The Express - We're losing war on Benefit

Wednesday, 5 July, 2006

THE Government's long awaited benefit revolution was last night branded a "deeply flawed damp squib".

Ministers boasted their plans would get one million people on long-term sick and disablement benefit into work over 10 years and save taxpayers GBP 7billion a year.

But critics said the package wouldn't deliver the goods, and offered nothing to those now on incapacity benefit because the new rules will be imposed only on people who start claiming from 2008.

Critics also said the Government had backtracked on previous tough talk, amid suspicion that Chancellor Gordon Brown and Tony Blair are running scared of rebellion by Labour MPs.

About 2.7 million people now claim incapacity benefit - up from 1.2 million in 1988 - at a total cost of GBP 12.5billion a year.

They get GBP 57.65 a week, rising to around GBP 78 after a year - which ministers describe as a disincentive to get back to work. Under plans published in yesterday's Welfare Reform Bill, incapacity benefit would be replaced from 2008 by a new employment and support allowance.

Specialist advisers in Jobcentres will offer counselling, training and advice to claimants thought able to work. Claimants assessed as able to work in the future would face benefit cuts for failing to cooperate. Those deemed unable ever to work would be exempted. The allowance rates for both groups would be higher than the current upper level of incapacity benefit, but the Government says money will be saved because more people will work and pay taxes.

Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton said the measures had "general support''.

But David Ruffley, Shadow Minister for Welfare Reform, said: "This is a damp squib of a Bill. It may be long on good intentions but it is short on delivering enough effective help to claimants who want to get out of dependency and into jobs.'' He stressed 350,000 people would come off the benefit register anyway over 10 years, due to retirement, death and other causes. He added: "The Bill gives no promise of help to today's existing claimants, half of whom have been trapped on incapacity benefit for over five years. These people, who with the right help could back into some form of work and so lead more fulfilling lives, are going to be left behind in the cold.'' Existing claimants will be allowed voluntarily to switch to the new system but the Government has not set a date for moving all on to it.

Mr Ruffley said: "That's New Labour Speak for 'existing claimants, you are on your own, mate'. This is totally unfair." The Government also announced GBP 360million to extend the Pathways to Work scheme, which offers claimants help to return to work.

The Department says pilot schemes have helped 25,000 people, but admits early talk of putting job advisers in GP surgeries was still only being piloted in about eight venues.

Former Cabinet Minister David Blunkett's threat to "name and shame'' GPs for issuing too many sick notes seems to have disappeared.

Mr Ruffley said the new money for Pathways to Work wouldn't be enough to fund it effectively nationally and claimed: "John Hutton has lost his battle with Gordon Brown to get adequate funding for his reform measures. There is a danger that we have watered down welfare reform."