Campaigners have tentatively welcomed plans for sweeping reforms to the benefits system, but say they want to see more detail on its “humanity” before they “sign up”.
Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith told the Conservative conference in Birmingham this week that the new system would restore “fairness and simplicity” to a “complex, outdated and wildly expensive” system.
The plans will see a string of benefits scrapped and replaced by a single “universal credit”, although the Department for Work and Pensions said it could not yet say which benefits would be replaced.
Duncan Smith said those who were “genuinely sick, disabled or are retired” would have “nothing to fear” from the plans.
The disabled people’s minister Maria Miller later confirmed that disability living allowance (DLA) would not be scrapped as part of the changes, telling a fringe event that “at the moment it is more straightforward to keep DLA outside” the universal credit system.
The government says the universal credit will give people more incentive to move from unemployment into work by reducing the rate at which benefits are cut as earnings increase, and will make it easier for benefit claimants to move in and out of work.
People will start to be “migrated” across from the current benefits and tax credits system onto the universal credit from 2013, with this process likely to take several years.
Duncan Smith told the conference the new system would also cut the cost of fraud and error.
And he promised a “contract with the most vulnerable” in which the reforms – including a “crackdown on fraud” – would mean there were “enough resources” to provide them with “peace of mind”.
He added: “This government and this party don’t regard caring for the needy as a burden. It is a proud duty to provide financial security to the most vulnerable members of our society and this will not change.”
Lord Freud, the welfare reform minister, told a fringe event that the universal credit system would mean it was “always worth working”.
He said the benefits system currently costs about £9 billion a year to run, including fraud and error, and added: “We must be able to make a great big bite out of that.”
But Lord Adebowale, chief executive of the social care charity Turning Point, told the fringe event he wanted to hear more from the government about how it would make the new system “humane”, remove the stigma of claiming benefits, and put in place the support people needed when they lose their jobs.
He said he could not argue with the principles of the universal credit, but added: “It is a bold step towards achieving something which several governments have tried and failed to do.
“I want to see the detail and the help and frankly I want to see the humanity before I sign up.”
Lord Freud said the new system should mean all benefits were claimed, would stop arguments about whether to means-test benefits and should reduce stigma, because everyone would have an entitlement that simply “tapers away” depending on their other income.
Jaspal Dhani, chief executive of the UK Disabled People’s Council, said later that he was disappointed to hear the decision to press ahead with the universal credit being announced just as the public consultation on the government’s initial plans ended on 1 October.
But he welcomed any move to make it easier for disabled people to try out a period of work to see how it impacts on them – something the disability movement has long campaigned for – but would wait “in anticipation” for details of how it would work.
And he said the government needed to “take a very close look” at the support available to disabled people to enter work, such as the access to work scheme, as well as the availability of accessible transport.
He added: “I still have not heard anything mentioned by the government addressing those kinds of issues, including the discrimination in the workplace and the barriers to work.
“Those opportunities for people to enter work and stay in work are only going to be meaningful long-term if the discriminatory attitudes towards disabled people are tackled as well.”
Liz Sayce, chief executive of RADAR, said that in principle the universal credit could be “really helpful” but that “we need to see the detail”.
She also said there were “a range of other things that need to happen” to help disabled people into work, such as making sure employers were supported and encouraged to employ disabled people, and tackling prejudice and discrimination in the jobs market.
And she called on the government to invest in peer support provided by disabled people’s organisations, “empowering people to be active in their own right, not just having things done to you”.
Anne Kane, policy manager for Inclusion London, said there “must be considerable concern” that the universal credit would be a “means of reducing the amount people receive in benefits”, while also losing the “detail and understanding” there was with certain specific benefits.
7 October 2010