HC Deb 25 October 1999 vol 336 cc690-6
6. Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

What proposals he has for defining the qualifications needed by the personal advisers who will be implementing the successor regime to the all-work test for incapacity benefit. [93750]

13. Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

What progress he has made in devising a replacement for the all-work test. [93760]

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

Our proposed replacement for the all-work test will collect information about what people can do, as well as what they cannot do. We are considering the results of a first pilot study of a proposed personal capability assessment, and we are also training personal advisers in disability awareness.

Mr. McWalter

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. The qualities required by personal advisers may be significant, given that they will have to analyse the capacities of people with Asperger's syndrome and other difficult conditions, and the state of the workplaces where those people may have the capacity to work. Given those complexities, will my he assure us that personal advisers will be fully trained and highly qualified?

Mr. Bayley

My hon. Friend makes some important points, and I can give him the assurance that he seeks. The training that personal advisers receive will be tailored to their individual needs. For instance, someone who has previously worked as a disability employment adviser will have different training needs from someone who has worked on housing benefit. To date, personal advisers have gone through an average of 200 hours training; some have received 300 or 400 hours. Particular emphasis is placed on all special client groups, although more time is spent on disability awareness than on understanding the needs of other groups. We have had input from a wide range of voluntary organisations, such as Scope, Mencap, MIND and the National Schizophrenia Fellowship, on the content of the training programmes.

Mr. Blizzard

Does my hon. Friend agree that nothing discredits the system that we inherited from the previous Government more than the all-work test? In devising a new test, will he ensure that more decisions are reached correctly at the first time of asking, so as to avoid lengthy appeals? Will he ensure that the questions asked elicit the real nature of the disability, because disabled people often say that they can perform a particular function but do not mention the extreme difficulty that they have in performing it? Sometimes that renders them ineligible for the benefit. Will he deal in particular with the problems of people who suffer from ME?

Mr. Bayley

The trend in appeals shows that, as a result of the changes that our Department has made, more people are getting the right decision first time, but there is some way to go, and we shall press ahead with that. The all-work test remains the same for the gateway to incapacity benefit: we have not tightened up the system. However, we are taking a wide range of measures to improve the quality of the advice that Benefits Agency medical services practitioners give on claims, including those involving ME. My hon. Friend has taken a special interest in chronic fatigue syndrome, so he will know that the advice to personal advisers and to doctors making assessments that is published by the Department in the "Disability Handbook" provides much detail about ME and states that it must be taken seriously.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Is there not something rather cruel about the idea of slackening the medical criteria, while at the same time introducing means-testing for incapacity benefits? Is it really fair to fund this easing of medical criteria on the back of the savings of seriously disabled people?

Mr. Bayley

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands what we are doing. We are not slackening the medical criteria; we are not changing them in any way. What we are doing is expanding the all-work test into a personal capability assessment. As well as taking into account what a person cannot do, and thereby assessing that person's entitlement to benefit, we take into account what that person can do. The information will then be fed in to assist disabled people who want to return to work to achieve their aim.

According to the Government's labour force survey, 1 million people who have been consigned to life on benefits in the long term by the policies of the last Government say that they want to work, and we are providing the help and advice that will enable more of them to do so.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Can the hon. Gentleman explain the change in Government policy that occurred between the passage of the Bill that became the Social Security Act 1998, when the Government rejected Conservative proposals that there should be legally qualified chairmen and that doctors should be present when appeals were being heard requiring complex medical evidence, and the passage on 18 May this year of a statutory instrument making precisely that provision?

Mr. Bayley

We have made provision for a medically qualified person, as well as a legally qualified person, to be on the board when appeals relating to incapacity benefit are being heard. We have done that because we believe it is right. As for the arcane debate in relation to the 1998 Act, the Opposition can take responsibility for it. Nothing in the legislation prevented the Government from doing what we believed needed to be done, and that is what we have done.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

Will assessments of people who can perform a task take into account whether it is medically advisable for them to undertake that task? I have a constituent whose joints were damaged by a wasting disease, and who has to have replacement joints. The surgeon has said that, if the task is carried out, another operation will be needed far sooner than it would be if my constituent rested the joints and engaged in limited activity with them. Although that person is able to perform the task in question, that task in itself will worsen the condition.

Mr. Bayley

I would be extremely concerned if any doctor recommended that a person should return to work if work would worsen the person's condition. That is certainly not the Government's intention.

I hope that this will reassure the hon. Gentleman. It will be made clear to anyone discussing with a personal adviser the scope that exists for that person to return to work that any job seeking, or job taking, is entirely voluntary. Once the service is up and running, people on incapacity benefit will be required to discuss what scope there is for a return to work, but they and they alone, as individuals, will decide whether to convert that scope into job seeking.

7. Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

What proposals he has to amend the rules relating to incapacity benefit. [93751]

The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Alistair Darling)

We are determined to bring the benefits system up to date, and to do more for those who need help most. During the Report stage of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, I made it clear that the principles that underpin these reforms were right, but that I was prepared to consider the details in the light of future representations. That remains the case.

Mr. Waterson

Does the Secretary of State accept that applying means-testing to incapacity benefit not only undermines the contributory principle, but constitutes a massive disincentive for constituents—including mine—who have disabilities, and who want to save and make provision for themselves?

Mr. Darling

No, I do not accept that. I think it right that, when people draw down a pension early after retiring through incapacity, and when they have a significant income, that income ought to be taken into account. I bear in mind the fact that about 300,000 people who receive incapacity benefit along with an occupational pension have an income of some £400 a week, and the fact that nearly 50 per cent. of incapacity benefit recipients with occupational pensions are in the top income brackets.

I believe that the social security system needs to do far more for those who need help most. That is why we are increasing the amount of help that we give to severely disabled children by nearly £27 a week, and in some cases—involving those with particular difficulties—by more than £35 a week. If we are to do that, however, there will come a stage at which we must consider where else the system is paying benefits to people on whom, owing to changes in circumstances over the past 50 years, we might not wish to focus our activities. I believe that the principles that underpin the Government's approach are absolutely right. I have said that I am prepared to look at the detail. I am doing that and will have further proposals, but the principle that the Government's efforts are best directed towards those who need help most is right.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will my right hon. Friend listen very carefully to those on our side who have criticised his proposals, particularly those who have campaigned for disability benefits for years on end? I have in mind Lord Ashley and Lord Morris. Will my right hon. Friend bear it in mind that, although many of us recognise the improvements that have undoubtedly taken place in the past two years for many people who are affected by his Department—some of us have taken the opportunity to point that out on many occasions—there is deep concern over what is being proposed? To avoid what occurred on 20 May in the House of Commons happening again, I hope that he will bear in mind our concern.

Mr. Darling

I made it clear that I am and have been listening to representations over the past few months. I will have further proposals, but I repeat that I believe that the principles that underpin the approach that we are taking in this and other parts of the Bill are absolutely right.

The Government have given other help to disabled people. We have introduced the disabled person's tax credit, the disability income guarantee and the new deal for the disabled—all those are new and were introduced by the present Government. None of them came from the Tory Government.

The Tory opposition to this part of the Bill is wholly opportunistic. I respect the views of some of my colleagues and, indeed, some Cross Benchers in the other place. I will listen to them, but I hope that my hon. Friend will accept, when he looks at what the Government are doing in the round, that we are greatly helping people who are disabled and doing far more than any Government have for those who need help most. I hope that, when it comes to the final vote, he will look at those matters in the round, support the Government and not go into the Lobby with Conservative Members.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

The arguments that the Secretary of State has used for means-testing incapacity benefit—the fact that some recipients have big company pensions—would apply equally to retirement pensions, yet the Government think that it is wrong on principle to means-test the national insurance retirement pension. Why is it wrong to means-test the retirement pension, but right to means-test incapacity benefit?

Mr. Darling

Pensions that are drawn early after someone has retired because of incapacity are meant to replace income; incapacity benefit was originally designed in the same way. When the hon. Gentleman reflects that 50 years ago, less than 30 per cent. of people had occupational pensions and that now nearly 86 per cent. of men have such provision, he will realise that we cannot go on ignoring that fact. I understand that the Liberal Democrats' view is sometimes different and that they have all sorts of spending proposals without any means of financing them. However, there comes a stage when, if we want to do more for those who are most severely disabled, particularly children who have been disabled from birth or at an early stage, we will have to look at what is happening throughout the labour market and ensure that the social security system reflects those changes. At the moment, such people are paid so little that they are living on income support for the whole of their lives. Our changes will lift them above income support.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

I welcome the Government's statement in another place that those on the higher care component of disability living allowance will be exempted from the clawback in incapacity benefit. However, can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government, in modernising welfare, will continue to protect those in greatest need, particularly people who, through the severity of their disability, have never been able to work?

Mr. Darling

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. I confirm that Baroness Hollis, the Under-Secretary of State, made it clear in the other place that the Government, having listened to representations, would exempt from the proposals those who are most severely disabled. That change will be widely welcomed. I accept the arguments in respect of it. The Government will ensure that the appropriate amendments are made to the Bill.

As I was saying to the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), when I took over this job I was struck by how little we were doing for those who are most severely disabled. I do not think that any Labour Government could complete a term of office and simply allow that to continue. I am therefore determined to do more and more to help those who are severely disabled—those who will never, ever work—and I feel very strongly that, as a matter of decency, we owe that to them.

I feel equally strongly that the current benefits system is increasingly out of date, and that it will have to keep abreast of changes in society and in the labour market. I therefore believe that the principles underlying our approach are right, but am listening to representations on the detail.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

Does the Secretary of State understand that there is so much cross-party opposition to his proposals not because of points of detail, but because of points of principle, such as the principle of a contributory incapacity benefit? I remind him that it is also a matter of holding him to account for his own statements about encouraging people to save for their own retirement.

How can the Government say that they want to encourage people to take out pensions—we heard it again today from the Minister of State, Department of Social Security—but at the same time penalise them if they have an occupational or personal pension—but only if they a pension; the Government are interested in no other type of savings—by depriving them of their incapacity benefit? That is manifestly an attack on saving and is inconsistent with the Government's own statements.

Mr. Darling

We are talking about sums that are drawn down early by someone who has come out of the labour force because of an incapacity. The hon. Gentleman said that it was a matter of principle. I was interested in a letter—a copy of which someone was kind enough to send me—sent to all Tory Members by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), saying that today's Question Time would be a useful opportunity to see how determined the Government were to reverse the amendments in the other place. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar said, however, that a degree of subtlety is required in that the Government is keen to brand the defeats as Tory plotting. The letter goes on to invite Tory Members to a plotting meeting, at 1.15 pm, in the Tea Room.

The Tory opposition to the changes that we are proposing in the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill is wholly opportunistic. When people see what the Government have done for disabled people and judge that against what the previous Government did—blocking the changes that we tried to make in establishing the Disability Rights Commission, and at every turn disadvantaging disabled people—most of them will realise that our position is one of principle, in stark contrast to the position taken by Conservative Members.

Mr. Willetts

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) is renowned for his subtlety, and it is a great asset to have him on the team.

The Secretary of State still does not seem to realise the significance of the defeats that the Government suffered in the other place the other week. In the media, he claimed that the defeats were inflicted by some sort of backward-looking alliance of hereditary peers. Does he not realise that, even if not a single hereditary peer had voted, the Government would still have gone down to a humiliating defeat? Does that not tell him something about how wrong the proposals are?

Mr. Darling

No, it does not. On the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill and other measures currently being considered by the other place, it is quite clear that the Conservative party and hereditary peers are determined to squeeze every last opportunity out of the time they have remaining in the other place.

I take with great seriousness much of what many Members said in the other place, but find it difficult to take seriously what the hon. Gentleman has to say. Two weeks ago, at the Tory party conference, he gave a pledge to cut social security spending as a proportion of national income. However, his colleagues—Conservative Members—in the other place have now backed amendments totalling £3.5 billion of expenditure commitments. The hon. Gentleman invites us to believe that he is a man of principle and that he will cut social security spending, but Conservative Members never did that in all their time in government. In real terms, the previous Government increased social security spending by 90 per cent., although the gap between rich and poor and the number of people born in poverty increased year after year. That is a damning indictment of the failure of the previous, Tory Government.

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