HC Deb 04 March 2002 vol 381 cc18-20
10. Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham)

What targets his Department has for getting people who claim incapacity benefit into work. [36334]

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown)

We have no targets for getting people who claim incapacity benefit into work. Where people are capable of returning to work, the Department will give them every assistance to do so.

Our new Jobcentre Plus service ensures that people who make new or repeat claims for incapacity benefit have the opportunity of work-focused advice and support from a personal adviser so that they can be helped to move into work when they are ready to do so.

From this April, we are introducing new, fairer and more flexible permitted work rules. Any incapacity benefit recipient will be able to earn up to £20 per week for an unlimited period or work for less than 16 hours and earn up to £66 a week for 26 weeks. The new rules are more flexible and give all people in receipt of incapacity benefit the chance to get back into work.

Mr. Hoban

I suppose that it is no surprise that the Government have no targets for getting people on incapacity benefit back into work. More than 50 per cent. of those claiming incapacity benefit have been doing so for more than four years. In addition, the ONE interviews for sick and disabled people have been shown by the Department's own research to be failures. When will the Government come forward with effective measures to increase the number of people in work and decrease the number of those claiming benefits?

Mr. Brown

I strongly disagree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question. Incapacity benefit is there for a purpose, because the people claiming it are ill and not able to work. We should not have targets for forcing people to work if they are sick and cannot do so. That would be completely unfair. However, when people can work, the services of the Employment Service, such as Jobcentre Plus, are there to help them back into work. Moreover, when they are capable of doing some work, the new discretionary sums of money are available for them if they are capable of doing only a small amount of work or if it is of therapeutic value. That seems to be the right approach. To suggest that people should be compelled to work, in the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman advocates, is very wrong, and would not, I am sure, be endorsed by his Front-Bench colleagues.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I wish to refer to those who are disabled and cannot work. I have a constituent who suffers from a form of heart disease for which only a transplant will lead to any recovery. He had his disability living allowance reduced from the higher to the lower rate and when he lodged an appeal, it was taken away altogether. Why should my constituent be treated in such a shabby manner? Obviously I have written to the Secretary of State. The Benefits Agency and the hospital that is treating him. Surely this is an illustration of the Benefits Agency making decisions that are impossible to understand.

Mr. Brown

I am reluctant to discuss individual constituents' cases on the Floor of the House, and even more reluctant to do so without having the full details of the case. However, I give my hon. Friend this assurance—I will look at the case that he raises and write to him about it.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

Is not the Minister concerned, as I hope we all are, that about 3,000 people leave the labour force each week for incapacity benefit and only a very small proportion return to work? Was it not entirely predictable that numbers on incapacity benefit are rising again?

Has the Minister read the Department's own research report, No. 127, showing that respondents in the sick or disabled group who had not participated in the work-focused interviews were more likely to be in work than those who had participated? Has he also noticed the extraordinary situation whereby vocational rehabilitation is his responsibility in this Department while occupational health sits in the Department of Health? Is it not high time for Ministers collectively, in this most sensitive of areas, to put less emphasis on presentation and more on joined-up thinking?

Mr. Brown

Although we have to be adversarial at Question Time, the hon. Gentleman makes two fair points. First, we need to do more on rehabilitation, and he is right that responsibilities are split between the two Departments. That is why Ministers are talking together to see what more can be done, and we ought to explore that. Secondly, he noted the rising number of people coming on to the benefit. I say to him gently that it is possible to overstate the problem because there are demographic factors at work. Nevertheless, I accept that if one wants to try to intervene, by far and away the best thing is to intervene early with a programme of rehabilitation, where that is appropriate.