Campaigners have raised serious concerns about the government’s sweeping new welfare reforms, with some fearing they could be a cover for further cuts to disability benefits.
Among the proposals are harsh new penalties for those who refuse to comply with government work schemes, including the possibility of disabled people having work-related benefits stopped temporarily.
The white paper also fleshes out plans for a new universal credit (UC), which will see a range of benefits replaced by one single payment, with benefits withdrawn slowly and at a single rate as people increase their working hours.
Disabled people will be among groups who can earn more – £7,000 per household a year – before their benefits start to be withdrawn.
Speaking shortly after the white paper was published, before she had seen its detail, Sue Bott, director of the National Centre for Independent Living, said she agreed that the benefits system had become “very complex”.
But she added: “Some of that complexity is just a reflection that people’s needs and lives are very complex. My worry is that it just becomes too simplified. We will have to see the detail.”
And she warned that past experience suggested that such major changes to the welfare system were used as a cover to cut benefits.
Anne Kane, policy manager for Inclusion London, said proposals to punish disabled people by removing their benefits if they did not comply with the new regime were “extremely worrying”, particularly when looked at “alongside the impact of the many other spending cuts already announced”.
And she said the proposals “do nothing to address the discrimination that disabled people face in the labour market”.
She said she was also concerned that UC would be used as a cover for cutting disability benefits, while the loss of “subtlety” in the welfare system could make it harder to challenge such cuts.
RADAR welcomed the strategy to create a “more streamlined, responsive and less bureaucratic welfare system”.
Mark Shrimpton, RADAR’s deputy chief executive, said: “It is good that the government is acting to remove the existing benefits trap, particularly from those who work for shorter periods each week to prepare for full-time work. This will help disabled jobseekers.”
But he called for more detail on how the government would deliver the personalised support disabled people needed to find sustainable careers.
And he warned that the tough new benefit sanctions “absolutely must not be applied to disabled people who fail to find employment because of the myriad barriers” they face.
Paul Jenkins, chief executive of the mental health charity Rethink, raised fears that people with mental health conditions could be particularly hard hit by the new sanctions.
He said: “If someone is wrongly found to be fit for work, and put on jobseeker’s allowance, they could now be forced to do inappropriate work or lose their benefits.”
But he welcomed the £7,000 earnings allowance for disabled people as a “marked improvement on the current system”, which would “make the transition into work easier, as well as avoiding the perverse situation where people find themselves worse off when they begin employment”.
Speaking as the white paper was published and before he had seen its detail, Roger Berry, a trustee of the charity Disability Alliance and a former Labour MP and co-chair of the all party parliamentary disability group, also raised fears that the introduction of UC would be used as a cover for further cuts to disability benefits.
He said that, given the government’s plans to cut welfare spending, it would be “extraordinary” if it did not use UC to cut benefits.
And he added: “The reason the benefits system is complex is because of the complexity of need.”
11 November 2010