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Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The future is dire for those who claim benefits, whichever party wins the election.



The future is dire for those who claim benefits, whichever party wins the election.

"A right wing UK Labour Party simply paves the way for an even more right wing Conservative Government" this was my comment in an article I produced within the pages of the "Morning Star" in the "What Strategy for the Left" debate in 1995. My article was titled "The Benefits of Labour". As we see the possible demise of a Labour Government, I reflect on those 13 years.

With 1.5 million incapacity benefit claimants waiting to be assessed using the work capability assessment in the next few years and tens of thousands of people already on ESA and set to be reviewed annually, these changes will be of great concern to many voters – as we head towards polling day. Changes to the work capability assessment are likely to lead to many thousands more sick and disabled people being forced onto jobseekers allowance.

People will lose out under the Tories' proposed 'three strikes' policy to crack down on those who repeatedly defraud the benefits system. Under the plans, those who commit benefit fraud once will lose their out-of-work benefits for three months, a second offence will attract a benefit sanction of six months, and if someone commits fraud three times they face losing their out-of-work benefits for up to three years.

Its worth pointing out that NO-ONE has ever been prosecuted for commiting fraud three times, so its hard to see how they will save money in the clamp down!!
The Tories yet again claim that more than £14 billion has been wasted on benefit fraud between 1997 and 2009, figures plucked out of thin air.

The policy follows on from last year's Tory announcement of a 'three strikes and you're out' rule to bar jobless people from claiming unemployment benefit if they turn down offers of work. This latest proposed crackdown could catch out innocent claimants. This is because too many inaccurate payments are due to errors by the Department for Work and Pensions or the Benefits Agency and are not due to intentional fraud by the claimant.

The complexity of the system leads to both assessors and claimants getting things wrong. What we really need is more support for people to understand the full welfare system.

The figures the Tories are using were "deceptive" because they include overpayments by benefits agencies, not just people committing fraud. The proposals come on top of plans already announced to clamp down on incapacity benefit claimants and get 200,000 people off benefit and into work. Under the proposals, everyone who receives a reasonable job offer will be expected to accept it. If they do not, they will lose one month's unemployment benefit. If they refuse a second reasonable offer, they will lose three months' benefit. If they refuse a third reasonable offer, they will be excluded from further out-of-work benefits for up to three years.

For example, a couple claiming jobseeker's allowance (JSA) would forgo £92.80 a week - more than half their total income, assuming they also claim housing and council tax benefits. For parents on JSA or incapacity benefit (IB), they could lose between a quarter and a third of their income if they fail to comply with the conditions of the welfare programme.

The shadow secretary for work and pensions, (Conservative Party) Chris Grayling, thinks it's time to take "tough action against those who are claiming benefits."

The Tories' proposals for a compulsory interview for the 2.6 million people claiming IB, would also be prohibitively expensive. Cameron needs to bear in mind the 40% of IB claimants who have mental health problems. Continuing stigma and discrimination also means many employers will not employ people with mental health problems.

Withdrawing benefits will drive people into debt and destitution and homelessness, entrenching poverty rather than tackling its causes. Crackdowns further stigmatise people on benefits, by giving the impression that most claimants are cheating the system. In fact, over 99% of claimants are not committing benefit fraud.

Both Labour and the Conservatives seem intent on driving as many people as possible off incapacity related benefits, whichever party wins the election.

Tens of thousands of claimants have lost their benefit on review, on being transferred from incapacity benefit, as plans to make the employment and support allowance (ESA) medical much harder to pass are approved by the secretary of state for work and pensions, Yvette Cooper. The Idea of simplifying’ the work capability assessment, drawn up by a DWP working group, include docking points from amputees who can lift and carry with their stumps. Claimants with speech problems who can write a sign saying, "Help" will score no points for speech and deaf claimants who can read the sign will lose all their points for hearing. Points scored for problems with bending and kneeling are to be abolished and claimants who have difficulty walking can be assessed using imaginary wheelchairs.

Claimants who have difficulty standing for any length of time will, under the plans, also have to show they have equal difficulty sitting, and vice versa, in order to score any points. And no matter how bad their problems with standing and sitting, they will not score enough points to be awarded ESA. Half of the 41 mental health descriptors for which points can be scored are being removed from the new ‘simpler’ test, greatly reducing the chances of being found incapable of work due to such things as poor memory, confusion, depression and anxiety. The changes are overwhelmingly about pushing tens of thousands more people onto JSA.

Limited capability for work
The biggest changes and cuts are to take place in the limited capability for work assessment which decides whether you are eligible for the work-related activity group of ESA. Claimants need to score fifteen points to be placed in this group unless they are exempt or covered by the exceptional circumstances rules.

Walking
The activity of walking has been replaced by the activity of ‘mobilising’, with the fifteen points for ‘Cannot walk at all’ to be removed. Instead of looking at how far you can walk with a walking stick or other aid if such aid is normally used, the test is now ‘Mobilising with or without a walking stick, manual wheelchair or other aid if such aid can reasonably be used’
Many people who get the higher rate of the mobility component of DLA will not be awarded ESA at all. The fifteen points for being unable to walk up and down two steps is to be cut to nine points.

Standing and Sitting, points for these activities have also been slashed. Currently you can score points if you can’t stand or if you can’t sit for given lengths of time. Under the revised test you will have to show that you can neither stand nor sit for more than 30 minutes at a ‘work station’ before having to ‘move away in order to avoid significant discomfort or exhaustion’. Even then you will only score 9 points, or 6 points if you can last for an hour, not enough to be awarded ESA.

Bending and kneeling
The activity of ‘Bending and kneeling’, for which 30 points are currently available, is to be completely scrapped.

Reaching
The fifteen point descriptor for not being able to put either arm behind your back is to be ditched.

Picking up
They have decided that if you don't have two hands this should not be a reason for scoring points, if your moving a half litre or one litre carton or moving a light but bulky object. They argue that ‘an item may be transferred by wedging it against the body, or another limb’ and that many amputees who chose not to have a prosthetic limb ‘remain able to complete the task’. All references to using hands in this activity are therefore to be removed.

Manual dexterity
The nine scoring descriptors for manual dexterity are to be reduced to just four. Problems with just one hand and problems with pouring will no longer score points and references to a ‘conventional keyboard’ are to be changed to a ‘suitable keyboard’.

Speech, hearing and vision
The three activities speech, hearing and vision are to be replaced with three new activities. Speech now becomes ‘Making self understood through speaking, writing, typing or other means normally used; unaided by another person’. To score fifteen points a claimant will need either to show that they: ‘Cannot convey a simple message, such as the presence of a hazard.’ or that they have ‘significant difficulty conveying a simple message to strangers.’ So, the fact that your speech cannot be understood by other people will no longer score points if, instead, you are able to write, type or communicate by ‘other means’. Hearing is replaced with: ‘Understanding communication by both verbal means (such as hearing or lip reading) and non-verbal means (such as reading 16 point print) using any aid if reasonably used; unaided by another person.’

To score fifteen points a claimant will have to show that they ‘Cannot understand a simple message due to sensory impairment, such as the location of a fire escape’ or that they have ‘significant difficulty understanding a simple message from a stranger’. Being unable to hear someone talking will no longer score points. Problems with vision have been turned into ‘Navigation and maintaining safety, using a guide dog or other aid if normally used.’ To score fifteen points you will need to be able to show that you are: ‘Unable to navigate around familiar surroundings, without being accompanied by another person, due to sensory impairment’ or that you cannot safely cross a road. Being unable to see well enough to read large print or to recognise people will no longer score points.

Consciousness
Points for losing consciousness at least once a month are to be reduced from nine to six and a six point descriptor for losing consciousness twice in six months is to be axed.

Mental, cognitive and intellectual function assessment
The mental health and learning difficulties section of the WCA has been slashed from 41 point scoring descriptors to just 21. For example, one of the fifteen point and one of the nine point descriptors have been removed from the ‘Learning tasks’ activity, and a fifteen point descriptor has been removed from the ‘Getting about’ activity. The three activities relating to ‘Memory and concentration’, ‘Execution of tasks’ and ‘Initiating and sustaining personal action’ are all rolled into a single activity called ‘Initiating and completing personal action’. Currently claimants have 5 opportunities to score fifteen points outright from the three activities and many more opportunities to score fifteen points or more from a combination of points from the three activities. Under the new test, however, there will be just one opportunity to score fifteen points. This is likely to greatly reduce the chances of being found incapable of work due to such things as poor memory, confusion and depression. The three activities ‘Coping with social situations’, ‘Propriety of behaviour with other people’ and ‘Dealing with other people’ are to be reduced to two activities; ‘Coping with social engagement’ and ‘Appropriateness of behaviour with other people’. Again, the opportunities for scoring points have been considerably reduced.

Limited capability for work-related activity
The limited capability for work-related activity assessment decides who is eligible for the support group, based on any one of a range of descriptors applying to the claimant. These descriptors have largely been altered in line with changes to the work-related activity group. Changes to the work capability assessment will lead to tens of thousands of sick and disabled people being dumped onto jobseekers allowance.

The original changes proposed by the working group were even harsher. It was only after their proposals were looked at by the Chief Medical Adviser at the DWP, following complaints by disability group representatives, that some were toned down and additional points attached to some descriptors. It was this final review, contained in the Addendum, that was approved by the secretary of state.

Two of the individual attendees on the working group are employed by Atos Origin Medical Services. Atos is the company that carries out benefits medicals on behalf of the DWP in return for hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers money. Some observers may be troubled that employees of a company which might gain a commercial advantage from the medicals becoming simpler and quicker to carry out should be involved in the process of reviewing how points are scored. Many claimants who have been asked to attend medical reviews have had claims returned to the Benefits Agency after failing to attend a first interview letter.

The second is the wide range of disability organisations whom the DWP has been able to name as having participated in this review. We have no doubt that most of them were against many of the changes proposed and that they even won concessions from the DWP. But the fact remains that, with the exception of MIND, we are not aware of any agencies speaking out against these proposals with the kind of outrage their clients might reasonably have expected.

The government here in Britain and the United States, New Zealand and Australia asserts that the problem is dependency upon the welfare state. Defining the problem in these terms almost demands the solution arrived at is the removal of, or substantial reduction in, welfare assistance. Various US insurance giants have been driving the UK welfare policy, the giant US income Protection Company, Unum Provident, & New Labour are working together, in an attempt to reduce the 2.6 million who were claiming Incapacity Benefit (IB). Unum Provident, has been described in the US as ''an outlaw company that for years has operated in an illegal fashion." and been accused of racketeering and cheating tens of thousands of insured Americans out of their claims.

On Monday (5 April 2010), more than 200,000 unemployed Americans won't see jobless benefits they expected because Congress failed to act. As the two-week recess began, Congress was at an impasse over how to extend the emergency unemployment insurance program and other expiring provisions, including increased COBRA health insurance subsidies for the unemployed, the Medicare doctor payment rate and federal flood insurance.

Under the jobless benefits program that ended Monday, Americans out of work are eligible for up to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits. The program, aimed at helping jobless Americans stay afloat when new jobs aren't readily available, gives an unemployed worker more than the 26 weeks of unemployment insurance normally available. But with the program ending, those out of work for as few as six months will see an interruption in their benefit cheques.

The American Trade Union - AFL-CIO said it will be "doing events, writing letters, making phone calls" this week to press Republicans to go along with an extension. "One thing is crystal clear, Republican obstruction is going to cost hundreds of thousands of working families their benefits," said Eddie Vale, spokesman for the AFL-CIO. "So we will be loudly and publicly calling them out."

In Australia there has been a steep rise in the number of unemployed who have had their Welfare benefits either completely or partially cut off. More than 350,000 jobless people - more than half the total number receiving benefits were penalised during the 2000-2001 financial year for breaches of the federal government's draconian job search rules. The benefit sanctions caused severe hardship to some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, particularly the homeless, and the mentally-ill, jobseekers with drug and alcohol problems, people with literacy and numeracy difficulties, youth and indigenous people. A total of $258.8 million worth of penalties were inflicted during the year, delivering a windfall to the Australian government at the expense of the unemployed and their dependants. An estimated 35,400 people lost their dole payments altogether for eight weeks a threefold increase on the previous 12 months. Many more recipients received the heaviest penalties, ranging from $837 to $1,431, for breaching the government's "activity test". The Single Parent Pension (won by the women's movement in the early 1970s) was now stigmatised by the mark of "welfare dependency". The social democratic idea of welfare - that governments had an obligation to guarantee either a decent job or a social payment if they failed-was torn up in the 1980s in Australia. Unemployment benefits are re-badge and restructured as "Newstart Allowances". The once voluntary programs to help single parents, those with a disability and others claimants into work, became compulsory "obligations".

In recent weeks (April 2010) unemployed New Zealanders and sickness beneficiaries have missed out on the main "carrot" offered in last month's package to get people off welfare into work - a higher allowable income before benefits are clawed back. The increase in allowable income, from $80 to $100 a week, was promised in the National Party's 2008 election policy for all beneficiaries. But in the small print in last month's Government package, unnoticed at the time, says the increase will apply only to people on the domestic purposes, widows and invalids benefits and veterans pensions.

A a result New Zealanders on unemployment benefit, sickness benefit and independent youth benefit will not have abatement thresholds increased. The aim of the New Zealand Government is to force and harass these people on benefits to return to fulltime work as soon as possible. The decision would mean a "double whammy" for people on the invalids benefit who are being bumped down to the sickness benefit by tighter enforcement of the work capability test.

New Zealand Government Cabinet papers show that Social Development Minister Paula Bennett argued for the restriction to "avoid improving the incentives for people to work part-time for those people for whom fulltime work is the desired outcome".

A right wing UK Labour Party simply paves the way for an even more right wing Conservative Government this was my comment in an article I produced within the pages of the "Morning Star" in the "What Strategy for the Left" debate my article was titled "The Benefits of Labour". The New Zealand Nationals came into office after a Labour Government had started down the path towards industrial deregulation, free trade, welfare cutbacks and globalisation.

The Canadians have shown their "Welfare to Work" programmes just didn't achieve their aims. A government report clearly shows there has been no increase in the numbers of employable welfare clients declaring employment income after leaving welfare.

Marxists have long pointed to widespread unemployment as a weapon capitalists use to tame their captive workforce and hold down wages (Marx 1870 Vol 1

Whoever wins the next general election will be looking at the welfare state and public services as a way of cutting public expenditure. This election must therefore send a clear message to all the political parties that the majority of people do not want to see further cuts and privatisation.

Richard E Jacques
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