HC Deb 23 January 2003 vol 398 cc163-91WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned. —[Charlotte Atkins.]

4.2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle)

May I say how pleased I am to open the debate on the Green Paper "Pathways to work: Helping people into employment", which we published by way of a statement in the House on 18 November 2002? I take this opportunity to remind hon. Members that the consultation closes on 10 February 2003, so there is still plenty of time for hon. Members and others who have an interest in these matters to send us their comments and suggestions.

It is appropriate that we are considering the issues that are raised by the Green Paper during the European year of people with disabilities—I was pleased to attend the celebration launch yesterday. Work, and access to work, is one of the biggest and most important issues facing disabled people. One of the key goals of the Department for Work and Pensions is the improvement of the employment rate for disabled people. That is also a crucial part of the wider Government strategy for the full inclusion of disabled people in our society. We have a twin-track strategy to make progress, which is both facilitating pathways into work—that is what the Green Paper and this debate are about—and improving the civil rights of disabled people while seeking to end discrimination against them, whether in the workplace or anywhere else.

Hon. Members who are assiduous in respect of their duties—I have only to look around to see how assiduous they are—will have seen that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made a written ministerial statement yesterday announcing our intention to publish, for pre-legislative scrutiny, a disability Bill in draft later this year. That will enable us to deal with the gaps and omissions that remain in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. That, taken together with the changes that we are making in order to comply with article 13 of the employment directive, and with the full implementation of the remaining provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act by October 2004, will represent the biggest expansion of civil rights for disabled people ever seen in this country.

We have an environment that is conducive to change and which will enable disabled people to take their rightful place in the workplace. We need, however, to take practical steps to help disabled people overcome the barriers to work that they face. That is what "Pathways to Work" is all about.

I will briefly set out the scale of the problem. The good news is that, because we have record levels of employment in a strong and stable economy, the environment in this country is conducive to progress. Almost 1.5 million new jobs have been created since 1997. Some 74.3 per cent, of people of working age are in work—that is the highest percentage ever in the UK and it is the second best of all the G7 countries. We also have the lowest unemployment level in the G7 for the first time in nearly 50 years. Some of the most disadvantaged in the labour market have benefited most from the developments. For example, long-term unemployment has fallen by 75 per cent., which is greater than the fall in the general level of unemployment. There has been a 500,000 fall in the level of unemployment.

We can realistically hope to make progress in respect of the employment levels of disabled people, and we have, but the obstacles are formidable. A trend is emerging throughout the developed world of increasing numbers of working-age people being in receipt of sickness or incapacity benefits with no evidence of a commensurate increase in ill health in the population as a whole.

That trend is apparent in Britain. There are currently 2.7 million people on incapacity benefits, which includes severe disablement allowance. There was a 6 per cent, increase between 1997 and 2002. Before the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) suggests that that does not represent progress, I gently remind him that the last Conservative Government presided over a 26 per cent, increase in those numbers between 1992 and 1997.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)


Maria Eagle

I will give way in a moment.

In case the hon. Gentleman thinks that I am being selective with the years that I have mentioned, the number of people on sickness and incapacity benefits tripled between 1979 and 1997.

Mr. Boswell

The Minister does me a slight disservice, because I rose on a different point. My wife comes from industrial south Wales. We should recognise that geographic areas that have a history of high unemployment, deprivation and relatively low health tend to express the trend mentioned by the Minister. Perhaps there is evidence of a slight cultural and local factor as well as a purely objective derivation.

Maria Eagle

The hon. Gentleman is right. I apologise for giving way to him on a point to which he was not intending to reply. There are geographical variations and other types of variation as well, all of which require careful study before deciding what can be done about the problems. As well as the rate of increase of those on incapacity benefits slowing there are other good signs—a narrowing in the gap between the unemployment rate of the working-age population as a whole and that of disabled people, for example. Between 1998–2002, the employment rate of working-age disabled people rose by about 4.5 per cent. It is still below the average for working-age people who are not disabled, but there is evidence of a narrowing, which should be welcomed.

We must remember that disabled people are still five times as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people. In order to ensure that disabled people benefit from the increasing economic prosperity that I have outlined, we must close that gap.

What are the relevant facts about the benefit that will help us to come up with solutions? Almost half of all those on incapacity benefit are on the benefit for more than five years. Those on incapacity benefit for more than one year remain on that benefit for eight years, on average. However, we know that 90 per cent, of those coming on to incapacity benefit expect to return to work when they first make their claim, so the trend is not evidence of malingering, scrounging or deliberately trying to play the system.

The people concerned want to work and expect to return to work. We know that 1 million disabled people on benefit say that they would like to work, but we are not as good at helping them to meet their aspirations as we are at helping those who are more traditionally unemployed. We must try to improve.

We have made some helpful changes—increasing flexibility in the benefit system, for example, making work pay and offering specialist help by way of disability employment programmes. The incapacity benefit linking rules, which were extended in 1998 to 52 weeks, enable people on that benefit to try out work. If, because of their health condition or for any other reason, they are not able to remain in employment, they can go back on benefit at the level at which they were before. To somebody with a health condition, the insecurity of worrying about taking a job and then losing it, and where that puts that person in relation to their benefit was a big disincentive to disabled people to try out work. The linking rules should remove that disincentive. We should remember that if a disabled person is in receipt of disabled person's tax credit, the linking rules extend to two years.

There is also a change in the therapeutic earnings rules, as they used to be known, in respect of permitted work. It allows people on incapacity benefit to work for an unlimited time earning up to £20 a week. If they work for less than 16 hours a week, they can retain their benefit while earning up to £67.50 a week for 26 weeks, and for a further 26 weeks if that will assist them. The therapeutic earnings rules used to require a doctor's certificate stating that work would be of benefit to somebody's health condition. That is no longer necessary. We have also uprated the earnings limit in incapacity benefit, which enables people to keep some of their benefit in line with the national minimum wage. Such changes help to make work pay and ease the difficult transition from being on benefit to being in work.

In addition to doing what we can to increase the flexibilities in the benefit rules, we have also, as a Department, improved our advisory services. We have developed some of our specialist disability employment programmes. For example, the creation of Jobcentre Plus is designed to provide a personalised service to those who require our assistance with getting back into work. That sort of more customer-focused, individualised service can assist only when helping people who are facing multiple barriers to work.

We have some long-standing programmes, such as workstep, although it has been reformed from the old support and employment programme to emphasise progression into non-supported work environments. Programmes such as access to work assist individuals in dealing with the costs of their disability to the extent that it is a barrier to work. New programmes, such as the new deal for disabled people, are trying innovative ways of helping disabled people into the workplace.

For many years, our services have attempted to provide additional assistance and, as I go round the country, I value the work of the disability employment advisers and the network of often very dedicated people who are skilled at assisting local disabled people into work. That work is ongoing and we are learning from it, but we need to do more.

The Green Paper outlines the next steps, which are concerned with how we can learn from what we have done already to improve the service that we can offer to people on sickness and incapacity benefits who want to work. I will briefly outline some of our ideas. We believe that a more tailored and intensive support system should be delivered at the point at which people start to receive incapacity benefits. I am referring to the flow on to the benefit, the point at which people are most job-ready. Having just come out of work, people are often at their most ambitious to get back to it and have expectations that they will. We believe that an intervention at that point could be effective, so we intend to deliver more intensive support in a new package of help.

As hon. Members will recall, having read the document, we intend to pilot the approach in six different areas—three pilots starting in October and three further pilots starting next April, with almost £97 million worth of new resources to establish whether we can devise a system that will work. The basis of it is that early, frequent support from skilled personal advisers, direct access to a range of specialist programmes and clear financial incentives to work will make a real difference to people as they start to receive incapacity benefits.

As for the better framework of support, those who are eligible for it in the pilot areas will receive an intensive series of work-focused interviews. They will not be compulsory for everybody with every condition. There will be exemptions because the package is devised to help those who are able to, and want to, get back to work, not to put disabled people and people with severe conditions through some kind of hoop in order to prove that they deserve their benefits. The approach is not coercive but supportive.

The personal adviser and the disabled person will produce action plans to set out a way of going forward and meeting aspirations to return to work. We recognise that our personal advisers will need new and better skills to deal with the client group because interventions will be more difficult. The advice will not be as straightforward as some personal advice that we can give now in Jobcentre Plus.

There will be direct access to a wider range of help including joint programmes that will join job-focused support with rehabilitation in conjunction with local NHS providers. That has great potential to be very effective.

Many of those on incapacity benefit—about 35 per cent., from memory—have a mental impairment of one kind or another, whether that is a learning disability or a mental illness such as depression. About 22 per cent, of people on incapacity benefit have back pain or musculoskeletal difficulties. If there were interventions and rehabilitations at that level, many of those people would be able to return to work, and many aspire to do that.

We had excellent results when we piloted such an approach in Salford and Bristol, and I shall briefly outline some of them because they are encouraging. The pilot involved 91 volunteers who were on a range of benefits. Fifty were on incapacity benefit, 27 were on jobseeker's allowance, and the rest were inactive or on no benefits. About two thirds of the people had been sacked or had resigned from work because of back pain. They had been out of work for an average of three years and had suffered from back pain for an average of eight and a half years. The volunteers undertook courses in groups ranging in size from eight to 12 people. The programme was quite short because it lasted for four to six weeks. More than 95 per cent, of the people who started the course completed it.

Six months after the programme had ceased, 40 per cent. of the participants were in paid employment, which was full-time employment in almost all cases, and 25 per cent. were in job training education or voluntary work, and were thus edging closer toward the labour market. The results from the intervention are interesting and promising. We aim to pilot the scheme in a more widely more scientific manner in order to determine whether it can help.

We will also offer an improved visible financial incentive: the return to work credit. It is tremendously important to offer unambiguously a better-off calculation that works for people if we expect them to go back to work. None of us would choose to work for nothing. We like our work for many reasons, but pay is certainly one of those. It is not reasonable for us to expect people who have been out of the labour market for some time to go back to work for the love of it, although work can have other beneficial effects. People, especially those with health conditions such as depression, find that going back to work is a healthy thing to do. However, that does not remove the requirement to ensure unambiguously that those who make the effort receive a financial reward.

The return to work credit would operate through Jobcentre Plus. It would be £40 a week for 52 weeks for those who return to work but earn less than £15,000 a year. That will send a strong signal and it will be a popular measure that will have an impact on those who wish to return to work. We are also considering extending the advisers discretionary fund of up to £300 for any individual case.

I often go around the country meeting people who work for Jobcentre Plus and the Department, and I am often struck by the imagination, hard work and dedication of many of our staff. The advisers discretionary fund is an active tool that is entirely based on the discretion of the adviser, and it can remove those last difficult barriers to returning to work. Increasing the payment to up to £300 could have a major impact in tackling the last barriers in a flexible way, and will be great value for money.

We also want to make sure that there is better support for people with health problems who are on jobseeker's allowance. According to the Green Paper, some people fail their medical assessment—the personal capability assessment—and end up having to come off incapacity benefit. Many go back on to jobseeker's allowance. Such people do not necessarily receive the help getting back to work that they might reasonably expect.

We want to ensure that we do not clock up the fact that someone is no longer eligible for incapacity benefit as a success, rather that we help that person into work. We intend to make sure that such people receive specialist help, including personal advice, and straight away have new deal opportunities and a proper jobseeker's agreement. We also want to ensure that we recognise their health needs. Just because someone does not pass the personal capability assessment, it does not necessarily mean that they do not have a health condition. We also intend to focus on those who go back on to jobseeker's allowance, and are therefore technically not on sickness or incapacity benefit.

As I say, the Green Paper is out for consultation at the moment, and that is another reason why I welcome the opportunity to set out our plans. Once the consultation is over and we have considered the responses, we will come forward with suggestions on which of its ideas we will take forward. Before the pilots are extended nationally, we will evaluate them fully. The policy issue of the increasing numbers of our fellow citizens claiming sickness and incapacity benefit and not fully receiving the help that we give to jobseekers is a major problem that needs to be dealt with. If we came up with interventions that allowed us to deal with the issue, it would be a major success in social policy terms, and would be a great boost to our commitment and determination to ensure the full inclusion of disabled people in our society.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair)

It might be helpful for Members to know that the debate will conclude at one minute to 6 o'clock. I call Mr. Boswell.

4.27 pm
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

I welcome the opportunity to debate the issue of pathways to work, and I welcome the tone in which the Minister introduced the debate. Those of us who are interested in vocational rehabilitation and the employment of disabled people are, sadly, too few—although some hon. Members have duties elsewhere at the moment—so we can probably treat each other as hon. Friends in terms of our commitment to the subject, even if some of our approaches vary.

As we are giving proper plaudits—or credit where it is due—I am grateful to the Government for announcing the draft disability Bill, which will repair the omissions in civil rights in this subject. However, I should warn the Minister that I came to the debate straight from participating in the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation's annual general meeting. I asked a distinguished and active campaigner in the disability rights movement her opinion of the new Bill, and she replied rather firmly, "When I've seen it, I'll comment on it." We need that caveat; however, the sooner we see it, the better. On balance, it is probably better that the Bill has a period in draft, because it is important that we get it right. The Minister need not necessarily assume that we wish to diminish its provisions, because we may well want to beef it up in some parts. That will depend.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde)

Is it not good that the reason why the Bill is still a considerable way off is to allow for pre-legislative scrutiny? That has not always happened in the past. It will allow people from RADAR and all the other organisations that the hon. Gentleman and I know well from this field to make a contribution that is more likely to have an effect before the Bill is drafted.

Mr. Boswell

There is always an argument about whether to do such things before or after, and some of us are critical of the way in which the Government have, to some extent, compressed scrutiny during the passage of Bills, because I like discussing Bills in detail. If the pre-legislative scrutiny has that effect, and if RADAR and the other organisations can get at the Bill before things are set in stone, I will support it. Time will tell whether that is the case, but I do not wish to start on an ungracious note.

As the Minister said, this subject is very important. Currently, 2.7 million of our people—a very significant proportion of the labour force—are on one incapacity benefit or another. Last year, the Prime Minister rather briskly described that as a scandal; on that, I agree with him.

To make a point that the Minister tried to elicit from me earlier, the number of claimants declined after changes were made in 1995 but is now beginning to creep up again. The Government's introduction to their Green Paper rather archly referred to people on incapacity benefit as not yet fully sharing in the success of the Government's welfare to work strategy. That is a bit of spin, but it makes a genuine point; they must do better, and the Minister concedes that that is the case. My party would back any action that encourages people to stay attached to the labour market, provided that it is not coercive, to borrow a word that she used.

Maria Eagle

When I was preparing for the debate, I noticed a parliamentary question that had been put down by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight), who is well known for looking for public expenditure savings. He asked whether it was the Government's policy to pay incapacity benefit for a fixed term. Is that Conservative party policy?

Mr. Boswell

The Minister needs to sort out her grammar. An interrogative is not a statement, and she should not confuse them.

We have a common objective; we want the same thing, so there is no point in messing about. I remember the Minister for Work disarming me once at Question Time by saying, "I think that we all want the same thing, even if we have to dress things up in politically charged language." We will not debate this matter further, because we accept that that is the case.

I welcome an announcement in a reply from the Minister for Work—and therefore from the Minister's Department—to a letter that I wrote on behalf of Rehab UK, which had expressed concerns about its financing of its specialist centres. The announcement put on the record on behalf of the Department that there was an economic benefit in vocational rehabilitation. We know that there is a personal benefit in that, but there is also—if I may put my gloss on it—a good business case for it. I am pleased that the Minister agrees with that.

It is a little chilling—but not very surprising—that the letter went on to say that that is to be judged against other priorities; 'twas ever thus, perhaps. The key is to get the right balance in our judgments, and we need to stimulate interest in achieving a much better understanding of the statistics and the case for these kinds of intervention. I will return to that point.

In this Room a couple of days ago, there was a very absorbing and rather good Adjournment debate on rehabilitation after brain injury. Figures from Rehab UK were quoted that suggested that the number of persons who had been through programmes and were then unable to find work was discouraging; some 60 per cent, of its throughput were unable to find work. There are also indications that the number of people returning to work in this country after a serious brain injury is lower than in the United States of America, for example. I hope that when the Minister looks at good practice in this country, she will also look at lessons that can be learned from other countries.

I will make two further points, neither of which is intended to be contentious. Indeed, to some extent the Minister is beginning to pick them up in the new Green Paper. The first is that there should be a seamless web—not a chasm, as there has often been—in respect of the health end of rehabilitation after such injuries. That does not mean only brain injuries, although those in the field often say that the quality of rehabilitation services for those is a proxy for the quality of rehabilitation services generally.

We understand that treatments start in hospital and may have to go through other primary medical phases but they cannot simply stop there, with the chain being broken. We need a continuous pathway, as the Health Committee's report on brain injury nearly three years ago made clear. Nor can the services be divorced from all the social agencies. It is not only a matter of the Employment Service but of supported or adapted housing, for example. The more we can bring such services together and, to borrow some Government jargon, join them up, the better.

It is in that context that I welcome the Minister's readiness to consider local NHS providers as part of job preparation and preparing people for returning to work. If she wants to examine a case after brain trauma, one of the most interesting that I can offer is the experience of the admirable community brain injury service at Aylesbury under Dr. Andy Tyerman, which has an excellent record. It has won awards, is practically focused and involves all the agencies. Even at the more intense, medical end, the more one is prepared to bring in psychologists to intervene early, the better. There is a common objective: bringing people back to work.

My second general point is implicit in the Green Paper. Maintaining people's position of employment is often at least as important as opening up opportunities for those who are already disabled and may never have participated in employment. We are conducting a double-headed operation, and properly so.

Chronic degeneration that is not remediated by reasonable adjustments can eventually drive people to retire from the work force and on to incapacity benefit. I have been given a figure for weekly entry into 113 of 3,300. It is not the figure that is chilling so much as the number of people who go on to IB and stay there for six months or more. The number returning to work after that is disappointingly low.

There are several points to be made about that. The first—I concede to the Minister—is the need for an emphasis on early, though not premature, intervention. Intense therapy and focus are welcome and we will want to monitor how the pilots work. We have come light years from discussions about malingering and other negative phrases, but there is a sense in which these problems compound themselves. If people have an accident or injury or develop a condition and are unable to work comfortably, they may leave the work force. That can become a progressive problem, with people becoming dispirited so that they do not get involved. We are at one in our general approach. We do not want entry to IB to become a one-way ticket to permanent exclusion from the labour force.

It is good sense to set up arrangements to encourage the retention in employment of people with impairments or chronic or growing disabilities. That should be done in parallel with action to create opportunities for people who are being employed for the first time. The two go together. I am always struck by the quite low cost of the adjustments and adaptations that may have to be provided. They can be complicated, as with the brain trauma cases that I mentioned, but it may just be a matter of a better seat or lighting or a different posture. The changes may be almost cost-free. The Minister may like to remind us that the average cost of adjustment is about £175, not the thousands of pounds that many employers fear.

I, too, would like to praise the work of disability employment advisers, although they are sometimes constrained by targets. For example, with learning disabilities and mental health, there is a suggestion that people will not be taken on unless it is felt that they will have returned to employment within six months. That may not always be possible and it may act as a deterrent. DEAs still have too low a profile in the Employment Service and it is not self-evident that that will change automatically with Jobcentre Plus or the new pathways to work.

We should also pay tribute to the specialist agencies in the voluntary sector that give advice, such as the Royal National Institute of the Blind and Mencap, which do immensely valuable work. I shall further discuss that relationship shortly.

The Government need to sort themselves out in respect of some formal problems relating to arrangements for people at work. I have been banging on about that for some time and making some interesting revelations. For example, at one point, the Health and Safety Executive was parked with the Department for Transport, but I am pleased that we managed to get it back to the Department for Work and Pensions.

There is a split—with reason, as there always is in government—in that occupational health is under the Department of Health, including its consultancy arm, NHS Plus, while vocational rehabilitation is under the Department for Work and Pensions. I mention that not to suggest that that cannot work, but to point out that Ministers in both Departments must actively ensure that the interface is successful, especially given some of the schemes that the Minister is introducing today. Ministers must offer a common front or pathway on disability issues. That is sometimes called joined-up government, and the Minister might like to comment on that.

I shall discuss points that arise from, or have been made to me about, the pathways document. Specialist return to work services, protection in work services or adaptation in work services require a heavy input in terms of personnel, time and, to some extent, depending on the case involved, physical resources. We need to concede that they will not always have an immediate or easy outcome. Ministers are fond of adopting targets, and Oppositions of crowing when they are not met. Sometimes the targets change or are reinterpreted. We need not go into that now, but it is an area where we are trying to get the glass half-full, not half-empty. I shall try to reflect that in my comments now and subsequently.

The Government's paper talks of 700,000 people a year coming on to benefits for the first time, and mentions a similar figure—although one is a stock while the other is a flow—for the number of disabled people for whom work would be appropriate but who are not working. The Minister was frank in saying that that is not good enough and that we must do better.

The Minister did not say much about the new deal for disabled people, however, and I have found it hard to get a clear evaluation from the Government of how it is going. She will no doubt say, in part, that it is early days. I accept that, and I make my remarks in the context of realising that it is perhaps better to try than not to be successful at all, but the idea that 94,000 people are involved through all the job brokers and the scheme's agents while it leads to only about 1,400 or 1,600 long-term, secure, continuing placements is depressing. We need to reflect on why that should be and Ministers should ask more questions.

It is no wonder that Ministers have been coy and have not set targets for the pathways to work. Of course, if there are no targets, they cannot be missed. I say that not just for the sake of political debate. There is a real point about how much we should measure and how much should take place experimentally.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

Setting targets in this area could be dangerous. If the Government were to set them and then fall short, they might be tempted to pursue them in a way that would lead to coercion. For this to work, it is crucial that disabled people and those on incapacity benefit do not believe that they are being forced into jobs and that their benefits will be at risk if they do not take them. We must put the message out loud and clear, but setting targets will make it harder to hear.

Mr. Boswell

I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Lady for her comment. In support of her general point, I feel strongly that we should not give people the impression that they are being dragooned into work regardless of how they feel or of how they can perform, and if targets work—I cited a complaint that was put to me—we should resist that firmly.

My point is that Ministers like to set targets in most areas, yet they have been very coy in this one. There might be reasons for that, but it is incumbent on them to look carefully at how the pilots work. They have not always done that; the pilots of the new deal for disabled people were quickly rolled into the main scheme. Ministers should satisfy themselves, critically and objectively, that interventions are suitable and that any additional moneys are appropriately used.

I come now, on this tour of particular issues, to access to work. The Minister hardly mentioned it, which might be revealing. The scheme is important, not merely because it was introduced by a Conservative Government—extra money has been made available by the present Government—but because if it is that good, I am surprised that only some 25 per cent, of employers surveyed had heard of it. It is not well understood. For quite small costs of adjustment, it could make a huge difference—it needs to be publicised vigorously. While the Minister is looking at pilot schemes in some areas, she should address the national picture too.

May I give a small warning? I am concerned about any suggestion of using the disability rights lever as an alternative driver on employers. We all know that employers are recalcitrant, do not want to know and will not change their attitudes, so it might be necessary to get tough with them. However, it is important to emphasise the business case, the relatively low cost of most reasonable adjustments and the fact that access to work is available where there are significant additional costs.

I shall touch briefly on supported employment. There was a concern, which has not been much replayed since the introduction of workstep, that some targets set by Ministers would cause people who were comfortably established in supported employment, and often preferred it, to be pushed on as part of a churning exercise to meet targets. I have not heard much about that lately, but I invite the Minister to comment on the potential danger.

It is not surprising, in view of the Minister's figure of one third of the case load being on incapacity benefits, that representations that I have received on the pathways document have tended to concentrate on learning disabilities and mental health. That is appropriate, because they present some of the most intractable problems when it comes to gaining employment. For example, Mencap points out that only 10 per cent, of learning disabled people are employed. That is even more depressing than the overall figure for disabled people. One is looking at substantially less activity than one would expect in the fully able work force. I think that those people matter, even if some costs are greater and the economic return is relatively low. Many of them, some of whom are put into work by their own employment agencies, give excellent service. They are loyal employees, and they get great satisfaction from their participation in the labour market.

In that context, there is still concern about the 16-hour rule and its interaction with the tax credits. For example, Mencap has pointed out to me that it is possible to work for up to four hours under the minimum wage—£20 a week under income support—without losing incapacity benefit. People who do more than 16 hours of work could receive support from tax credit, although there is an awkward transition zone between five and 15 in which neither might be possible. I do not ask the Minister to find an instant answer to that, but I mention it as a continuing concern.

The learning disability charities and the mental health charities have concerns over whether the new arrangements will carry enough specialist firepower—if I may put it that way—to deal with the problems of the individuals involved. The answer is not to expect a disability adviser to cover the whole lot, like a paragon who understands everything. They have huge and broad expertise, however, and the new arrangements might stimulate that, thereby allowing for greater specialisation in the cadre of advisers. However, the problem can be overcome if one of the adviser's skills is the referral on and if they can use, for example, the voluntary sector in which they have expertise to handle a case and to make progress. Ministers have made progress on that with the outsourcing of part of the new deal for disabled people, and I hope that they consider the same approach on pathways, because not everything can be covered.

Two matters from my constituency experience bear on the issue. I have a constituent who wishes to be a disc jockey, but who happens to be totally blind. His case came to my attention because I read about it in the local paper. He needs some support for that ambition. One of the arguments about access to work—official arguments on principle are often maddeningly consistent, if I may put it that way—was that all disc jockeys need a certain way of stacking their CDs and that there was nothing distinctive about my constituent's needs. Therefore, there was no need for access to work, unless there was an incremental benefit. I can just about understand that argument.

However, an especial difficulty—I have gone back to the local branch of the Employment Service and I do not need to seek an Adjournment debate on the case—was that it offered him driver support, but at the national minimum wage. In Daventry, there is no chance of his picking up such support for less than about £7 an hour, so he must either subsidise the cost out of his earnings or not take the driver.

A case that bears more on the issue of specialist expertise is that of a lady with a severe latex allergy, and I became one of the joint parliamentary presidents of the Latex Allergy Support Group partly on the basis of it. The condition is quite uncommon, but more common than it should be, and that lady has had great difficulties in getting the right mix of support. That is not because anyone seeks to be unhelpful, but because the condition is not fully understood and aspects of it cannot be remedied easily. To be fair, the matter is difficult and I do not criticise the officers, but I must use the case as an example of some of the problems.

In closing my remarks, I refer to some long-term issues. The Minister opened in the spirit of inquiry and will, I hope, be amenable to listening to, and reflecting on, some of our concerns, although no instant answer is required. I have listed five of those on which the Government have not gone far enough in the Green Paper. The first is the question of adequate flexibility in the interaction between benefits and work.

I readily accept—as does Mencap, which stressed the point in its briefing to me—the highly beneficial changes that have been made in the linking rules, which are much better. A psychology is developing that has moved away from the idea that people are either in work or out of work and on benefit, and never the twain shall meet. There is now a much more flexible and nuanced arrangement. I may have mentioned to the Minister previously that, although I know of people with a physical injury who have felt well enough to work, until people go out and try, they do not know whether they can do it or not. People might run close to the law if they work, and a more flexible approach is required in such cases. One has been pioneered, but it needs further development.

Secondly, we all want to help, but good will is not always the best counsellor. We need a proper and rigorous evaluation of pilot studies, when they take place, and of the various activities that are taking place elsewhere in support of pathways to work. There is no point in shutting our eyes if remedies do not work; we need to concentrate on ones that do, while accepting that conditions differ throughout the country and that local discretion is important.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) would, I am sure, wish me to voice my support for his plea that one of the pilots should go to his constituency. I understand his views, although I hope that he will still make a speech. To be more objective, however, I hope that pilots will be spread around the country and reflect the differences that exist. Dare I put in a plea for some rural areas to be considered? There are disabled people who live in rural areas, and not everything goes well for them.

My third point is perhaps more unusual than the others, but I hope that it is proper to make it in this context. In future, our understanding of the Human Rights Act 1998 and of equality legislation may change. It may be that a single oversight body will be in place, and the Minister referred to changes that the draft disability Bill will introduce. She knows that I have just been chairing a meeting of RADAR at which we discussed some of those issues. It has become clear to me that, when we consider discrimination, attitude is critical. I see the Minister nodding. That is not a legal issue, but it relates closely to human rights. We should have the right attitude to people who are disabled or who have impairments or conditions that could give rise to discrimination.

It is important that measures are acceptable to people in the work place, and the Employers Forum on Disability, which I know reasonably well, is considering that issue. It is terribly important that trade unions—the other part of the social partnership—are seen to be involved and that measures are acceptable to them. Otherwise, difficult issues may arise, such as some people saying that there is a health and safety issue when there is not or when it could be overcome. Such disagreements can foul our best intentions.

I want to make two other more general points. We need better pathways. We would all agree with that and it is explicit in the title of the consultation paper, but, for the pilot schemes, Ministers should consider the possibility of having a single budget holder who can cut through bureaucratic tangles. The Minister referred to the advisers discretionary fund of £300. However, we should consider the whole range of provision—in health, housing, social care, transport, work place adaptions, physiotherapy and elsewhere—as it may be necessary for someone to go out, as would happen with an insured work force, and provide the missing component that may not otherwise be available. That may cross departmental boundaries. We must consider the possibility of putting budgets together so that there can be a single pathway.

Advocacy is a related issue. Most disabled people, if they return to employment, will be mentally capable, but, as the paper suggests, they may not always he strong advocates of their own cases. There should be advocacy for them, however, perhaps outside the system when appropriate, and proper case management that can take them through that pathway. That is all for the future.

I concede that Ministers have not claimed arrogantly to have solved the problems. In so far as they approach the matter with a degree of humility, they will have our sympathy and support. I suggest that a mixture is required—the right blend of humility and persistence—because the problems are deep seated and terribly important to the individual. Incidentally, they are also significant to the economy. They did not start today, they will not go away tomorrow and it is extremely important that we start on the path that leads to their being resolved to a much greater extent than has been so far achieved.

5 pm

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I welcome the Government's paper on issues surrounding incapacity benefit, and I congratulate the Department on the imaginative solutions that it proposes to encourage and support substantially more claimants back into the labour market. Sadly, it is in my home city of Glasgow that the worst problems exist.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.24 pm

On resuming

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair)

I hope that the House agrees that we should restart our debate.

Ann McKechin

Thank you very much, Sir Nicholas.

Sadly, it is in Glasgow that the worst incapacity benefit problems exist. I believe that Glasgow needs special attention, and I hope that I can establish a case for that today. Glasgow, by a very long way, has the highest number of claimants—39,000, which is more than any other city outside London. Incredibly, although our population is only 609,000, about 25 per cent, of them claim incapacity benefit.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair)

I have to say to the hon. Lady that I sympathise with her and all in Westminster Hall, but I am obliged by Standing Orders to suspend the sitting. As soon as Members can get back, we will begin yet again.

5.25 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.36 pm

On resuming

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair)

Once again, I apologise to hon. Members who are taking part in the debate in Westminster Hall this afternoon for what I can only describe as the eccentricities of the House of Commons. I apologise in particular to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin), who has already started her speech twice. This will be the third time. I know that other Members wish to speak who need to leave promptly because of trains and other things.

Ann McKechin

Thank you again, Sir Nicholas. Third time lucky, I hope.

Although the city population of Glasgow is only 609,000, we have more than 25 per cent, more incapacity benefit claimants than Birmingham and almost double the number in Manchester—both are cities which, like Glasgow, have experience of heavy industry in their recent past.

According to the latest statistics, seven of Glasgow's constituencies are in the top 100 United Kingdom employment blackspots. Last year, the Child Poverty Action Group rated three Glasgow seats, including my own, as the worst constituencies for child poverty in the UK. Glasgow also has the highest concentration of heroin injectors in Europe, and the Greater Glasgow health board estimates that we have 15,000 drug addicts, four times the national average. Glasgow also has rising suicide rates among the young, continuing alcohol misuse and chronic ill health statistics that are among the worst in Europe.

Problems of that nature are not unique to my city, but the sheer scale and concentration of deprivation mark Glasgow out as a place that deserves special treatment. I commend the Government on the programmes introduced in the past five or six years, which have already made a significant contribution towards Glasgow's renewal. During that period, the total unemployed count in Glasgow has fallen by more than 15,000. Glasgow is enjoying substantial expansion for the first time in many years: last year, the job growth rate was more than 7 per cent., the highest in any UK city. The consequent new build of office space in the city centre, together with substantial capital investment in our schools, housing and hospitals, has led to many additional jobs, for example, in the construction industry. In fact, there are already skills shortages in that sector.

The proposed transfer of the city council's rented housing stock—the largest in western Europe—to the new Glasgow housing association this year will offer the basis for substantial new capital investment and rebuilding, which will create even further demand for jobs in the construction sector. Our commitment to quality public services in schools, child care, community care and hospitals, as well as considerable expansion in our private sector, particularly in the financial sector, will inevitably lead to further job opportunities.

The challenges that we now face are to harness those opportunities for the benefit of Glasgow's citizens and to tackle the social problems that afflict so many of them. The opportunities have never been better and the rewards to our society for overcoming long-term non-employment would be enormous. The social justice argument is overwhelming and there is an equally strong economic argument.

According to the evidence given by Scottish Enterprise to the Scottish Affairs Select Committee at the end of last year, Scotland is the only country in Europe that is currently depopulating. It is estimated that by 2016 there will be 300,000 more people over 50 and 220,000 fewer people under 50 in the job market. If we do not improve the employment rate in Scotland's largest city, which has only 55 per cent, of its former population compared to the Scottish average of 71 per cent., the economy of the whole country—not just Glasgow—will suffer substantially.

Currently, only one in every two new jobs in Glasgow goes to a person who actually resides there. In substantial areas of the city, including my constituency, the majority of the adult population is not in work: people are either on the unemployment register, or they are on some other form of benefit such as incapacity benefit. In some areas, that group comprises as much as 70 per cent, of the total adult population. The Government's paper correctly states that many IB claimants have been out of the labour market for a substantial period, and many lack basic skills. Many in my city suffer from chaotic lifestyles and the majority lack confidence or have no knowledge of the current job market.

Many of those people were encouraged in past years, when employment was dropping sharply, to enter the IB system. In fact, a network of welfare officers was established with the principle of maximising income for those who were considered to have little prospect of reentering the job market. We need to do the opposite, by taking more deliberate and structured action to convince and encourage those claimants who do not suffer from serious and permanent disablement or incapacity—it was said earlier that such people are clearly in a different category—to rejoin the labour market within a relatively short time. Longer-term support and training are vital if we really want to get substantial numbers back to work. I fully support the Government's proposals to merge the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency into Jobcentre Plus in order to offer an increasingly personalised service and to target the hidden unemployed in such areas.

Many applicants still have a poor view of their local social security office. Unfortunately, the local drug dealers in my constituency often hang around outside the benefits office, and many people find the place intimidating. In addition, the agency is perceived—rightly or wrongly—to be more interested in investigating abuses than in positively assisting applicants into the most appropriate programme. That is why I encourage the Minister to ensure that any new proposals incorporate a close partnership with other agencies that do not suffer the stigma of being an enforcement organisation, as social security offices do.

Jobseekers are likely to be more relaxed when talking about an application or any problems with agencies such as the local enterprise network than they are when dealing with the social security office. I know that my local enterprise company has had considerable successes in getting people who have been non-employed or unemployed in the long-term back into work. It has supported them in their application, their job interview and, most important, during their first months of work, when their confidence can still be very fragile.

We must be sensitive to what is the appropriate support for those who suffer from addiction problems. I know that the Government have already made proposals for special money to be set aside for those suffering from drug abuse, but they must also consider the fact that a large number of people who claim I B also suffer from addiction problems.

The Green Paper examines the current monetary barriers to making work pay. The so-called housing benefit trap is often viewed as afflicting only London and the south of England, but hon. Members might be surprised to know that we in Glasgow suffer from exactly the same problem. We have the highest council tax rates in the United Kingdom—£1,140 for a band D property—and historically high social rents. At the same time, the largest group of workers in the city are in the £10,000 to £14,000 per annum wage bracket. The steep withdrawal of housing and council tax benefit that occurs when applicants move from unemployment to work continues to act as a significant barrier to seeking work. Most of those moving from incapacity benefit back into the workplace are likely to start in low-paid, often part-time jobs—the very jobs that are affected by the housing benefit trap.

That is why I commend the proposal for a substantial and distinct financial incentive for a good length of time to encourage the move back into work. We can encourage people, once they have got back into work, to seek further training so that they get out of very low-paid jobs into better-paid employment as their career progresses. To be frank, without such an incentive, there is little prospect of persuading many incapacity benefit claimants to make the move to work.

Finally, the Minister may be aware that throughout 2002, the Glasgow group of MPs engaged in a dialogue with the Department about the need for action and greater resources to tackle our city's employment problems. Unfortunately, after a promising start, we have yet to make any progress. None the less, I trust that the group's discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions will be much more productive in 2003. I also encourage her and her colleagues to visit the city and to support the efforts of our civic agencies, which are very keen to assist the Government's efforts to eliminate long-term non-employment and to end this blight on our city once and for all.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her perseverance in the face of the hurdles that were placed in her way.

5.46 pm
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

I realise that time is moving on, so I will try to be brief. I was keen to participate in the debate because a week after the Select Committee on Work and Pensions announced an inquiry into getting disabled people into work, the Government published a Green Paper on the same subject. I like to think that our Select Committee has its finger on the pulse and that we are abreast of the issues of the day.

The Green Paper signals the Government's recognition of the fact that although other new deals, such as those for the young unemployed and for lone parents, have been extremely successful, the new deal for disabled people has been less so. That is certainly one of the reasons why the Work and Pensions Committee thought the subject worth a more thorough investigation. It is a thorny issue, and a difficult one, and the Government must handle it very sensitively if they are to get it right.

The Government are absolutely right to stress the importance of work, and it is dreadful that I still have to say that in this forum. Work is important to people for many different reasons, not just because we need money to live. Some people work even though they actually earn less by doing so. There is also an issue of social inclusion: people are defined by their work. It is important that people feel that they have a place in society. That is not to demean those who do not have work, but most people on incapacity benefit lose out in so many aspects of society by not working.

Work can be good for disabled people. It can be therapeutic of itself; there is nothing like long hours spent in front of the television to make someone feel ill. Work is important, and it is sad that I have to emphasise that because some people still take a paternalistic attitude towards those with disabilities. They claim that the Government are being unfair and unreasonable in wanting to help those with disabilities into work. Most incapacity benefit claimants say that they want to work. Of course, many of them do not think of themselves as disabled. For example, they might have suffered a heart problem some years ago, which qualifies them for incapacity benefit, but they have become progressively more ill the longer they remain workless. Such people often suffer psychological problems because unemployment can cause illness or incapacity.

Nevertheless, it is not easy for people who are leaving incapacity benefit to start work. There are all the usual discrimination issues—the physical and attitudinal barriers.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

On the issue of discrimination, has my hon. Friend seen early-day motion 477, which relates to the discrimination suffered by my constituent, Karen Godfrey? She was sacked before Christmas for no other reason than that she was disabled—apparently, she did not fit in for insurance reasons. It emerged that she had worked for WHSmith for five years for nothing but gift vouchers—she got £5-worth a week for working four hours a day. Does my hon. Friend not agree that it is excellent that the Government have established the Disability Rights Commission to investigate such cases?

Miss Begg

I certainly hope that the DRC takes up such cases. I well remember a time when I was regarded as a fire hazard simply because I deigned to go to the cinema in a wheelchair. Such attitudes are becoming things of the past, and it is sad to hear that the same health and safety regulations are still being used to push people out of work. There are other examples of such blatant discrimination, and I hope that the creation of the DRC will allow us establish the case law necessary to ensure that it becomes a thing of the past.

Some barriers to work are external to the person who is on IB or who has a disability, but others are often internal—they originate in the person themselves. If people have been workless for years, they inevitably have low self-esteem. They may not know what they are capable of, and they will be frightened of the unknown. The Government must be sensitive to such issues. They must realise that it will not necessarily be easy to get someone through the Jobcentre Plus door to see what is available. That is why it is important that letters inviting IB claimants to Jobcentre Plus are as non-threatening and as supportive as possible.

Jobcentre Plus has changed things. Aberdeen is a pathfinder area for the scheme, and the atmosphere in jobcentres is totally different from anything seen in the old benefits offices, which my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) described. Jobcentres are changing, but many people on IB do not know that, because they have not been over the threshold of a jobcentre for a long time. They need quite a bit of persuading that it is not like the old system and that their benefits are not under threat.

Let me give a good example of what is happening in Aberdeen. The local jobcentre manager, Bob Alexander, and I organised a business breakfast and a seminar for people working on disability issues at Jobcentre Plus. I also invited people from the voluntary sector who were trying to get disabled people into work. Ironically, the two sides had never met, but the morning was very informative. Although successful, it provided a salutary lesson: many of the people from the voluntary sector said that Jobcentre Plus was the last place they would advise their client group to visit. They, too, had not seen the changes, and they thought that jobcentres would be threatening and too difficult for their clients.

The radical aspect of the new deal for disabled people is the use of job brokers. I was glad to hear the Minister say that the advisers discretionary fund would be increased, but I know that job brokers are effective, because the new cleaner for MPs' offices in Aberdeen was recruited through that process. A job broker phoned my office manager, saying, "This woman is absolutely wonderful. You'd be daft not to employ her," and that is exactly what we found when she came for her interview. She is so happy to be back in work, having been out of work for more than five years. Her self-esteem has increased beyond measure, and she feels much better than she ever could have done had she remained on incapacity benefit. However, she put the letter back in the drawer three times before finally lifting the phone, and it took her something like two months to take up the original invitation.

The Government must use people such as Anne, our cleaner, to argue the case for their changes. The clients who had succeeded because of the new deal were undoubtedly the best speakers at the meeting that Bob Alexander and I arranged in Aberdeen to bring people from voluntary sector and Jobcentre Plus together. They brought a tear to our eyes, because they were superb at selling the importance of what they had achieved.

I realise that my time is up, although there is much more that I want to say. I hope that we will get another chance to debate helping people with disabilities and those on incapacity benefit into work. It is an important issue, and I commend the Government on making a really good start, but there is still a long way to go.

5.54 pm
David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I shall try to condense my remarks into the briefest possible time. I warmly congratulate the Government on introducing the Green Paper. It has become more necessary as unemployment has fallen and the issue has emerged from beneath the receding waters of unemployment. Unemployment in my constituency has fallen from more than 20 per cent, in the mid-1980s to about 4.5 per cent., but, at the same time, the number of economically inactive people has risen to a staggering and shameful 39 per cent. Two in five adults of working age are therefore neither in work nor looking for work. That is the scale of the challenge that we face.

I was heartened to see the Government outline the five barriers that stand in people's way in returning to work. Looking at the skills and training aspects of Jobcentre Plus, may I make a special plea? Advisers with specialist skills include those who are specially trained to deal with people with brain and head injuries. Often, such people do not show that very much is wrong with them, but the relapsing nature of the illness means that specialist knowledge is required. I hope that the Minister can give us some advice on that,

A small caveat about the Green Paper is that it could contain a little more on rehabilitation. Only two references are made to it: one in the context of solicitors and personal injury claims, and a small reference in an annexe. Yet certain types of rehabilitation are absolutely central if people in my constituency who come from an industrial heritage and have industrial injuries are to get certain types of work. When the disabilities Bill is introduced—I appreciate that this issue is largely the responsibility of the Department of Health in England and Wales, and the Scottish Executive north of the border—close working will be required between the Minister's Department, the Department of Health and Malcolm Chisholm, the Minister for Health and Community Care north of the border. I therefore repeat the plea that the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) kindly made.

Finally, if the Minister is planning to site one of the pilot areas in Scotland, I make the plea that it covers Inverclyde, given its 39 per cent. economic inactivity rate.

5.57 pm
Paul Holmes (Chesterfield)

The Liberal Democrats welcome the stated principles behind the consultation paper and many of the ideas that arise out of those principles. The 2.7 million people on incapacity benefit in this country represent a figure only slightly above the equivalent numbers in most of Europe, and 40 per cent, of such people already say in Government and disability organisation surveys that they want to return to work if the obstacles to doing so can be removed.

There are many measures proposed in the Green Paper that could do much to ease the path back into work, such as increased financial incentives to return to work, and a better support and referral framework. A more integrated approach to getting people back into work is needed. Use of the NHS, social services, and so forth to offer the greatest opportunity for work is vital.

We fully support the creation of an environment in which as many employers as possible are managing health at work actively and positively. I welcome the comments of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in Disability Now that to exhort employers to do more and to deploy the necessary legislation are key elements of change.

Although there is much to welcome, many concerns remain. Compulsory, work-focused interviews backed by the threat of benefit loss for those who claim disability benefits are not the best way to help those who are able back into work. It seems strange that only months after the nationwide roll-out of the new deal for disabled people, the Government chose to introduce the compulsory interviews that are integral to the Green Paper. The Government have said that the aim of the new compulsory interviews is to help the 750,000 disabled people who want to find jobs. The new deal for disabled people appears to have the same objective, although it is still voluntary. If the Government are so convinced that the reason that those on incapacity benefit who want to get a job are being put off is lack of support, skills and knowledge, will the new deal for disabled people provide that service while not threatening people with withdrawal of benefits for missing interviews?

Initially, the Government proposals talk sensibly of focusing on new claimants only. Experience shows that, once people have become long-term sick and unemployed, it is much harder for them to get back into work for all sorts of reasons, such as loss of skills, loss of confidence, and so forth. The Trojan horse is on page 39 of the Green Paper, "Pathways to work: Helping people into employment". It states: In due course, the Government will consider whether … to extend a requirement to attend work-focused interviews to some existing recipients of incapacity benefits … as well. I still do not understand the Government's reluctance to focus their initial efforts in respect of long-term benefit claimants on the 40 per cent, who, in Government and disability organisation surveys, repeatedly say that they positively want to work if help is provided and obstacles are removed.

The work-focused interview has not proven itself to be as successful as parts of the Green Paper suggest. A Department for Work and Pensions research report on the ONE service leads to some conclusions on that—

6 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

6.10 pm

On resuming—

Paul Holmes

A Department for Work and Pensions research report on the ONE service concluded that there was no evidence that participation in ONE had increased labour market activity among sick and disabled clients. A new study of the Government flagship disabled employment scheme showed that between July 2001 and September 2002, only 1,400 disabled people worked for longer than six months after getting help. Only 6,099 were helped into any kind of work at all, which is far short of the target of 90,000 people in jobs over a three-year period—in fact, just 5 per cent, of those involved. Regrettably, due to a technical hitch, those embarrassing figures failed to appear on the Department for Work and Pensions website alongside other figures on new deal schemes, and they had to be reported later in Disability Now.

As happens with many of the Government's proposals and schemes to get people back to work, there is concern from groups such as UnumProvident, which has worked in the field for 30 years, about the focus on merely getting people into work because focus is needed on the long-term aspects of keeping disabled people in work. Retention in employment is a critical challenge.

Disability groups such as the Shaw Trust argue that the key lesson to be learned from the weakness of the current approach through Jobcentre Plus is that employment interviews and work placements cannot be provided for disabled people by the same people who are responsible for monitoring their benefits. Only this afternoon at a seminar on welfare to work that was held in this building, the Shaw Trust, Remploy and speakers from two private sector firms—WTCS and Work Directions—all disagreed strongly with the proposals in the Green Paper on that issue. The same groups questioned the need for six Government pilots on top of the five previous ones. Their schemes, which are based on intensive work with voluntary participants, seem to have higher success rates than the general figures quoted by the Government.

Maria Eagle

The hon. Gentleman has just criticised the new deal for disabled people for not achieving the high level of job sustainability that we had all hoped for. That is a voluntary project. Does he think that that might be one of the reasons why?

Paul Holmes

The groups that I mentioned—two private sector, one voluntary and one public—all detailed success rates this afternoon of between 30 and 40 per cent., which are higher than the low overall figures of Government projects. The groups argued specifically that the key reason for the success of their projects compared with the failures of the whole scheme was because they work with volunteers and provide intensive support.

If there are to be further pilots on top of the existing five schemes—three have reported, one is under way and one has not even started—the Minister could do worse than looking at the pilot in my constituency of Chesterfield. The chamber of commerce is running the Power project, which does excellent work by empowering those with disabilities who want to prepare to return to work.

A further concern is the Government's target-setting culture, although that does not mean public or headline targets in this case, unlike for education. Mencap reported that the ONE areas were given targets to move people off benefits and into work. That is a worry because target setting could result in personal advisers pressurising people into unsuitable work although circumstances dictate that that is not the best opinion, but the easiest option. A Mencap report said: Mencap is aware that the One service had targets to move people off benefits and into work. Mencap would caution against internal targets such as the number of interviews conducted in a week by a personal adviser or a target of a specified number of people entering work". The same issues repeatedly arise with SchlumbergerSema, which admitted, when questioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) and me, that its financial contracts with the Government and its general practitioners could represent a financial incentive to push through the maximum number of client assessments in the shortest possible time in order to maximise profits and bonuses, although this was not necessarily in the interests of the people being assessed.

I have received many letters from constituents calling into question the quality of the personal capability assessments conducted by SchlumbergerSema GPs. Can we therefore expect the company to increase the speed of assessment, as the Government have stated it should? Would that result in better assessments? The Government may be premature in their reliance on the competency of SchlumbergerSema to meet its current contractual obligations without increasing the pressure even more.

Disability organisations have other concerns about the proposals to help disabled people into work—specifically the failure properly to address systematic discrimination in the labour market. It is highly unlikely that work-focused interviews will fully meet their potential in helping disabled people into employment while the obstacles of employer discrimination and inaccessibility remain in place.

In the Green Paper, the Government admit that financial incentives are a huge obstacle to people attempting to get back into the world of work. It says that many people on incapacity benefit will gain only a small amount by getting a job and some may end up worse off. If the Government know that employment can result in the disabled receiving less income than they would from the many confusing benefits that are available to them, how can they be expected to move off benefits and into employment? Although the Green Paper proposals may be successful in gaining employment for some, no contingency measures are proposed in case employees find that they cannot cope with the job or employers discover that they did not realise what they were taking on.

Although the Government's disabled persons tax credit allows a combination of work and benefit, the minimum requirement of 16 hours work a week means that people on IB who can work for fewer than 16 hours a week, or who can work one week but not the next—for example, a multiple sclerosis sufferer may need to work one week in two—are ignored. Mencap and UnumProvident made the same point in their responses to the Green Paper. The Liberal Democrat suggestion of a partial capacity benefit would better address the situation, as it would encourage disabled people to do varying amounts of paid work without fear of becoming ineligible for benefit.

The plethora of benefits can appear overly complex and provide strong disincentives for disabled people to look for work, and they are in need of radical reform. It is similar to the complexity of the minimum income guarantee and the replacement pension tax credits—a third of eligible pensioners do not claim, partly because of the sheer complexity of the provisions.

The Government admit that employers are reluctant to employ older workers. That will be addressed by the implementation of age discrimination legislation, but it will not happen until 2006. If the Government are serious about addressing the fact that just under half of those claiming the benefit are aged 50 or over, it is nonsensical to wait for so many years before beginning to remove one of the obstacles to getting people off incapacity benefit and back to work. The Liberal Democrats would introduce that as soon as possible, as part of a single unified equality Act.

The Government are again dragging their heels on the question of a disability Act, with their otherwise welcome announcement yesterday that they would introduce a draft Bill. The Liberal Democrats and nongovernmental organisations such as the Disability Rights Commission have campaigned for such a move as a matter of urgency for some time and it was widely expected that the Government would include the legislation in the last Queen's Speech, if not the previous one. The vague promise to legislate later in this Parliament means that the long-awaited disability Bill could be squeezed out once again as the next general election approaches. How much better it would be if that lengthy process had started last year or the year before.

It is essential that disabled people should have full and equal rights before the Government proceed with their aim of establishing a single equality commission. That is the only way to remove many of the obstacles to the employment of disabled people that the Government describe in the document.

I sum up by saying that Liberal Democrats support the stated principles in the consultation paper, in that barriers to work for those claiming IB should be removed. However, we have doubts about the value of compulsory work-focused interviews supported by the threat of benefit penalties. We oppose the target-setting culture that pressures those involved into making unsuitable and hasty decisions in order to meet Government targets or gain maximum financial bonuses. We believe that removing the remaining legal areas of discrimination against disabled people is a more urgent priority, and that the Government should utilise the expertise of disability groups more.

I hope that the Green Paper is a genuine consultation exercise, but I note the comments of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the current issue of "Disability Now". He says: I would welcome the responses to the document. However, we have thought hard about the proposals and feel that this is the direction we should be moving in. If the Government have already decided to discount the views of the voluntary and private sector organizations—not forgetting R employ, the experts in such matters—which all oppose compulsory interviews and benefit sanctions, that suggests that our deliberations could be a waste of time.

6.19 pm
Maria Eagle

I shall do my best to respond to the points that have been made in the debate as speedily as I can, so that we are not kept too long from our trains and so on. I commend most hon. Members today for the constructive way in which they have conducted the debate and on how they have engaged with the issues set out in the Green Paper. All of us in the House are concerned about such matters and we want progress to be made. The Government's consultation processes are always genuine and we welcome all ideas, because we want to find out what works.

There has not been as much progress as we would have wished in the past few years because such steps are difficult to take, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) said, and because we do not know what works. Had previous Governments attempted to get those on incapacity benefit and sickness and disability benefits back into work, we would have a better idea of what policy will work. We are feeling our way. We should not be condemned and criticised for that. Some of the constructive criticism that we have received today from some hon. Members has been positive, but I do not believe that churlish negativity, which we have also heard, helps.

Paul Holmes

Will the Minister give way?

Maria Eagle

I shall give way because I was referring to the hon. Gentleman's contribution to the debate.

Paul Holmes

Will the Minister confirm that she has criticised my direct quotes from the Shaw Trust, Remploy and two private sector training organisations, all of which have a proven track record in such matters?

Maria Eagle

I am criticising the hon. Gentleman's tone and the content of his remarks, not anything that has been said by the providers or organisations to which he has referred. I have not heard what they said. He may not have represented their views in quite the way that they would have wanted. The Shaw Trust and other organisations that he described as experts in such matters operate the new deal for disabled people on our behalf. It is not sensible for him to commend them on the one hand, and criticise the new deal for disabled people on the other. Those organisations provide such services for us. It is more sensible to be constructive than to forget the way in which this Chamber tends to operate, which is more calm and sensible than other parliamentary debates.

The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) referred to the performance of the new deal for disabled people. Other hon. Members have also drawn attention to it, perhaps in a more negative way. At present, there have been almost 8,000 job entries, but a smaller number of sustained job entries. That is partly because the national roll-out is only 18 months old and many job brokers are still finding their way. It is not easy. Job brokers have different approaches throughout the country and some work better than others.

The Shaw Trust to which the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) referred has a good record in delivering job broker services, as do some of our in-house providers. There is not a monopoly of good sense and experience in the public, private or voluntary sector. We must learn and be constructive across the piece to find out what works. The Department has been taking steps to improve job broker performance and achieve a better spread of success throughout the different providers. One of the downsides of bringing in many providers in different parts of the country is that we could start off with a variable performance. We are engaging constructively with the job brokers to improve the performance of those who have not done so well by spreading best practice from those who have. That is a good way forward.

The hon. Member for Daventry referred also to targets and expressed his worry that they would create problems. We do not have set targets of the number of people whom we want to take off incapacity benefit. That would be inappropriate. We have general targets to narrow the gap between the level of participation in the labour market of the working age population in general and disabled people, but those are positive targets. We are not providing incentives to local Jobcentre Plus staff to get so many people off benefits.

The hon. Gentleman said that he had five concerns. The first was adequate benefit flexibility, which he suggested required further development. Adequate benefit flexibility is easy to say, but it is difficult to achieve, partly because of the complex nature of our benefit system and also because many benefits are enshrined in legislation and are, therefore, not easy to change. Many of our benefits, including incapacity benefit and some working age benefits, must be sufficiently comprehensive to be applied in a wide range of circumstances. For example, a benefit might apply to everyone of working age. It can be difficult, therefore, to introduce the sort of flexibility that one would like to see for a particular group of individuals without creating all sorts of loopholes and potential for fraud. Those are the difficulties in promoting benefit flexibility, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are always considering what can he done. The fact that we have introduced some flexibilities, which are well regarded by those who know about them, is proof of the fact that we want to make progress in the area.

The hon. Gentleman also called for rigorous evaluation of the pilot activity, unlike the hon. Member for Chesterfield, who does not seem to believe in evaluation. There will be a comprehensive evaluation programme, combining both qualitative and quantitative elements, with the aim of detecting the impact of any package of changes that we pilot on improving rates of return to work among IB clientele. That has not often been tried in the past. The statistical significance of interventions can be difficult to calculate and the methodology for evaluation can be difficult. We are committed to rigorous evaluation of the pilot activity. We want to find out what works, and only when we have done that and are convinced that it will make a difference will we actually spread the practice more widely.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to attitudes among the business community and social partners. He is right about that. The reference by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) to his constituent, Karen Godfrey, illustrated just how far we still have to go in respect of attitudes in society. The idea of expecting someone to work for vouchers that can be spent only where the person works, instead of a wage, was outlawed by the Truck Act 1831 and the Wages Act 1986—although, apparently, not at WH Smith, if the worker is disabled. That sort of practice must be stamped out. I very much hope that the Disability Rights Commission will do its utmost to take up such cases.

Mr. Boswell

I have not: looked at the details of that case since the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) referred to it earlier this evening, but I was under the impression, from a communication that I received some days ago from a colleague, that it had been sorted out. I do not condone the decisions that were taken and entirely agree that it should never have happened, but the important point is that a framework now exists for dealing with such a case, as well as a readiness on the part of management and that of the Disability Rights Commission, to ensure that such practice is stamped out.

Maria Eagle

I hope that that is the case.

Mr. Edwards

I have heard from the managing director of WH Smith, who has condemned the case. That is not company policy and was an isolated incident. Nevertheless, it constituted discrimination and is being investigated.

Maria Eagle

I need not say any more on that, except to add that it indicates why we need the law to back up whatever we try to do by exhortation.

The hon. Member for Daventry made some references to advocacy and better pathways, all of which I agree with. We need to work on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin) made some interesting points about Glasgow, indicating that, like many cities, it has particular problems, but also illustrating powerfully that it seems to have more of a problem than some comparable cities. That illustrates how thorny, deep-seated and complicated the issue is; clearly, it has cultural aspects.

My hon. Friend was able to give us some hope that Glasgow is on its way back in terms of regeneration. She also gave us some good news about falling unemployment. I agree with her that if we got to where we are by way of a certain culture and welfare benefits advice that told people that they were incapable, we must reverse that. I welcome her comments about the Green Paper, because we are trying to make a cultural change. I was in Glasgow recently to visit the Royal Strathclyde Blindcraft factory. I would be happy to come back to visit that fine city at any time at my hon. Friend's invitation.

My hon. Friend also made some points about the culture of social security offices, and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South stressed how different Jobcentre Plus offices are. The Glasgow Jobcentre Plus roll-out will start this April, and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill, her constituents and colleagues will then see the massive difference between Jobcentre Plus and social security offices.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South made an extremely valuable contribution, and clearly has a passionate approach to the issue. Who better than my hon. Friend to tell us the truth of the matter from the other side of the fence? She is passionately in favour of making sure that disabled people can work, and I agree with her. I also agree with her about targets; I have replied to what the hon. Member for Daventry said on the subject. We do not have targets for getting certain numbers of people off the benefit. That is not how we are dealing with the issue. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South that the new deal for disabled people works when people pluck up the courage to go along to the Jobcentre Plus.

I agree that people who have gone through the process and gained employment are by far the best advocates of the quality of the system. I often speak at conferences and events about the new deal for disabled people. Usually, my speech is irrelevant, because someone will have stood up and spoken about their personal experience, and that is much more powerful than anything that I, as a Whitehall Minister, might say. Instead of suggesting that I know the way forward, it is much better to get someone who has gone through the process and succeeded to stand up and say so—they are much better advocates that I am.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) clearly wants a pilot, and I have twigged that he would like one in his area. I shall see what I can do, as consideration of such matters is ongoing. However, I cannot promise him anything, so I hope that he will not take too much encouragement from what I say. It is absolutely true that we must consider and tackle the fact that almost 39 per cent, of his constituents are economically inactive.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, made a number of points that I shall take up briefly. I do not agree that compulsory work-focused interviews are not the way forward. One of the problems with voluntary schemes such as the new deal for disabled people is that getting people to come along to a Jobcentre Plus in the first place can be a big barrier. I agree that it would be a major concern if further participation beyond the first contact were compulsory; some of his points might then have some validity. However, I do not believe that it is negative to encourage those who are just coming on to the benefit to receive the intensive help by saying that there will be a sanction. That is one of the ways in which we can make sure that we offer help to those who most require it.

The hon. Gentleman also said that it would be sensible to focus on those claimants who want to go back to work. We have survey evidence on numbers, but we do not know who all the claimants are. We sent out letters about the new deal for disabled people in respect of the stock of IB claimants, and one reason why there have been only 8,000 "outputs" of sustained employment is that not everyone comes forward. One reason for that is the voluntary nature of the scheme. We need to try different approaches. I am very much in favour of the compulsory element if the support that is then offered is not coercive or backed up by targets to get numbers of people off benefit. I believe that that is a perfectly defensible and sensible way of approaching the matter.

It seems that the hon. Member for Chesterfield is against pilots. I do not believe that it is possible, on this complex issue, to devise a system that will work for our diverse, different and complex set of clients without rigorous evaluation and pilots. It would be easy for us, with our prejudices, to sit down and discuss what we think would do the job, and then spread that across the country. In respect of what is a difficult problem, we should try out different approaches, do our best to find out what will work and spread that good practice around the country.

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's comments on our alleged failure to address discrimination against disabled people. When the Government took office, the only thing that was unlawful was direct discrimination against disabled people in employment, in large firms and in service provision. Those were the only aspects of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to have been implemented. There were other provisions, but they had not then been commenced. If, by the end of this Parliament, we can meet the commitments that we have made, including the Bill that was announced yesterday, discrimination against disabled people in employment and in service provision will be completely outlawed. We shall have taken major steps to get rid of discrimination against disabled people in every part of society. If we can achieve that, it will be the biggest step forward in disability rights that the country has ever seen. Since the announcement yesterday, I have had a good reaction from many members of the disability lobby, who can be cynical sometimes, although one understands why. I am determined to make sure that we carry through that commitment, notwithstanding the general cynicism and negativity of the Liberal Democrats.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair)

From the Chair, I thank the Minister for her reply and congratulate hon. Members who have taken part for the physical and mental stamina necessitated by our experiences today.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Seven o'clock.