New Labour’s plans to shake up the benefits system, announced earlier this week, will hit millions of the most vulnerable people in society.
Those who cannot find jobs will be forced to work for almost nothing. Those too sick for work will be terrified into jobs that will damage their health further.
Anyone who is unemployed for more than two years will be made to take full-time “community jobs” and sign on every day in return for their benefit.
Unemployed people will be forced to work 37 hours for £60.50 a week – that’s just £1.70 an hour. They will clean up litter, scrub out graffiti and be sent out to parks to do gardening alongside workers earning at least three times what they receive.
Those claiming for 12 months will have to do four weeks’ of this work – or lose their payments.
A host of private firms and voluntary organisations will be offered lucrative contracts to enforce the new rules.
Already employment agencies and local businesses are rubbing their hands at the prospect of easy money for selling cheap labour.
The government has also announced that incapacity benefit will be scrapped by 2013.
All 2.3 million recipients must undergo new tests, conducted by privately contracted doctors, to determine whether they can work. The opinions of claimants’ own doctors are not deemed relevant to the new tests.
The government crackdown on the disabled and unemployed comes at a time when the media is increasingly full of crude anti-working class stereotypes.
Commentators and comedians alike claim that those on benefits resemble grotesques on TV shows like Little Britain. They are portrayed as “chavs”, “pramfaces”, or just plain “scum”.
The reality of life for those not in work is very different. Former miner and electrician Steve Hammill lives in Crewe, Cheshire, and is claiming incapacity benefit after losing part of a hand in an industrial accident.
“Many of my friends are on benefits,” he says. “But to characterise us as ‘workshy’ is a nonsense. When we are well enough, we help run voluntary organisations and help others.
“And we aren’t brain-dead either – we read, we debate and we argue. One of my best friends is disabled but is also an accomplished poet.”
Steve misses being in a workplace, but says few jobs are open to people with disabilities.
“Disability access at work is largely a myth. Most businesses don’t want to go the trouble of changing their practice to employ us. Even the simplest things, such as disabled toilets, are a rarity.
“But just as important is the attitude of the place. Many people with a disability can perform a task one day, but might find it difficult the next. Very few bosses are interested in hiring people like that.”
He adds that medical tests for incapacity benefit are already designed to stop people claiming.
“Lots of people go into the tests thinking they’re having a medical. They are asked a series of fairly abstract questions about their health and scored on them.
“What they don’t realise is that the people conducting the tests aren’t there to help them – they are there to keep the numbers of claimants down.”