HC Deb 26 January 1998 vol 305 cc16-8
13. Mr. Winnick

If she will make a statement on proposed changes to disability benefits. [23064]

19. Ms Christine Russell

If she will report progress on welfare reform with particular reference to disability benefits. [23070]

Ms Harman

Benefits for people with sickness and disabilities are part of our review of the social security system. We shall come forward with proposals later in the year and they will be followed by full consultation.

Mr. Winnick

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to reassure disabled people that their position will not be worsened?

Ms Harman

I do agree with my hon. Friend. It is very important to reassure disabled people that their position will not be worsened—far from it. Two principles drive our social security review in respect of people with health problems or disabilities. The first is to ensure that those who cannot work have the right support, whether it is cash or services, or a combination of the two. The second is to ensure that we do not follow the path of the previous Government, who told people with health problems and disabilities that, even though they might have some capacity to work and might want to work, they would be written off to a life on benefits. Our approach is to extend opportunities to people with ill health or disabilities. We are backing that with £195 million of investment in innovative schemes so that the minority—it is, however, a significant minority—of those who are long-term sick or disabled can have attention paid to their needs and can be supported in getting into, and staying in, work.

Ms Russell

Before I was elected to the House, I worked with people, most of whom had learning disabilities. I am still in close touch with them and, last week, I had a meeting with representatives of DIAL house in Chester. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is familiar with that organisation. Given the concern fuelled by all the scaremongering in the media, will my right hon. Friend give a categorical assurance that, before any key decisions are finally taken, there will be full consultation with organisations such as the Disability Benefits Consortium and the DIAL network?

Ms Harman

I am happy to give my hon. Friend a categorical assurance that the organisations that she mentioned and many others will be fully consulted. I want to allay her concerns. She raised the important issue of the prospects in adult life of people with learning disabilities, which is of particular concern to them and to their carers. Although we provide a proper framework and many opportunities for people with learning difficulties while they are of school age, many of them are written off when they reach school-leaving age. They feel that they cannot continue to develop, and their parents feel a sense of desperation and worry about whether there will be any framework for the lives of their sons or daughters when they are not around to care for them. We must ensure that we take account of people's abilities and capacities as well as their disabilities and incapacities, and we must provide opportunities for all. The days when people were told, "You've got an incapacity. You've got a disability. You're written off. Here's some money"—

Madam Speaker

Order. All the right hon. Lady was asked for was a categorical assurance. I have to take two more questions on this subject.

Mr. Amess

Is the right hon. Lady aware that, judging by the number of telephone calls and letters that 1 have received, my constituents in Southend, West already believe that this rotten Labour Government are cutting disability benefit? Will she explain to the House why, since 1 May, many of my severely disabled constituents have been called in by doctors for further examination and have had their benefits taken away? If they have gone to appeal, their cases have taken an awfully long time to be heard.

Ms Harman

That is another first-rate example of—I do not want to use an unparliamentary word—synthetic concern. The hon. Gentleman is referring to the benefit integrity project, which was crafted, fashioned and consulted on by the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) when he was Secretary of State for Social Security. If the hon. Gentleman wants to get into a lather about this issue, he has missed the boat. Our approach is to keep a careful eye on the benefit integrity project to ensure that people on disability living allowance receive the right amount of that benefit under the current conditions of entitlement. However, that has nothing to do with our review of benefits for the long-term sick and disabled, so the hon. Gentleman's argument does not wash.

Mr. Collins

Will the Secretary of State clarify whether the purpose of her review is to reduce spending on people with disabilities?

Ms Harman

The purpose of our review is to ensure the right level of care and support for those who cannot work, and to ensure maximum opportunities for those who can work. The exercise is driven by principle, not by cuts.