Campaigners have asked serious questions about Conservative plans to force hundreds of thousands of people off out-of-work disability benefits and onto the less generous jobseeker’s allowance (JSA).
The Conservatives say they would subject the 2.6 million people currently receiving incapacity benefit (IB) to strict tests, forcing as many as 500,000 onto JSA.
But the Labour government is already planning to test everyone on IB as it rolls out its new employment and support allowance (ESA) between 2010 and 2013.
The Conservatives say they will do this faster, even though both parties seem to be pledging to take three years.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Theresa May told the party’s conference in Manchester: “When we retest all the existing claimants of IB, those who are found to be fit for work will be moved onto JSA and have their benefits cut accordingly.”
The party said it will use the money saved by moving an estimated 500,000 people from IB (currently about £90 a week) to JSA (about £64 a week) to fund a £600 million back-to-work programme, using private and voluntary sector providers.
But Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, the disability poverty charity, criticised the party’s failure to discuss ESA, introduced for new claimants last October.
Several hundred thousand of the 2.6 million people the Conservatives say are on IB are actually on ESA, and have already been subjected to a strict new work capability assessment (WCA).
Coyle said they also failed to address the environmental and attitudinal barriers disabled people face in trying to secure work.
And he said there was no discussion of how the Conservatives would ensure the tests on IB claimants were carried out fairly, when the existing WCA is already “rigid and inflexible”.
He said mistakes would be “multiplied” in a system that requires “more assessments to be done quicker”, with those disabled people pushed onto JSA missing out on the tailored support they would have received on ESA.
Steve Donnison, co-founder of the Benefits and Work website, said the Conservative party seemed to be “involved in a bidding war with Labour to see who can stir up the most prejudice against sick and disabled claimants”.
He said: “Whoever gets in, it looks like we’re in for years of hasty, unreliable medical assessments and huge quantities of money being poured into the private sector to push sick and disabled people into short-term, insecure work which will probably make them so ill they’ll then have no trouble qualifying for ESA.”
7 October 2009