New criteria for claiming income support will be phased in from today (24 November 2008) as part of the government’s drive to get more disabled people and lone parents into paid work. Emma Maier discusses the changes and campaigners’ reactions
Reforms introduced from 24 November gradually erode the length of time lone parents can claim income support. By 2011 most will only be able to claim until their youngest child’s seventh birthday – nine years less than the current entitlement.
The move follows last month’s changes for people who cannot work because of ill-health or disability. Previously they could claim incapacity benefit but in October this was replaced for new applicants with the employment and support allowance (ESA). Under the new system, those who can work will attend a returning to work programme and those who don’t engage may have their benefits cut.
The aim of both changes is to reduce the number claiming benefits and get more people into paid work. But campaigners are concerned that the benefits system could prove to be the wrong tool for the job – and that the economic crisis could make the transition more difficult.
Changes to income support
The reforms reduce lone parents’ eligibility for income support.
Some may be able to claim until their youngest child is 16 if:
• they are a foster parent living with a foster child
• they receive carer’s allowance
• they receive incapacity benefit or credits
• their child receives the middle or higher rate care component of disability living allowance
Lone parents who are no longer eligible will be able to claim jobseeker’s allowance or, if they have a disability, ESA.
The charity One Parent Families/Gingerbread has warned that lone parents may be trapped in low-paid jobs because the system does not allow parents who have few skills to pursue full time education and training. Combined with problems finding appropriate childcare, this could leave lone parents “cycling between low-paid work and benefits” the charity says.
“Thirty per cent of lone parents on benefits lack any formal qualifications,” says Kate Bell, head of policy and research at the charity. “We encourage government to focus on up-skilling lone parents by looking at long-term training to get them into better jobs.”
The reforms could also undermine single parents’ ability to “parent well” because they will be forced to return to work at an arbitrary time rather than according to the needs of their families, the charity says.
The charity is also campaigning for immediate exemption for women who have experienced domestic violence: lone parents are more likely to have experienced domestic violence, which makes them less able to work.
“The government should delay implementing the second phase of the reforms at least until it has evaluated the impact on the first tranche of lone parent families to be affected,” says chief executive Fiona Weir.
Meanwhile, under the new ESA system, people with disabilities or health conditions are now required to undergo the ‘work capability assessment’ to decide what work activities, if any, they can do. Those deemed unable to work will receive an allowance. Those who can will be helped into work.
Those with a terminal illness and some others will be exempt from the assessment carers will also be given special consideration. Existing claimants will be unaffected.
The government says the ESA system will help support people back into work rather than “writing people off” and that those in the “support group” (see flowchart) will often be better off than under incapacity benefit.
Leonard Cheshire Disability welcomes measure to help disabled people find work but is concerned that the onus is entirely on job seekers. “Many disabled people want to work but face inaccessible environments or negative employer attitudes,” says public policy manager Guy Parckar. “Greater conditions or sanctions on disabled people will not overcome the barriers in the jobs market and people could be penalised unfairly. It could push disabled people towards poverty.”
He welcomes the higher benefits for those with the most severe disabilities, but says: “It will simply not be enough to lift people out of poverty.”
The shrinking jobs market caused by the economic crisis will only make things worse, says the charity. It is also concerned that the stricter capacity test could leave people with fewer needs to find work without support.
The standard of decision making and administration could also be an issue, according to the Disability Alliance. Director of policy and services Paul Treloer says more people are expected to appeal their entitlement to the benefit and that there are concerns about the standards of service for people with learning disabilities and autistic spectrum disorders and those with fluctuating conditions such as ME, MS and RSI.
It is unclear when or how existing incapacity benefit claimants will be affected, but the charities will continue to lobby.
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