaskitt: My hon. Friend is right that rehabilitation is important. It forms part of many of our discussions with employers and other organisations to help ensure that the services are available and that advice is given. He is right to identify rehabilitation as a significant factor in helping us do even better.

Employment Services

8. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): What recent representations his Department has received on the use of the private and voluntary sectors in the provision of employment services for benefit recipients. [146351]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Caroline Flint): The use of the private and voluntary sectors, alongside Jobcentre Plus, has provided our customers with access to innovative approaches to helping people back to work. Ministers and officials
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regularly meet representatives of the private and voluntary sectors. For example, the Provision Forum meets quarterly to share information, intelligence and ideas about the delivery of our successful labour market programmes.

Mr. Dunne: May I congratulate the Minister on her new appointment? As she works with her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to encourage him into one of the first U-turns of his premiership to support the Freud report conclusions, does she intend to follow the example of Holland, where private and voluntary sector agencies told the Select Committee when we visited a year ago that they succeed most in returning people with disabilities to work the earlier they intervene? In this country, people are not eligible for disability living allowance until they have been out of work for six weeks.

Caroline Flint: Well, DLA is not an out-of-work benefit for a start. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks but emphasise that, in the past 10 years, the private and voluntary sectors have been more engaged in supporting people back to work, especially in areas where people have particular challenges, such as disability and child care problems. I have been in the job for only a few days and I am examining the Freud report. He makes interesting points about the way in which we can increase the capacity of the private and voluntary sectors and consider different methods of bearing down on some areas where we can do better. Clearly, we have done well: 900,000 people are off benefits and more people than ever are in work. However, challenges remain and we are up for the task.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): The private and voluntary sectors that work at the coal face do a tremendous job in helping shape new futures for people with disabilities. Would it not be a good idea for them to liaise with our friends who work with the DLA, examine the business process of delivering it and conduct the assessment at the coal face, working with the voluntary sector and the business community?

Caroline Flint: The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), reminds me that two different benefits are operating. However, I have heard the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller). I am only a few days into the job and I shall examine several matters to ascertain how we can perform better. I am sure that he agrees that some fantastic work is already happening throughout the country to support people with or without disabilities to get back into the workplace.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I, too, welcome my hon. Friend to her new position. She knows as well as anyone that the voluntary sector has much to offer in employment services and many other aspects of the Department’s work. Although I acknowledge that it contributes much in cost efficiency, innovation and new and appropriate methods of tailoring services to individual needs, does she acknowledge that the large players in the voluntary sector should not have the game entirely to themselves? There is scope for local commissioning with smaller organisations in the voluntary sector when delivering services.

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Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Clearly there are issues about capacity and value for money. We must also recognise that many smaller organisations already provide the sort of niche services that are so essential to helping some people in the community who want to get back to work and need special support. I hope that, in the months and years ahead, we can combine the best of the large organisations, but ensure, through different means, including sub-contracting, that the niche services are fully supported. We are listening to concerns—the Department is very much in listening mode.

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