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Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, a wholly compelling case has been made out by all noble Lords who have spoken from their expertise, which is acknowledged not only in your Lordships' House, but throughout the whole country. Yet it is reported that honourable Members of another place have threatened to withdraw the Weatherill amendment if we insist tonight. If so, that threat is in grave contempt of your Lordships' House, and it is a slight upon the status and dignity of the bicameral process. It is a threat to which this House should not defer.
Indeed, no second Chamber, however constituted or reconstituted, should be deprived of the option to decline to approve repugnant legislation, in particular on humanitarian grounds such as obtain in this case. As at present constituted, the House acts upon its honour to protect the interests of this vulnerable minority against oppression, for the reasons so eloquently explained by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke. The Parliament Acts make provision for another place to have its will in due course if that is what its Members wish.
The business of government has, as is wholly predictable, again hit the buffers towards the end of the Parliament. No acceptable accommodation has as yet been afforded, and as I understand it, none is on offer. Many years ago, the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, who sat on the Cross Benches, gave me a book inscribed with gratitude for my work on the Floor of the House on behalf of the disabled. Therefore it would not have been possible for me today to sacrifice their interests on the altar of political convenience at the behest of the usual channels. This Government evince but scant concern for minorities. Their protection has now become the urgent obligation of your Lordships' House, and, I hope, the business of the Loyal Opposition.
Earl Russell: My Lords, it is one of the annual rituals of this place that, come November, Ministers facing the exertions of the ping-pong season get an attack of constitutional heavy breathing. Like other heavy breathing, it is often done down the phone anonymously and no one in this Chamber is accountable for it. I believe therefore that I need to clear the air a little.
So far as I know, no one anywhere in this Chamber questions the supremacy of the elected Chamber. That is true both as a matter of fact--the Parliament Acts see to that--and as a matter of justice. What is at issue between us, and has been an issue in debates for as long as I have been a Member of this House, is whether that supremacy is arbitrary in that another place, whenever it wishes, can say, "I am going to have my way, so there!", or whether that supremacy is governed by the rule of law as set out by another place itself in the Parliament Acts.
What is set out in the Parliament Acts is not a procedure simply for another place to be able to insist, but a procedure that requires the Secretary of State to share with us the responsibility for getting his Bill on to the statute book; to bargain, to negotiate, to compromise and to seek to reach agreement. That is a perfectly fair burden to which to subject any legislator.
This Chamber is not in the business of stopping Whipped government Bills. Whenever any Whipped government Bill fails to become law, we may say that a political misjudgment has taken place. What remains a matter of debate is whose that political misjudgment might be. The answer is usually "both" when that happens, because even if one believes that the other person has been totally unreasonable, it may be a misjudgment to fail to foresee his unreason. Therefore, I hope that we shall not have the rather petulant four year-old's "shan't play" noises that we have been hearing from time to time, but that we have serious scope for a reasonable discussion.
I shall not repeat my arguments in detail against either of the clauses that we are debating. I understand that they are grouped together. I have argued that the first one, on contribution records, is unfair to groups which do not have an equal right to make contributions: people in areas of high unemployment; people from ethnic minorities; and people who suffer progressive disabilities, such as, for example, deafness, which interfere with their ability to work before they finally become eligible for incapacity benefit.
I simply do not understand why the Government have insisted on this clause. It does not make any sense to me. When I listened to Mr Rooker, the Minister of State, replying to the debate on Wednesday evening, all I heard was the equivalent of the famous marginal note in the UN delegate's speech, "Weak point, shout".
I cannot hear any clear principle. I have read what the Minister and the Secretary of State have said. They seem to be desperately worried about people who have had long periods of unemployment and then claim incapacity benefit. I simply do not understand why that worries them so much. The Minister has said that there is no question of fraud. I thank her for that. I am not certain how far that sentiment applies throughout the Government. At the last Prime Minister's Question Time, when my right honourable friend Mr Kennedy asked the Prime Minister why he insisted on this, the Prime Minister replied with a figure from the Green Paper claiming a threefold increase in the number claiming incapacity benefit since 1981.
First, if that was the Prime Minister's reasoning, he is locking the stable door after the horse has been stolen; the horse was stolen by the previous government in the Social Security (Incapacity for Work) Act 1994. I am sure that the House will be relieved to hear that I shall not enter into a debate on that point now. However, it put a stop to that increase in the figures which have since decreased.
Behind much of this debate is the concern of people to explain the increase both in incapacity benefit and in claims for disability benefit as a whole. Many people have been inclined to claim that there has been fraud. Attempts to find it have always come to nothing. The Minister has most generously confirmed that in the case of BIP, in which her record is an extremely honourable one. The recently-published DSS research report no. 94 found that people recognised as disabled in the past few years were recognised according to the same standard as would have applied many years ago, although the numbers so recognised had increased. The incapacity benefit leavers tracking study found that those who had been unemployed before claiming incapacity benefit were less likely to become employed afterwards.
The study also found--this is a very interesting finding--that people's self-perception with regard to their own health was a more accurate predictor of their employment future than the incapacity all-work test. In fact, people are probably better judges of their own health than are the Government. I am not particularly surprised to hear that, but I believe that there are those who would be.
Therefore, why should there be such an increase in the number of people claiming disability benefits? I believe that this point is crucial to the whole of our argument. First, there is, thank God, far less stigma attached to having a disability than there was even 10 or 20 years ago. Therefore, people are willing to make a claim and to accept the label of being a disabled person when 20 years ago they would not have been. I can only regard that as a good thing. Secondly--and this is a finding of the incapacity benefit leavers tracking study--in the tightened conditions of the labour market, employers are more likely to resist employing people with lowered capacity. Therefore, those people have a greater need to claim incapacity benefit. Thirdly, it is well known that illness is a consequence of unemployment. That case is documented at length in the Acheson report; I do not need to do so now.
The Acheson report has also found that, although mortality has fallen, morbidity has not fallen in proportion, especially among the poorer part of the population. The poverty/ill health link is much clearer than it was before. Again, that is relevant to the number of claims. We also have better diagnosis in relation to mental health illness, depression, and back pain, which accounts for one in every seven days lost from work through sickness. We have the car culture which both makes people take less exercise and puts their backs in uncomfortable postures. Here, I rely on the authority of the orthopaedic surgeon who many years ago treated my own back.
I turn to the other clause concerning occupational pensions. At least I understand what the Government are doing although I do not accept it. They argue that they should concentrate help where it is needed most. That is a good principle, but even good principles cannot exist in monopoly. They have to share the world with other principles. Here, they conflict with other principles. First, they conflict with the contributory principle. That is not absolutely sacrosanct, but anyone who proposes to alter the conditions of a contributory benefit must shoulder the burden of proof. That is a heavy burden.
Secondly, what the Government are doing contradicts the need to encourage private provision for pensions. That is an increasingly urgent need of which the Government are well aware and to which a considerable part of this Bill is devoted. I cannot see that it encourages people to invest money in private pensions if they know that if they become sick, 73 per cent of what they put in will be lost to the Treasury. That does not promote the usual motive for private provision.
Finally, what the Secretary of State has done is not equipped for uprating. The uprating is discretionary, not of right. The Minister knows what has happened to the uprating of capital limits for income support, which are equally discretionary. They have not been uprated since 1988. That is the box into which the Secretary of State proposes to put incapacity benefit for those in receipt of occupational pensions. That box is a coffin. We should not put it there.
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