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House of Commons

Monday 1 July 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Disabled People (Work)

1. Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): What plans he has to improve the support his Department is giving to help people with disabilities into work. [63384]

5. Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth): What support his Department is giving to help those with disabilities to get back into work. [63388]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): For the first time in the history of the welfare state, we are actively seeking to assist disabled people to work where they are ready and able to do so. We have introduced a range of measures and are making work pay for people with disabilities through the disabled person's tax credit and the national minimum wage. We are making work possible through the new deal for disabled people and a range of specialist employment programmes, and by removing benefit

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barriers. In addition, Jobcentre Plus offers all disabled people who are making new or repeat claims to benefit interviews with a personal adviser to ensure that they are aware of the help and opportunities that are available to them. We are continuing the extension of Jobcentre Plus nationwide with about 225 integrated offices opening by April 2003.

Mr. Prosser: I thank my hon. Friend for that very encouraging answer. Is she aware that, while the established new deal programmes have already had a dramatic impact on unemployment in places such as Dover and Deal, and in east Kent generally, the new deal for disabled people is reaching out and helping people who want to work or are willing to do so, but need a helping hand—the sort of people whom we meet in our surgeries week in, week out? Will she assure me that we will now build on the success of the current scheme and seek other, more imaginative and progressive ways of helping disabled people—especially young people—back into work?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is right to say that disabled people are one of the hardest-to-help groups in terms of entering employment. For many years, disabled people were told on visiting the Benefits Agency or contacting Departments that they were incapable of work. We often need longer and more tailored interventions to assist them in getting into work. The new deal for disabled people is starting to find out the best ways of doing that and we hope to build on the lessons that we are learning as the programme continues. It has not yet been a nationwide programme for a year, so it is early days, but we are encouraged by the attitude of the disabled people who contact job brokers, as well as by the way in which job brokers can match disabled people, with all their needs and requirements, to local employers who are looking for good staff.

Mr. Jenkins: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, and offer my congratulations in so far as I and many people in this country believe that she and her Department

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are at long last recognising that we cannot afford to marginalise this part of our society. Will she thank all the people who are involved in the scheme, and especially the job mentors or personal mentors? We recognise how difficult the situation is, especially for those with hidden disabilities, who are not perceived by society to have a disability, but what is she doing to tackle the residual problem of employers who fail to understand how effective some disabled people can be in the economic work force?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend makes another very important point. Employers, whether small or large, reflect the attitude and awareness issues of the rest of society. Many employers will make assumptions about what disabled people can or cannot do that are based on nothing more than old-fashioned stereotypes. It is important that the Government, and all those who work with and for disabled people, assist in getting across the fact that disabled people have a lot to offer to employers of all sizes. For example, he may know—other hon. Members may not—that disabled people are less likely to take time off work than non-disabled people. They can be valuable and long-standing members of a work force, who show loyalty and provide excellent services to their employers. It is about time that employers realised that.

There are 8.5 million disabled people in this country with £40 billion to £45 billion of spending power in their pockets. Any employer who wants to get a share of the market that they can provide would want to employ disabled people. We would encourage employers of all sizes, from the smallest to the largest, to take that on board and give disabled people a chance.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth): What assessment has been, or is to be, made of the effectiveness of the actions of the Minister's Department in seeking to help people with disabilities to access employment, taking into account its truly abysmal record in helping people with disabilities to access the benefits to which they should be entitled?

Maria Eagle: The hon. Lady never disappoints in terms of being churlish, as she manages to be so whenever she stands up in the House. All our employment programmes and new deals are properly evaluated. The new deal for disabled people will be properly evaluated and lessons that need to be learned from its operation and success or lack of success will be learned in order to inform changes to the programme to make it better. We have every expectation that this programme and the other specialist disability employment programmes can make a real difference in helping disabled people to access the work force. If that is not a key part of civil rights for disabled people in this country, I do not know what is.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Anything that the Minister can do to advance and join up the various components of vocational rehabilitation will generally be welcome to Members on these Benches. Nevertheless, does she accept that there is little room for complacency, given that in this country only 20 per cent. of people with an acquired brain injury return to employment, whereas in the United States 50 per cent. do so? In the light of that and other information, will she concede that inthis context joined-up government requires the active co-operation of the Department of Health, local social

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services and other agencies? In particular, will she look favourably on experimenting with integrating budgets to ensure the early and smooth delivery of the whole range of essential rehabilitation services?

Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, in that a disabled person out there in the community does not care whether it is Department of Health money or DWP money that can assist them. They want a point of contact for assistance. I agree that job rehabilitation is a tremendously important part of what we are hoping to do, and we will need to get it right if we are to make a big impact on getting disabled people back to work. Governments have not been particularly good at that in the past, so we are starting with a blank sheet.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware of the job retention and rehabilitation pilots in the new deal for disabled people, which will ensure that we can design good, effective interventions that assist people who require help in rehabilitation to get back to work. We need to find out what works, and in doing so we must ensure that we can spread good practice to any national scheme that we come up with. An important part of any long-term intervention is to ensure that disabled people can get back into work, and we intend to make sure that "departmentalitis" does not get in the way of that.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow): I acknowledge the good work that the Government are doing in helping disabled people back to work, but has the Minister considered introducing a grant to cover the period from the time when the person starts work until they get paid? That is a source of fear for people who may have to live in poverty during that time, which could be a major discouragement.

Maria Eagle: I agree with my hon. Friend. There is no doubt that disincentives in the benefits system and fear of what taking the step of going back to work will mean for available money can be a big disincentive to anybody contemplating going back into the labour market after an extended period out of it. That is why we changed the therapeutic earnings rules.

The new permitted work rules allow people to try out work to see whether their health condition will allow them to stick it out before committing themselves to giving up their benefit. In addition, benefit linking rules now mean that people can try a job for 52 weeks—a full year—to see whether it works without losing their benefit, and volunteers doing voluntary work do not have to give up their benefits in order to dip their toe back into the world of work. Such interventions can do a lot to take away the fear that is felt by many of our fellow citizens who have been out of the work force for a long time when they are contemplating returning to it. The more that we can do to give them confidence in their own abilities to get back into work and to do a good job, while taking away the fear of losing money, the better.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The hon. Lady is right about the reliability of disabled workers. The same goes for older people in their 50s and 60s, and we should try to do away with prejudice in that respect, too. Does she agree that there is a real problem in getting physically disabled people to work in smaller businesses, which often provide exactly the right environment for them to

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work, owing to the cost of providing ramps and other equipment to enable them to work there? Many small firms do not have the spare cash to invest in that equipment. What assistance are the Government giving to enable them to invest in that type of physical equipment?

Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about access. One of our specialist disability employment programmes, access to work, provides for just that kind of help. It enables individuals who have access problems to solve them in respect of the employer whom they are going to work for and solves newly emerging problems whereby employees fall into ill health while at work. Job retention is just as important as getting people into work once they have fallen out of the labour market due to ill health.

We therefore operate a programme, which has three times its 1997 budget and helps three times as many people. We have interventions that will help, but the hon. Gentleman may know that many employers find that the adjustments that they have to make to accommodate disabled workers can be cheap and easy, and that the benefit of excellent new employees far outweighs the cost of adjustments to enable access.

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