In 2002, then Tory party leader Iain Duncan Smith visited the deprived Easterhouse housing estate in Glasgow, an experience which he claimed led to a Damascus-like conversion from Thatcherite orthodoxy to “caring Conservatism”.
Now Duncan Smith sits in the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition Cabinet as Work and Pensions Secretary and he is looking to cut at least 25% from the DWP’s budget as part of the government’s deficit reduction programme.
Beyond cynical financial calculations (the government think it would be expedient to avoid potential cuts elsewhere by making deeper ones in welfare, because who cares about benefit claimants?), Duncan Smith and maverick Labour MP Frank Field — who has been appointed “poverty Tsar” — also see attacks on benefit claimants as a moral crusade.
What will these cuts means to the millions of people who now depend on benefits to survive?
The changes to Incapacity Benefit (IB) represent a speeding up of New Labour plans. Since October 2008, new claimants for IB have been awarded a more stringently administered benefit, Employment and Support Allowance. Labour had announced that existing IB claimants would be moved onto ESA by 2014; the new government has moved that deadline forward to February 2011, with pilots in Aberdeen and Burnley starting in October 2010.
The initial level of ESA in the 13-week “assessment phase” is £65 per week (the same as Jobseekers Allowance) compared to £91 per week on IB. At the end of this period, when it rises to the same level as IB, 70% of claimants are found fit for work in medicals carried out for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
The medicals are conducted by a private company, ATOS Origin. As these consist of a short interview in which a “healthcare professional” (often a retired GP, nurse or midwife with no knowledge of claimants’ often complex medical issues) runs through a list of standard questions on a computer screen ticking boxes, the low “success rate” is hardly surprising.
While ATOS Origin’s contract with the DWP stipulates that a specialist should review medical reports, evidence disclosed to social security tribunals has revealed that this rarely happens. It is a system designed to fail the majority of those who claim.
Even those who pass the medical are nearly always placed in the “work-related activity group” and required to attend a Jobcentre for “work-focused interviews”. Only those in a very restricted “support group” avoid this, because they are terminally ill, have a life-threatening pregnancy-related illness or a notifiable communicable disease.
Appeals against ESA decisions are running at about 8,000 a month and it takes between four and six months for them to be heard by tribunals (while claimants remain on £65 a week). But 40% of appeals are being upheld.
Two million existing IB claimants will be moved onto ESA next year. If as expected 70% are found fit for work and then appeal, how long will it take for these appeals to be heard? Will those who lose appeals be eligible to claim JSA? Many will not. As a non-means tested benefit, IB, unlike JSA, is claimed by those with occupational pensions, savings and partners who work full-time.
“Today there are some families receiving £104,000 a year in housing benefit”, claimed Tory Chancellor George Osborne in his Budget speech. This is not just exaggeration, it is complete fabrication!
Whilst this is notionally the maximum amount payable for a five-bedroom house in the most expensive part of Kensington and Chelsea, even the DWP has failed to produce a single actual claim at this level. The average HB payment is currently £84 per week.
Housing Benefit is to be capped at £250, £280, £340 and £400 per week for one, two, three and four-bedroom properties. Especially in London, this will mean families having to move into more cramped accomodation and possibly into different, cheaper parts of the city. In addition, JSA claimants will automatically have their HB cut by 10% after a year on benefit.
The new Work Programme announced by Tory Employment minister Chris Grayling is essentially Labour’s Flexible New Deal.
However, in line with the relentless drive to get the sick (who in Tory terms must be malingerers) off the dole, will include those on ESA as well as JSA. The Work Programme will be delivered by private companies on contracts worth up to £50 million a year. Under the compulsory programme contractors “help” claimants to find work.
This is big business — Emma Harrison, the founder of A4e, one of the main providers of the New Labour scheme, is worth £55 million and bought Thornbridge Hall, a 100-acre country estate in Derbyshire, on the back of jobseekers crowded into a classroom with one newspaper or computer.
Single parents are again being targetted. New Labour had said those on Income Support with children over seven would have to claim JSA by October 2010; the new government has cut the child’s age to five and said it will be introduced by October 2011.
Meanwhile 8,000 staff on fixed-term contracts recruited to work in jobcentres last March as unemployment rose to two million will not be kept on when their contracts expire in March 2011 — no extra support for jobseekers then.
Disability Living Allowance
Disability Living Allowance is a non-contributory, non-means tested, non-taxable benefit that is claimable by those on incapacity benefits as well as those working full-time.
Unlike JSA and IB which notionally replace wages, it is meant to reflect the additional costs disabled people face.
From 2013, all 2.9 million DLA claimants will undergo a new medical assessment. At the moment, claimants have six weeks to complete a forty page form and submit evidence detailing how their disability affects their daily lives. Ministers have said the new assessment will be a “simplified process”. The suspicion is that the assessemnt will resemble the ESA medical — i.e. a test designed to fail the large majority and cut costs.
The last government had said the retirement age would rise from 65 to 66 in 2024 and to 68 in 2046. The coalition has brought forward the rise to 66 to 2016.
As Dot Gibson of the National Pensioners Convention said: “There can be no doubt that the wealthier you are, the longer you live, so raising the retirement age is a direct attack on the very poorest in our society.”
Moreover those of us who have been made sick or disabled by our work — manual workers for instance — and have to leave work before the official retirement age, will be condemned to a life of poverty on minimal benefits and hounded to get jobs which they couldn't physically do even if they existed.