HL Deb 11 July 2001 vol 626 cc1086-8

3.12 p.m.

Earl Russell

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have set any target for reducing the number of people on incapacity benefit; and, if so, what they expect the proposed three-year test for disability benefits to contribute to that objective.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, the Department for Work and Pensions has no target to reduce the number of people who receive incapacity benefit. However, many disabled people tell us that they want to work and our public services agreement commits us to helping them do so.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that welcome reply. The desire to help is laudable and is shared in every quarter of the House. Does the Minister agree that for almost all people with disabilities there is some form of work that they could physically undertake? However, that is no excuse for withdrawing benefits, unless, first, they have the ability and the skills to do that work; secondly, jobs of that kind exist for which they might apply; and, thirdly, they can be considered for appointment to those jobs if they apply for them.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I agree with much of what the noble Earl has said. The changes being proposed by the Government are precisely to offer disabled people who are either coming off incapacity benefit or who perhaps continue to be eligible for incapacity benefit, the ability to come through to a Jobcentre Plus and have the opportunity to learn about new treatments, new technologies, the linking rules and the work trial experiences and so on that the rest of us take for granted. The Disability Rights Commission— not the Government—has said that there are 1 million disabled people who would like to work. So far in the past we have done too little to help them. That is the thrust of the Government's proposals.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister to clear up a mystery. Last week the Secretary of State's speech on imposing the three-year check on those on disability benefits received massive publicity. It appeared to be yet another case of the Government announcing policy outside Parliament rather than to it. But when my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever asked the Minister why there had not been a Statement, the noble Baroness replied that there was no major new initiative at all and there were already repeated checks on eligibility. Why have the Government mishandled the matter in this way? They have caused widespread distress to the disabled, the voluntary organisations which were not consulted and Members of both Houses of Parliament.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, as the noble Lord recognises, I tried to explain to the House in the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, in which the noble Lord, Lord Astor, and the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, took part from the Opposition Front Benches, that the focus of our change was for the first time giving opportunities to disabled people because we were setting up Jobcentre Plus.

The noble Lord is absolutely right, disabled people now regularly have their benefits checked. All benefits must be checked because we are stewards of the appropriate benefits. I tried to emphasise that this was an opportunity under which disabled people would for the first time receive active support in helping them back to work at the point of those interviews. I explained at the time that, obviously, if the press chose to run stories which were not consistent with that I regretted it. But the Government's position has not changed—not one word—since the Statement I made to the House last Wednesday as I am sure the noble Lord's noble friend will confirm. I only wish that I had had the pleasure of the company of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, on that occasion.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, can the Minister give the House some indication of the rate of increase in the totality of spending on incapacity benefit since, let us say, the mid-1990s?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the number of people on incapacity benefit since 1979 has increased fourfold. In the last couple of years the numbers have increased by a couple of hundred thousand, primarily because women for the first time now have national insurance protection and therefore are entitled to this benefit rather than alternative benefits.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, has the Minister any concern about the manner in which general practitioners sign up some of their patients as being incapable of work? Also to what extent, particularly in some of the more difficult urban areas where general practitioners are at some risk of assault from disgruntled patients, does the Minister think that they may be under undue pressure to sign people up as incapable of work when possibly they should not do so?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, I share the belief that in the 1980s and to some extent in the early 1990s, in a period when there was not the relatively full employment that we now have, some GPs were encouraged, with the support perhaps of the Government but certainly without criticism from them, to help people who might in other circumstances have been on unemployment benefit to be put on to incapacity benefit. I accept that may have occurred in the past.

I take the point about intimidation of GPs. My noble friend Lord Hunt tells me that there is now a strategy in place from the Department of Health to deal with that particular issue. But across the country we now have, for the most part, full employment. The Disability Rights Commission tells us that 1 million disabled people wish to work but do not have the opportunity. With the Disability Rights Commission, and working with the employers' disability forum, it is now the appropriate time to change the culture and encourage employers to realise that disabled people can be real assets to their company. Therefore, I hope that with the approach we are adopting of offering disabled people personal advisers we can do what the whole House I am sure wants, which is to give every disabled person the rights that every one of us here expects to enjoy.