ELECTION 2010: Parties mired in welfare reform confusion


Conservative policy on incapacity benefit (IB) reform appeared in disarray today after the party’s disability spokesman contradicted public comments by his boss.

Last week, Theresa May, the Conservative work and pensions spokeswoman, told the BBC that all “2.6 million people on IB” would be reassessed to determine if they could work.

May made it clear that there would be no exemptions from the test. 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.”

But the latest government figures show that in August 2009 there were about 2.26 million people 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.

All those on ESA have already taken – and “passed” – the government’s strict new work capability assessment (WCA).

May’s statement implied that those disabled people who have already undergone testing through the WCA would be tested again.

The Conservative manifesto also seems to make this clear, stating that a Conservative government would reassess all of the “2.6 million people claiming Incapacity Benefit”.

But today, Mark Harper, the Conservative disability spokesman, insisted that some people currently on IB would be exempt from being reassessed through the WCA.

Despite May’s comments, he said: “There are already some exemptions in the current system which we do not plan to alter, for those people who have a terminal illness, for example.”

Asked to comment on May’s statement that “all will be reassessed”, he asked for her quote to be emailed to him so he could respond.

Both her quote and a link to the BBC programme on which she made the remarks were emailed to Harper, but he failed to reply.

He said earlier that pointing out that the latest figures showed just 2.26 million people left on IB – and certain to be far fewer nine months on – was just “pedantic”, and insisted: “The manifesto isn’t wrong.”

Harper denied that his party was “coming down hard on disabled people” and stressed that “those people too ill or disabled to work, we absolutely do not expect them to do so”.

He said: “The people we want to come down hard on are those people on IB who are capable of working and do not have anything wrong with them and need to be told they need to get back to work.”

Meanwhile, Labour has admitted that one of its spokesmen was wrong last week when he appeared to agree with Theresa May that there would be no exemptions from the planned reassessments of those on IB.

Another Labour spokesman made it clear today that existing exemptions for those applying for ESA would apply when the government begins reassessing all those on IB this October.

These exemptions include people who are terminally-ill or have “severe functional impairments”. The spokesman said that those people on IB who are exempt will not have to be tested and will automatically be placed in the “support group” of those receiving ESA.

And in further evidence of disarray and confusion among the three main parties around welfare reform, the Liberal Democrats have been unable to provide any more information about their proposed new “partial capacity benefit”.

Their work and pensions spokesman Steve Webb floated the policy last week in a BBC interview in which 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.”

But despite repeated requests, no-one from the Liberal Democrat press office has been able to provide any more details about the scheme or how it would work.

4 May 2010

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