HC Deb 16 November 1998 vol 319 cc599-601
11. Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

How many people have been taken off benefit as a result of the benefit integrity project. [58376]

13. Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

If he will make a statement on the replacement for the benefit integrity project. [58378]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Stephen Timms)

By 30 September, 138,000 cases had been checked under the benefit integrity project. Of those, 32,500 people were found initially not to be receiving the right amount of benefit. The number fell to 29,300, after the reviews and appeals that have been completed so far.

It is right to check whether people are receiving the correct rate of benefit, but the benefit integrity project, as conceived by the previous Government, was flawed in two specific respects. First, it was insensitive to the circumstances of disabled people—we have made a number of improvements—and, secondly, it focused only on people with high rates of disability living allowance so that payment changes could, in the great majority of cases, be downwards only.

That is why we plan to replace BIP with a new system—part of the routine administration of the benefit—which is sensitive to people's circumstances and which is fair, because it will apply to all benefit rates and so result in upward, or downward, revisions to ensure that people are receiving the correct amount of benefit.

Mr. Mitchell

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, with which I agree whole-heartedly. Can he tell us how soon the new system, which needs to be introduced urgently, will come in? Can he assure us that it will not include the coercive aspects of the benefit integrity project? They have clouded the debate on disablement and benefit with a fog of fear and alarm which is felt by those who think that they are being coerced and subjected to a shake down to get them off the benefit that they had received from the previous Administration. We should deal with fraud, but not at the expense of inducing terror among those people who are entitled to benefit.

Mr. Timms

We intend to learn from the many lessons of the BIP experience and to introduce the new system as soon as possible, but it is important that we get it right. We do not want to rush into a new system without properly planning for it. We want to ensure, for example, that staff are properly trained by the time that the new arrangements start. The disability benefits forum set up a working group last week to work with us to plan how those new arrangements should work. We will put them in place as soon as we can sensibly do so.

Mr. Syms

Following the announcement of the scrapping of the benefit integrity project, people who have been assessed or are about to be assessed are concerned that they will face the double jeopardy of being processed through a new system. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said, it is important that we have a date and guidelines for the establishment of the new system, because there is great concern in the disabled community. I hope that the Minister will be a little more precise. Was the announcement of the new system an aspiration for the next century, or will it be implemented early next year?

Mr. Timms

No. We are in discussion with the disability benefits forum about the arrangements that will replace BIP. We are not yet able to say precisely when the new arrangements will start, but I reassure the hon. Gentleman's constituents that there will be no question of a double jeopardy as he described. The current arrangements will continue until we have a properly planned and worked-out system with which to replace them.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

Does the hon. Gentleman not understand the contradiction in the assurances that he has just given to his Back-Bench Friends? He implied that the benefit integrity project will end some time in the next century. He also suggested that things will be a little easier. Sources close to the Secretary of State have said that the Government intend to save 25 per cent. of the benefits budget. The implication of that is straightforward: people currently on benefit—legitimately, not through fraud—will lose. The Secretary of State has suggested that, for some people, the medical evidence for granting disability living allowance is not immediately obvious. Will Ministers second-guess medical opinion? Will the Minister tell us who will lose?

Mr. Timms

That question contained a number of disconnected points. There is no truth in the hon. Gentleman's allegation about a 25 per cent. saving. It is important that the Department and claimants are confident that they are receiving the correct amount of benefit. The previous Government introduced the BIP programme, which was designed to move people from high to lower rates of benefit. That was wrong and unfair. We will introduce arrangements that are fair and apply to all levels of disability living allowance, so that we can be certain that people are receiving the amount of benefit to which they are entitled. That is right for them, for the Department, for the Government and for society. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will apologise on behalf of the Conservative party for the BIP scheme that he supported, and that he will support the new arrangements that we will put in place.

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