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Incapacity Benefit

Volume 447: debated on Monday 12 June 2006

6. What percentage of incapacity benefit recipients have had a full medical examination in each of the past five years. (76098)

We carry out periodic reviews to monitor ongoing eligibility for benefit. The frequency of those reviews depends on claimants’ circumstances and conditions. Approximately 65 per cent. of new claims involve medical examination.

Citizens Advice has warned that plans to reform incapacity benefit in the welfare reform Green Paper will fail unless changes are made to the way in which people are assessed. Will the Minister concede that significant improvements are needed to the medical assessment gateway?

I am tempted simply to say yes, but that would do the hon. Gentleman’s question a disservice. Citizens Advice has carried out its work thoroughly, and it welcomes the approach in the Green Paper. We need to review the personal capability assessment, because we need to assess every individual’s ability not to rely on benefit for life, but to get closer to the labour market and participate in active employment.

As the Minister knows, the tests of people on incapacity benefit sometimes consist of no more than a chat across a table, after which claimants are sometimes refused incapacity benefit. Will he allay my fears and assure me that doctors will do the job properly and that proper guidelines will be introduced to ensure that people are not called to tests for the sake of it?

My hon. Friend is right. If he has particular examples of the practices that he has described, I would obviously be willing to meet him and discuss them. Doctors have conducted more than 493,000 examinations of incapacity benefit claimants, and the number of complaints about their conduct is very small—in extreme cases, such complaints have led to doctors being struck off. We must get the matter absolutely correct, and we intend to do so as we move towards the introduction of the employment and support allowance, which is identified in the Green Paper.

In many cases, NHS examiners directly contradict claimants’ GPs and consultants. Since half of appeals are upheld, surely more radical action is required to raise the professional standards of the people who carry out those examinations for the NHS.

The medical profession is involved in different ways in such cases—the individual’s GP carries out the diagnosis and the medical examiner assesses the impact of that condition on that person’s ability to work. As Citizens Advice has pointed out, we must get such cases right first time. About 8 per cent. of cases end up going through the appeal process. That percentage is too high, and we intend to act further to reduce it as we move forward with proposals in the Green Paper.

On Friday, I discussed that issue with a GP in my constituency, who made it clear that he does not want a role in assessing whether someone is fit for work, because he thinks that that might ruin his relationship with his patients, but he would welcome others working alongside his practice to encourage people into work. Will my hon. Friend consider redesigning the personal capability test to make it wider than a medical examination and to take into account social factors, which is what disabled groups are calling for?

My hon. Friend has correctly identified some of the past weaknesses in the assessment process. We are involving stakeholders and professionals in order to ensure that we get the review of the personal capability assessment absolutely right. Again, if my hon. Friend knows about case studies from her constituency or wants to feed in the experience of local GPs, I am happy to listen. She has made the important point that GPs are involved in diagnosis with patients while medical examiners currently assess the impact of a condition on a person’s ability to work, and we remain committed to that important distinction. We must work more closely with GPs, and we will.