HC Deb 07 June 2004 vol 422 cc1-4
1. Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)

How many people were registered as recipients of either disability, incapacity or sickness benefits (a) on the most recent date for which figures are available, (b) in 1999 and (c) in 1994. [177310]

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith)

In 1979 there were 690,000 people of working age claiming incapacity benefits. By 1994 there were 2.23 million and by 1997, 2.56 million. In 2003 there were 2.68 million. I have placed information on all the benefits about which the hon. Member asks in the Library.

The numbers of people coming on to incapacity benefits are down by more than a quarter in the past seven years, but we still need to do more, which is why we started the pathways to work pilots. I am pleased to note that the hon. Gentleman's own constituency is included in this innovative approach.

Sir Teddy Taylor

The Department's statistics, confirmed by the Library, show that, over the last five years, there has been an increase of 531,000 in the number of people securing disability living allowance or incapacity benefit. As that figure involves a 20 per cent. increase in DLA, does the Secretary of State feel that there is a case for an inquiry to find out why there has been such a huge increase, particularly as there can be implications for other statistics? When we see such a huge increase, it is important to find out why it has happened. I should greatly appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's help in establishing exactly why there has been an increase of 531,000 in this short period.

Mr. Smith

The on-flows on to incapacity benefit are down sharply over the last seven years, by some 260,000 a year. The hon. Gentleman should draw a distinction between incapacity benefit and DLA, which is non-means-tested and paid to people in work, as well as to those out of work, to meet the extra costs of their disability. I would have thought that he would join me in celebrating the fact that people who need that help because they are disabled are receiving it. Sometimes the Conservative party is quick to criticise us for the lower take-up of benefits. Perhaps, on this occasion, the hon. Gentleman will think again about criticising us for the higher take-up of a much needed benefit.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know that one third of my constituents of working age are on incapacity benefit, a phenomenally high figure. Does he believe that the role of GPs in, effectively, giving people a passport to benefits for life is in serious need of review?

Mr. Smith

We are reviewing these matters and learning from the pathways to work pilots, which also operate in my hon. Friend's constituency. We have established much closer partnership working with GPs, primary care trusts and those involved in training and voluntary service support for sick and disabled people. The early evidence from the pilots is that a lot of people are being helped into training and work rather than incapacity benefit, including in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (LD)

The emphasis from the Government on pathways to work and on the pilots is welcome, but will the Secretary of State acknowledge the regional dimension? Is he aware of the recent work by Steve Fothergill—an academic at Sheffield university—and others, which shows clearly that if the economies were stronger in south Wales, the north-east and Clydeside, up to 1.2 million claimants could be taken off incapacity benefit? What are the Government doing to address the regional dimension of the problem, in addition to the individual attention that, rightly, is being given to people in the pathways to work pilots?

Mr. Smith

I am aware not only of regional disparities but of the progress that is being made in the different regions. When one looks at the labour market statistics as a whole over the past seven years—during which we have put 1.9 million extra people into jobs—it is striking that unemployment has fallen furthest in the areas where it was highest. That does not mean that there is not more to do, and through the pathways to work pilots—which are in some of the very areas to which the hon. Gentleman referred—we will be making inroads into what has become a culture of incapacity in those areas. That must change, and I believe positively that it will.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)

I hope that we have not spotted another Tory leak—about plans to take benefits away from the legitimately ill. Surely the test here is what would have happened in the past to people with such difficulties and how many of them now are being helped by programmes such as the new deal to get back into work when they are capable of it.

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend makes a good point. People were left to languish on incapacity and other benefits for years, with no one paying them any attention or giving them any help whatever. What Conservative Members leave out of their analysis of the new deal is the number of people suffering ill health and disability—barriers to work—who have been helped by the other new deals. Some 57,000 disabled people have been helped by the new deal for young people, and 41,000 disabled people over the age of 25 have been helped by that new deal. A further 33,000 people have been helped by the new deal 50-plus and 9,000 by the new deal for lone parents. All those are programmes that would be scrapped by the Conservative party.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con)

Further to the Secretary of State's remark about a culture of incapacity benefit, he will be aware, although he did not give these figures to the House, that since 1997 the number of people claiming incapacity benefit for such conditions as stress, anxiety and depression has risen to 718,000, that that is a rise of 39 per cent. and that such conditions now represent 26 per cent. of all claims. That rise is continuing, and it is clearly out of control. Can the Minister guarantee that it will be reduced by the end of this Parliament, or is his Department too stressed and anxious to do that?

Mr. Smith

There are a number of reasons underlying the increase in sickness and ill health—and, in particular, mental ill health—take-up of incapacity benefit. Greater awareness and an increase in people's readiness to acknowledge mental health conditions are certainly part of the picture, but if the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that it would be wise to examine the gateway through which people get on to those benefits, and offer them support to enable them to get back into work rather than have a life on benefits, I agree with him. I hope that he agrees with us that the pathways to work approach, which combines rehabilitation, mandatory work-focused interviews, and incentives and help with training for those who move into jobs, is the right way forward. It is cutting-edge stuff as far as international experience is concerned, and the Conservative party ought to support it.