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Year 2005 No. 21, February 9, 2005 ARCHIVE HOME JBBOOKS SUBSCRIBE

The Department for Work and Pensions 5-Year Strategy:

Intensifying the Anti-Social Offensive under the Banner of Creating an Opportunity Society

Workers' Daily Internet Edition: Article Index :

The Department for Work and Pensions 5-Year Strategy:
Intensifying the Anti-Social Offensive under the Banner of Creating an Opportunity Society

TUC’s Tests for Incapacity Benefit Proposals

Response to Incapacity Benefit Proposals

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The Department for Work and Pensions 5-Year Strategy:

Intensifying the Anti-Social Offensive under the Banner of Creating an Opportunity Society

On February 2, the Department for Work and Pensions published its five-year strategy entitled: "Opportunity and security throughout life". The press release which announced this event bore the title, "Employment opportunity for all: DWP five year strategy published today". Underlining the message even further, Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, declared, "We need to make the most of people's talents to give all the opportunity to work and to ensure those who cannot do so get the support they need". He continued, "We are moving from a passive to an active welfare state and this reform means we are doing more than just providing a safety net." But what exactly is the proposed reform? Who will it provide these opportunities for and how will it do it?

The strategy sets itself three key goals over the next five years. These are to "help more people, presently on incapacity benefit, who are able to work, get back to and stay in work; to support lone parents into work and to increase the opportunity to work longer and save more for retirement". In other words, the government has turned the attention of its anti-social offensive onto some of the most vulnerable sections of society, namely those on incapacity benefit, lone parents and workers who are due for retirement. That these groups are being singled out for attack, while ministers speak of "helping them", "making the most of their talents" and "giving all an opportunity to work" only adds insult to injury.

Just how little these reforms have to do with "creating opportunity" soon becomes apparent from a reading of the strategy itself. It declares that one of the government's key aims is to get 80% of the working age population into work since "if current employment rates remain constant, the economic dependency ratio (defined as the number of non-workers supported by each worker) would increase by almost a quarter by 2050. However, with an employment rate of 80%, this ratio would be roughly the same in 2050 as it is today". It is as part of this drive that the government intends to "get another 300,000 lone parents and 1 million incapacity benefit claimants into jobs". A recent New Policy Institute survey of poverty in Britain notes that at present 80% of claimants of long term out of work benefit, that is those who have been claiming for two or more years, are sick or disabled, whereas only 2% are officially unemployed. In fact, the number of claimants of long-term unemployment benefit has fallen from around 450,000 in the mid 1990s to 70,000 at present. Bearing in mind the measures that have been taken against unemployed people over the last 10 years to drive them out of the benefit system, it is clear what the government has in mind for the three groups it now has in its sights.

The authors of the strategy elaborate on their vision thus, "This new vision of an opportunity society will support all individuals to have longer, active lives and empower them to provide for themselves, their children and their future retirement". This is the old Thatcherite vision according to which society is made up only of individuals and their families who must fend themselves while the state pre-occupies itself with finding ever more ingenious ways of plundering the social product and handing it over to the rich. But what will become of those individuals who "fail to empower themselves" and "grasp their opportunity in this new opportunity society"?

With regard to incapacity benefit claimants, the strategy outlines its thinking on this issue. "Claimants would be required to engage both in work focused interviews and in activity that helped them prepare for a return to work ... but those who completely refuse to engage would return to the holding benefit rate (payable at the same rate as Jobseekers Allowance). The rules relating to sanctions will be decided in due course." For those approaching retirement, the strategy declares that "we will sweep away retirement ages for people under 65 ... and … in 2011 we will review whether the time is right to sweep away retirement ages altogether". While for lone parents, it proposes "an integrated package of support to lone parents which includes a clear gain from work; a guarantee about child care support; a guarantee of the ongoing help of professional, well-trained and properly supported advisers and a responsibility to engage more intensively with our employment advisers... With all this additional help available, there is a reasonable responsibility to take steps to get into work". Hence, behind the grand rhetoric of "opportunity" stands the big stick of coercion and pressure to drive people out of the benefit system and into work, low paid or otherwise and to force them to work until they die.

Underpinning this new assault is the 19th century notion, harking back to the days of the poorhouse, that, as the DWP proudly proclaims in its mission statement, "work is the best form of welfare for people of working age". This in a Britain where according to the most recent figures 22% of the population or some 12.4 million people live in poverty, officially defined as living on 60% or less of the median income. Of these, some 1.6 million are actually in paid employment but still trapped in officially defined poverty. So much for work being the "best form of welfare". These figures also show that around 7 million workers earn less than £6.50 an hour, of whom some 4 million are women and that due to job insecurity 40% of people who find a job are no longer in work by the end of 6 months.

These are the conditions in which the DWP is unleashing its new attack, as part of the Labour government's anti-social offensive, against the people and their well-being. The working class and people must step up their opposition to this programme of the monopolies and their government and fight for the alternative that brings the working class to power and puts the well being of all sections of the people as the central focus of the economy.

Article Index

TUC’s Tests for Incapacity Benefit Proposals

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said that there were three tests the TUC would apply to the government’s plans to reform Incapacity Benefit:

1. What will be the impact on disabled people's incomes? It would be harsh to cut them, and sensible would be increases especially for those with the most severe impairments.

2. What would be the impact on those with long-term conditions that make finding work difficult? It would be harsh to force them to take part in employment programmes year after year, even when its obvious they're not going to help (such as learning to write a CV for the 5th time), it would be sensible to focus on achieving independence in whatever terms are relevant to the individual.

3. What will be the impact on people who want jobs? It would be harsh to require them to be available for work in the same way as JSA claimants. It would be sensible to require people to attend work-focused interviews, backed up by extra rehabilitation and support – as already happens in the Pathways to Work programme.

Brendan Barber said: "There has never been any disagreement that many people claiming Incapacity benefit want to and could work. The dumping of large numbers on to IB in order to keep unemployment figures down was always a national disgrace.

"On the other hand many people claiming IB – such as the terminally ill – genuinely cannot work. Others face real barriers such as employer prejudice in successfully getting a job.

"It is right therefore that the Government should reform IB so that those seeking work get more help to find work, and those who cannot work get more financial support. The Government’s Pathways to Work pilots have been remarkably successful in helping people find work. And as the Secretary of State confirmed this morning, there is little evidence of abuse or fraud.

"But the Government made a mistake in allowing the impression to gain ground that these reforms were about a crackdown, and needed to be tough to punish the workshy. This has caused real alarm among IB claimants, whose support is needed if positive measures are to work."

Article Index

Response to Incapacity Benefit Proposals

Taken from ePolitix.com

Liberal Democrats

Steve Webb, work and pensions spokesman, said: "The current system of incapacity benefits just isn't working. Seven years ago ministers were saying exactly the same things. The truth is Labour has simply failed to get to grips with this issue.

"The British economy and the British people need a benefits system which recognises that one size doesn't fit all. Disability has shades of grey, but the current system is black and white. We need a system that fits people rather than the other way around.

"We need to give individuals the support they need to get back into work rather than just forcing them off benefits and into poverty.  That is why the Liberal Democrats would refocus the New Deal budget, which currently uses only a fraction of its money to deal with disability, into individual work schemes. 

"We would also introduce a partial capability benefit so that those currently on incapacity benefits whose conditions fluctuate or could do some work could take some paid work without the risk of losing benefits altogether.

"Once again Labour is trying to sound tough and failing to find solutions."

Help the Aged

Mervyn Kohler, head of public affairs at Help the Aged, said: "Evidently, there are large savings to be made by the government by the reform of incapacity benefit. Let's not forget that access to this benefit was often used as a sweetener for redundancy packages where traditional heavy industry was closing down in the 1980s and '90s, leaving no alternative sources of employment in large parts of the country. In many places, not much has changed, and employment can still be hard to come by for some.

"Where people over 50 want to go back to work, but need to retrain and re-skill, we would like to see the courses available to help them achieve that. However, as an example, 'pathways to work' as yet only covers around one third of the population, leaving a majority without access to that particular route back into the workplace. We would also like to see employers creating more part-time and flexible opportunities. These would appeal to older workers.

"However, there have not been major efforts made by the government to encourage employers along these lines. Help the Aged would prefer to see more use of the carrot, and less of the stick, under these circumstances."

Disabilities Trust

A spokesman for the Disabilities Trust said: "The prime minister's statements on welfare and benefit reform have rightly focused attention on the problems of the benefits system. It is probably true that there are substantial numbers of people who are able to work and who presently do not do so while claiming benefits. However we should avoid making simplistic assumptions as to why that is so.

"Many of those people will be individuals with a variety of impairments and disabilities. The overwhelming majority of disabled people want and expect to work and despite many common and misplaced prejudices are fully capable of doing do. At present however there are serious impediments to disabled people taking their place in the workforce.

"While some of these are to do with the benefits system's inflexible and bureaucratic approach, (something the government must address), if the workplace did not so often present disabled people with daunting barriers (both physical and cultural) and there was a wider acceptance by employers of the capabilities of disabled people, then there would be far fewer disabled people condemned to a life of benefits handouts.

"Of course this is not just about the inequity of preventing disabled people from working with all of its financial implications, but also in an age of increasingly tough and global economic competition it makes no sense for our society to waste the potential of the millions of disabled people living in this country."

Disability Rights Commission

Bert Massie, chairman of the DRC, said: "Disabled people on incapacity benefit are living in poverty. The DRC welcomes the government's announcement today that those who are able to, and want to, will be supported into work. The changes introduced today will mean that disabled people will be able to make a positive contribution.

"But for these measures to work, high quality support will be needed from assessment of those deemed able to work, right through to finding and maintaining opportunities to work.

"It is important that people on incapacity benefit who cannot do paid work are not penalised financially or made to feel guilty. I hope also that the incendiary debate over last few months – which has done nothing to encourage disabled people into work and everything to make the most vulnerable members of our society extremely worried about possessing pretty paltry sums – can now end and that we can now have a grown up conversation about the measures needed to help those that can, get back into work.

"Let's not forget that as long as employers continue to show disabled people the door rather than work to keep them in a job, we will still have an uphill battle to ensure that disabled people are genuinely able to participate fully in society.

"Over one third of calls to the DRC were about employers refusing to make adjustments that could keep disabled people in work. There must be more efforts to give employers advice and guidance on how this can be done."

Institute of Directors

Geraint Day, head of health policy at the IoD, said: "The fact that so many people who actually want to engage in employment but for one reason or another have not been able to, means that action is needed. This would not only benefit individuals, but also business and the economy as a whole.

"One of the IoD's roles is helping to spread more information on how employers can engage in good practices, and how public agencies such as the Department for Work and Pensions, the Health and Safety Executive, the NHS and the independent sector, can help support SMEs."

Age Concern

Gordon Lishman, director general of Age Concern England, said: "We support the aims of this package but the devil will be in the detail. We need reassurance that the new responsibilities placed on those claiming rehabilitation support allowance will be flexible enough to accommodate individual health needs and circumstances. Those who are unsuccessful in finding work should not be penalised - everyone should have access to a decent income.

"However it is positive that those with severe health conditions will gain from the new disability and sickness allowance. We welcome the recognition that many vulnerable people with disabilities may be unable to return to work and are most at risk of prolonged poverty.

"But the government should not forget the millions already on incapacity benefit who also need additional support and generous financial incentives to return to work. We welcome the success of 'pathways to work' which is helping new claimants of incapacity benefit return to work quickly but the lessons of the pilot scheme must be built into the new reforms."

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

Dr John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said: "The government is right to distinguish between the most severely disabled and claimants capable of work. The proposed rehabilitation support allowance represents an ideal mechanism for providing support to people with disabilities who might return to work while providing incentives to make use of that support.

"There will be understandable concern that the reform package 'punishes' disabled people. But the cost and waste associated with the current incapacity benefit system, and the obvious reality that at least one in three claimants could work, means that it is those who oppose reform that do the greatest disservice to the disabled jobless.

"The new package will help alleviate welfare dependency and bring more people into a labour market starved of people willing and able to work. And it will put pressure on employers to change their working practices to accommodate people with disabilities, people who at present lose out to those easier to recruit and deal with, such as immigrant workers.

"Given the slow pace of reform the government is open to the charge that it is 'all talk and no action' on this issue. However, Mr Johnson appears to be a minister who knows how to combine tough rhetoric with what is practical. His reform package makes sticks sound like carrots – which is precisely how 'tough love' welfare reform should be presented. The disabled jobless need to be convinced that work makes best sense for them, by highlighting what they can do to help themselves.

"The only obvious downside to the reform package is that the new measures will not be fully operational until 2008. This is too long a delay – it means that the reforms will be slow to reduce welfare dependency and make no difference to employers desperate to fill job vacancies today."

Leonard Cheshire

John Knight, head of policy at disability charity Leonard Cheshire, said: "Today’s proposals put a great deal of emphasis on the initial capability assessments and the personalised support that disabled people will receive. We will need to hear much more detail about how this will work in practice – staff must be fully trained to be able to deal with the complex new demands that will be placed on them.

"We also need the government to confirm that there is no intention to tighten the gateway on to IB. The current medical assessments are extremely stringent and the new procedure must not be used to try and turf people off IB who are desperately in need of support.

"If the new proposals are implemented with sensitivity to the individual then there is much that will be welcomed in today's announcement. The system needs to be able to deal with the complexities of disability such as fluctuating and progressive conditions – a 'one size fits all' approach would have the potential to be very damaging for disabled people."

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