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Incapacity Benefit

Volume 455: debated on Monday 8 January 2007

4. If he will make a statement on progress in reducing the number of people claiming incapacity benefit. (113150)

We have already made significant progress on incapacity benefit. After two decades of continuous growth—by the mid-1990s, the number of people on incapacity benefits had trebled—inflows have dropped by more than a third. However, we have more to do, and that is the purpose behind our Welfare Reform Bill currently before Parliament.

May I take this opportunity to congratulate local DWP staff in Glasgow on exceeding their targets to cut the number of incapacity benefit cases? However, I am mindful of the fact that the Secretary of State recently said that areas with a high number of claimants often have a high number of vacancies. DWP staff in Glasgow tell me that many applicants often have problems with basic literacy and numeracy skills, and that many are reluctant to admit to having these problems. What will my hon. Friend’s Department do, working with its partners, to tackle this very serious problem and to make sure that as many benefit applicants as possible can be ready for the job market?

My hon. Friend, who is all too well aware of the situation in Glasgow, is absolutely right. Despite real and significant improvement, Glasgow still has two of the top five parliamentary constituencies for the number of people on incapacity benefit. She is also right to say that renewing personal confidence and improving or refreshing skills is key. DWP staff in Glasgow and elsewhere, and private sector providers, are working hard to ensure that such support for literacy and numeracy skills is available. I have visited a number of such projects, not least those at Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers football clubs, who, in different environments, are working together in a way that they perhaps have not always done to ensure that people’s potential and aspirations can be unlocked. Adults going into the football stadiums can learn the skills that they perhaps missed out on the first time through formal education.

It was suggested in a press release last week that single mothers with new-born babies and people with the most severe disabilities should be treated as unemployed and should be made to look for work. Will my hon. Friend the Minister join me in condemning that claim, which is being made by the Opposition?

The Minister will understand—[Interruption]—if he is listening, that the number of people claiming incapacity benefit is likely to go up as a direct consequence of the ill effects caused to them by their loss of occupational pensions. Will he please tell the House how he can on the one hand say that he is dealing with incapacity benefit, and yet on the other be part of a ministerial team that is ignoring the ombudsman’s report on occupational pensions?

I am not sure that I followed the logic, if there was any, of the hon. and learned Gentleman’s point. The incapacity benefit test is based on medical assessment, not on someone’s pension entitlement. Nevertheless, I will do him the service of trying to respond to whatever element of a question he asked. We are determined to reduce the number of people on incapacity benefit by a net 1 million over a decade. We have already made progress through pathways to work and the progressive support that has been put in place, but the Welfare Reform Bill that is going through Parliament now—with belated cross-party support—will be an important additional element of our approach of no longer writing off anybody in the labour market.

How many people have now been claiming incapacity benefit for five years or more compared with 1997? Does the Minister agree that the fact that the figures are so much higher now is a prime example of the way in which welfare dependency has become so rife under this Government?

The facts on incapacity benefit are clear. If someone is on incapacity benefit for one year, they will be on it for nine years on average. That is the nature of incapacity benefit and, unfortunately, the culture of many families. However, we are addressing that through the Welfare Reform Bill. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman suggests about a culture of benefit dependency, 1 million fewer people are now on out-of-work benefits in the UK than a decade ago. The numbers on incapacity benefit are falling, the number of lone parents claiming income support is falling, the most recent figures on jobseeker’s allowance show that unemployment is falling and there are more people in work than ever before. That is in stark contrast to what went before during the 18 years of Conservative government.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the current system of assessment for entitlement to incapacity benefit has not been fit for purpose for many years and that therefore the new personal capability assessment, as set out in the Welfare Reform Bill, should be subject to effective, long-term and independent monitoring?

My hon. Friend speaks with great experience and authority on such matters and he is right to say that the present incapacity benefit assessment process has not served the needs of our customers or society effectively enough. In particular, it has indefensibly ignored the needs of those with learning disabilities. Work is now being done to ensure that we find a better role for those with learning disabilities in the labour market. It is essential that we have a better process to monitor the operation of the personal capability assessment and I look forward to discussing the details of that with my hon. Friend as the Bill continues its passage through the House.