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Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): It is helpful that the hon. Gentleman has told the House that he is thoroughly confused about the matter. I am sure that, by the end of the debate, it will become clearer to him.

At the base of the issue is a significant difference between the approach of his party when in government, which was to look carefully at people's inabilities and to identify whether people could not do things, and that of the Labour party in government, which is to see what people can do and what measures can be taken to ensure that they are not written off as in the past but given all possible help. In every circumstance, that help may not be enough, but at least it will be given.

Mr. Willetts: We have heard that rhetoric for five years. Are the practical effects, which are outlined in the evaluations of the policies that the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) supported, consistent with that rhetoric? After five years, we are entitled to evidence. It is beginning to appear and it shows that the programmes are not delivering what was promised.

The evaluation of the new deal for lone parents and their prospects of finding work clearly shows that those who did not participate in the compulsory interviews were slightly more likely to get employment than those who were called for interview. There is therefore no point in the hon. Member for Gravesham simply repeating the 1997 rhetoric. The Government can no longer live on that. We want to know what is working, and the evidence shows that the Government's approach is not.

Mr. Pond: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Willetts: The hon. Gentleman said that I was confused; I am pleased that he is not. I shall give way again, provided that he explains why we have moved from primary legislation to regulations, whether there will be extra medical tests and fixed claim periods for incapacity benefit, and why the House is debating the matter today. I am confused about those subjects, but I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is not.

Mr. Pond: The hon. Gentleman knows that the majority of lone parents who went to an interview took up one of the options that they were offered. That does not necessarily mean that they entered paid employment; training or child care opportunities might be considered in an interview. However, the interview process increased the opportunities and potential of lone parents to make a better life for themselves and their families. That is a move forward.

Mr. Willetts: We are getting into more detail than necessary at the moment.

The Minister for Work (Mr. Nicholas Brown): The substance.

Mr. Willetts: I shall tell the Minister exactly what the research shows. In the pilot areas for the new deal,

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a slightly higher rate of lone parents left income support than in those where it was not piloted. The number of lone parents going into work through the new deal was slightly lower. More lone parents left income support because of "repartnering". The only practical effect of the new deal appears to be that some lone parents admit that they are cohabiting when they get the letter that calls them for interview. I should be happy to debate that any time with the hon. Member for Gravesham. If he does not accept my comments, I should like to know why he disagrees with research report No. 108.

The Government have caused distress and confusion to disabled people. They have changed their policy several times in the past four months and been unable to offer any significant evidence to support it. They have also been unable to show evidence that the interviews, which are supposed to have such a transforming effect on the prospects of disabled people, will make any difference.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): The hon. Gentleman has made some telling points, but he has left me uncertain about the position of the Conservative party. Does he believe that the measures are too draconian or not draconian enough?

Mr. Willetts: Our party's position is simple: we support effective measures to help people on incapacity benefit and others into work. We do not know what exactly the Government propose and whether their measures will have any effect. That is the reason for the debate. We look forward to the Secretary of State's explanation of the confusion that he has caused in the past four months.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind hon. Members that the debate must finish at 5.41 pm. Several are trying to catch my eye and the length of the speeches will determine how many hon. Members can contribute.

4.39 pm

Mr. Terry Rooney (Bradford, North): I remember the 1980s, when the then Employment Service in every town and city had a monthly target for the number of people who had to be removed from the register—not necessarily into work—and the number against whom a sanction had to be applied. A regime of fear operated in the Employment Service, which had no interest in assisting anybody to get work. I hope that we saw the back of those days long ago.

There is a great deal of misinformation, and disinformation, about exactly what the proposals mean. Personally, I am delighted that the Employment Service now seeks to be interventionist and to help people return to work. Some may recall that back in the 1970s everyone who claimed unemployment benefit had to go for an interview, and it was a work-focused interview. It may not have been called that, but that is what it was. In the 1980s, the Conservatives abandoned the system and abandoned unemployed people.

In principle, I see nothing wrong with new claimants having to go for interviews, given the safeguards contained in regulation 5. However, perhaps the Secretary

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of State will tell us in what circumstances an interview would not be deemed "appropriate"—that, I think, is a worry for all of us.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): I—along with others, for all I know—am especially concerned about the severely disabled, as I said in a question to the Prime Minister a few months ago. I note that when there are good reasons, such as a claimant's state of health, interviews can be deferred. The severely disabled, as new claimants, should not be put in such a situation as they are clearly in no position to work. I—and, I am sure, my hon. Friend—would not want any further anxiety to be imposed on them.

Mr. Rooney: That is a worthy concern, but, according to the terms of incapacity benefit, claimants can be excused from further medical examination for three, five or 10 years, or for life, if it is obvious that their condition will not improve. I assume that the intention is to extend exemption from interview to those who are already exempt from medical examination.

We need to reflect on the measures taken over the past four years and the impact that they have had. Will the regulations prove to be an extension of those measures, or will they begin to undo them? Between April 1997 and September 2001, my area has experienced an 80 per cent. reduction in youth unemployment and a 72 per cent. reduction in adult long-term unemployment. That has not happened by accident; the new deal has played a part. The new deal, however, is becoming an old deal. It is becoming tired.

There is now a hard core of young people with multiple problems who do not fit easily into any of the slots, and the new deal is not flexible enough to cope with them. For instance, about 50 per cent. of unemployed people under 24 in the Bradford travel-to-work area are referred to the environmental taskforce or voluntary sector options, 90 per cent. of them on a mandatory basis. The vast majority are experiencing that for the second, third or fourth time. All that the new deal is doing is recycling people. If we are to handle them properly, we must think again about the principles of the new deal and the rigid inflexibility that it incorporates.

I fear that claimants will lack confidence in the new work-focused interviews. I fear that the advisers will not be sufficiently well trained, and will not be supported by enough flexibility in the system, to deliver packages demonstrating that individuals rather than targets count. It may not have been intended, but there is now an incredible degree of rigidity and prescription in the Employment Service's application of the new deal. It has escaped from its original admirable ambitions and application. During the first two or three years, it was fantastic and the flexibility was there, but it seems to have lost it. We need to be careful that this measure does not go down that same road. The focus has to be the individual, not departmental programmes, statistics or targets.

There is another problem, which seems to operate across all civil service matters and all programmes, whichever Government are in power. Over time, there develops an obsession with outputs rather than outcomes. If we are serious about this matter, we need to start sending messages down the line that it is outcomes that matter, rather than being able to put a tick in the correct box.

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If this measure is to work, we need the right training for the advisers, and confidence among claimants that the system will help them, rather than beat them. We also need to emphasise that this is a matter of choice, not coercion. Approximately 25,000 people a year with severe disabilities have, with the right help and support, been moved into mainstream employment through sheltered employment projects such as Remploy. That is not cheap, but it shows that, with the right programme, the right support and the right attitude towards discriminatory employers, the opportunities are there for those who want them. This scheme must work on the same basis. Those who are readily employable and who want to work will easily be able to walk away from the benefit system and get employment. The challenge will be for those difficult cases with a multiplicity of problems.

I would like to ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State a technical question, because I cannot see the answer in the regulations. At the moment, anybody on statutory sick pay is automatically transferred to incapacity benefit after 196 days. It is not clear from the regulations—that provision does not seem to have been repealed—whether that will still apply or whether such a change would be conditional on an interview. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend could clarify that.

In principle, I support what the Government are doing, but the mechanics of the proposals need to be worked out very carefully.

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