HC Deb 10 December 2001 vol 376 cc580-3
6.Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East)

How many people of working age in Wythenshawe and Sale, East are not in work and are claiming incapacity benefit.[19146]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown)

Around 7,000 people in Wythenshawe and Sale, East are claiming incapacity benefit. Some of those people will participate in work trials, work placements and voluntary work. We are committed to giving people the help and support that they need to work, where they wish to do so. From next April, we are changing the incapacity benefit rules to help more people to try out work without fear of its affecting their benefit entitlement.

The House will also want to know that the Government have decided that random assignment will not be used as an evaluation tool for the new deal for disabled people.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)


Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that, since this is a new announcement. I am pleased that it was an "Ah" of welcome, rather than an "Ah" of dismay. I shall set out our reasons more fully in response to questions tabled by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), but I wanted to take the first opportunity to tell the House.

Paul Goggins

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and for his announcement. He will know that the figure he gave for my constituency is double the constituency average. I welcome the initiatives that he mentioned, and the work of the Wythenshawe action team, which helps to find jobs for people who, in the past, were left on the scrap heap. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the main problems facing incapacity benefit claimants in my constituency is that they have no qualifications? What steps is he taking to help them to improve their skills, and thereby enhance their capacity to work?

Mr. Brown

We have a range of training programmes for those who want to work. It is a feature not just of people on incapacity benefit but of the long-term unemployed more generally that 40 per cent. of those out of work for long periods have difficulty with basic skills such as literacy and numeracy. The Government have programmes in place to address those issues.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon)

Will the Minister confirm that the fastest growing group of people in Wythenshawe and Sale, East who claim incapacity benefit are those who pass the incapacity test but who fail the contributions test—what the Department calls credits—only cases? Does he accept that those people are genuinely disabled, unable to work but receive no money from the Government through this scheme? If Wythenshawe and Sale, East is typical of the country as a whole, does that worry him and does he plan to do anything about it?

Mr. Brown

I cannot confirm that the hon. Gentleman's point about the individual constituency is correct, but as he knows it is a contributory benefit, so if the contributions have not been made the benefit is not available.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of the males on incapacity benefit in Wythenshawe and Sale, East are like those on incapacity benefit in South Yorkshire, Scotland and South Wales? They are in receipt of compensation for chronic bronchitis and emphysema, and for vibration white finger. He will also be aware of their grievance that the examination procedures used in the common law system that awards disability benefit are different from those used by the Department. Will he consider referring the matter to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, so that it can advise him whether it would be worth the Department's accepting the examination procedures that are used by the common law system?

Mr. Brown

I cannot give my hon. Friend the assurance that he is seeking, because the purposes underpinning the two systems are different. He is correct about the communities that traditionally looked for their employment base to heavy industry or primary industry, such as coal mining, shipbuilding and steel. Those communities, especially the people who left work in their late 40s, 50s or 60s, often bear the scars of the industrial diseases that, to our great shame, went with those industries. I am thinking of pneumoconiosis, industrial deafness and tenosynovitis. My hon. Friend is right to describe such illnesses as terrible injuries, and to say that compensation should be paid.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins) on his question. It is clear that there is great interest on both sides of the House in the situation in Wythenshawe and Sale, East. Will the Minister tell us whether that situation differs from the national trend? If it does not, that means that more people are claiming incapacity benefit now—that the figure has been rising, and is now at its highest for three years. It also means that the number of people who are economically inactive because of long-term sickness is greater than it was when the Government came to office.

If the situation in the hon. Gentleman's constituency is typical of that throughout the country, more people are claiming income support because they are disabled than when the Government came to office—200,000 more nation wide.

Surely that evidence shows that the Government are failing to reform welfare. Instead, they have more disabled people on means-tested benefits. While we welcome the Minister's decision not to pursue his ill conceived idea of random assignment, what we need is evidence, carefully assembled and presented to the House. All too often, such evidence shows that the rhetoric about welfare reform is not supported by the reality.

Mr. Brown

I do not accept that—but I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the Government's decision not to proceed with random assignment, while gently taking issue with him and pointing out that it was not my "ill conceived idea", if that is how he wishes to describe it. [Laughter.] I should have thought that gentle humour was permitted in this place, Mr. Speaker.

I cannot confirm that the position in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins) is typical of national trends. The stock of incapacity benefit claimants there is probably higher than that in the country as a whole, and thus atypical. I can confirm, however, that the number of new claimants is declining, if demographic factors are taken into account.

The issue is the stock of people claiming this benefit, having moved on from the previous similar benefit. Why are there so many of them? The answer is clear: as the hon. Gentleman knows, during the 1980s the policy of the then Conservative Government was to shift people off the employment register and on to the benefit that has been succeeded by incapacity benefit. The Government must confront not just the question of flows, but the issue of stock. The reason the problem is as intractable as the hon. Gentleman says is that for 18 years his party failed to do anything about it.