Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
No interim targets have been set but, as with our successful pathways to work pilots, we will continue to monitor and publish our progress on a regular basis.
As a result of demographic changes, and without any policy change or special initiatives, the forecast incapacity benefit case load will fall from 2.7 million today to about 2.36 million in 2015-16. Does not that rather handy head start of 340,000 make the Minister’s promise to cut the incapacity benefit count by 1 million both unambitious and a little misleading?
That is an entirely unfounded claim. Recent changes have resulted from the introduction of the new deal, the policy to make work pay through the national minimum wage and new, more flexible working arrangements in the workplace. All those policies have two things in common—first, they have successfully enabled more people to enter the labour market and, secondly, they were all opposed by the Conservatives. It is therefore an ambitious target and we are determined to achieve it so that people should no longer be written off and consigned to a life on incapacity benefit, which was all too common under the previous Government.
My hon. Friend will know that there is a very low employment rate among people with mental illness. Undoubtedly, there is a problem with employer attitudes to that client group, so what are his Department and other Departments doing to try to take that agenda forward?
My hon. Friend, as Chairman of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, has worked tirelessly on that agenda and rightly identified the fact that the biggest single factor that leads people to claim incapacity benefit is mental illness. The new personal capability assessment and the new employment support allowance will focus on that emerging trend and seek to address it. The roll-out of pathways has provided encouraging evidence about how we can support people with mental illnesses and give them the chance to return to work. I look forward to discussing those matters in more detail when I visit my hon. Friend’s constituency next Monday.
The Minister said last week that, for every £800 spent on pathways, the taxpayer is saved some £8,000 as a result of people returning to employment. If that is the case, why have Ministers briefed that they do not have enough money to roll pathways out for all claimants and may even have to ration them? Is it not bizarre that the Government can find billions of pounds of additional finance for benefits and tax credits, which can keep people in dependency, but they cannot find the money to get people back to work in this way?
I do not know whether that is another of the endless spending commitments from the hon. Gentleman, whom I had previously thought was on the moderate wing, if there is such a thing, of his party’s spending commitments. The roll-out of pathways has been shown to be the single most successful initiative ever in supporting people while they leave incapacity benefit and take up the chance to work. However, we have to go much further, which is why, last week, we announced the national roll-out of pathways throughout the country by 2008, so that everyone on incapacity benefit and the new employment and support allowance will have the chance to participate in that very successful initiative.
Does the Minister accept that the fact that a number of Labour Members wish to question him is a sign of our support for the Government’s strategy of trying to give opportunities to work to people who are on benefit? Does he realise that, over the period in which the Government aim to reduce the numbers on incapacity benefit, over 1 million claimants will either retire or die? Can he set out the net effect of the new Government policies?
I have set out a 1 million net reduction in the numbers on incapacity benefit, and I take the comments by my right hon. Friend and others as offering support in principle for our ambitious agenda. Through other initiatives, we have already ensured that there is a reduction of one third in the number of new claimants receiving incapacity benefit since 1997, but we must go further. We look forward to a conversation with him and my hon. Friends to discuss what more we can do so that people are no longer written off, as they were throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that psychiatrists in my constituency have serious doubts about the capability test? [Interruption.] It is a serious point, as they have serious doubts about the capability test in respect of mental illness. Will he look at that test again to ensure that it is properly standardised and has a basis of scientific rigour?
Unusually, the hon. Gentleman makes an entirely reasonable point. We are looking at how we can review the personal capability assessment, which is so crucial to ensure that every individual is treated as just that: an individual, so that an assessment can be made of their learning disability, mental illness or other injury. If the hon. Gentleman has specific ideas about how we get that right, I am happy to listen, but we are spending a huge amount of time and effort working with disability organisations such as Mind and Mencap to make sure we get personal capability assessment exactly fit for purpose.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the huge increase in the number of people receiving incapacity benefit was purely a result of the policies of the Conservative Government and their attempts to hide the unemployment figures and that, to get people on incapacity benefit back into work, we need to provide more encouragement and capacity building for them so that they have the necessary self-esteem to get back into employment?
My hon. Friend is right. The pathway back to work will be taken in a series of small steps. Importantly, that involves rebuilding self-confidence and self-esteem, refreshing skills or learning new skills, and then receiving support in the completion of CVs and preparation for interviews, which many may not have undertaken since they left school. The package of measures through pathways will be important in helping to transform the life chances and job opportunities of many who have been neglected in the past.
Conservative Members are keen to see the benefits of the pathways roll-out being achieved not only by diverting new claimants into work as soon as possible, but by engaging existing IB claimants. In his statement to the House on 24 January, the Secretary of State said:
“Over the next few years, we will ask existing claimants to attend a work-focused interview and agree an action plan to take steps to return to work.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 1307.]
Will the Minister confirm that that is the Government’s policy and that a requirement for existing claimants to attend an interview and agree a plan will be introduced as soon as sufficient resources are available?
The hon. Gentleman invites me to agree with my Secretary of State, and I am happy to do so. We are piloting ways of ensuring that the pathways scheme supports current incapacity benefit claimants. As we set out in the Green Paper and subsequent statements, we will look to migrate the existing case load of about 2.6 million across to be supported by the employment and support allowance. Of course, in the interim, individuals currently on incapacity benefit can volunteer, if they so wish.
I received a letter from my hon. Friend’s Department last week, informing me that pathways to work would start in my constituency next year. Based on the pilots that we have had so far, what impact can I expect that to have on the number of people on incapacity benefit in my constituency?
Based on the roll-out of pathways across about 40 per cent. of claimants, we anticipate continuing reductions in the number of those on inactive benefits, particularly those with more complicated multi-dimensional needs in terms of the support that they require to get a chance to work. The evidence is that about 25,000 people have entered the job market as a consequence of pathways thus far. We can learn from the best experience of those pilots and roll that out across the country as a much more substantial contribution towards our target of reducing the number of those on inactive benefits by 1 million.
With reference to the Minister’s response to me earlier, the reason I asked him to confirm the Secretary of State’s statement to House is that the Green Paper says something slightly different. The Green Paper states:
“As resources allow, we will, over time, consider extending work-focused interviews”.
That is a nuance on what the Secretary of State said. If the only constraint on extending the work-focused interview to existing claimants is resources, why does not the Minister negotiate with the voluntary and private sector providers who are to roll out 60 per cent. of the pathways programme to see whether they will include the interview stage in their package and accept a full transfer of risk—effectively, a no success, no fee basis—so that the resource constraint evaporates and the benefits of the pathways to work programme can be rolled out to existing benefit claimants as well as new claimants with the scheduled roll-out of the overall programme?
That would not be the most effective way in which we could roll out pathways support across the country. The evidence is that, if someone is on incapacity benefit for two years, they are more likely to die or retire than ever to find a job. As a priority, we will focus on those who are newest to incapacity benefit or employment support allowance, but we will not neglect those who were placed on incapacity benefit as a matter of public policy by the Opposition when they were in government. We know that it is an ambitious target to change incapacity benefit numbers by 1 million, but it was achieved in the 1980s and 1990s by the Opposition. We intend to achieve the same level of change in incapacity benefit numbers, only in the opposite direction.
Civil Servants (Gershon Review)
Since 2004, staffing levels in my Department have fallen by 19,385 full-time equivalents. As a result, we are now two thirds of the way to meeting the target reduction of 30,000 set out in the Gershon review.
We certainly do not want that to be the result. We are recruiting additional staff to the CSA to deal with some of its problems, but overall it is right and proper that we pursue these efficiency measures in my Department. If we can carry them out successfully, it will save £1 billion a year for the taxpayer by March 2008, and that is the sensible way forward.
In welcoming the fact that the Secretary of State is on target to reach the necessary reductions, and echoing the point made by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), is my right hon. Friend satisfied that there will be no reduction in services to our constituents? Many people still come to my constituency surgeries, and those of other hon. Members, who are concerned about the delay in processing their claims. Will he give us that assurance? By all means rationalise and simplify the service, but keep the front-line services as efficient and effective as possible.
That is absolutely the main focus of our objective in making these changes. I acknowledge that there have been times when we have not provided the level of service that we would have liked, but we are working hard with the front line to improve service delivery. Part of the reorganisation in the Department will see an extra 10,000 staff moved into front-line responsibilities, dealing directly with my hon. Friend’s constituents and those of other hon. Members.
This will be a saving.
In other Government departments—the Rural Payments Agency springs to mind—departmental heads, in pursuit of Gershon targets to reduce the head count, have got rid of some of the most experienced, talented and productive people and replaced them with low-cost, inexperienced staff from agencies, with all the consequent problems that we have seen in that and other departments. Will the Minister reassure the House that we shall not go through that bogus process in achieving any head count reductions in his Department?
We will not go through any bogus process. I believe strongly that it is possible to make such efficiency improvements without reducing the quality of the service that we provide to the public. Despite the fact that there have been problems in one or two parts of the country, overall customer satisfaction levels remain incredibly high for the service delivered across the Department, and we need to remember that and ensure that it is our No. 1 priority.
Of course we welcome sensible use of technology to sustain and even improve services to vulnerable people. However, it is clear that many of them will have experienced—the Secretary of State has tacitly acknowledged this—serious declines in service delivery, including the initial meltdown of the service to jobseeker’s allowance claimants last autumn, continuing dysfunction in the CSA and continuing poor morale and industrial relations problems in the Department itself. In the light of all that, does the Secretary of State acknowledge that Gershon emphasises the maintenance of service quality as much as head count reduction, and does he share Gershon’s view that they are of equal importance?
Yes, I do, as would all hon. Members. The problems that arose last autumn have been addressed, and we have moved on since then. In making all these changes, it is of course essential that we keep as our No. 1 priority the service to the public and the customers whom we are here to serve. That will always be the Department’s priority.
The latest claimant count in Shropshire is 2,604, as opposed to 2,010 a year earlier. Employment in the county continues to expand, as it does right across the country, where it is up by 270,000 over the same period. Our employment rate is one of the highest on record and the highest in the G7.
I can understand why the Minister does not want to talk about unemployment rates in Shropshire and would rather talk about the county’s employment rates. Is he aware that the Office for National Statistics says that between May 2005 and May 2006 unemployment rose by an astonishing 30 per cent.? I am not blaming the Minister, but will he and his colleagues liaise with the Secretary of State for Defence about the defence training review and safeguarding 2,500 much-needed defence sector jobs in Shropshire?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there have been some unfortunate increases in unemployment and redundancies in his constituency recently; of course, we all regret that. His constituents will need to know from us that the Government are pursuing the right economic policies to help those people back into work as quickly as possible and that my Department is pursuing the right policies in terms of giving them individual assistance back into work. He may be aware that there are 1,400 vacancies in Shropshire and that eight employers in his area have recently made 440 job announcements. His constituents will want to be sure that we are not going to return to the claimant levels that they experienced before—2,600 now, as opposed to 4,300 in 1997 and 12,500 in 1986.
The pensions White Paper set out a series of measures that will increase the number of women qualifying for a full basic state pension, including reducing the number of qualifying years, introducing a new carers credit for those caring for at least 20 hours a week and moving to a more generous system of weekly credits. As a result, we estimate that around 70 per cent. of women reaching pension age in 2010 will be entitled to a full basic state pension instead of about 30 per cent., as now.
I welcome the emphasis that the excellent White Paper places on pensions provision for women. That was urgent and overdue. Will the Secretary of State consider the importance of the so-called grey pound on the local micro-economies of areas with increasing ageing populations such as Cumbria, which he knows well? Would it be feasible to help the economies in those areas by prioritising Government policy towards women pensioners?
We should prioritise the needs of women pensioners everywhere, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I am glad that he signalled his support for the pensions White Paper, which, in relation to women, is probably the most radical shake-up of the pension system since 1948. I hope and believe that the reforms that we have announced, which will have a big impact on improving equity for women in the state pension system, will have the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House.
In genuinely welcoming the measures in the White Paper for women and carers from 2010 onwards, may I ask the Secretary of State about today’s women pensioners—the 3.8 million who are already retired and the 1 million who will retire by 2010? What is he doing for them? How will he help them in increasing their ability to achieve full pensions?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the changes that I have described will operate from 2010. Between now and 2010, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I will be considering the position of existing women pensioners. One of our announcements in the pensions White Paper confirms that pension credit will increase in line with earnings from 2008. That will deal with the situation of many of the people to whom the hon. Gentleman refers. It will not affect entitlement to a full basic state pension, but it will ensure that we prioritise the needs of women who do not have a full pension and do what we can to ensure that they do not retire in poverty.
We are consulting on some issues, but I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes the announcement in the White Paper that we will convert the home responsibility protections into a new system of weekly credit, which will make a significant contribution to extending entitlement to the full basic state pension to many more women.
The injustice that many women have experienced with the basic state pension needs a proper solution and we have proposed one. Lord Turner proposed a series of changes, which would also have taken effect from 2010, because he and the Government were considering long-term reform of the pension system. I strongly believe that reforms to the contributory principle will have a much more immediate impact than the introduction of a residency test, which, by its nature, would only build up a series of future accruals. It would not affect the position of women retiring in 2010, especially that key cohort of women aged 45 and over, who basically have no time left to acquire a full basic state pension.
Pension credit will largely cover women who retire now without a basic state pension and, from 2010, we will move to a system whereby more women retire with a full basic state pension in their own right. I believe that that strikes the right balance between equity and affordability.
We plan detailed discussions with employers. We are holding a summit on the design of personal accounts on 17 July, followed by a programme of seminars with employers on the implementation of the proposals in the White Paper.
Employers have a critical role to play in persuading their employees to take up the national pension saving scheme. Is my hon. Friend in a position to inform hon. Members that, in his discussions with employers, he can tell them that there is a consensus in the House on compulsory employer contributions?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important that we build a consensus on those proposals. When people put their money in pension schemes, they lock it away for 20, 30 or 40 years and that will be easier if the policy remains stable. I am happy to say that all the main parties support compulsory pension contributions from employers.
Has the Minister seen the Aon Consulting survey, which shows that only a third of final salary schemes remain open to new members and that more than 70 per cent. expect to close in three years? Has he, like me, received representations from employers’ organisations on behalf of responsible employers who want to keep their final salary schemes going by amending their conditions yet feel undermined by the Government’s sweetheart deal with the public sector unions?
I do not believe that there is a link between those issues. We rightly want to work with people on a review of the regulatory costs of occupational pension schemes. If we can find methods of reducing those costs that balance employee protection and the cost to employers, we will do that. That will encourage people to keep occupational pension schemes open, and we would like to work with them on that, too.
We published the Welfare Reform Bill on 4 July. That marks the next stage in our plans to modernise the welfare state and break down the barriers to work. Electronic copies of the Bill are available and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured to know that they are readily e-mailable.
How will the Minister respond to an amendment to include on the face of the Bill the provisions that the Prime Minister e-mailed to the former Secretary of State last summer, calling for time-limiting and means-testing incapacity benefit and naming and shaming doctors who, in the Department’s view, have been a soft touch?
The hon. Gentleman asked how I intend to reply. I am tempted to say that I shall do so by e-mail, but that might be taking things too far. For a man who spends so much time with modern technology, he is sadly out of date so far as our proposals are concerned. We have published our Bill, which builds on the Green Paper, and is about no longer writing people off to a life of inactivity on benefits.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) in this question, particularly as he has expressed his disappointment in the Conservative party being unable to maintain its regeneration initiative that was launched in Liverpool. I have seen the lives of many hundreds of my constituents transformed by the reforms that this Government have introduced. Will my hon. Friend meet me and representatives of the voluntary and charitable sector in Liverpool—who are working exceptionally well with some of the hardest to help groups—to look at how the employment zone initiative is structured and to talk about innovative ways in which we could improve how it is working?
I would be happy to do so. The innovative city strategy, of which we will publish more details later this month, is one of the further opportunities that Liverpool and some of our other big cities will be able to use to lift their employment rates. I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss what more can be done in Liverpool and our other great cities.
Whether we look at the Bill in electronic form or on paper, there are key areas that we cannot read simply because they have not been included. Examples include the proposals to withhold benefits from those who do not comply with its conditions, and the regulations that will follow in statutory instruments. Does the Minister agree that, if the House is to understand fully what the Bill is about, it is important to publish those regulations—at least in draft form—before the Bill’s Second Reading?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that an awful lot of the detail of the Welfare Reform Bill will, rightly, be set out in regulations. We intend to publish many of the key regulations in time for its Committee stage, as has been common practice with many other important pieces of social security legislation.
The Government have included some welcome reforms to the housing benefit system in the Bill, but, for 3,000 of my constituents who are in temporary accommodation, the housing benefit that they receive for their exceptionally high temporary accommodation charges represents a real disincentive to work. In areas such as mine, those charges can be between £400 and £450 a week. The Government are piloting changes to housing benefit arrangements in east London. Does the Minister recognise that it is essential to roll out those pilots into high-value areas so that my constituents who want to work in order to turn their lives round will have the opportunity to do so, and will not be deterred by those excessive rents?
My hon. Friend is well regarded in the House for campaigning on behalf of her constituents, particularly those in the position that she mentioned. The pilots for the local housing allowance are part of our wider agenda of financial inclusion. The additional financial responsibility, the sense of flexibility and the opportunity for financial independence that the reform of housing benefit will provide are a key part of our wider reforms. Of course, if my hon. Friend has specific concerns, other Ministers in the Department and I will be happy to discuss with her how we can roll the programme out around the rest of the country.
There are now many more people in work in the UK than ever before, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has confirmed that we have the highest employment rate and the best combination of employment and unemployment in the G7.
I thank the Minister for that answer. According to the House of Commons Library, unemployment has risen by 23 per cent. in my constituency. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) suggested last week that, if the number of unemployed people was added to the number on incapacity benefit, the resulting inactivity rate would be worse than that of France and about the same as that of Germany—that is, pretty dire. Is not that an indictment of a Chancellor who has blocked reform while spending billions of pounds on keeping millions of people in the grip of state dependency?
I know that the hon. Gentleman is relatively new to the House, but that is a ridiculous claim for him to make about this Government’s economic record. For him to compare today’s unemployment levels with the time when 3 million unemployed was “a price worth paying” is utterly ridiculous. There are now more people in work in the United Kingdom than ever before. In the last quarter, 10,000 more people found work every week, and there are still 600,000 vacancies in the economy. Of course, we have much more to do before we reach our 80 per cent. employment target, but we are now a million miles away from the position that we inherited, with its vast, grotesque and indefensible levels of unemployment throughout the country.
One area of the country in which unemployment is rising is Hemel Hempstead. It is no fault of the businesses or people seeking work in the area, but is the result of the Buncefield explosion. An inquiry is taking place behind closed doors, which does not aid the local community’s confidence at this time. Will the Minister tell me what his Department is doing to encourage work back into the Hemel Hempstead area after that terrible disaster?
Jobcentre Plus and other Government agencies of the Department for Work and Pensions will, of course, play their full part in supporting people who want the chance to get back into work in Hemel Hempstead and elsewhere. In a wider sense, we are also continuing our review of the skills agenda to ensure that those who do not have the skills to be actively involved in the labour market at the moment do so in the future. It is a particular problem for people who are over 50, where the skills gap is markedly different.
Council Tax Benefit
Since last December, people applying for pension credit have been able to get housing benefit and council tax benefit at the same time via one phone call to the Pension Service. As a result, 14 per cent. more pensioners now request these benefits and the resulting number of successful claims through pension credit has gone up by 39 per cent.
That is a very important point, as organisations such as Age Concern and Help the Aged play a key part in helping to deliver the service and finding people who are not claiming their benefits. It is important to remember that those benefits are not a privilege, but an entitlement, and we should do all we can with those organisations to help people to get them. I would like to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Age Concern and the local service on the nearly 1 million face-to-face contacts that they made last year to encourage people to take up their benefits.
It is excellent news that more pensioners are gaining access to this support, which is vital to them, but will the Minister look further into the use of call centres and dedicated call lines for people applying for benefit assistance? Frankly, in some instances, it is causing real difficulties.
Many people find it easy to claim over the phone, but if my hon. Friend knows of any constituents who are reluctant to use the service, they can, of course, request a visit from the Pension Service locally, which will either visit them at home or find a setting such as Age Concern where they might feel more comfortable about making their claims. I would be happy to write to my hon. Friend with more details.
In addition to the help that the Department gives via the social fund, we are now delivering the £36 million growth fund, which will increase the amount of affordable credit available via credit unions and community development financial institutions. That will help tens of thousands of people to avoid having recourse to doorstep lenders and loan sharks.
I thank the Minister for his reply. In my constituency, people do have problems with expensive credit deals, loan sharks and a credit union under severe pressure. What assistance can West Lancashire residents actually expect from the growth fund to promote affordable credit and assistance with credit unions?
The first growth fund contracts have been signed in the last few weeks and terms have been agreed with a further 20 organisations, including five in the north-west. Negotiations continue with all other organisations that were successful at the evaluation stage, including a further 12 in the north-west. I think that my hon. Friend can her tell constituents that the situation should improve, once the growth fund contracts begin to come into operation. They will lead to many more affordable loans being available to them, so they should be able to avoid the extortionate interest rates levied by the doorstep lenders and the loan sharks.
Does the Minister agree that one of the biggest problems is that arising from inaccurate information contained in many of the adverts that promote credit and other cards? Quite often, the technical terms disguise the actual annual credit and interest figure.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have got previous on this—I campaigned very hard on the subject in my previous capacity, when I served on the Treasury Select Committee—and he will know that the Government have responded to some of the issues that the Committee raised and some changes were made under the Consumer Credit Act 2006, which has improved the situation. In my personal view, although this is no longer my ministerial responsibility, a great deal more is still to be done.
The recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on child poverty highlighted the importance of the availability of affordable credit. The three credit unions in Plymouth make their services known largely by word of mouth, and there are real concerns that they are not reaching all the people who are at greatest risk from loan sharks. Does the Minister intend any of the growth fund moneys to be specifically directed at publicising the services available and offered by credit unions nationally?
I can help my hon. Friend. What we are doing through the growth fund, of course, is receiving bids that come from credit unions and groups of credit unions, including some in her own part of the world. Many of them are including publicity campaigns in the bids that they put to us and in the contracts that we are negotiating with them. She is quite right to identify the problem, and I hope that the money we are investing with the growth fund will go a long way to improve the situation.
Pathways to work pilot schemes have currently helped at least 6,130 people with mental health problems back into work.
I am very grateful indeed to the Secretary of State for that reply, but he will be aware of the evaluation of the pathways to work scheme carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, published in research report 354, which states:
“There is no statistically significant evidence that the policy has any impact on those who report having one health problem that is mental illness.”
To what does he attribute that poor performance? Given that people with mental ill-health now form the largest single group of new claimants of incapacity benefits, what steps is he taking to ensure that that important group can benefit further from welfare reform?
The data that I have seen indicate that about one in 10 people with mental health problems who are participating in a pathways pilot scheme have found a job. That is significantly better than in those areas without a pathways scheme. The hon. Gentleman has expressed his view, and I take it that he is lending his support to the view of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has said of pathways:
“The pilots have been successful, showing a large increase in participation in re-integrating programmes and a marked increase in exits from incapacity benefits.”
If the choice is between the hon. Gentleman’s view of pathways and the OECD’s, I am afraid that I prefer the OECD’s view.
There is no doubt that the cognitive behavioural therapists who work in the pathways to work areas and help people with mental health problems into work have been very effective. How confident is my right hon. Friend that enough of those people will be properly trained when the pathways scheme is rolled out to other areas, especially as mental health is one of the big issues and obviously requires a different approach from that for people with other disabilities and especially as the most recent research shows that employers are even more prejudiced against employing someone with a mental health problem?
There is no doubt that people with mental health problems face an issue of stigma, and we must tackle that. Specifically on pathways to work, my hon. Friend is quite right to refer to the positive impact of cognitive behavioural therapy. For example, I have visited a scheme in Derby with a significant success rate in employing CBT services from the private sector, where, I am afraid, the NHS did not have the necessary capacity. Together with the private sector and the NHS, I hope that there is a way to ensure that we have sufficient capacity. Like my hon. Friend, those of us in the House should go out and meet people who have benefited from the programme. That is the way to test the scheme’s value, rather than relying on reports from the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
What is the Secretary of State’s opinion of “The Depression Report”, published last month by the London School of Economics, which suggests that huge savings could be made on incapacity benefit if cognitive behavioural therapy was made available to those suffering from depression or anxiety disorders, as recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence? If he has not yet read the report, will he do so and give serious consideration to its proposals, along with his colleagues in the Department of Health?
I have read the report, and we agree with it. We are extending pathways to work to every part of the United Kingdom, so that everyone will have access, where appropriate, to CBT.
Independent living is at the heart of the Government’s strategy for disabled people. The life chances report, published in January last year, set out a range of measures to enable more disabled people to lead independent lives. The Department for Work and Pensions and the new Office for Disability Issues are working closely with the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government to test individual budgets and, in all, 13 pilot sites will be on stream by the end of this month.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. There will be some individuals in that category with learning difficulties and chronic mental health problems who, 30 years ago, could have been in a long-term institution. What assistance are we giving to such people to ensure that they can live independent lives in our communities?
One reason we are testing this approach through the pilots is to ensure that people such as those to whom my hon. Friend referred have far more control over their lives, and we are pulling together some of the resources available to them, including access to work. We look forward to seeing the outcome of the pilots, so that they can underpin the development of a far more individual and “in-control” approach for disabled people in Britain.
We have already made significant progress. New claims are down by a third since 1997 and in the year to November 2005, the number of people on incapacity benefits was down by 61,000. We are building on that success through the national roll-out of pathways to work and the measures announced in our Welfare Reform Bill. That will make a significant contribution to making a reality of our aim to reduce, over a decade, the number of those claiming incapacity benefits by 1 million.
I watched the exchange about the general picture between the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr. Murphy), and the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), who asked Question 1. May I ask the Minister a specifically London follow-up question? Just over 250,000 people in Greater London are claiming invalidity benefit or getting other disability benefit, which means that they are not working. Can the Minister tell me, either now or later, what proportion of them—excluding those who will have died or retired—will be in work by the target date of 2016?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the earlier exchange between the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform and Members was far better live than it was on the monitor. As the hon. Gentleman has asked a specific and detailed question, it would be appropriate for me to give a written response at a future date, but he will doubtless be delighted to know that the number of incapacity benefit recipients in his constituency has already fallen by 5 per cent.
We were disappointed by the House of Lords decision in respect of the Barker case. The Government announced that we will amend the Compensation Bill to restore the position and to offer some comfort to sufferers of mesothelioma.
I thank the Minister for that answer, and for the commitment that the Secretary of State gave earlier this year to taking such action. Does the Minister plan to extend the compensation, particularly to those people—mainly women—who come into contact with such fibres, perhaps through washing their husband’s clothes at home?
The hon. Gentleman, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), raised this matter in an Adjournment debate a week or so ago, and I can confirm today what I confirmed in that debate. The industrial injuries disablement benefit scheme is under review and we will publish a discussion document later this year, on which all interested parties, including the hon. Gentleman, can comment. We are looking for additional ways to provide the support that people in this dreadful situation need in order to make their life with that terrible illness at least in some small way more acceptable.
Many of us are delighted that the Government are moving to overturn the decision in the Barker case, but do we not need a swift and simple compensation scheme—unlike the miners’ compensation scheme, which is over-burdensome—for mesothelioma sufferers? Many such sufferers may have only 18 months from the moment when they know that they are ill with the disease to the moment when, sadly, they die. Will the Government move swiftly on this issue?
My hon. Friend takes a close interest in this subject and has done so for some time. He is right to say that the current situation is unacceptable. I understand that the average time taken to process and pay a claim is longer than the post-diagnosis life expectancy of mesothelioma sufferers, which is clearly unacceptable. The Government are working hard with the insurance industry, trade unions and others, and we will make a statement on this matter before the summer recess.
Child Support Agency
In February 2006, the agency published its operational improvement plan, which sets out how it will make significant improvement to performance over the next three years. In the meantime, Sir David Henshaw is developing a redesign of the child support system for the longer term and has been asked to deliver his findings to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before the summer recess.
My hon. Friend is right that all such problems arise because of relationship breakdown, and it would assist the families and children involved were such intervention avoided. Mediation has a role to play, and while I do not want to prejudge anything that the Henshaw report will bring forward, my hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission was asked—
But will the hon. Gentleman carry out an investigation into the practice of constituency associations forming a club, which charges a large annual membership fee, part of the benefit of which is a complimentary dinner in the House of Commons? In so doing, will he publish the list of all Members who have booked private dining facilities in the House since the election?
This is not primarily a matter for the House of Commons Commission. If the hon. Gentleman believes that there has been misuse of any facility provided by the House, including its refreshment facilities, that is a potential breach of paragraph 14 of the code of conduct. Allegations of that nature should be drawn to the attention of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and will be considered in accordance with the procedures for investigating complaints, as agreed by the House.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Official Report (Corrections)
The ministerial code makes it clear that Ministers must give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. It is obviously helpful if any correction necessary to anything said on the Floor of the House is made clear, for example, through a written ministerial statement. In the light of my correspondence with the hon. Gentleman and his suggestions, I am currently considering the terms in which guidance should be given to Departments on how corrections might best be put on the record, taking into account how high profile the original error was. I am also in touch with the editor of the Official Report as to how corrections might be noted and cross-referenced in Hansard.
I hope that it is not old-fashioned to believe that being inaccurate at the Dispatch Box is one of the cardinal sins of British politics. If that is still the case, should not corrections be made at the Dispatch Box at the same time of day as the original error, in order to gain the same publicity as the original words received on “Today”, “Yesterday in Parliament” or anywhere else?
Were a deliberate error made at the Dispatch Box, having to come back to the House for a further oral statement would probably be the least of the retribution to be meted out to the individual. As for inadvertent errors, unless such an error was grossly negligent, it would be slightly over-the-top for the Minister concerned to have to come back to make a further oral statement. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, however, on his basic principle, that the way in which a correction is implemented should take account of the circumstances in which the original error was made. I also understand his concern about the use of letters from Ministers, which are then placed in the Library and cannot be properly cross-referenced.
I have seen other data which suggest that what the Prime Minister said may well have been entirely accurate. Let me say, however—leaving aside that particular example—that if there is an inaccuracy, it is right for that inaccuracy to be brought properly to the attention of the House and the public. That is in the Government’s interests as well. The Government’s interests are not served by the appearance of inaccurate data in the Official Report, with corrections—sometimes quite significant corrections—available only in the House of Commons Library.
I am grateful for the positive tone in which the Leader of the House is addressing an issue that vexes all Members on both sides of the House, but let me also give an example. On 19 April, during Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said that in the Thames Valley strategic health authority area—as it then was—there were no patients waiting longer than 13 weeks for out-patient appointments. In fact, that was not the case: a constituent of mine had been waiting 18 weeks. I wrote to the Prime Minister; he did not reply to me. The Secretary of State for Health replied to me, saying that when the Prime Minister had said on 19 April that “today” there were no patients waiting longer than 13 weeks, he had meant that on 31 December 2005 there were no patients waiting longer than 13 weeks.
As of the end of March, there were more than 500 patients waiting more than 13 weeks for out-patient appointments in the Thames Valley area, so the figure would not even have been accurate on the basis of the most recent data relating to the date to which the Prime Minister referred.
Do not Ministers have a real responsibility to the House, and to the public who read reports of our proceedings, to ensure that the information given is accurate? Does not the biggest responsibility rest with the Prime Minister, who should be the one to ensure the highest standards of all in the information that he gives?
Having observed the care that the Prime Minister takes in preparing for Prime Minister’s questions, and the voluminous briefing that he receives and studies in every detail, I can say that he makes every effort to ensure that the replies he gives are accurate. As for the specific example given by the right hon. Lady, she will appreciate that I have not seen the details. It seems to me, however, that she accepts that there was a period when the waiting list fell to zero, and that the Prime Minister was therefore perfectly entitled to make the point.
We have to use the latest available data. I do not want to sound like “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”, but I have not seen from the record where the Prime Minister’s “breath mark”, or comma, occurs, denoting what “today” qualified. He was, however, using the most up-to-date data.
The right hon. Lady will have cause to know that I quite often quote data relating to the Thames Valley strategic health authority. I am open to correction, but I can tell her—much to her embarrassment, which is strange, because she should be celebrating the fact— that according to my recollection, the number of nurses in her SHA area has increased by over 3,000 since 1997, and the number of doctors by a significant number of hundreds.
Select Committee Reports
There are merits in enabling as many reports as possible to be discussed here in the House of Commons, but the time pressures on parliamentary business do limit that. Fortunately, our increasing use of Westminster Hall during recent Sessions has enabled hon. Members to debate many Select Committee reports and to call Ministers to account.
I am grateful for that response, but time pressures will always be with us. Some very important Select Committee reports are discussed in the House all the time, not least the Defence Committee’s fifth report following its Afghanistan inquiry. The Committee said, for example,
“We do not believe it will prove possible to complete the reform of the security and justice institutions in Helmand within the three-year commitment so far made.”
Given that that three-year commitment has been repeated time and again, does not the Deputy Leader of the House agree that the whole House needs an opportunity to discuss that report, Afghanistan and the UK commitment over a three-year period, or even beyond that?
I understand that there are up to five days when defence issues are due to be debated in this House and that would clearly be a suitable topic during those debates. Also, many statements are made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and other Ministers on defence issues, and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is here today to listen to the point made by the hon. Gentleman.
Seeing as some of the most glaring examples of administrative incompetence by the Government, including the Home Office’s escapades and tax credits, have been drawn attention to by Select Committee reports, is not there a need to give those reports the best possible exposure and debate in the House, and to do so with a sense of urgency, which unfortunately the present Westminster Hall arrangements do not provide?
Fortunately, this House does provide them. It has provided an Opposition day next week for the hon. Member and his hon. Friends. I understand that the two topics for debate have not yet been chosen. Perhaps, since he feels strongly about it, he will prevail on his Whip and his party leader to include those reports, so that they can be discussed with the passion that he clearly feels about them.