The government's welfare reform plans unveiled this week are an attack on all of us.
They harass and intimidate disabled and ill people, threaten private tenants with extreme poverty or eviction, and seek to create a climate where workers are too terrified of losing their jobs to complain about their conditions.
The main elements are:
- To force one million of the 2.7 million incapacity benefit claimants back to work in the next ten years. The benefit is being replaced by a new employment and support allowance.
Most of those who receive incapacity benefit (worth between £59.20 and £78.50 a week) are unable to work because of injuries or mental illness.
Often they are concentrated in former industrial areas which have been devastated by job losses.
Claimants deemed capable of some work could lose part of their benefit if they do not attend interviews with job advisers, join rehabilitation schemes or take up training.
There will be compulsory work-focused interviews, action plans and work-related activity set according to each claimant’s condition.
Doctors will be bullied and bribed into taking a tougher line before they certify people for benefit. The government’s plans assume that there are jobs for those driven off benefits.
However, according to the most recent figures there are now 1.61 million unemployed - 950,900 of them claiming benefit - and just 594,100 job vacancies. How can an extra one million former claimants get jobs, especially given employers’ prejudice against people with physical disabilities or mental illnesses.
The real aim is to further weaken any resistance by workers, driving them into low-paid and often insecure jobs.
- To roll out nationally the “pathways to work scheme”. This gives those on incapacity benefit “personal advisers” who are empowered to cut benefits if they decide the claimant is not complying with the programme.
The scheme allows some claimants who get a job to be paid £40 a week on top of their wage for 12 months to encourage them back to work.
There is strong evidence that employers use this as a subsidy on top of low wages for a year and then sack the worker and get another from the programme.
- To replace housing benefit for private tenants with local housing allowance.
At present the housing benefit you are eligible for is based on the rent you actually pay.
In future everyone in an area will get the same amount, based on the local council’s view of the market rate. The government says this will “empower tenants to exercise choice and responsibility”.
In fact it means some people will search for substandard accommodation so they can cling onto a few pounds from their local housing allowance.
Many others will find that the allowance doesn’t cover their rent and they will be forced to make it up from the rest of their meagre benefits.
In Ireland where this system has existed for years, landlords find out the local rate and then add a top-up of £20 a week or more.
- To launch a further crackdown on benefit “fraudsters”.
Under the current “two strikes” rule, people who commit a second benefit offence within three years can have their benefits withdrawn or reduced. That period is to be widened to five years.
Yet many of these “fraudsters” are on low incomes or unemployed people who have made mistakes or simply don’t understand how the system works.
Total benefit fraud is estimated at £2.5 billion a year. VAT fraud by businesses is estimated at £12 billion, but there are no plans to target directors in the way claimants are harassed.