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Incapacity Benefit (North-East)

Volume 536: debated on Tuesday 22 November 2011

It is a pleasure, Mrs Brooke, to serve under your chairmanship for the first time. There has been tremendous interest in the economic effects in the north-east of changes to incapacity benefit. I was hoping for a much longer debate—a number of right hon. and hon. Members have indicated that they would be interested in participating in such a debate—but I will try to be brief.

I am pleased to have secured this debate, which gives me the opportunity to raise some important issues that affect communities throughout the north-east of England. As the title suggests, I want to focus on the economic effects of one specific coalition policy: the impact of welfare reform and changes to incapacity benefit. I shall refer specifically to a recent research report by Sheffield Hallam university on “Incapacity Benefit Reform: the local, regional and national impact”, and a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research North, the “Northern Economic Summary: October 2011”. I commend the latter report, which is the first of its kind, but IPPR North will produce it quarterly. It will be a useful way of tracking the impact of the Government’s policies on the north-eastern economy.

Before going into my main argument, I want to set the scene and to provide some context for the debate. The IPPR North report indicates that unemployment in the north-east is accelerating and is being driven by a weak northern economy being pushed into recession by public sector spending cuts, which are threatening to increase the north-south divide. The north-east, with Yorkshire and the Humber region, has faced the worst increases in unemployment in the UK. The figure for the north-east now exceeds 11%. Gross domestic product nationally suggests that the UK economy is avoiding a strictly defined technical recession at the moment, but it can be best described as flat-lining. Labour has a five-point plan to stimulate jobs and growth, but I do not want to go into that because of shortage of time. Perhaps it is a subject for another debate.

The situation for workers and those seeking work in the north-east is much bleaker than in many other regions. The northern economy could already be contracting, as the index of production figures produced by the Office for National Statistics show UK manufacturing contracting by 0.6% in the three months from June to August. Contraction in manufacturing affects the north-east disproportionately. It affects the economy in the whole of the north, but particularly the north-east because, despite the need to rebalance the economy—I am a great supporter of manufacturing—the north-east has a relatively high proportion of employees in manufacturing.

The latest job figures show that the north has lost a large proportion of public sector jobs in the last year. The figures produced by the northern TUC show that we are losing them at a rate of 2,000 a month, with almost no increase in the number of private sector jobs. In the north-east, the number of private sector jobs is declining. It has lost more than 32,000 public sector jobs, but more than 8,000 public sector jobs have been created in London, and 24,000 in the south-east. That is clear evidence of the Government’s failing regional policy.

I want to concentrate on the impact of the Government’s welfare reform policies on the economic situation in the north-east. Sheffield Hallam university’s report, “Incapacity Benefit Reform: the local, regional and national impact”, shows that 60,000 people in the north-east face being moved off incapacity benefits, 35,000 of whom will be pushed out of the benefits system altogether due to the time limits. More than 20,000 will be added to the unemployment figures.

My constituency has the highest rate of working-age adults claiming incapacity benefits in England and will be one of the most affected. In my constituency alone, 4,200 people will be moved off incapacity benefit, of whom 2,000 will lose their benefits altogether. That will have a huge adverse impact on those individuals and households, but I want to focus on what it means for the north-east economy as a whole.

If 35,000 people are taken off incapacity benefit altogether, as the pilot study indicates, that will effectively remove more than £170 million every year from the north-east’s economy.

I would like to make a little more progress, but I will give way when I have made my point.

That money would be in the hands of the poorest in society and would be spent in local communities, neighbourhood shops and local businesses. The clear economic argument is that unemployment would increase if benefits were cut in the region, owing to a reverse multiplier effect of credit withdrawal, because less money would be spent in the local economy. It is staggering that as the north-east seems to be heading into a regional recession, the Government are set to take another £170 million from our regional economy every year. It is even more staggering that, as employment is falling in the private sector owing to the Government’s lack of a credible policy for jobs and growth, they are simultaneously moving 60,000 people off incapacity benefit and adding more than 20,000 to the unemployment count.

The legacy of incapacity benefit is felt most in older industrial areas. The number of people claiming incapacity benefit is not evenly spread. The communities that I represent are mainly former coal-mining areas where long-term ill health is a consequence of years spent working in damp, cramped and physically arduous conditions underground. A recent review of coalfield areas by the former Member for the then constituency of Barnsley West and Penistone, Mick Clapham, reported two significant problems. He identified that incapacity benefit claims are not confined to the older generation, whose ill health was caused by working conditions. Ill health in the younger generation is due mainly to poor employment opportunities and the low expectations resulting from their marginalisation in the active labour market and has given rise to a lost generation.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. The topic is extremely important to him and to many of his constituents. I am a little concerned that he seems to believe that being on incapacity benefit when able to work is an acceptable end in itself. Does he agree in principle that those who are able to work should be encouraged to do so and should be taken off incapacity benefit and helped back into work? Does he also agree that, although incapacity benefit must be available for those who need it, the Government have a duty to review the system and to address some of the problems that have arisen as the system became out of control in recent years?

I will come to that. My fundamental point in response to the hon. Gentleman is that the big issue for us is not just worklessness; it is joblessness. We want the Government to invest in creating jobs in the private sector and generally to get the local economy moving. There seems to be little point in inflicting penury and misery on large sections of already impoverished communities when there are no jobs for them to go into. The two should go hand in glove, and I have some suggestions for achieving that.

I agree with my colleague. The figure of 32,000 that the report spoke about was released about a month ago. That figure has not been challenged by the Government. We have 32,000 job losses across the public sector in the north-east. If my hon. Friend is correct, another 35,000 will be taken off incapacity benefit, which will put up the unemployment figures. There will be a 70,000 increase in those two groups alone. There is also the failure of the private sector to move into the void. Does that not make the jobs situation even more serious than it already is?

I am grateful for that intervention, which reinforces the point that I was trying to make. It is absolutely essential that we tackle joblessness; the Government have a responsibility to do that. I am concerned about the complete failure of regional policy; I am not convinced that we have an effective regional policy. We lost our regional development agency, One North East, and our regional Minister. It cost nothing to have an advocate at the top table of government, arguing the case for business, as well as for the regeneration of the whole region. It seems perverse that the coalition should abandon that, particularly when the region is doing so badly.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing a debate that is very important for the region. Does he agree that the current process of checking who should claim incapacity benefit follows a system—work capability assessment—introduced by the previous Government? Does he further agree that that system is flawed and broken? Will he congratulate this Government on trying to do something about it?

I certainly would not like to do any of those things. However, there are some positive things that the Government could do to address a dire and worsening situation that many people are not aware is going to hit them in the next 12 or 24 months. There are things that the Government could and should do. Sheffield Hallam’s recommendations were clear:

“government should resist penalising the older generation, who, not unexpectedly, are suffering from ill-health.”

Instead, efforts should be concentrated on

“creating opportunities for work”

for this younger generation, this lost generation, which could prevent the problem that we have experienced with young people

“falling into a cycle of ”

dependency and

“economic inactivity”.

That often relates to mental health issues, a lack of self-esteem and a lack of aspiration, which eventually leads to

“disability and incapacity.”

We should have an early intervention to tackle this huge problem. There are lessons for Government to apply not only in the north-east, but for other former industrial areas. This is a big issue in the north-west, in parts of Scotland, in Merseyside and in the former mining communities of Wales. Claimants of incapacity benefit are usually concentrated in the same disadvantaged communities that have weak local economies with little chance of finding work. The Government must recognise that.

The authors of the Sheffield Hallam report, Christina Beatty and Steve Fothergill, are also damning of the reforms, saying that there is little reason to suppose that changes will lead to significant increases in employment. Without creating the jobs first, it seems like a double punishment on the thousands of people who will be adversely affected: 35,000 in our region and more than 4,000 in my constituency.

I want to give the Minister an opportunity to respond, but first I want to say a few words about the Government’s workfare programme, which seems like cynical exploitation by a Government that have already put thousands of people out of work. I want to place on the record my opposition to an extension of workfare. Where will the jobs for the long-term unemployed come from? If such jobs exist, why are they not being offered as real jobs with real wages, as opposed to benefits that carry the threat of withdrawal of benefit if individuals are unable or unwilling to take up offers?

The effects of such changes will not hurt the affluent south, but will be a body blow to the poorest areas, particularly in the north-east. At the same time as the Government are retrenching on any support for jobs and growth in the north-east, they are quick to pull the rug from underneath the sick, disabled and worst-off in society. I want to focus on the loss that that represents to the north-east regional economy and what the Government could do to limit the damaging effects.

I want to pose some specific questions, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. Can the Minister confirm that the north-east has seen a decline in private sector employment over the last year? Does he have an estimate of what the financial loss will be to the north-east economy owing to changes in incapacity benefit? Can he confirm the figure of £170 million? Will he consider how money lost to the north-east could be ring-fenced and reinvested in the region to support job creation?

I will give the Minister a few helpful suggestions from the IPPR:

“The government should offer a guaranteed job, paid at the minimum wage or above to anyone who has been unemployed and claiming JSA for more than 12 consecutive months. The guarantee should be matched by an obligation”

because there are rights and responsibilities. If the Government give somebody a right to a guaranteed job, the individual should be obliged to take up the offer of employment

“or to find an alternative that does not involve claiming JSA.”

Will the Minister look at this proposal and whether it could be targeted as a jobs guarantee for the north-east? A jobs guarantee could be implemented in areas of the north-east where long-term unemployment meets a certain critical level or where the job density ratio falls below an agreed threshold.

The IPPR believes that these recommendations could be afforded if the proposed reduction in corporation tax was abandoned. All the evidence suggests that the reduction in corporation tax is unlikely to increase employment and it significantly benefits large finance companies, particularly banks, and companies employing fewer staff. If the Government are serious about getting people back to work—I will conclude on this point, so that the Minister has a chance to respond—they should commit to supporting our regional economy and reinvesting any money saved from changes to incapacity benefit back into the north-east directly, to support jobs and create growth.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on securing an important debate. It is good to see other hon. Members from his region present for the debate today. I will speak primarily about incapacity benefit and the changes made by the Government—indeed, primarily by the previous Government. It is worth spending at least a moment on the context. Every night on the television news, we see stories of what happens in countries that did not get their deficits under control. We see fiascos, shambles, rioting in the streets and Governments being overturned.

It strikes me that two political parties working together in the national interest after the 2010 general election has meant that Britain is not seeing the extraordinary bond rates that Italy or Spain have faced. We are able to borrow at modest rates because of the fiscal credibility that we have. In the context of the north-east, low interest rates are one of the critical things in giving householders money to spend. If someone has a mortgage and the bank base rate is 0.5%, that gives them money in their pocket to spend in the regional economy.

I will give way in a second. There are direct consequences of the difficult choices that we have made on the deficit that are specifically to the benefit of local economies such as the hon. Gentleman’s. I will give way to him, but he has not left me long to respond. If he wants to add additional points, I will have even less time.

I am grateful to the Minister, but it is important to challenge the point that is raised again and again that everything has to be sacrificed on the altar of deficit reduction. Is it not true that the Government’s plan is hurting but not working, and that the deficit is growing because there is no growth in the economy? The last figures I saw showed that we are borrowing an additional £46 billion.

The hon. Gentleman mixes the structural deficit with the cyclical deficit. We have said that we will eliminate the country’s structural deficit. Although when the economy grows faster we get additional revenues and save money on benefit spending, we also have to tackle the structural deficit—something the previous Government failed to do. He referred to a five-point plan that simply adds more debt, and it is hard to see how the solution to a problem caused by excessive borrowing is more borrowing.

The hon. Gentleman referred to incapacity benefit, and his constituency has the highest concentration of people of working age on incapacity benefit in England. I have seen the Sheffield Hallam report to which he refers. It lists four changes that have been made, three of which—although he did not want to admit it—were introduced by the previous Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) made that point. The replacement of the personal capability assessment by the work capability assessment was introduced by the previous Government; I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Easington supports that, or indeed the process of re-testing the stock of people on incapacity benefit, or the requirement to undertake work-related activities—all measures initiated by the previous Government. Those are three of the four measures in the Sheffield Hallam report, and it seems that each was a move in the right direction.

My hon. Friend the Member for Redcar was right to say that the system of work capability assessment that we inherited was broken, and a work capability assessment that focuses on whether people can work or not is a positive measure. We have proceeded with the Harrington review, and Professor Harrington’s second report will be published imminently. Significant changes have been made to the WCA process. For example, we will ensure that we garner more medical information initially rather than wait for it to emerge on appeal, and we will allow Department for Work and Pensions decision makers to more readily override the Atos assessment. A lot of positive changes to the WCA process have been recognised by those who campaign on such issues, and we have refined and improved the process to the benefit of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, and others.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) asked the key question: what does the hon. Member for Easington want for his constituents who are on incapacity benefit? Even when private sector jobs are created, they do not go to those on incapacity benefit. There is a gap: folk on IB are stuck on IB and nothing gets them off it. We need to bridge that gap, which is where the reassessment process and, crucially, the Work programme come in, involving serious money that gets spent only when real jobs are created.

Let me give the hon. Gentleman a feel of how seriously the Government approach this issue. He referred to the ring-fencing of money, but suppose one of his constituents is on incapacity benefit but expected to be ready for work in about three months under the employment and support allowance process. If they find a job through the Work programme and that job is sustained, we will pay about £13,700 to the provider—double the £6,500 that we pay when someone comes off jobseeker’s allowance. That is a serious amount of public money going into the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, although only if those people about whom he is rightly worried get lasting jobs. The money does not get paid—via a small up-front fee—if the folk do not get a job. In many previous Government programmes and new deals, people got sent on schemes and the providers were paid whether those schemes were useless or not. Under this scheme, the providers will be paid only if they get people into lasting jobs. That will benefit the local area and is an entirely positive measure.

Time limiting of ESA was an important part of the deficit reduction strategy, and the hon. Gentleman referred to people being left “in penury.” It is, therefore, important to put on record two key features of that time limiting, which are that the sickest and poorest people will not be affected. The sickest people will be in the support group, which is not time limited, and they will continue to receive contributory ESA.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will bear with me; I have six minutes left to respond to everything that he said. The people in the support group are not on time-limited ESA, and if they are regarded as inappropriate for work-related activity, they will continue to receive benefits indefinitely. The second category of people who are not affected by the time limiting are those on income-related ESA—in other words, even if someone else in the household has an income or substantial capital, they will not be affected. That means that 60% of those coming to the end of a period of time-limited contributory ESA will move to the income-related version. Those in the support group are not on time-limited ESA, and nor are those who move on to the income-related version. People not in those groups will be those who have other household income or substantial amounts of capital in the bank.

People may ask about the impact of such measures on the local economy, but we must also look at the impact of thousands of people who are stuck on incapacity benefit for years with nobody talking to them. Sometimes, people are stuck on IB for three, four or five years, with no contact at all. Nobody asks them, “What would it take? What are the barriers to work? What would help and support you?”, which shows the difference in approach taken by the new Government. We are not writing people off and leaving them on IB; we want to talk to them, identify those who could be active participants in the labour market with the right support, and have a Work programme that supports them into a job.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned regional policy, but my personal view is that having a regional Minister would feel a little tokenistic. We can have a Minister for this or for that, but will they be in the room when key decisions are made in the way that departmental Ministers will be? I am sceptical that a Minister for one region would get special treatment compared with a Minister for another region. We do, however, have a substantial regional growth fund that is worth £1.4 billion and has been popular and successful. We have now had two rounds of bidding—I could go through a long list of projects in the north-east that have been awarded funding. We recognise that additional support needs to be provided to areas that have experienced difficult economic times, and the regional growth fund is an important part of our response to that.

Many of the changes to incapacity benefit were rightly introduced by the previous Government, whether that is the work capability assessment, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar said, needed to be refined to ensure that we get decisions right, or the attempt to take an incredible number of people—1.5 million nationwide—off incapacity benefit. As the hon. Member for Easington noted, some of those people will be former miners who have claimed IB for a decade or more. Is it humane or economically rational to say, “Well, you’ve been on IB for a decade, you are seven years away from the state pension age so we will leave you alone, you can have IB until pension age, and then you will get a pretty lousy pension because your miner’s pension will have stopped years ago”? That is not good enough.

The hon. Gentleman asks why we cannot wait until there are more jobs, but even if we waited for a big increase in private sector jobs, those on IB would not be active participants in that labour market. Ex-miners who have received IB for seven years are far from that labour market and not competing in it. When jobs are available, who will the employer choose between someone who has received no contact with the system, and no encouragement, work-related activity or training, and someone who has just come from another job? Both I and the hon. Gentleman know who that employer will choose, and it will not be his constituent on IB. We must talk to people on IB and look at who could work with the right support and who needs to be in the support group. We must enable and support those who are able to work for when jobs become available. I accept that there is currently pressure on jobs, but there is churn every day and week as people leave old jobs and start new ones. When recruiting someone new, perhaps not net additional employment but as a replacement for someone who has left, the crucial question will be whether the person on IB is a credible participant in that labour market. We believe that our policies support the north-east by helping those on IB, supporting them and paying by results when people get lasting jobs. That is the long-term answer to the pressures faced by the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.