The Liberal Democrats appear to have backed Conservative welfare reform plans, as part of their agreement to form a coalition government.
The appointment of Iain Duncan Smith – the right-wing former Conservative leader – as the new work and pensions secretary also seems to herald a tough regime for disabled people on out-of-work disability benefits.
Welfare reform is one of 11 policy areas covered by the coalition agreement, which makes it clear that receipt of benefits for those able to work “should be conditional on the willingness to work”.
This mirrors the Conservative manifesto, which stated that anyone receiving jobseeker’s allowance who refused to join the planned new work programme would lose their right to claim the benefit, while those who refused to accept “reasonable” job offers could forfeit benefits for up to three years.
Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance (DA), said the appointment of Duncan Smith “reflects the previous Conservative message about welfare reform” as laid out in its manifesto.
DA has now written to Duncan Smith requesting a meeting to discuss the new government’s welfare reform agenda.
Duncan Smith is the founder of the Centre for Social Justice, a think-tank he set up to tackle poverty and “help more people to live independently of the state”, and which called last autumn for a radical simplification of the benefits system.
He has also been prominent in using the phrase “broken Britain” to describe what he sees as the country’s social problems, and has talked about an “underclass” of “dysfunctional families”.
He has also spoken of one of the “pathways to poverty” being “worklessness and dependency”.
The coalition agreement commits the new government to abolishing all of Labour’s existing welfare-to-work programmes – such as Pathways to Work – and replacing them with one single programme.
Coyle said there were concerns among campaigners about how the “one size fits all” pledge would work in practice, and whether the government would also scrap the popular access to work programme.
He said: “We know from experience and history that one size does not fit all disabled people, who need more personalized support.
“We are seeking reassurance that disabled people’s needs will be met by any new work programme.
“DA are hoping that access to work will be retained under the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration.”
The coalition agreement makes no mention of Labour’s controversial work capability assessment (WCA), which has been criticised by disabled people’s organisations as too strict and inflexible.
Neither does it mention the speed at which the new government will use the WCA to reassess the estimated two million people still on “old style” incapacity benefit (IB), which Labour had intended to phase out by 2014.
It also does not say whether any disabled people will be exempt from these reassessments.
Theresa May, then the shadow work and pensions secretary, said clearly during the election campaign – as did the Conservative manifesto – that all those on “old style” IB would be reassessed, although the shadow disabled people’s minister Mark Harper insisted that some disabled people would be exempt.
Coyle said DA was concerned at May’s comments, but added: “We want to know more detail. We will be seeking reassurance that disabled people will not be adversely affected by the WCA and that not every disabled person on IB will be forced to undergo inappropriate WCAs.”
13 May 2010