TONY BLAIR’s government stepped up its war on the poor with plans to “reform” incapacity benefit last week. New Labour wants to slash the welfare budget by bullying sick and disabled claimants into low-paid McJobs or cutting their benefit payments. It is Labour’s second attack on incapacity benefit — the last shake up, in 1999, sparked a rebellion by 65 Labour MPs.
Around 2.7 million people claim the £75 a week benefit, at a cost of £7 billion a year. Ministers want to divide them into a “more sick” category, who will get a new £80 a week benefit, and a “less sick” group, who face a £20 a week benefit cut if they fail to attend “work-focused interviews” and seek work. Ministers have already set a target figure, suggesting that just one in five claimants will fall into the “more sick” category. The government will axe the automatic increases in benefit that claimants now get after six and 12 months, which it argues are an incentive to stay on welfare for longer.
The move came wrapped in shameful rhetoric, attacking incapacity benefit claimants and alleging a “sick-note culture” of workshy malingerers. “Those who play by the rules get the help. Those who don’t play by the rules should start playing by the rules,” said Blair. But in reality just 1.5 million of the 2.7 million people on incapacity benefit actually receive payments — the rest get only pension credits — and this number has fallen by nearly 400,000 since 1995. Fraud is so low it is considered almost impossible to measure and is estimated at less than 0.3 per cent of total payments.
Labour’s attack was slammed by anti-poverty campaigners. “Cutting, or threatening to cut, the already limited financial support that incapacity benefit offers does nothing to help people facing disability and illness,” says Kate Green, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group. “Claimants who are ready and able to think about work need support and more flexible job opportunities, not threats and insults. Those whose illness or disability make work unrealistic must not be left even worse off than they are now.”
Disability and mental health campaigners also condemned the move. Richard Brook, chief executive of mental health charity Mind and chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium, said, “We believe that the announcement raises serious issues about coercion and penalising people depending on how they are perceived, rather than their actual disability or medical condition.”
And Lorna Reith, chief executive of the Disability Alliance asked, “Is the Department of Work and Pensions seriously suggesting that junior Jobcentre Plus staff are to decide whether or not someone who’s had a mental breakdown is ready to start looking for work? Or someone still undergoing chemotherapy should be ringing up employers? We are appalled at the idea that people in this position would be penalised by having their benefit pegged at the poverty level of £55 per week.”
Work and pensions minister Alan Johnson argues that thousands of workers were dumped onto incapacity benefit in the 1980s as the Tories tried to conceal the number of people out of work.
But Johnson’s plans do nothing to address the reason the workers were out of work in the first place — lack of decent jobs.
More than 330,000 incapacity benefit claimants live in former coalmining areas. Many worked for years in mining, or in other heavy industries that left their health wrecked.
Dave Parry, of the Coalfield Communities Campaign, agrees that ex-miners and former workers in other heavy industries have long been “the hidden unemployed”. But he adds, “We should not provide any excuse for the government to hound people. Our argument is that the job situation in the coalfield areas is not as good as it looks from the figures.
“The mining industry doesn’t do you any favours healthwise. If you’ve survived 20 to 30 years in the pits and you’re in your fifties there’s only a limited number of jobs you can do.
“The nature of the workplace is not employee-friendly. They want to flog you to death and get as much out of you as possible.
“They’re not prepared to carry people with long-term illnesses—it’s not straightforward finding an employer who will do that.”
And the only jobs available in the former mining areas are usually low paid. He says, “If you add it all up, the jobs aren’t really there. If there were any decent jobs around that people could do, they wouldn’t have to be hounded by the government.”
Alan Johnson also claims the new benefits regime will help disabled people who wanted to work. Of course disabled people have a right to work. But the benefit changes will do nothing to target the prejudice and discrimination that are real barriers to disabled people working.
TUC research revealed that 40 percent of incapacity benefit claimants wanted a job but were prevented from working either by practical requirements associated with their disability or by employer discrimination.
Pollutants and lack of safety at work force many workers onto incapacity benefit (Pic: John Sturrock)