Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/449/5369
Welfare 'Reform' Bill:
New Labour's attack on the sick and disabled
THERE IS no doubt that Britain's welfare benefits system is complex, unwieldy and hard to understand for those who claim it and those who administer it. But Labour's current Welfare Reform Bill, that would replace Incapacity Benefit and Income Support for people who are sick with the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), is far worse.
You have to look behind the spin to see what this will really mean for physically and mentally ill and disabled people. Incapacity Benefit and Retirement Pension are the only two benefits that are based on National Insurance contributions in the way envisaged at the Welfare State's creation in 1948.
The government is seeking to increase the age when people can claim retirement pension from 65 to 68. Incapacity Benefit recipients have been increasingly subjected to a 'work-focused' regime of interviews over recent years. This bill enshrines this approach in legislation.
Replacing Incapacity Benefit with ESA will erode the provision of contributory benefit by limiting the amount of the contribution-based part of the benefit to a low rate. The 'support' or 'work-related activity' components will be added after the person has been assessed as having 'limited capability' for work or work-related activity.
This seriously erodes sick people's rights. It is a further clawing back of concessions won by the working class after the second world war. ESA shifts the benefit's ethos away from compensating someone for not being able to do their own job or any work towards making them work.
The bill doesn't accept medical certificates provided by a GP as evidence of 'limited capability of work-related activity'. People will have a 'health-related assessment' by a 'health care professional' to determine what work or work-related activity they can do.
Certain people with severe physical or mental health conditions will receive the 'support component'. Everyone else will be subjected to a regime of work-focused interviews, work-related activities and regular reassessments.
Failure to comply or cooperate or to participate in a prescribed way will lead to reductions in benefit. This will particularly disadvantage those with mental health conditions who may not be able to cope with complying with prescriptions about the sort of information they supply and how they supply it.
Benefit can be withheld for periods up to six weeks at a time if you're considered to be of 'limited capability for work' due to misconduct, failure to follow medical advice and programmes or suggested behaviours in lifestyle without 'good cause'. This could have significant effects on entitlement to benefit and a license for the state and private companies or voluntary-sector organisations to meddle in sick people's lives.
The bill clearly lays out the privatisation of the work to administer the benefit's work-focused elements. This will take away core areas of work from civil servants and hand it over to companies who - the government admits - don't have the expertise and don't want to help people, they just want to make a profit. This is no way for the government to support vulnerable sick people.
BACK IN 1948, sickness benefits were designed to provide increasing compensation to maintain the standard of living of sick people who were unemployed for a long time. After the miners' strike ended in 1985, the Tory government didn't want out-of-work miners pushing up the unemployment figures, so they were encouraged to claim Incapacity Benefit (IB).
The number of people on IB is higher in areas where coal mining and heavy industries have closed, because of diseases caused by hazardous work and the devastating effects on mental health of the closure of these industries and the fragmentation of communities. It is these people that New Labour want to get off benefit. The bill's aim is to remove a million of the 2.6 million on Incapacity Benefit.
Another aim is an 80% employment rate. Even senior civil servants say that work-focused regimes wouldn't be needed if decently paid jobs with good conditions were available. Instead people will be coerced into low-paid work with poor conditions.
In order to reduce the unemployment figures, the Tories also decided that 16 hours work or more was full time. 80% employment based on part-time hours means that the reality for lots of workers is that they have to have several part-time jobs to survive.
The Welfare Reform Bill's explanatory notes complain about the 'perverse incentive' to stay on benefit because the benefit rate goes up the longer you're on it. The real 'perverse incentive' offered by New Labour is to private companies whose low pay is subsidised by tax credits paid to workers from the public purse.
In other countries, there have been widespread demonstrations against attempts to dismantle state benefits. In Britain we continue to suffer the death of the post-war welfare state by a thousand cuts, started by Thatcher and followed by Blair. All three main parties have this neo-liberal agenda.
Workers need a new party to represent their interests and to protect and rebuild welfare in Britain. Once again workers are paying for the crisis in the capitalist system. Wrapped in words like 'reform', 'modernisation' and 'opportunity', this is an attack on the most vulnerable in our society.
In a socialist world, the physically and mentally ill would have the dignity of a living income as well as access to decently paid jobs with good conditions if they were able and wished to work.
In The Socialist 20 July 2006:
War and occupation
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Socialist Party campaigns
International socialist news and analysis
Scottish Socialist Party
Campaign for a New Workers Party