§ 1. Dr. Goodson-Wickes
To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what consultations he has had concerning the institution of objective medical tests in relation to the payment of benefits.
§ The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lilley)
In the course of my review of invalidity benefit I am considering introducing an objective medical test. My officials have undertaken a number of informal discussions with medical experts. No decisions have yet been made, but I am encouraged by the progress made so far.
When we have firm proposals I will publish them and consult formally and fully.
§ Dr. Goodson-Wickes
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on tackling the necessary and rigorous review of the social security system, the operation of which is perceived by many to be subject to abuse at the expense of the most vulnerable in society?
Is it not ridiculous that, at a time when the nation's health is improving steadily, the number of people claiming invalidity benefit has risen by one third over the past five years? May I welcome my right hon. Friend's 2 statement that he is considering an objective medical test, which would not only avoid difficulties in the doctor-patient relationship, but, most importantly, would ensure that benefit is drawn only by those who are incapable of work?
§ Mr. Lilley
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about the long-term review of public expenditure, and social security expenditure in particular. If we are to ensure that the system guarantees the position of the most vulnerable, we must make sure that money is not wasted or abused. That lies behind much of our thinking.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend also for pointing out that we are to review the unsatisfactory procedures by which medical checks are operated to test whether a person is incapable of working. Doctors will welcome the proposals to bring in an objective test which will remove them from their present invidious position.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
Is the Secretary of State aware that his use of the word "objective" in that fashion is both pejorative and offensive to the medical profession as it implies that those who give accurate clinical judgments on medical conditions are influenced not by medical conditions but by personal attributes, or by some aspect of the doctor's relationship with the patient? Is that not unacceptable, ignorant and a poor excuse for the Government's attempts to cut the money available to the most vulnerable?
§ Mr. Lilley
I do not agree with the hon. Lady at all. There have been many criticisms of the present arrangements, particularly from doctors, since the previous uprating statement.
I received 300 letters from doctors, more than 290 of which supported the changes that we have made. I have never criticised doctors for the way in which they operate the present system. It is up to us to provide a system that does not put doctors in an invidious position and results in an objective test of medical capacity to work. The present system has changed over the years due to legal rulings, and has been difficult for doctors to operate. It is up to us to produce a better system, and that is what I am trying to do.
§ Mr. Hawkins
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, under this Government, spending on the long-term sick and disabled—of whom there are many in my constituency —has more than trebled in real terms to around £15 billion a year? Is that not a powerful commitment by the Government to helping the most vulnerable?
§ Mr. Lilley
My hon. Friend is quite correct. There has been a particularly rapid growth in the number of people on invalidity benefit. The number has nearly trebled over the past 15 years, and expenditure on invalidity benefit has more than trebled during that period in real terms.
We have deliberately improved the benefits for disabled people through the disability working allowance and the disability living allowance. The allowances are targeted on those who have disabilities and who need help with mobility and care. That is a gauge of our determination to help those in need. We are determined to persist with that, but that requires us to make sure that other money is not misspent.
§ Mr. Dewar
Does not the Minister recognise that, with unemployment remaining stubbornly high at around 3 million, the impact on the cost of invalidity benefit is bound to be severe, as his own permanent secretary pointed out in evidence to the Public Accounts Committee a couple of years ago? Should not the right hon. Gentleman's anger and concern be concentrated on the Government's economic failure, rather than on those who have been forced on to benefit by ill health? Has the right hon. Gentleman read the remarks—reported in the press on Sunday—of Archbishop Winning, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Glasgow, who commented on the hypocrisy of targeting single parents, the unemployed and the disadvantaged in the name of a moral crusade? Is it not time that the Ministers gave up scapegoat politics and tried to face some of the real issues?
§ Mr. Lilley
The only anger that I feel and the only anger that I ever express is at the Opposition, for their scaremongering tactics—for deliberately causing concern among the sick, the elderly and the frailest in our society. Our policies and reforms are intended to help those people, and it is monstrous that they should be used as shock troops for the Labour party, as a substitute for its lack of policy. I entirely agree with the archbishop that no one should target the frail and the vulnerable, single mothers or otherwise, and I have no intention of doing so. We want a better system that will help those who need the help of those better off than themselves.