New Labour’s attack on the sick and disabled

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.

Carol Williams

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

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.

Cuts agenda

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.