The New Labour government has brought in changes to disability benefits this week that will make it even harder for sick and disabled people to claim benefits.
It will leave many disabled people worse off and further expand the role of the private sector in attempting to push people off benefits into work.
The new Employment and Support Allowance will replace incapacity benefit for people with a long term sickness or disability that prevents them from working.
Work and pensions secretary James Purnell says the aim of the change is to get a million people off disability benefits and into work.
In reality it will cause increased misery for thousands of sick and disabled people – subjecting them to tougher assessments and sanctions.
Contrary to tabloid representations of an easy life on benefits, most people already struggle to claim the disability benefits they are entitled to – because of the long, complicated forms and stressful assessments.
Pilot schemes have shown that the new benefit has an even stricter eligibility test than incapacity benefit.
New claimants – with the exception of those with a terminal illness – now face a 13-week assessment period in which they will be paid a lower “assessment phase” rate.
Those who successfully claim the benefit will then be divided into a “support group” of the most severely disabled and a “work group” of those deemed capable of some “work-related activity”.
Those in the “work group” will be paid a lower rate and face a regime of compulsory interviews and activities, with the threat of benefit cuts for those who fail to attend or participate.
The government claims that the changes are about offering more support.
But in the last three years it has slashed 30,000 jobs in the Department for Work and Pensions. It wants to cut another 12,000 by 2011.
These are the very workers who could have offered skilled support and advice.
Private companies already play a growing role in the government’s “welfare to work” plans.
Private and voluntary sector organisations are now bidding for contracts to deliver the “work-orientated” part of the new benefit.
Most companies winning new bids are expected to be paid for “outcomes” – in other words, for the number of people they can show they got into some form of work.
With the recession bringing growing unemployment, many of these companies are already making noises about charging the government more for their work schemes.
Meanwhile Gordon Brown has made it clear that recession and unemployment do not mean any letting up of the pressure on those on benefits. “An economic downturn is no time to slow down welfare reform,” he said.
This is a frightening thought for those on the receiving end of his welfare “reforms” and the growing numbers threatened with job losses. It is another reason to unite to say that we won’t pay for the crisis.