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Inactive Benefits

Volume 461: debated on Monday 4 June 2007

As at November 2006, 3,701,710 people were in receipt of inactive benefits in Great Britain of whom the majority—almost 2.7 million—are customers on incapacity benefits.

The number of people on incapacity benefit for five years or more has gone up from 67,000 in 1997 to 1.5 million today. What are the Government doing to address this problem, and how did they get themselves into this mess in the first place?

The hon. Gentleman’s tone seems to be entirely out of synch with that of his Front-Bench colleagues on this important issue, on which they have sought to build consensus. The fact is that, after two decades of remarkable rises in the number of people on incapacity benefit, we have had two years of sustained falls; nevertheless, we still have to go further. The national roll-out of pathways is important, and the Welfare Reform Act 2007, which passed through this and the other place, is also an integral part of the process. Ultimately, we want to move away from a system under which too many people were written off during many years of Tory neglect and avoidance of supporting people who needed support through the welfare system.

It must be right that those who cannot work because they are simply not able to perform their duties as an employee are able to get benefits. However, is my hon. Friend satisfied that the appeals system is working quickly enough, so that, when people are not given the benefits that they deserve, they can go to the tribunal speedily to enable such decisions to be made and be satisfied with the result, and so that we can have proper deliberations on these matters?

My right hon. Friend is right to say that we must ensure that the appeals mechanism is speedy, but it must also be accurate. An important part of that is getting the initial assessment correct, because if we can do that, far fewer appeals will be needed and the type of frustrations that he identified will no longer be in play. That is why, when we reform the personal capability assessment, we will transform it so that it takes into account modern trends in disability, mental health illness and learning disabilities. That is a real change from the past.

The Minister did not really answer my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) at all. Why were 2 per cent. more people of working age on incapacity benefit in August 2006, compared with May 1997?

The fact is that there have been two years of reductions in the number of people on incapacity benefit. The investment that has been put in place through pathways, which the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues opposed every penny piece of, has had an important impact. Some 32,000 people have got into work through the roll-out of pathways thus far, and 900,000 fewer people are on inactive benefits today, compared with a decade ago; that is more than 300 people each and every working day supported off benefit and into work. When we voted on these issues in the Commons, the hon. Gentleman opposed every single penny piece of investment to make all this work and to make the transformation of people’s lives possible.

About 8 million people of working age are economically inactive. The number on benefits is perhaps slightly under half that, but the largest single group on incapacity benefit remains those with chronic mental ill health conditions. Is the Minister convinced that we are doing enough to tackle some of the problems that those people experience in getting into work, particularly with medium-sized employers, among whom there seems to be a continuing reluctance to accept the employability of such individuals?

My hon. Friend is right, and one of the successes of pathways thus far is that we are trying to support people, often with complicated needs, who have been excluded from the labour market for prolonged periods. Importantly, that includes those with learning disabilities—the labour market’s attitudes toward those people are gradually changing, although not enough—and those with a fluctuating mental health illness, who constitute the largest number of people coming on to the benefit. Again, the change in the assessment should help in that regard, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we have to go further in working with employers—both private and public sector—to give job opportunities to those on incapacity benefit with a mental health illness who wish to work.

There is an emerging consensus that there must be large-scale recycling of benefit savings to fund many more voluntary and private sector welfare-to-work programmes. However, that can happen only if the Chancellor of the Exchequer allows benefit savings from the Department for Work and Pensions’ annually managed expenditure budget to be moved across to its departmental expenditure limits budget. Can the Minister confirm today that the Chancellor has personally signed up to that, because there is a genuine fear in the sector that he has not, and that he is once again being the road block to reform?

The Chancellor publicly declared that he would champion that and many other reforms in the public sector, and along with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, he attended the launch of the Freud report. The fact is that, if we had continued with the increases in the number of people on incapacity benefit that we inherited from the party of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), we would not be talking about reductions in the number of people on incapacity benefit; the number today would be 4 million. In terms of the attitude of the Chancellor, the sound economy, macro-economic stability, the investment in the new deal and the active labour market policies—all of which he championed, in contrast to the Opposition—have helped to make a reality of much of our success in the world of welfare.