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Incapacity Benefit Claimants

Volume 492: debated on Monday 11 May 2009

We are increasing the help available to incapacity benefit claimants, all of whom have access to back-to-work support through pathways to work. We are also taking forward the Gregg review vision that everyone should be expected to take active steps towards work in return for their benefits, except for those in the support group, who are most disabled. In the first instance, we will trial that approach for existing claimants through the invest to save funding model. We will also reassess everyone on incapacity benefit to make sure that they are on the right benefit.

Does the Secretary of State not agree that the best way to get people from incapacity benefit into work is to make it as easy and least burdensome as possible for employers to take on new people? Would not that be the best approach to take, rather than ridiculous politically correct initiatives such as the Equality Bill, which the British Chambers of Commerce says will discourage job creation in this country?

It is very important for us to provide people with help to get back into work, and to improve the incentives for getting back into work. That is why we are re-testing everybody on incapacity benefit to make sure that they are on the right benefit. That is why we have tightened the gateway to make sure that only the right people get on to the benefit, and that is why we will require everybody for whom it is appropriate to have back-to-work support. The one thing that we will not do is abolish the minimum wage, to which I think the hon. Gentleman is referring. He is the promoter of a Bill on the issue, which will come before the House on Friday. I hope that everyone, including Conservative Front Benchers, will oppose it, and make it clear that that is not the way that we should go.

In response to what my right hon. Friend just said, before the national minimum wage came in, 17 per cent. of my constituents were on wage rates of £2 per hour or less; some were on 99p per hour. We need to push more worklessness projects that give people who are on incapacity benefit opportunities to move gradually from benefit into work. As my right hon. Friend will know, such an approach has been championed by the worklessness tsar, the leader of Barnsley metropolitan borough council, Steve Houghton, who is doing some great things in that respect.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we strongly welcome the Houghton review. He recommended that we invest money in helping local authorities to prevent the kind of worklessness that occurred in the past, and I am glad to say that that is exactly what we are doing.

Will not the Secretary of State deal with part of the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) put? Should we not seek to minimise the cost to employers of employing people? That is, should we not provide them with an incentive, particularly at this time, to employ people? Unemployment is rising dramatically. We want more people in work, even if they are from among those on incapacity benefit. Does he not think that the Government should give more thought to assisting employers and providing them with incentives to employ people?

Of course we should minimise regulation, but I do not think that there is a contradiction between supporting equality and helping more people into work whatever their background, and getting people into work. Knowing his views, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman does either. It is important to point out that the hon. Member for Shipley was talking about abolishing the minimum wage, showing that such views still obtain in some parts of the Conservative party today. [Interruption.] It is a Bill that comes before the House on Friday, and the hon. Gentleman is promoting it. It is important that people know about it.

My right hon. Friend will know that it is not only those people who suffer from incapacity but those who care for them who find it difficult to move back into work, not least because if they earn one penny more than £95 a week they lose their entire £55 carer’s allowance. When will my right hon. Friend remove that disincentive to work?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and we are improving our help for carers to get back into work. Carer’s allowance is clearly supposed to be a replacement income for people who cannot work, and therefore it has never had that structure in the past. However, we said in the carer’s strategy review that we would keep on looking at the issue, and we will do so.

The Secretary of State referred to existing incapacity benefit claimants and the importance of getting them into work, and he will know that nearly 1.2 million incapacity benefit claimants are over the age of 50. Under his Government’s proposals, those people will be offered only one work-focused interview to help them get back into work, and that is clearly not going to be adequate. Significant numbers have been out of work for more than five years—

The right hon. Lady says, “The minimum wage”. No Opposition Member has mentioned the minimum wage, so why do we not just stick to the questions and the answers? Will the Secretary of State explain how one work-focused interview for those 1 million people over 50 will help them get back into work?

It is not surprising that the Opposition Front-Bench team do not want people to be reminded of their record on poverty wages. On the hon. Gentleman’s—[Interruption.] If he will just calm down for one second, he will hear that, on his question, he is wrong about the facts: people can volunteer for far more than that which he described. We are the first Government to require people to take part in work-focused activity, and that contrasts with the previous recession, when 1 million people went on to incapacity benefit. They were encouraged, sometimes forced, to go on to it by the Opposition, and they were trapped there, because they were offered no help to get back into work or back to health. It is a record that, frankly, he should be extremely embarrassed about, and I am therefore surprised that he wants to contrast his Government’s record with ours.