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Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): The hon. Gentleman seems to be relying very much—remarkably so—on the arguments of the hon. Member for Havant. What about the views of the organisations of and for people with disabilities? So far, he has mentioned the RNIB. I have its briefing, which is excellent. Nowhere in it does the RNIB support the view that the regulations should be annulled. Does he have any evidence that any other organisation of that kind supports the same view? I have not found any.

Mr. Webb: The RNIB briefing says that

—the Government's defence of what they are doing—

It goes on to say that the regulations will mean that

The RNIB goes on to talk about people who become blind and lose their job, saying that an interview just after losing work because of the onset of blindness

I agree that it does not say at the end of the briefing, "Therefore annul" but it does not sound to me like a ringing endorsement.

The right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) is quite right to mention what disabled people's organisations are saying. Leonard Cheshire says that it is

SCOPE says that

A number of organisations are concerned about the regulations—to varying extents, I accept—and we should listen to what they say.

The research evidence is about the medium-term effect of the pilot schemes. It gives the schemes time to work, but the key word in the title is "voluntary." This is a departmental report on voluntary schemes to get people to go to interviews. It found that people who turn up to voluntary schemes—and such people are presumably well motivated—are no more likely to get a job. If volunteers are not more likely to get a job, what about conscripts? There is no evidence that the interviews work. In fact, there is clear evidence that disabled people—and especially newly disabled people—feel threatened by them.

I tabled a question to the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks), about the effects of the interviews. This matter returns to the point raised by the hon. Member for Bradford, North. The Minister told me that, although the

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work-focused interview would not normally have any effect on a subsequent medical test, there could be circumstances in which the person who conducts the work-focused interview will suggest that there should be another medical test.

What expertise does the person talking about jobs have about disability and people's ability to work? Given that the work-related interview will probably be triggered by a person failing a medical test in the first place, what expertise does the person who conducts the interview have that will enable him to decide that that interviewee is not really ill and that there should be another test?

Clearly, the regulations will be passed by the House, even though we will oppose them. Will the Secretary of State tell us, on the record, which severely disabled people will be excluded from the forced interviews? Secondly, will he confirm that the people conducting the interviews will have proper disability training so that they can work with people who are deaf or blind or who have other disabilities? Thirdly, will he confirm that targets will not be set for the numbers of people taken off incapacity benefit?

The Government have failed to lay before Parliament the proper information about the regulations. They have frightened disabled people. That amounts to harassment and should be opposed.

5.17 pm

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): I should like to associate myself with the concerns that have been raised by other hon. Members.

When the matter first arose on 3 July, I was telephoned by a journalist who informed me that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had briefed the media about his speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research the next day. I was told that my right hon. Friend had told journalists that all recipients of incapacity benefit—apart from severely disabled people who had no prospect of recovery—would be subject to repeat medical tests every three years. It is correct to say that I do not think that anyone suggested that my right hon. Friend referred to MOT tests for disabled people. I am pleased to be able to make that clear.

That speech would probably have received little attention had it not been for that press briefing, which was clearly designed for a purpose. Subsequently, we heard about my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's now notorious remarks, in which he spoke about people languishing on benefits. That seemed to be nothing more than an attempt to create the impression that disabled people get generous benefits that they do not deserve.

I presume that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister must have been briefed before his performance in the House that day, but clearly he was not well briefed. Perhaps it would be too much to expect him to grasp all the detail, or perhaps he was not aware that during the passage of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999 the Minister with responsibility for disability benefits had explained that the doctors performing the all-work tests on behalf of the Benefits Agency are given five options with regard to specifying intervals between subsequent tests. They can specify three months, six months, 12 months or 18 months, or they can opt for "no significant change anticipated".

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More than 50 per cent. of those who are tested are recommended for retest in 12 months or less. In only 28 per cent. of cases was no preordained retest time set. Subsequently, the Government acquired powers to carry out tests even when there was no obvious change in a claimant's condition. They also introduced the personal capability assessment, a stringent medical test that takes into account what work a person can do.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that fraud in claiming incapacity benefit, which is worth a meagre £69 a week at the long-term rate, is virtually non-existent. Only three cases—0.5 per cent.—were found from a sample of 1,400, whereas official errors were four times as high.

In our last manifesto, we claimed that the number of people receiving incapacity benefit had fallen by 11 per cent. since 1997. Since then, the Government have backtracked somewhat on the initial proposal mooted by the Secretary of State. It became known that the new arrangements would apply only to new claimants—at least in the first instance. We know from the regulations that the proposals are for work-focused interviews, as laid down in the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act, which are to take place at least every three years, and people can still be referred for another personal capability assessment.

It is difficult to find out what assessment the Government have made of the impact on the Benefits Agency medical service of conducting additional personal capability assessments. There are delays of between 90 and 170 days in carrying out the tests, and the system produces many wrong decisions. Many right hon. and hon. Members are concerned about the system's inadequacy and, indeed, cruelty.

All hon. Members share the aim of giving people with disabilities more opportunities to participate fully in society, including, if they are able to work, the opportunity to do so. No doubt my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will say that many disabled people say that they would like to work and many think that they could, given the proper assistance. The question is whether compulsion will assist in the process.

Would a disabled person who was called to a compulsory interview about his capabilities and opportunities for work approach it positively? After all, he might not be entirely convinced that out there in the wide world, in the labour market, the Government have succeeded in overcoming the disadvantage and stigma attached to disabled people, particularly those with mental health difficulties. Would he approach the interview positively, given his fears that he might lose benefit and that he might be referred back for yet another harrowing personal capability assessment?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) referred in an intervention to the RNIB briefing. I cannot speak for his interpretation of the briefing, but mine is that although it is very much against the regulations it accepts that the Government are determined to push them through. Indeed, they started to do so a couple of days before we were able to debate the measures in the House.

If my right hon. Friend is determined to push the measures through, perhaps he could set up an experiment to gauge their effectiveness. The pathfinder areas could be divided into two groups. In one group, the measures

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could proceed as planned; in the other, instead of making attendance compulsory, the measures could be promoted among disabled people, using their networks. That would comprise the positive and helpful support for disabled people that we want to see.

My experience from speaking to people who have been on new deal programmes before is that they value the assistance given. That is especially true of lone parents. Many of them opted into the system voluntarily because they had heard good things about it from their friends. That is a much better approach to achieving our aim, which I entirely share, of assisting more disabled people into work.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will seriously consider that as a possibility, and that in the light of the outcome of this experience—I hope that he will give it sufficient time to provide adequate evidence—he will not extend the provision further unless there is evidence that it works.

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