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Incapacity Benefit

Volume 447: debated on Monday 12 June 2006

1. If he will make a statement on his Department's plans to reduce the number of people claiming incapacity benefit. (76092)

The welfare reform Green Paper that we published in January set out our proposals to reduce the numbers claiming incapacity benefit by 1 million over the next decade. The proposals include extra investment in the successful pathways to work schemes, as well as replacing incapacity benefit with a new employment and support allowance in 2008.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Has he seen the recent KPMG labour market research, which shows that a large minority of employers will not appoint incapacity claimants with a history of mental illness? What is his Department doing to help educate employers about the employability of previous sufferers from mental illness and has he considered offering grants to help employers with assessment, training and skills development for potential recruits?

I have seen the report to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It is an important issue; about 40 per cent. of people claiming incapacity benefit cite mental health as the reason for being unable to work. Pathways to work, as it is at present, will successfully address that issue. Conditioned management support is one way through the issue, but we stand ready to work with the private and voluntary sectors, and other parts of the public sector, to make sure that the reforms are a success for people with mental illness.

My right hon. Friend has allocated £360 million so far for the national roll-out of pathways to work, which I warmly welcome. However, concerns have been expressed, not least by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, as to the adequacy of those resources if we are to meet the Government’s laudable objective of taking 1 million people off incapacity benefit over 10 years. Given that enabling someone to work reduces benefit payments and increases tax revenue and national insurance contributions, is my right hon. Friend working closely with the Treasury to ensure that the savings from more people achieving employment will result in more investment in pathways to work?

Yes, I work very closely with the Treasury on all such matters. May I express my appreciation for my hon. Friend’s work in supporting many of the reforms? I draw his attention to the part of the Green Paper that set out our plans in relation to the new city strategy, which is one area where we will be able to make progress in the direction to which he referred.

Can the Secretary of State tell the House on what basis the £360 million for pathways to work was calculated and whether all that sum will actually be spent on the national roll-out of pathways to work, given a recent written answer that I received from one of the right hon. Gentleman’s ministerial colleagues, which suggested that only a proportion might be spent on the roll-out of pathways to work?

The lion’s share of that £360 million will be spent on the roll-out of pathways. We are funding the national roll-out of pathways properly and fully and over the next few years we shall be looking to deliver more of the scheme through the private and voluntary sectors, which will, I hope, provide scope for more efficiency and more effective use of public money. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that pathways will be properly and fully funded; to do anything less would undermine potential for the success of the reforms, and we do not intend to do that.

Surely, it is not just about getting people off incapacity benefit and into work, but also about trying to make sure that fewer people end up on incapacity benefit. Has my right hon. Friend looked at the number of occupational health professionals working in the private sector and, if so, has he noticed that the level is one of the worst of any European country? Do not we need to move forward on that agenda, too?

Yes, we certainly do, and the Green Paper set out a number of areas where we hope to make such progress. I want to work closely with my colleagues in the Department of Health, where, together, we can make the biggest impact. It is also worth bearing in mind the fact that a third fewer people claim incapacity benefit than a decade or so ago; we are just beginning to see year-on-year reductions in the total number of people claiming it. I have no doubt that the reforms are working. My hon. Friend referred to prevention and I am quite sure there is more that we can do in that regard. We set out our intention to do more in that area in the Green Paper.

Over the weekend we saw another report of Department for Work and Pensions Ministers running scared of their Back Benchers—this time, over US-style workfare policies. In evidence to the Select Committee, the Secretary of State said:

“We are not proposing at the moment to sanction failing to take work-related activities…It might become so in the future.”

Can the Secretary of State come clean and tell us if in principle he supports such a workfare-style approach? If he does, when will he tell the parliamentary Labour party?

I am afraid that it is the hon. Gentleman who needs to grow up. We set out our proposals in the welfare reform Green Paper. I shall let the hon. Gentleman read a copy of it to refresh his memory.