Striking differences have emerged between the Liberal Democrats and the other two main parties over how they would treat disabled people on out-of-work benefits.
Important questions also remain over both Labour and Conservative plans on welfare reform.
Both Labour and the Conservatives plan to reassess every person currently receiving incapacity benefit (IB).
Labour plans to start doing this from October, building up to testing 10 000 people a week through its controversial work capability assessment (WCA).
Both parties appeared to confirm this week that there would be no exemptions from these reassessments for any disabled person, even those who are terminally-ill.
Theresa May, the Conservative work and pensions spokeswoman, confirmed the party’s commitment in a BBC interview that every person on IB would be “reassessed”.
She said: “We will be covering those 2.6 million people on IB. Some of those will not be able to work. All will be reassessed.”
And a Labour spokesman said: “My understanding is because it is going from one form of benefit to another an assessment has to take place.”
But there are also question-marks over the Tories’ figures, with May insisting –as the manifesto does – that a Conservative government would reassess the “2.6 million people on IB”.
In fact, the latest Department for Work and Pensions figures state that in August 2009 there were about 2.26 million on IB and another 375,000 on its replacement, the new employment and support allowance (ESA). This comes to a total of about 2.6 million.
May’s statement – and the manifesto – implies that a Conservative government would retest all those disabled people on ESA who have already taken and “passed” the WCA, as well as those still on IB.
Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat work and pensions spokesman, put clear water between his party and the other two on the issue.
Also speaking on the BBC, he said that both the Conservatives and Labour were planning to “go through the stock of people” on IB and “reassign” them onto jobseeker’s allowance, which is paid at a lower rate, “essentially as a benefit cut”.
He said: “I fear that under a Labour or Tory administration it is going to be about hitting people on benefits harder and harder rather than supporting them, which is what the Liberal Democrats are proposing.”
Webb outlined what appeared to be a new policy, a “partial capacity benefit” which he said would not be saying “you either work or you don’t work, you’re sick or you’re not sick”.
He said: “It’s based on what you can do, perhaps part-time work, perhaps intermittent work, because at the moment people are afraid to take jobs or to work part-time because they lose benefits.
“We need to work with the grain of people, particularly people who have been on benefits for a long time.”
No-one from any of the parties was available to talk about their welfare reform policies in depth this week.
29 April 2010