Welfare? What welfare?
Posted Thursday 29 April 2010
Last week the Conservative party published its new welfare contract, which sets out their plans to deal with worklessness. Under the mantra of “ending the free ride for those who fail to take responsibility”, the Conservatives promise more support for those who need it, but far stronger sanctions for those who abuse it. The Labour party has made remarkably similar pledges in its own manifesto, while the Liberal Democrats have so far been fairly quiet on welfare.
I find it strange that this topic, which is of such importance to millions of people, barely got a look-in in the national press last week. The election coverage has been dominated by talk of the national deficit, the recession, and unemployment levels, yet the flip side of this – benefits and welfare – have been largely ignored.
Why? Well, I don’t know, but my fear is that it’s because there is already a sense of agreement on this issue: politicians and journalists across the spectrum are united in the belief that it’s time to “get tough on benefit scroungers”. And where there is consensus, there is no need for debate.
Except that there isn’t consensus. Mind, for one, doesn’t think it’s so straight forward, and we know from our work with the Disability Benefits Consortium that many other health charities share our concerns about this worryingly distorted view of benefit claimants. Over 40 per cent of incapacity benefit claimants are unable to work because of mental health problems. The belief that this group of people should simply ‘pull its socks up and stop scrounging off the state’ is dangerously ill informed.
The fact is, many people with mental health problems do wish to return to work, but need a good deal of support to do so - support that is rarely offered. It seems grossly unfair to use sanctions and benefit cuts to push people into employment before they are ready, and without any of the necessary support. Add to that the current shortage of jobs, as well as employers' discriminatory attitudes to people with mental health problems, and you have an uphill struggle all the way.
Both Labour and the Conservatives want to get tough by reassessing all incapacity benefit claimants, using the Work Capability Assessment (we don’t know the Lib Dem plans yet). Those who are deemed ‘fit for work’ will be moved onto Jobseekers Allowance, which provides less support, less money and more sanctions. But given that charities including Mind have questioned the efficacy of that test for nearly two years, this seems a little premature to say the least.
So the nightmare scenario is this: agencies that are inclined to be sceptical of claimants will reassess their benefit needs, using a dodgy test, and then send them out to find jobs that don’t exist, without adequate support. It’s not ideal.
Welfare reform is a complicated and emotive issue, and one that deserves far more attention than it has so far received. Be sure to do your bit before May 6th and raise it in any way you can.
Louise Kirsh, Parliamentary Officer
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