Previous Section Index Home Page

6.21 pm

Mrs. Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb). His speech took me back to the philosophy lectures that I used to attend on John Stuart Mill. Today, he has given us a lesson that I can only describe as John Stuart Mill-plus.

I welcome the Welfare Reform Bill, because it is a further step in the development of a more proactive welfare state—the hon. Member for Northavon calls it coercive; I think that it is proactive—that is more personalised and more supportive of the needs of individuals. At a time when political parties are sometimes
27 Jan 2009 : Column 215
accused of converging on some issues, this Bill is a clear indication of the fundamental difference in approach between this Government and the official Opposition.

The underlying philosophy of this Labour reform is to ensure that our welfare state is responsive to the individual’s needs and seeks to help them overcome some of those problems. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) on making a speech that was full of fine and warm words, but the Opposition still see the welfare state as a problem rather than as a vehicle by which we can support people. If there is any doubt about that, we have only to look at the comments made just before Christmas by the Leader of the Opposition, when he castigated and insulted people on benefits in Britain by asking:

That attitude still prevails within the Opposition.

The Bill proposes more support in return for personal responsibility. Although some organisations have raised concerns about elements of the package, they fundamentally agree with the principle of offering more support to those who need it. Since the publication of the Green Paper last year, however, the landscape has changed, and there is an increasing chorus of concern from those who challenge the need for reform at a time of global downturn. We must accept that in times of uncertainty there are those who argue that we should hold on to what we have and not attempt to change. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) has indicated, however, we should not accept that view, because it was prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s, when we needed the benefits system to change, but that did not happen, which resulted in the abandonment of millions of people to a life on benefit. We are still dealing with the legacy of that approach, even in the 21st century.

Over the course of the progress of this Bill through Parliament, I hope that Ministers will take the opportunity to challenge that somewhat defeatist attitude, which would have the Government make no changes during the current downturn. I hope that they will say to those who promote that approach that they are doing unemployed people and those on other benefits absolutely no favours, if they continue to think that we cannot improve on what we have in place already by introducing the changes in the Bill.

When people are losing their jobs, surely we should not cut support. Surely it is important to invest in people and not to talk about real cuts in the DWP budget, which the Tories would make. Their idea of reform of the welfare state is now, as it has always been, about salami-slicing benefits and reducing investment in training and other support. I welcome the additional investment to ensure that people return to work as quickly as possible, particularly if they have been out of work for more than six months.

I want to raise three specific points in the short time available to me. In principle, the inclusion in the Bill of joint registration of birth is a laudable aim and one that recognises, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has highlighted, the responsibility of two parents. I know that many fathers’ groups, which sometimes feel that fathers are marginalised, welcome it, but I want the
27 Jan 2009 : Column 216
Minister who is winding up the debate to consider the “what if” questions. What if the mother does not want to or cannot declare who the father is, and is not in one of the excluded categories? What if she identifies a man who says that he is not the father and he refuses to take a paternity test? Who will be responsible for chasing that? Will it be the registrar or the DWP? What will happen on day 42 if there is no resolution and the deadline for registration has been reached? Will child benefit still be paid, and will the child trust fund still be activated? Will the child still be registered, even if the mother is the only parent who appears on the birth certificate? The principle is sound, but I am not yet convinced that the implementation will be as straightforward as it might appear to be.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Perhaps it will help hon. Members if they look at what happened in Northern Ireland on that very issue. In 2000-01, I took legislation on the parental responsibility of unmarried fathers through the Assembly, which included the presumption of joint registration for all the reasons that have been raised. In the end, if the mother did not want joint registration, there was no joint registration. It was necessary to provide advice to allow people to know the implications of what they were doing rather than finding out afterwards.

Mrs. McGuire: I look forward to reviewing the legislation that my hon. Friend piloted through the Assembly, which relates to the reassurance that I need from my Front Benchers today.

On the proposals on drugs users, I understand that the SNP Government are refusing to co-operate with the approach highlighted in the Bill. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Administration in Scotland cannot see the importance of offering tailored support to drug users on benefits to help them get off drugs and into work.

John Mason: It is especially good to hear another Clyde supporter speaking on the matter. Will the right hon. Lady accept that the Scottish Government are keen to work with the UK Government and the DWP on that issue? The people choosing the fight are in the DWP.

Mrs. McGuire: I should explain what a Clyde supporter is, in case anybody thinks that it has something to do with the river. Clyde is a football club in the town where I live. I make that clear for the record in case hon. Members think that the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) and I are somehow associated in some secret society. I say to the hon. Gentleman that the comments and criticisms that I have made this afternoon about the SNP Government have not come only from me; they are highlighted in today’s Scotsman by Professor Neil McKeganey, the director of the Centre for Drug Misuse. He discusses the claims that the SNP is not participating in this piece of work. In his column, the professor writes:

He goes on: “I think that”— [Interruption.] Will the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) let me finish? The professor goes on:

Those are not my words, but those of the director of the Centre for Drug Misuse in Scotland. I hope that SNP Members here today will press their colleagues in Scotland to participate in what is recognised as an important way to support drug addicts who want to get off drugs, but might have never had a vehicle for doing so. I also hope that our Department for Work and Pensions will not give up on the SNP Administration, although that might be tempting. I hope that the Department will continue to encourage the SNP to look again at these proposals.

Finally, I congratulate the Secretary of State on recognising the importance of access to work, on the extra funding that he has put into the budget and on embracing the right-to-control agenda. The plans in the Bill move us a significant way forward in transforming the lives of disabled people, ensuring that they can make decisions about their own lives. I wish that the hon. Member for Northavon could conceive of a situation in which 20 people could make individual decisions to come together to buy in the services and all the attractions that he identified in his local residential home.

The right to control will be a long-lasting legacy to those disabled people, such as Baroness Jane Campbell and Rachel Hurst, among others, who fought for so long for real equality in our society, and it will be another step forward towards ensuring that this country will improve disabled people’s lives and reach true equality, as highlighted in the then Prime Minister’s 2005 strategy unit report. Yes, there are some detailed issues, and I am sure that we will work them out during the progress of the Bill. However, I hope that the House will unanimously support the Bill, because it is another significant step in transforming our welfare state.

6.33 pm

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak so early in this debate. I am a little surprised, but this is a very welcome early opportunity.

First, I congratulate the Government on their direction of travel. This is a fairly brave Bill, and I congratulate them on introducing it. There are, of course, areas of reservation, which will be explored in Committee and on Report. However, I believe that we live in a humane and civilised society, and such a society tries to lock people into the world of work, not exclude them from it. If the Bill’s direction of travel is to bring people into work and help them gain sustainable employment, I definitely welcome it.

It is important to remember that work socialises people. We spend a lot of time in this place talking about income—allowing people to earn money and move off benefits. That, of course, is hugely important because it gives people their self-respect and often allows them to move out of poverty. But we must not overlook or forget the other hugely important aspects of work. Nothing is more depressing than sitting at home and looking at four walls day after day, completely removed from the world outside. The great thing about work is that it involves going out and meeting people. People work in teams and create and generate new friends and relationships; whole new vistas open up. That is hugely
27 Jan 2009 : Column 218
important. We must look at work as a way not only of helping people get an income and move off benefits, but of improving their quality of life, long-term prospects and long-term mental health and well-being.

The Bill has perhaps come at the wrong stage of the economic cycle. It would have been better if it had come a few years earlier; as we have seen today, we face a huge wave of redundancies across the economy. That, of course, is not welcome but it is a reality of the recession that we are in. I am concerned that at a time when we want to help people to re-enter and re-engage with the labour market, there will not be the jobs for them to take. However, as Labour Members have said, that is no excuse for inaction. In the months and years ahead, we must work with people to prepare them to re-enter the labour market. Furthermore, there is fluidity in the labour market even in a recession. Opportunities will open up for the long-term unemployed to move back into work, and we should look for those opportunities wherever we can find them.

There is also a huge job to be done with employers. We need employers to start valuing people with disabilities. Sympathy will go only so far; it does not put food on people’s tables and does not bring them back into the work force. People with disabilities do not need to be patronised by us—they need to be promoted and helped by us. They need a hand up. They need us to work with them to put them back into meaningful jobs that help them to fulfil their desires and abilities. That is the sea change that we in this place need to promote in the labour market. We have to stop simply being sympathetic and tut-tutting. We have to move the issue forward, find opportunities and get back into work people who have so much to contribute to the world of work, our society and our communities.

I want to sound one note of criticism of the Government, but I really do not mean this in a partisan way. One of the great sadnesses of the past 10 years has been the so-called skill shortages. Actually, what we have often had is a shortage of personnel to fill jobs. We have been lucky that many motivated immigrants have wanted to come to this country and fill those positions. By and large, they have made a huge contribution to our society and its wealth, and we have been very lucky to have them. I cast no aspersion on those who want to come to this country to better themselves and their families. However, such people have come here at a time when many people born and raised in this country have been sitting outside the labour market and have been removed far from it. Perhaps we should have spent more time working with the excluded to get them back into work.

A life on benefits cannot be the life that most people want to lead. That point has been made by Labour Members, and I am sure that it will be made eloquently by Opposition Members. When Beveridge invented the welfare state, of which we can all be proud, I am sure that he did not believe that it would be a long-term solution and that people would have the option of spending their lives on benefit. I am sure that if he were here today, he would see that as some sort of prison—as trapping people in a benefits system that did not provide them with a way out to making a full contribution to the society around them. There are oft-used clichés—
27 Jan 2009 : Column 219
benefits are here to provide “a leg up”, “a safety net” or a “ladder out of poverty”. We need to focus on that in this place.

I am well aware that there is a group of people who, for whatever reason, will never, ever escape from the benefits system. Perhaps they are too ill to find work, or their family is too large, or their care responsibilities are too great. We must never despise those people, because, as Labour Members have pointed out, a whole range of circumstances stops people entering the labour market. We are a civilised society, and we care for people, but part of that care must be taking people who want to escape from benefits out of benefits and placing them back into the jobs market.

Many Members want to speak, so I will cut my remarks short. The Government should be congratulated on their direction of travel. Many complexities in the benefits system need to be removed or resolved. Members in all parts of the House have an obligation to sit down with the Government in Committee and make this Bill the best Bill that it can possibly be. Many people out there are relying on us to give them the help that they so desperately crave.

6.40 pm

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): Before I begin the remarks that I intended to make, I must respond to the accusation by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who was critical of the Government’s pace in moving people from incapacity benefit into work. Everyone in the House, including Labour Members, would have liked to see more people getting off incapacity benefit and into work. I would passionately have wanted more disabled people to get into work, because that is what they want. They have been written off for too long, and perhaps not enough of them have got into work as a result of the activities of this Government.

However, it is worth remembering that while the pace of change may not have been great enough, and perhaps not enough people have made the transition from benefits into work, sizeable numbers have done so, whereas under the last Tory Government there were precisely none. No one moved from incapacity benefit into work as a result of anything that that Government did. Instead, those who had been long-term unemployed were moved off the unemployment register on to incapacity benefit, and left there with no engagement from the state—the Department of Social Security, as it was then called—or anyone else. They were left to fester until they died or retired. While we may have wanted the Government to go much further, much faster, we cannot take any lessons from the Conservative party, because we have done a great deal.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Does the hon. Lady accept that the Government’s own target was to reduce the numbers by 1 million, but in an answer to a parliamentary question they said that they expect to miss that target by 700,000?

Miss Begg: The hon. Gentleman is saying that we would have liked the pace to be faster. I would certainly have wanted more disabled people to move into work,
27 Jan 2009 : Column 220
but at least we have made some progress; in fact, we have turned the corner in terms of the number who are on incapacity benefit. Instead of a trajectory that was ever upwards, it has flattened and is now coming down. I agree that we have not done enough with the stock; perhaps we should have been more radical. It is worth remembering, however, that there were often voices from the Opposition saying that we were being too hard, too nasty and too coercive in what we were doing, and perhaps we should have given a bit more support. We are beginning to hear the echoes saying, “Now we’ve got the economic downturn we should write disabled people off because they will be too difficult to get into work.” That is what has got us into this situation. Because we had written people off, it was incredibly difficult to get them re-engaged with the labour market and back into work, which has made the Government’s job much more difficult.

That is not what I was intending to say, but I wanted to put it on record that although we may be disappointed in some ways, what the Government have done has been second to none; no other Government have done it. I do not want to repeat everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) has said, because she says it an awful lot better than I, in welcoming the broad thrust of the Bill and giving the reasons why Labour Members, and I suspect Members elsewhere in the House, are generally supportive of its provisions and the opportunities that it will provide. I should like to concentrate on two things that are not in the Bill but perhaps should be. They are both the subject of early-day motions in my name, the first of which has already been alluded to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett).

Early-day motion 340 proposes that the Government should consider giving the higher rate mobility element of disability living allowance to people who are sight-impaired. Hon. Members may want to join that campaign. It would be appropriate to provide for that in the Bill, because it is very much about getting disabled people into work, and those who are sight-impaired or blind have a higher rate of unemployment than any other group of disabled people. If we are to allow blind people to have the confidence to go out into different environments, it is important that they receive that help through DLA. The Government argue that they can always get help with travelling to work through Access to Work, but that will apply only to the time when they are going to and from work, whereas part of making employment work for people is opening up all sorts of other opportunities in terms of their social life. I hope that the Government will look at this favourably and consider bringing forward provisions to allow sight-impaired people to qualify for the upper rate of DLA, although criteria must be laid down to ensure that they are the most severely disabled.

Next Section Index Home Page