HC Deb 05 July 1993 vol 228 cc1-4
1. Mrs. Helen Jackson

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement on his plans for invalidity benefit.

2. Mr. Malcolm Bruce

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what representations he has received about the future of invalidity benefit; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lilley)

Invalidity benefit is being reviewed in the context of the fundamental review of social security expenditure. Many representations have been received. No decisions have been made, but when they are I will make a full statement to the House.

Mrs. Jackson

Is the Secretary of State aware that, in Sheffield, the number of medical assessments for people on invalidity benefit has increased in every month since February, so that it is now 70 per cent. higher than it was in February? Is he also aware that, to use the words of a constituent who went for a medical assessment, it was undertaken in a way that made her feel "a criminal and a scrounger"? Will the Secretary of State, therefore, assure all the many people who are already sick and depressed from being out of work that they will not suffer continual harassment and worry that their income will be removed?

Mr. Lilley

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for writing to me about that case. I assure her that I have asked a senior medical officer in the area to look into her constituent's interview and report the details to me. Obviously, I would not like anyone to feel harassed in the way that she describes.

The number of people applying for invalidity benefit has remained pretty constant in recent months throughout the country, whatever may have happened in particular regions, but, over the longer term—since 1979—the number of people receiving invalidity benefit has increased from 600,000 to 1.5 million, at a time when the nation's health has improved. It is only natural, therefore, that we should examine the benefit and see whether the arrangements for it can be improved.

Mr. Bruce

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the sooner he can make a decision on that the better, and that many people who receive invalidity benefit are deeply concerned and angry that the Government may be targeting them—the poorest and most vulnerable members of the community—when wealthy donors to the Conservative party appear to be trying to persuade the Government to ensure that their incomes are protected? Can that be just and fair?

Mr. Lilley

The second half of the hon. Member's question makes it clear that he is not seriously concerned about those on invalidity benefit. He is just trying to make cheap jibes at their expense. Nothing that has been said by the Government, or in any of the documents allegedly coming from us, would give rise to the fears that he mentions. Only the scaremongering of Opposition Members suggests that there is any targeting of people on invalidity benefit. Our objective is to ensure that those who are genuinely sick and disabled receive help and that it is not diverted to those who would be better off either working or on benefits that would help them back to work.

That seems to me a logical and positive approach, which those who have a genuine incapacity to work fully and whole-heartedly support.

Mrs. Roe

Does my right hon. Friend share my view that his proposals to consult fully on a test of ability to work will be welcomed widely by the medical profession? Is he able to tell the House whether his Department has received any representations from doctors on the tightening up of procedures and current rules?

Mr. Lilley

I agree with my hon. Friend that most people think that it is sensible to consider an objective medical test. We are considering it and we shall see whether it is possible to develop one. If so, we will consult fully about it. Since we began the tightening up of procedures under the existing legal powers in February this year, we have received about 300 letters from doctors, all but three or four supporting the changes that we are making and saying that it is sensible to tighten up, and that the previous arrangements were unsatisfactory for them as well as for their patients.

Mr. Ward

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while we all want applicants for state help to be sympathetically and courteously dealt with, he should not be deterred from carrying out a full review of all aspects of social security spending by all the smears and innuendo put about by the Labour party? Does he further agree that such a review is the only way to make sure that the money goes to those in need and not to those who would just like a little bit extra?

Mr. Lilley

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have to carry out a deep and far-reaching review. The objective of that review is to end up with a better system, in the sense that it guarantees the position of the most vulnerable and needy in society and does not outstrip the nation's ability to pay. If we allowed the system to outstrip that ability, it woud collapse under its own weight and put at risk the very people who depend on it. Opposition Members who believe that nothing need be done are putting at risk those who depend on the system.

Mr. Bradley

Is not it quite incredible that the Secretary of State accuses the Opposition of scaremongering and fails to deny that he will cut benefits to the sick and disabled who will have to pay the price for your economic impompetence? [HON. MEMBERS: "Order."] Does not he realise that the average invalidity benefit payment is £79 a week, which is well below the national average? Those people will suffer hardship if you tax it, thus reducing the amount of benefit to which they are entitled. If you add to that the heartless decision to stop payments to the independent living fund for the terminally ill because the Government refuse to resource the fund sufficiently—this is not scaremongering—that is a tax on the sick and disabled because the Government are trying to cut public expenditure. Will the right hon. Gentleman today stop the attacks on the sick and disabled and make sure that they have the amounts to which they are entitled, so that they may live and die in dignity and independence?

Mr. Lilley

I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for sharing some of the unwarranted blame that we have to face on this issue. Whenever we have reformed and changed benefits, we have always protected the position of existing claimants. Everybody knows that and people have our track record to go on. Equally, we have made it clear for many years, since the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that it was our long-term intention to tax all income replacement benefits, that that has been our intention in the case of invalidity benefit, as elsewhere. Because of practical difficulties, we found it impossible to do that. However, most people would agree that it is sensible that a benefit that replaces income should, where possible, be treated like income and taxed for people who have other income to accumulate with it. The hon. Gentleman seems to think that money grows on trees and that it is just a matter of the Government pouring endless, additional sums into the benefit system. We have increased expenditure by two thirds in total, but growth must be contained within the nation's ability to pay.