HC Deb 20 February 1996 vol 272 cc161-2
5. Mr. Harry Greenway

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security how many claimants are currently receiving invalidity benefits; at what cost to the Exchequer; what was (a) the number and (b) the costs in real terms (i) 10 years ago and (ii) 20 years ago; and if he will make a statement. [14355]

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

As at November 1995, just under 1.7 million claimants were receiving incapacity benefits at the short-term—higher—and the long-term rates, compared with invalidity benefit recipients of 450,000 in 1975–76 and just under 850,000 in 1985–86. The estimated annual cost to the Exchequer, as at last November, is £7.7 billion. At current prices, this cost was £1.9 billion 20 years ago, and was £3.7 billion 10 years ago.

Mr. Greenway

I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Social Security (Incapacity for Work) Act 1994 which ensures that benefits go to those who are too unfit to work. Will he confirm that this measure, along with all the other measures introduced by the Secretary of State, has been opposed by the Labour party? Does not thinking the unthinkable mean spending the unaffordable?

Mr. Burt

Yes, it is very easy to express a wish, in general terms, to control public expenditure, but to actually take the steps to do so is rather hard—a clear difference between the quality of the Government and the noise of the empty Opposition.

Mr. Foulkes

I shall suggest something to the Minister that may receive all-party support—the suggestion by Pensioners' Voice and other such organisations that the Government might organise a campaign to encourage the take-up of benefits to which people are entitled. Will the Minister give serious consideration to introducing such a national campaign, as suggested by Pensioners' Voice, Age Concern and a large number of other voluntary organisations?

Mr. Burt

Nine pounds out of every £10 of benefit is already taken up. Extensive take-up campaigns are run by welfare organisations and others and at the end of the day only the smallest benefits are not taken up. We cannot force people to take up benefit. The hon. Gentleman's concern for pensioners and the elderly would be rather more genuine had he protested more seriously about the inadequacies of the cold weather payment scheme when his party was last in Government and the damage that inflation caused them in the past.

Ms Lynne

Is the Minister aware that many people are denied incapacity benefit because the medical test is not strictly adhered to? In some cases, instead of being asked to pick up a kettle or saucepan of 1.7 litres, people are being asked to pick up an overcoat, and instead of picking up a tray, they are being asked to pick up a box of tissues. They have lost benefit and only won it back on appeal. Will the Minister look at the matter urgently?

Mr. Burt

The medical test is kept under strict scrutiny. There is a monitoring system to make sure that it is applied consistently. To date, Ministers have received no complaints such as the one that the hon. Lady has offered the House today. I am happy to receive a letter from her, but it is a matter of great concern to us that the medical test is applied consistently and well. I am pleased that the hon. Lady now appreciates the need for change in the medical test and perhaps she will be more supportive of the scheme in future.