§ 10. Sir Fergus Montgomery
To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what is the spending on benefits for long-term sick and disabled people and their carers in 1995–96; and what was the equivalent figure in 1978–79. 
§ Mr. Burt
Estimated expenditure on benefits for long-term sick and disabled people and their carers has quadrupled in real terms, from £5 billion in 1978–79 to more than £20 billion in 1995–96. With some 6.5 million disabled people, this represents a substantial commitment, and it is almost as great as our commitment to the 345,000 people—I can now provide that figure, as my memory has recovered—who will benefit from family credit extensions.
§ Sir Fergus Montgomery
Does my hon. Friend agree mat our system of disability benefits is comprehensive and coherent? Does he agree that it promotes independence and integration, and that it focuses extra help on people who are disabled early in life and therefore have the least chance to work and save?
§ Mr. Burt
Yes. My hon. Friend is correct. The system has for some 25 years tried to recognise the importance that disabled people attach to being independent, and benefits have increased accordingly. Our record on disability has been very good. The scheme recently announced by the NHS to allow access to powered wheelchairs and the Community Care (Direct Payments) Bill, which is currently going through the House, demonstrate that our commitment is undiminished and increasing.
§ Mr. Alan Howarth
If the Minister wants to achieve value for the money spent on long-term sick and disabled people, will he accept that efficiency will have to be understood in terms of quality of service rather than merely in terms of savings to the Exchequer? Will he concede, particularly in the light of the shambles mat has been exposed in the privatisation of other parts of the Benefits Agency, that there is no reason to suppose that privatisation of the Benefits Agency medical service will secure better service or value even in the Treasury's terms, and that, if the Conservative party retains any sense of civic responsibility, it will abandon that project?
§ Mr. Burt
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point. In virtually every case where some form of contractorisation has been introduced, it has provided benefits to the service and the taxpayer, with no diminution in quality whatsoever. I do not consider that the Benefits Agency medical service will be harmed by the process of contractorisation now being considered and we expect an enhanced service to result.
§ Mr. Harry Greenway
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government's work for and funding of disabled people is remarkable? The same is true of people in poverty. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) was not the only Member at Church house this morning; hon. Members in all parts of the House are taking part in that conference on poverty and recognise the importance of the theme. Is it not true that people are properly covered by the benefits system and that nobody needs to be in poverty?
§ Mr. Burt
A remarkable tone of consensus was adopted on radio and television by some speakers at the conference this morning. My hon. Friend has adopted the same tone, but it has not been adopted by me Opposition. A considerable amount of effort and time is put in by the Government to try to ease the burdens of poverty. We maintain that the most important way to ease people out of poverty is to provide work and the opportunities for work. The success of our efforts in doing so has considerably reduced unemployment in the United Kingdom.
As for our commitment to those in difficulties, expenditure on disabled people has quadrupled in real terms since we have been in office, which is evident manifestation of our commitment. This Government care and can prove that they care.