The coalition’s welfare plans have been thrown into confusion after two government departments appeared to be delivering contrasting messages about the speed of its reforms.
The chancellor, George Osborne, told reporters that he wanted to reduce spending on benefits such as housing benefit and incapacity benefit (IB), and its replacement, employment and support allowance, in order to avoid cuts in other government departments.
But several national newspapers also reported that the chancellor wanted to speed up the process of reassessing all those still claiming old-style IB.
The coalition government announced last month that it would reassess a small number of people claiming IB through a “small trial”, starting this October. The trial will take place in Burnley and Aberdeen.
A “national reassessment programme” will run from spring 2011 to March 2014, with the first letters likely to be sent out to disabled people next February.
This is likely to mean about 10,000 people on IB every week being reassessed through the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA), usually at the time their benefit review is due.
A Treasury spokesman said he could not confirm or deny who briefed journalists about the chancellor’s wish to speed up this process.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokeswoman denied any plans to speed up reassessment, and said: “There have not been any changes from our end. We are not moving from 10,000 a week.”
Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, said the continuing uncertainty following a string of welfare reform announcements was “extremely unhealthy and unhelpful”, while the government could still speed up the process at a future date.
But he said the key problem was not with the speed of the scheme, but with the need to ensure the system “gets things right”. He said: “The problem is the assessment. The assessment is not effective.”
Employment minister Chris Grayling this week announced changes to the WCA, which will mean fewer people with severe mental health conditions and all those waiting for or between courses of chemotherapy no longer being asked to attend a WCA.
Coyle welcomed the changes and said they could ease the problems in the system, and cut costs.
Grayling also said that an independent review of the WCA – headed by occupational health expert Professor Malcolm Harrington – would be completed by the end of 2010.
1 July 2010