WHILE THE government spends billions on the build-up to war, it is pushing through vicious attacks on disabled people's benefits. New Labour is preparing to rob the sick and vulnerable of Incapacity Benefit. Many Labour Party members and disability rights campaigners were furious when Tony Blair announced the plan in July.
Ministers accused most of the 2.3 million people who claim Incapacity Benefit of being 'scroungers'. They demanded all those receiving the benefit should face regular compulsory tests to prove their ill health.
Under pressure the government made noises about consulting disability groups and phasing in the changes over two years. But while Blair talked of 'national unity' over the war last week, the government set about trying to ram through the benefit attack within a month.
Its target is ordinary people who survive on Incapacity Benefit worth around £69.75 a week because their health prevents them from getting a job. A review by the Department of Work and Pensions published in May shows the single largest group of claimants is men over the age of 50.
They live in areas hardest hit by unemployment. The highest proportion of claimants are in Wales, where 11 percent of the working population receive Incapacity Benefit, the north east of England at 10.2 percent, and the north west at 9.3 percent.
These people have worked in back-breaking industries like mining that have since collapsed. Tough New Labour blames Tory governments for fiddling the unemployment figures by shifting some of those out of work onto sickness benefits. But New Labour aims to alter the claimant statistics by forcing people off benefits altogether.
It wants new claimants to face regular interrogations called 'work focused interviews' and stringent medical examinations called 'personal capability tests'. People on Incapacity Benefit already face tough reviews where their health status is awarded points.
Their benefit is cut if they don't accumulate 15 points. An occupational health worker in Rotherham explained what is happening: 'In our area there are a lot of ex steel workers and ex-miners. They get to their mid-fifties and they've been on Incapacity Benefit for years. They have a review and suddenly they are getting 12 points or ten, and they lose their money. The review tests walking, lifting, reaching-things like that. But, say, a miner with chest problems can get upstairs halfway, then he has to stop. If that's the only thing, he will only get seven points, and that's not enough. Who's going to employ them? People come to us and say, 'I've been bloody knocked off Incapacity Benefit. I'm not going to get a job.' But that's not social security's concern. The rules say they are fit for work, so they have to sign on and make themselves available for 40 hours work a week. Then after six months if they don't qualify for Income Support they will get nothing. It is a deliberate attempt to get people off benefits.'
Over 23,000 people failed the medical tests during March and May this year, so their benefit was axed. New Labour privatised the medical assessment service in 1998. The SEMA group runs the contract.
A National Audit Office report in March concluded SEMA had more incentive to deliver 'fast turnaround' than to 'improve quality of service'. It admitted that 'the treatment of customers at medical examinations is not yet adequate.'
This means vulnerable people are getting assessed by a company that is putting profits first. The Department of Work and Pensions statistics reveal most people claiming Incapacity Benefit suffer from mental or behavioural disorders, or have diseases affecting their muscles, bones or circulation.
But New Labour wants to force these people to try to find work at a time when a recession is looming and workers are losing their jobs by the thousand. As Reg McLaughlin from Greater London Action on Disability says, 'I am outraged at the government's new proposals.
'They are continuing the line that disabled people are fair game. They have a policy of not taxing rich people but taxing disabled people.' New Labour may have to delay its benefit changes if MPs force a debate on the proposals when parliament returns. But it is clear there is no let-up in their war against the disabled and poor at home while they prepare to bomb Afghanistan.