HC Deb 17 July 1995 vol 263 cc1293-5
1. Mr. Rooney

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what proposals he has for monitoring the introduction of incapacity benefit. [32763]

The Minister for Social Security and Disabled People (Mr. Alistair Burt)

A variety of arrangements are in place. They include the collection of statistical information on claims, disallowances, appeals and qualitative assessments of adjudication and the operation of the medical test.

Mr. Rooney

The Minister will appreciate that if the new benefit is to work properly, the quality of medical assessments is vital. Can he give an idea of progress with recruiting medical advisers and their training?

Mr. Burt

So far, 669 sessional doctors have been recruited. It is estimated that the full complement of 800 doctors will be recruited by the end of this month, as well as full-time staff required to evaluate the process. We are well up to date with the recruitment and training of doctors, which builds to some degree on information and work that they previously possessed and undertook. It is clearly vital to keep the benefit under close scrutiny and control. The work has been built up to ensure that that will happen. I will keep a careful eye on matters relating to the medical test.

Mr. Garnier

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his promotion to Minister of State. Can he confirm that people who cannot work and who have been receiving invalidity benefit will continue to receive exactly the same under the new system? How many of the applicants who have been refused incapacity benefit have failed to turn up for interviews?

Mr. Burt

The test's purpose is to focus attention on people who are incapable of work, to make sure that they receive the appropriate benefit, and on those who are unemployed for other reasons, who will also receive the appropriate benefit. We expect that about half the people currently on benefit will be exempt from the new test because of age or the nature of their impairment. Although few cases have come through the system so far, my hon. and learned Friend is right that a number of persons required to attend for the test have not bothered to do so. It is important to keep an eye on that, to make sure that people are not missing appointments for reasons which should be taken into account. The fact that some persons have not come forward is quite significant.

Mr. Bradley

I, too, congratulate the Minister on his promotion, which I am sure he feels is long overdue. Recently I visited the Manchester medical centre which is taking the lead with the introduction of the medical test. I was impressed by the sensitive way in which the staff at that centre are dealing with the introduction of the test. Of more concern is the number of disability organisations that have contacted me regarding press reports of the apparent hiring of Dr. John Le Cascio, second vice-president of the Unum Corporation, which is a multinational private insurance company. Dr. Cascio's job, at a reputed salary of £40,000 a year, is apparently to help train doctors in the techniques of the new medical test. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case, and that £40,000 is the salary being paid? Will he state Dr. Le Cascio's role and comment on whether he feels that there is any conflict of interest between that duty and being vice-president of a private insurance company?

Mr. Burt

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's initial remarks—and for those of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier)—on my elevation; it is for others to decide whether or not it was overdue—I certainly do not feel that way, but I am none the less grateful.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) appreciated what he saw at first hand in Manchester and the manner in which the test is being conducted. I urge the hon. Gentleman to continue to rely on the evidence of his own eyes, rather than following magazine reports about people who may be employed by the Department to give help and advice.

Off the top of my head, I do not have straightforward answers to all the hon. Gentleman's questions. I undertake, however, to write to supply the information that he requests. I urge him to continue to use his eyes. I am sure that he will find that his experience in Manchester is replicated throughout the country.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I, too, offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend on his promotion.

Does my hon. Friend agree that having extensively piloted the changes in assessment, and having widely consulted, it is right that we should now have independent assessment to ensure that we arrive at correct assessments on behalf of those who are claiming the benefit?

May I make one suggestion, which arises from constituency cases? There seems to be a feeling that assessment is too short and that there is a failure to listen to questions asked of the doctor. Will my hon. Friend make it clear to those who attend the assessment that a considerable amount of information has been obtained before the assessment is made? Therefore, simple questions often do not need to be asked. Does my hon. Friend agree that the assessments should be perceived as fair if the changes are to be widely accepted?

Mr. Burt

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks.

At this early stage we are keeping a close eye on the medical tests and the questions asked. I appreciate my hon. Friend's comments. It would seem important to give the procedure that we have in place—it has been there for only two or three months—a chance to work. We shall be evaluating it with the doctors to ascertain how the assessments are going, how long they are taking and how people are responding to them.

My hon. Friend is correct in saying that the test has been extensively trawled. It was well trawled in committee. A panel of 80 independent experts consulted to determine how the test should be put together. There were then two evaluation studies. The test was further refined after that. Real effort has been made to ensure that the test will suit the purpose for which it was designed. It will always be capable of further refinement. My hon. Friend and others will find me open to refinements that will improve the system and assist those who need the benefit.