Incapacity benefit reforms meet with degree of suspicion

The government wants to wean people off incapacity benefit by offering employment support and threatening lower benefits. Amy Taylor reports

The government’s proposals to cut the number of people claiming incapacity benefit, contained in last week’s welfare reform green paper, have had a mixed reception.

While most campaigners agree  with its broad thrust, many are uncomfortable with its plans to impose compulsory activities on the UK’s 2.7 million claimants and argue that the support on offer for people returning to work must increase.

Allowance with strings

The government intends to replace incapacity benefit with an employment and support allowance from 2008. People with more manageable conditions will be able to claim the highest rate of the allowance, worth more than the current long-term
incapacity benefit rate of £76 a week, only if they undergo work-focused interviews, agree action plans and carry out work-related activity.

Failure to meet these conditions would see their benefit reduced in a series of cuts stopping at the level of jobseekers allowance – about £55 a week. People with more serious conditions will not be required to meet any requirements to qualify for the highest rate of the benefit.

Mental health charity Rethink opposes imposing compulsory activities on claimants. Paul Corry, its director of campaigns and communications, says it takes people on incapacity benefit six months to a year to sort their benefits out.

Claimants’ biggest fear, he says, is that they will have to go through this again should they return to work and then have to leave.

He argues that forcing people to fulfil conditions will add to this stress, and that cutting their benefits will have no impact, as it is lack of support that stops people returning to work, not choice.

The government will provide £360m for the roll-out of Pathways to Work programmes across the UK by 2008, according to the green paper. The schemes, which help disabled  people or those with health problems enter employment but also attach conditions to their benefits, are currently being piloted.

Guy Parckar, parliamentary and campaigns officer at disability charity Leonard Cheshire, says the pilots have been successful in getting people into work, but do not support the case for compulsion.
“With all the evidence there is we don’t think sanctions are the best way of getting people back to work. In Pathways to Work they haven’t really been used,” he explains.

The role of GPs

The green paper proposes rewarding GPs through their contracts for helping people to stay in or return to work. Dr Laurence Buckman, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association’s general practitioners committee, says the government did not discuss its plans with the association before the green paper’s publication.

He argues that GPs do not want financial incentives for helping people off benefits as this could have a negative effect on the doctor-patient relationship. “We would regard that as bordering on unethical,” he explains. “We don’t like the idea [of
financial incentives]. It would put us in conflict with the people we advocate for.” The green paper also proposes putting employment advisers in GP surgeries.

The green paper also sets out plans to replace housing benefit  with a local housing allowance. Under the scheme, currently being tested in 18 local authority areas, tenants are given a fixed sum with which to pay their rent, in line with
regional prices, and can keep any remainder.

The proposals could see ministers placing a cap on the amount of allowance people can receive above their rent. Liz Phelps, a social policy officer at Citizens Advice, says in some cases the amount people receive does not even cover their rent. She says the government is “trying to trim the costs of the scheme” and the number of people facing shortfalls should not be allowed to
increase as a result.

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