HC Deb 19 April 1999 vol 329 cc555-6
4. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

What assessment he has made of the effect of benefits payable to disabled people on their ability to find employment. [79731]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Hugh Bayley)

Removing barriers to work is a key strand of our strategy for helping disabled people. Since last October, we have protected disabled people's benefit position for one year after starting a job and allowed unlimited voluntary work. Last week, we launched the incapacity-to-work pilots: a package of four measures that will improve opportunities for disabled people who want to move into or return to work.

Dr. Starkey

Does my hon. Friend accept that a significant number of disabled people have been unemployed for so long that they have lost the confidence that they will be able to sustain employment if they find it, and are not fully aware of the new benefits? What is being done to ensure that local Benefits Agency offices work closely with local Employment Service offices to ensure that disabled people are guided through the transition from out-of-work benefits to in-work benefits?

Mr. Bayley

My hon. Friend makes some extremely important points. We have changed the linking rule, extending it from eight weeks to 52 weeks, precisely to give people who have been out of work and on benefits for a long time the confidence that they can try work without putting the security of their benefits at risk, should they need to return to them. It is extremely important for the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency to work closely together to explain to people in that position that they have everything to gain from trying employment and that if it does not work out, they will not have lost their benefits. That is precisely what the single work-focused gateway is intended to do and what the new deal for disabled people pilots are doing already.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

Whatever the Minister says, does not he realise that the changes in incapacity benefit will drive many disabled people out of work? Disabled people with progressive conditions who are able to be in full-time work for some years, but then reach the point at which they can work only part-time could be deprived of the right to claim incapacity benefit when, eventually, they are unable to work at all.

For many disabled people, the policy will be an incentive to leave work. Does the Minister accept that, on top of the introduction of the means-testing of incapacity benefit, which reduces the incentive to save, the policy will drive more disabled people into dependency?

Mr. Bayley

No, I do not accept that point for one minute. It is a misleading misinterpretation of the Government's intentions. The hon. Lady ignores the fact that the incapacity-to-work pilots launched last week provide four new measures to assist disabled people to take work, including the job match payment of £50 a week to enable disabled people to try part-time work, and the job start payment of £200 to enable people going into a job after a gap to meet the initial costs. Those are benefits for disabled people that will make it easier for them to move off incapacity benefit and into work.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

I want to raise again the way in which people with mental illness are treated by the Benefits Agency. On Friday, I came across the case of a woman who has been suffering from agoraphobia for a long time. Last week, she lost her benefit and she now has to live on £29 a month. She was expected to attend an interview tomorrow with respect to going to work. This morning, I have discovered, through examining her medical record with the practice concerned, that the medical evidence has not been considered with any seriousness, which has been very disturbing for her. Will my hon. Friend ensure that all Benefits Agency offices treat people with mental illnesses with much more sympathy than they appear to do at present?

Mr. Bayley

If my hon. Friend writes to me with details of the case, I shall investigate and write back to him. We can visit benefit claimants in their homes where it is unreasonable or inappropriate to invite them to come out for a medical. That may be the answer in this case.

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