HL Deb 06 October 1998 vol 593 cc256-7

3.4 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their estimate of the number of disabled people who could move from welfare to work.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the Government have no such estimate. However, the Labour Force Survey indicates that just over 1 million disabled people of working age who are receiving state benefits excluding child benefit want to work. This figure includes some 656,000 people who for a variety of reasons would be unable to start work within a fortnight.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Since the Green Paper confirms that at least two-thirds of the 6.5 million disabled are over retirement age and recent censuses show that about half of those of working age are already employed and many of the rest are very severely disabled, is not the scope for removing benefit from the disabled sector strictly limited although there is much willingness there to find suitable work?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I am aware of the noble Lord's keen interest in the number of disabled people of working age. I suspect that much of the difficulty in trying to work out the precise numbers arises from how disability is defined and how that information is gathered. This can lead to a wide range of estimates both in terms of the overall number of disabled people and the age distribution within it. But the substance of the issue is that a significant number of disabled people wish to work. The crucial importance of New Deal for Disabled People lies in finding better ways to support those people who are on sickness and disability benefit but who wish to work and could work given the right support.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that very many severely disabled people would like to work part time but because they are fearful of losing their benefits they do not do so? Will the Minister look at part-time workers?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, yes. One of the benefits of New Deal for Disabled People, which is being rolled out through a number of pilots and an evaluation at the end of next year, is that it allows the Government to examine many of the issues involved in trying to support disabled people in work, and we must take account of both the incentives and disincentives for people to do so.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his first response is rather surprising? One would have thought that in the general review of welfare benefits, particularly those for the disabled, at least an approximate estimate would have been made. Does the Minister agree that there is widespread anxiety about disabled people as a result of the number of apparent leaks from his department which cause concern as to what measures the Government may introduce, which one might have anticipated would be covered in the public expenditure review? Can noble Lords be told now when the plans for the disabled are to come before the House?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, it is not appropriate for me to comment upon press speculation on this issue. These matters will come before the Houses of Parliament in due course. As to the figures, I was referring to different approaches to surveys or the census. The figures that I quoted originally came from the labour force figures and show that the number of people of working age with long-term disabilities is just over 2.4 million. Of those, just over 1 million would like to work if they were able.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that part of the Government's difficulty in this matter arises from the practice adopted by the previous administration of artificially depressing the level of the official unemployed by transfers to disability? How long does the Minister believe the necessary statistical corrections to the system will take?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, my noble friend raises an extremely interesting point in relation to the practice of the previous administration. I believe that this demonstrates the benefit of using the labour force figures which I have already mentioned.

Lord Rix

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the valuable financial support and benefits which accrue as a result of Access to Work to both employees and employers should be given far greater publicity, because a large number of disabled people and employers have no knowledge of this particular exercise?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, yes.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that any proposal to tax the mobility element of disabled living allowance would lead to many disabled people returning from work to welfare, because they could no longer afford transport to get to their workplace?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, again, it is difficult for me to comment upon speculation. Options are being considered in the welfare reform Green Paper. Decisions will have to reflect the clear principle of the government welfare reform programme, which is to help those in greatest need within the resources available.