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From The Socialist newspaper, 4 November 2009

Sick and disabled under attack

Trade unionists must fight for decent benefits for all

THE PRO-big business parties, New Labour, Tories and LibDems, vied with each other at their party conferences with zealous plans to make the working class pay for the economic and financial crisis. Each party boasts about the size of cuts to public sector services and jobs it will inflict after the next general election. Sick, disabled and unemployed people could only watch in horror.

Jim Horton, welfare rights adviser, north London

The Tories led the way. Cameron said his party would force all sick and disabled people currently on Incapacity Benefit (IB) to undergo strict medical assessment, aiming to push an estimated 500,000 people off IB and onto Jobseekers Allowance. This would result in a benefits cut of about 25 a week, from an already miserly 89.90 a week to 64.30 a week.

This vicious measure has nothing to do with encouraging people back to work. It has everything to do with making the sick and disabled pay for the economic crisis. Cameron says the 600 million saved will fund an expanded, accelerated welfare to work programme to get the long-term unemployed, particularly young people, into work.

The Tory plan involves assessing 2.6 million IB recipients over a three-year period. This would mean processing 3,000 assessments every day. No way will this allow benefit recipients to be assessed fairly, nor will New Labour's current plans of 10,000 assessments a week.

New Labour ministers criticise the proposals but, from October 2008, Gordon Brown's government has replaced IB with Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for all new claimants. The Personal Capability Assessment of Incapacity Benefit was replaced with a much tougher ESA Work Capability Assessment.

Now thousands of people who previously would have qualified for IB are required to seek work. Since October 2008 over two-thirds of ESA claimants have been forced onto Jobseekers Allowance. In my job I see examples where Jobcentre Examining Medical Officers award no points to claimants who clearly have severe physical and/or mental health problems.

The whole system, from initial claim to appeals, is weighted against claimants. More than three-quarters of appeal hearings went against them. The Disability Alliance says the new Work Capability Assessment is too rigid, even requiring people about to have operations and some terminally ill people to be assessed, with the assessment itself unable to reflect disabled people's lives and needs. Disabled people are judged as ready for work when they cannot really work or need specialist help to find suitable employment.

And how easy will it be for the thousands of disabled people forced into the jobs market to find work? Once placed on Jobseekers Allowance they find there is no tailored help at a time of increasing unemployment.

Mental health problems

They struggle to find work in a more competitive jobs market where, says the Disability Alliance, employer discrimination against the disabled remains high. An estimated 40% of IB claimants have one or more mental health problems, but a recent survey showed that 80% of employers would not take on people with mental health problems.

Cameron claims his proposals confirm the Tories as a compassionate party! No less 'compassionate' is New Labour. Work and Pensions Secretary Yvette Cooper complained that Cameron's proposals just rehash government plans. She boasted that the government is already implementing tougher tests for everyone on IB, stronger requirements on the jobless to find work and is using private companies.

The money that the Tories squeeze out of these vulnerable people will be used to massively expand, in effect, workfare, their 'work for your benefits' system for the long-term unemployed, particularly aimed at those under 25. Unemployed people will be forced to work 30 hours a week for Jobseekers Allowance of just 64.30 a week for those aged 25 and over, and a disgraceful 50.95 a week for those under 25!

The Tories also plan to reduce from a year to six months the period the unemployed can claim Jobseekers Allowance before being forced onto training or into jobs. But New Labour pipped the Tories at the post by announcing their own 'work for your benefits' programme, pilot mandatory work trials and so-called work experience placements for jobseekers out of work for over six months.

The Child Poverty Action Group correctly argues that if the government can find temporary work for an unemployed person they should pay them a proper wage.

Whoever wins the next general election, these proposals are a thin end of a wedge, the thick end of which could be moves to cap unemployment benefits to a maximum period of six months for everyone, as is already the case in many other countries.

Cameron's plans will involve greater use of private companies to deliver their proposals. New Labour has already heavily used private companies to deliver its Flexible New Deal 'back to work' programme. In a scheme intended to involve both private companies and the voluntary sector, fewer than 40% of contracts went to the voluntary sector, despite a DWP fraud investigation into the activities of at least three private 'welfare to work' contractors.

Struggle needed

Clearly, whichever party wins the next general election, the sick, disabled and unemployed will feel the brunt of the attacks. Millions of workers, either as employees or users of the public sector, will have no choice but to fight back.

The trade unions need to launch a mass campaign, to include unemployed and disabled workers, to defend our public services and the welfare state, a vital part of which is decent benefits for those workers who, for whatever reason, are unable to work.

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