HC Deb 10 December 1996 vol 287 cc107-9
5. Mr. Bradley

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security if he will make a statement on the real-terms percentage change since 1979 in social security spending on incapacity benefit. [6849]

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

Between 1978–79 and 1994–95, expenditure on invalidity benefit rose by 216 per cent. in real terms. As a result of the introduction of incapacity benefit in April 1995, we expect expenditure in the long term to be significantly reduced.

Mr. Bradley

Is it not clear that the introduction of incapacity benefit will reduce benefit for people in ill health regardless of their circumstances? In the past month, two constituents have told me that they have had heart attacks and are still under the care of the local hospital and their general practitioners, but have had their incapacity benefit taken off them. Following my intervention, those benefits have been restored. Surely such people should be treated as being in exceptional circumstances due to their severe medical condition and should not have their benefit taken away. If the Minister agrees, will he ensure that fresh instructions are given to the Benefits Agency medical service so that no people who have had heart attacks and are under the care of a local hospital or a GP suffer the distress of having their benefits taken off them?

Mr. Burt

I have looked at the two cases that the hon. Gentleman raises: the matter is not quite as simple as he suggests. The treatment of those who have had heart attacks varies, as do their chances of getting back to work, depending on their condition. In the cases to which he referred, the system worked because there was an opportunity to review them. Whether somebody is capable of going back to work must essentially be a medical decision.

The hon. Gentleman attended a presentation of the all work test when he was an Opposition Front Bencher, and he had an opportunity to talk to doctors. He will he aware that there is no instruction from the Government to make life more difficult for those who suffer heart attacks. My concern is to ensure that doctors have sufficient scope to allow them to make the right decision. There is plenty of opportunity in the test to make exceptional decisions where they believe that there is a substantial risk to health. I am obviously concerned about some of the cases that have arisen recently, and I have already had meetings with officials in the Department. The all work test is being monitored, and a publication about it will be available early in the new year. At the moment, I am satisfied that doctors have the proper scope that they need.

Mr. Churchill

By their nature, war disability pensioners are a declining band. Was it really necessary, therefore, for the Government to deprive them of that to which they would have been entitled this year and in the years ahead? Will my hon. Friend clarify exactly when the measures that were announced on 5 December will be implemented? I have already received a significant number of disturbing letters suggesting that, for deafness, the policy was implemented several months ago. Consequently, many hundreds—if not thousands—of people are being deprived of £40 a week that they would have stood to receive under the previous arrangements.

Mr. Burt

I am not altogether sure whether my hon. Friend heard the earlier replies given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. If he did not, I suggest that he reads them in tomorrow's Hansard. I can tell him that it has been the practice right the way through the system to accept the medical advice that has been given to the Government when dealing with such cases. Most often, medical advice may allow extra claims and extra opportunity. If my hon. Friend is siding with the Opposition in wanting to allow the Government to pick and choose what information is accepted, he must appreciate the great danger of that course. The medical evidence on which the Government are relying has been placed in the Library. All that I can do is urge him not to believe everything that he might read in The Guardian—

Mr. Churchill

When is it being implemented?

Mr. Burt

—but to listen to colleagues and read debates that have already taken place with the groups with which the Government discuss the proper implementation date for such measures.

Ms Lynne

Does the Minister accept that a number of people are not now getting incapacity benefit because they are allowed only five working days to prepare their appeal? That is happening at the same time as the Government are cutting benefits to war pensioners who gave their health in the service of this country. Is it not about time that the Government stopped attacking disabled people?

Mr. Burt

Expenditure on the sick and disabled has risen by some 280 per cent. since the Government have been in office. That record is based on the strength of the economy and is one that the hon. Lady, had she been a member of the Lib-Lab pact, could never have afforded. The success rate for appeals on invalidity benefit is running at about 44 per cent., which is comparable with other social security appeals. There is no way that the Government are being mean towards disabled people. Indeed, we have produced a range of legislation that will improve the quality of life for disabled people for many years to come.