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House of Lords

Tuesday, 22 November 2005.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: the LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Incapacity Benefit

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they intend to publish their new proposals on incapacity benefit.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, we will publish a Green Paper in the new year setting out our proposals.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that reports that the Prime Minister is in favour of some cuts in incapacity benefit have caused deep concern among disabled people? The Government should be in no doubt whatever that cuts of any kind will be fiercely resisted in the Houses of Parliament, by disabled people and by the Disability Rights Commission. Is my noble friend further aware that I favour a reform of incapacity benefit? However, it should not be done by cuts, time limits, means tests or vouchers instead of money. Such a move would be absolute nonsense, and all the other suggestions now being put forward by various people via leaks to the papers are very damaging to the whole concept of reform. The best way to reform the benefit is to build on Pathways to Work. That is a splendid project, but it covers only one-third of the country. We now want a national roll-out as soon as possible. Once we have that, we will have constructive reform, which will help disabled people and employers.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I think I get the message from my noble friend. We should be wary of speculation and wait for the Green Paper. I agree with my noble friend that many in the disability lobby applaud the work that has been done in the Pathways to Work pilots, where the emphasis has been on encouraging people on IB to go back to work, and of course that is what our Green Paper will be all about.

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, the Minister is asking for patience in this important policy area. Does he recall that the right honourable Frank Field published a Green Paper called A new contract for welfare: Partnership in Pensions on this important subject in March 1998? That has been a long time to wait. Is he also aware that in February this year the
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department published a five-year plan, which contained some important assurances that there would be no cuts in benefit rates, no time limits and no crackdown on benefit claimants? Is he aware that the continuing delay is encouraging people to believe that the Government are now thinking of resiling from some of those important assurances?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it is important that we get the matter right. The Green Paper proposals will come forward as soon as possible. Clear indications have come from the Pathways to Work pilots of the ingredients needed for success. Those revolve very much around providing a one-stop service, financial, health and employment advice, and by encouraging people to return to work. So far, 19,500 people have gone back to work through the Pathways to Work pilots, and we will build our Green Paper reforms around that.

Baroness Wilkins: My Lords, as the Pathways to Work scheme depends on the quality and capacity of the people who are advising disabled people to go back to work, will the Minister say whether training is in hand to ensure that any roll-out of the project is truly a success?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I very much agree with that. I owe a great debt to the staff who have been involved in the Pathways to Work pilots so far. I refer not only to people in Jobcentre Plus but also to staff in the health service, and I am grateful for the advice that we receive from employers. It has been a tremendous team effort. As I told the House two or three weeks ago, it is a joy to meet people who have got back into work through this process. We know that the outcomes for people on IB are not very good. Indeed, once a person is on IB for more than two years, he or she is more likely to die or retire rather than get back into work. Seeing people who have gone through this new system and what it has meant to them is very heartening indeed.

Lord Brookman: My Lords, does the Minister agree that we must be careful about how we deliberate on incapacity benefit? In my part of the world, south Wales, there are people who have worked in heavy industry, and have taken the strain of that, who are genuinely in need of help from any government. Let us not laugh and think that there are too many people on benefit and we must get them off, when a lot, if not most, of them deserve our Government's support.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, of course. Our welfare policies are designed to give help to those who need it. I certainly agree with my noble friend that there are many who have been assisted through the
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help they have received on IB. However, we should surely not give up on anyone. We know from the work done that between 80 and 90 per cent of people coming on to IB in the first place want to get back to work. It is surely our responsibility to do everything we can to help those people do that.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, who claims the authorship for this latest Green Paper? We must bear in mind that Frank Field was sacked for producing his.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, as on everything, the Government speak with one voice.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that nearly 40 per cent of those now on IB are there because of mental health problems, such as depression and stress? Should we not therefore agree that the right way to approach this is to tackle issues around occupational health, so that those problems are managed properly in the workplace?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, that is, unsurprisingly, a telling point from my noble friend. The latest statistics show that 39 per cent of claimants for IB are because of mental/behavioural disorders, and 19 per cent are musculo-skeletal. I agree with my noble friend that a strategy that looks at health in the workplace, and encourages employers to do everything they can in work design and support for staff that are affected, can have a positive benefit. I invite the House to read the recent strategy on workplace health produced by my department, which I hope will encourage employers in that direction.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Ashley of Stoke referred to the Disability Rights Commission, which of course he did so much to create. How closely is the department consulting the DRC? Can the Minister assure us that it will be in close consultation with this important body for disabled people as things move forward?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to pay tribute to my noble friends Lord Morris and Lord Ashley for their work in supporting the DRC. We frequently talk to the DRC. It has made constructive proposals for welfare reform in general. I assure my noble friend Lord Morris that we will want to talk very closely with the commission once the Green Paper is produced.

Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, when the Green Paper is produced, will it address the worry that Macmillan Cancer Relief has over the alarming evidence that terminally ill patients are being required to attend work-focused interviews?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, of course we shall take account of that. If the noble Baroness has details of specific instances of this happening, I shall be pleased to investigate.
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2.44 pm

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many commonholds have been registered under the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002; and, of these, how many include social housing.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, the commonhold legislation came into force on 27 September 2004. As of 18 November, six commonholds were registered at the Land Registry: five in England and one in Wales. The rate of take-up is extremely disappointing. We are investigating the reasons for the slow start and looking into ways that take-up might be boosted. As part of this exercise, we are considering whether it is necessary to hold a formal review. We will announce the result of our investigations early in the new year.

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