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Last Updated: Sunday, 22 January 2006, 11:31 GMT
Back to work
On Sunday 22 January 2006 Andrew Marr interviewed John Hutton MP, Work and Pensions Secretary

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

John Hutton MP
John Hutton MP, Work and Pensions Secretary

ANDREW MARR: [Now we did ask various government ministers and loyal backbenchers to come on and defend the education white paper but with an eerie lack of success.]

I'm sure my next guest, the Minster for Work and Pensions will defend them but he's got a great deal more on his plate as well.

Coming this week, there's a big announcement on something which has been hugely controversial in the past. Some 2.7 million people are on some form of incapacity or sick pay benefit, can Mr Hutton get a million of them back to work?

Then there is, of course, the pensions crisis. It hasn't gone away. Does the government want to compel us to save more money?

And finally, the struggling Child Support Agency - it costs almost as much to administer than it retrieves from errant fathers.

Can it, and should it, as an organisation survive? John Hutton, welcome to you.

JOHN HUTTON: Good morning.

ANDREW MARR: Good morning. Can I start off by asking what the incapacity benefit reform is fundamentally for. You very kindly came on when you were new in the job and sat on the sofa and you said this is not a cuts agenda, and yet Tony Blair has said on two or three occasions, very clearly, that it's essential to save money from incapacity benefit, you need that money for pensions and other things. So which is it?

JOHN HUTTON: Well we certainly do need to save money here but by helping people get off benefit into work, and certainly not by cutting their benefits. We've, we've never had any plans whatsoever to cut people's benefits. You know, people are poor enough.

ANDREW MARR: So can I make this absolutely clear - it's - you could call it a cuts or savings agenda, in the sense of you want to take up to a million people off incapacity benefit and get them back into work, and therefore you save money, but it's not a cuts agenda in terms of actually how much money individuals would receive.

JOHN HUTTON: I think that's right. I mean broadly this is about tackling poverty and social exclusion, which we all know is a problem in many of our inner cities and much of those problems are caused by having thousands of people - literally, in some cases tens of thousands of people - trapped on benefit where they can't get off. So I think the best way to do it is certainly not to talk about cutting benefits - because that is not the right way forward, it would be quite wrong to do that - but by providing more help and support for people, which they currently don't get in the welfare state at all.

Very little help is, and support, is provided for people on incapacity benefit. If you talk to anyone who's on IB, very few of them have ever had the opportunity of having a proper, structured programme, skills, confidence building, some, in some cases, health care measures to tackle the underlying problem that they've got. Now what we've been doing the last two years, Andrew, is beginning to test out in many parts of the country - Glasgow, all of our big cities, in my area as well now - a totally different approach to trying to help people on incapacity benefit get off benefit into work. When people come on to incapacity benefit, you know, 90 per cent of them say to us look I really want to work again and I think I can. But the grim statistics are indicating quite the opposite.

ANDREW MARR: ... the longer on it, the longer they stay on it, of course.

JOHN HUTTON: Well if you've been on benefits for more than two years, you're more likely to die or retire than ever work again. Now that is hopeless. And I believe - given that we've got a strong, dynamic economy, we've got the right response now to tackling this province of incapacity benefit. I think we can help hundreds of thousands of people get off that benefit and back into work and do it without there being any suggestion of being anything other than being fair and reasonable to people in that situation.

ANDREW MARR: Yeah, but you need, you need some sticks as well as some carrots - don't you? Are you saying that people who decline to go for interviews, for instance, to help them get back to work, won't suffer extra penalties? Are you saying that it's right that the, the top level of incapacity benefit is 20 quid a week higher than Jobseeker's Allowance?

JOHN HUTTON: Well we set out broadly in our manifesto only a few months ago what we were planning to do here. We believe very strongly that if you're seriously disabled then I think we should be looking to do more to help you - and I mean more in financial terms, to look after the needs and provide for the needs that you have.

And in these areas where we've been testing out these programmes and providing more help and support, we have said to people on incapacity benefit, yes, we expect to see you; we expect you to come in and we'll talk to you and help you through this journey of where you are now and where you can be getting back into work.

ANDREW MARR: And if you don't come?

JOHN HUTTON: And - well if they don't come now, there is the possibility already under the existing laws, of there being a benefit consequence for them. But look, I, I think the right emphasis on all of this is not the punitive approach that, you know, many people, many people I think in the Sunday papers today would like us to go down.

ANDREW MARR: Well I completely understand why you say that -

JOHN HUTTON: - but we've got to fair and reasonable - not just to people on benefit but for those who are paying for benefits through their own hard work and taxes.

And I think if we can strike the right balance there, and I'll be setting out later my precise proposals - it would be very tempting to go into them this morning, I'm not going to do that - but look we're trying to strike this balance between providing more help and support, being fair and reasonable, and looking after those who've got the most severe disabilities more generously.

ANDREW MARR: What about -

JOHN HUTTON: I think that is the broad package we're trying to take forward.

ANDREW MARR: Right. Okay. What about the doctors who sign the sick notes, because it's clear that some sign a heck of a lot and some sign very few. Are there any plans to, as it were, name and shame or publicise doctors who are signing huge numbers of people on to incapacity benefit and are there any plans, as well, to put different kinds of advisors or medical experts into health practices?

JOHN HUTTON: Well we're not going to do any of this name and shaming stuff - I think that's ridiculous and we're not going to go down that road. You talked about some doctors signing off many more sick notes than others -


JOHN HUTTON: Well, you know, Andrew, the truth is, we don't know how many sick notes doctors are actually signing off because they're never counted, they're never monitored and they're never audited. And I think that is something that we should be looking at. In terms of working with GPs, I think it's absolutely sensible and right that we should talk to GPs about these, these issues because, you know, I think one of the problems we've got to tackle here is the assumption - and I think maybe it's deeply ingrained - that the best solution for someone in these circumstances is not to work.

Well I think there's a growing body of evidence now that says actually that's probably the, in many cases, the worst response that we can make to someone who's developing a problem - maybe it's a mental health problem, maybe it's something else - is to exclude them from the world of work is not always the right thing to do. So we have been piloting, again in some parts of the country, putting some of our employment advisors into GPs' surgeries so that the GP can consult and discuss and so can the patient ...

ANDREW MARR: This person's got a bad back but they could maybe do something else, here are the jobs that you could do if you've got this problem.

JOHN HUTTON: I think that's right, but look, we're not going to get in the way. I mean, you know, people who work for the department who work in pensions, you know, we can't put ourselves between the patient and a doctor.

It's for the doctor to decide, obviously, what the medical situation facing that person is but we think it's very important to talk to the GPs, and with their patients, about some of the options and we're here to help, we're trying to find a way of bridging this problem and not making sure, and making sure that people don't just end up on benefits when there are other options and alternatives for them.

ANDREW MARR: And what about GPs who do succeed in cutting the number of people who are going onto incapacity benefit - any chance of bonuses for them? That's been mooted in the Sunday papers today.

JOHN HUTTON: It has been mooted and I think, again, this is something that we would like to talk to the GPs about. But the details of all of this, as you know, will be published quite soon, and then we can have that debate properly, I think.

ANDREW MARR: Can you at least tell me - it has also been said in the past that incapacity benefit is a terrible name, it suggests that people are incapable, these are, these are people on the scrap heap - are you going to change the name of the benefit?

JOHN HUTTON: Yes we'll certainly be doing that because I mean incapacity benefit, you're quite right, implies that you're incapable of doing anything and that it's completely hopeless and I think we shouldn't take that view.

As I said, most people on incapacity benefit, they certainly say to us, look we'd like to work, help us get back into work, and that's now I think what we've got to do. We spent the first few years tackling unemployment and we've got unemployment down substantially -

ANDREW MARR: But you haven't got this down at all, I mean there's been huge issue -

JOHN HUTTON: The numbers are beginning to come down, which is the first time they've ever done that - the last year saw the first ever fall in the total numbers of people on incapacity benefit and that, I think, is a positive sign and we've just now got to build on that and take it forward.

ANDREW MARR: And to be very clear about, you think you can get to a situation where there are the people who are really severely sick or handicapped, and you can give them more help, but you, the rest, you can give a great deal more prodding and cajoling and help to get into work again. So in effect, you're going to kind of break the thing into two.

JOHN HUTTON: Well we're going to provide both groups with more help and support and certainly, as I said, for those who are severely disabled we should be looking to provide more financial support as well and a range of other services because their needs are very great.

And for those who've got less serious disability, then of course the priority has got to be to do what they want, which is to help themselves get back into work, where they can take responsibility for their families and for their own environment. And it's our job to help them do that and we haven't done that in the past - no government's done that before - incapacity benefit was used, as everyone knows, to camouflage mass unemployment in Britain's heartland manufacturing areas.

ANDREW MARR: You lot have been in power for quite a long time and that camouflage has remained in place.

JOHN HUTTON: But - yeah - I think we've been tackling unemployment benefit and we've got unemployment down. We've boosted the economy, we've got a massive growth in the number of jobs, now I think it's right now that we make these reforms as we said we'd do in our manifesto.

ANDREW MARR: Something else on your plate, pensions. Are you in favour of raising the pensions age to 67?

JOHN HUTTON: Well that's a debate we're going to have to have and Lord Turner's now produced his recommendations and these are one of them. My own personal view is that I think it is inevitable at some point in the future that we are going to have to look at this issue and yes it is very likely that the state pension age will need to rise. And that is going to be particularly true if we're going to provide the resources to fund the more generous state pension provision that Lord Turner is proposing.

ANDREW MARR: A lot of people working in the private sector, paying council tax, will be pretty outraged by one of the other stories in today's papers, which has been bubbling for a while, that a huge proportion of council tax rise is going straight to public sector workers to help them to fund their retirement at 60. Isn't that actually a gross injustice, that people in the private sector are seeing their schemes collapsing around their ears, people in the public sector have got this retire at 60 deal?

JOHN HUTTON: It's not everyone in the public sector who has a retire at 60 deal. I mean local government workers -

ANDREW MARR: But an awful lot do.

JOHN HUTTON: - the pensionable age is 65, and with the deal that we struck last year we've actually, I believe, got a very good deal for the taxpayers. The deal we struck last October is going to release savings of 13 billion pounds from those pension schemes, because no one is going to join those pension schemes on those existing current entitlement. We've moved the pensionable age for new employees in all of these public sector employments to 65 and I think that is a very - to 65 - and that's a very, very important reform.

ANDREW MARR: And yet in the old days when everyone in the public sector was considered to be underpaid relative to everybody in the private sector, that's long gone and you've now got a bit of an injustice between middle income, or lower to middle income people in the private sector paying the pensions of people in the public sector.

JOHN HUTTON: We've got to meet the obligations, the pension obligations, that we signed up to and no one is suggesting, I don't think, with any serious intent, that we just rip all of the pensionable or the pension rights that people in the public sector have accrued over the years. That would be quite wrong. And let me go back - we have struck, I think, a perfectly reasonable deal on public sector pensions, that we will save the taxpayer 13 billion pounds, new employees in the public sector will have to work until they're 65 before they get their pension.

And there are, as you know Andrew, a number of negotiations still continuing in, for example, the NHS and some of the other schemes, where there hasn't, there hasn't been a final agreement and we'll have to wait and see what happens before you can say with the certainty that you said this morning that all of this is done and dusted - it's not.

ANDREW MARR: Now I'm running through crises sitting on your desk at the moment. I must ask you about the Child Support Agency, which is being hugely inefficient - report after report has criticised them for the amount of time they take to answer calls, the number of people who they actually get money from to their computer system - one thing after another. Can the CSA really survive?

JOHN HUTTON: Well I think this is a very, very important question. Since I've been in this job I've been looking very closely at this issue, as people I think would expect me to be doing. We asked the chief executive to look very carefully at those areas where the CSA clearly was not providing the level of service that we wanted it to do.

He's made some recommendations to me about how we can improve the situation. I'm looking very closely at those and I intend to come to Parliament soon and set out how I think we should move forward on this. But the CSA is doing an incredibly difficult job, it's trying to track down -

ANDREW MARR: It's doing an incredibly difficult job badly.

JOHN HUTTON: It - yes - it isn't performing well enough and I think that's a common concern, but it's trying to do a very, very difficult job, finding absent fathers where often there is no certainty about who the father is, calculating earnings and then enforcing liabilities - it's not an easy job to do.

I think fundamentally the problem, you know, with this is yes there are problems in the agency and we need to tackle them but I think we should look very carefully at the fundamental policy framework in which the CSA is working. And I think fundamentally, you know, we're not going to solve this problem just by looking at the performance of the CSA.

ANDREW MARR: Just explain a little bit about what you mean by that.

JOHN HUTTON: Well the whole structure for calculating liability, for example, which is incredibly complicated in the primary legislation. I think we need to look very carefully at all of that. I think people tend to focus on the CSA as an organisation and say look it hasn't done a very good job - and yeah, they're right, it hasn't - but it is doing the job that Parliament asked it do, Andrew.

ANDREW MARR: One of the things -

JOHN HUTTON: And I think Parliament has got to be clear -

ANDREW MARR: - come back and look at this again.

JOHN HUTTON: I think so, absolutely.

ANDREW MARR: One of the things that's been mooted is actually that the Inland Revenue should take over collecting the money - because that's, after all, what the Inland Revenue, as we all know, is pretty good at - and that the CSA, or some other body, should be there as the investigation arm, if you like, to work out who is responsible for which child and so on.

JOHN HUTTON: I know a lot of people put that argument forward and I think it is complicated and I don't think it's going to be quite as simple as me pushing a button and moving work from one agency to another. Remember there are one and a half million families actually within the existing legislation that the CSA is trying to sort out.

And if you're talking about alternatives like that you've got to be clear about what happens to those one and a half million families - because I think the really important objective right now, for the short term, is to make sure that the CSA supports those families properly, gets as much maintenance as possible paid by the absent parent to those families. But look I think, you know -


JOHN HUTTON: - ... very carefully at all these issues over the next few weeks because I think we do need now to make some big decisions about the future and what is the best way to support families who need this maintenance being paid. And at the moment too many families are being let down and I think we've got to address that pretty fundamentally.

ANDREW MARR: But this could go back to who should pay what, how they pay it - reopen the whole thing.

JOHN HUTTON: Well, as I said, I am going to come to Parliament in the next few weeks and set out what I'm, what I'm going to propose here but I think everyone knows, who's looked at this, that the CSA has had fundamental problems and I think there's been lots of really good people working in the CSA, working really hard to help families, and they've found it impossible in the current framework to do that job properly.

So I think we've got a responsibility now to look at all this and see how we can resolve those problems, yeah.

ANDREW MARR: Well I'm sure everybody will be watching with great interest. John Hutton, thank you very much.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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