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TX: 02.01.07 - Welfare Reform
PRESENTER: PETER WHITE
The Welfare Reform Bill is back in the House of Commons next week for its final reading before it heads for the House of Lords where many are predicting it may get a rough ride. Many disability campaign groups have expressed concerns about the bill, they fear, amongst other things, it will lead to cuts in the benefits of those people who are deemed to be showing little appetite for finding employment. Campaigners argue there are many more significant obstacles to employment of the disabled before you reach fecklessness. We caught up with a recent protest in Parliament.
My name is Steve Blake, I'm from Welfare Reform UK, which is a group of students who are studying with the OU who have issues and concerns about welfare reform. The bill is going to bring in for people who have disabilities or are on long term sick sanctions if they don't complete what the government call work related activity.
I'm Clare Glassman from WinVisible, women with visible and invisible disabilities. The main problem with the bill is that there is no acknowledgement that we are productive members of this society unless we're in waged work. And there are many people who are very worried that we're going to have benefit cuts.
Many people say oh well it won't affect me and I would have said that five years ago. But five years ago a drunk driver hit me and now I'm dependent on that benefit just to have food on my plate. And this can happen to anybody. Many people will have to claim this benefit some time in their life and if it's going to be harder for them to claim and it's going to make their condition actually worse because they're going to be forced into work related activity which is going to cause them stress and concern then this obviously should be a concern to everybody.
Steve Blake. Well comedienne Liz Carr has been closely following the debate on the Welfare Reform Bill and here are some of her reflections.
There was a programme on BBC 2 this autumn called Beyond Boundaries. Eleven disabled people with various conditions trekked across Africa to show that they can push beyond their own boundaries. Well that's all very well but for some of us getting washed, dressed, out the house in the morning is an expedition as challenging as crossing four ecosystems and having a film crew follow your every move. I watched boundaries and I reckon that when the survivors returned to the UK waiting for them at Gatwick were the Benefits Agency - We'll have your benefit book, your blue badge and your £10 Christmas bonus because if you can trek across Africa then you don't need our help.
Maybe Beyond Boundaries was a creative attempt by the government to use reality TV as a way of implementing welfare reform, get disabled people off benefits and on to cross continent expeditions instead. Yeah, we should be so lucky. Instead of looking to entertainment for its inspiration the impending welfare reform looks to the poor laws of yesteryear as it classifies us as either deserving or undeserving cripples. The former is assessed as incapable of work because they're disabled and the latter is assessed as capable of work despite being disabled? Which category you fit will depend on the discretion of a stranger. The person may be medically trained but it's more likely they're going to be part of the private organisations or one of the voluntary sector agencies that the government is devolving its power to. Forget deal or no deal, being labelled as capable of work will be an even bigger game of luck than that.
Those of us assessed as capable of working may have to undertake activities which could increase the likelihood of us gaining employment. Sounds good. They may include work trials or training but they may also include having rehab or treatment to manage your medical conditions so that we can work. Put another way - disabled people may be forced to have treatment against their better judgement in order to make them more employable and if they fail to do so their benefits could be cut. Well if we follow this line of thinking then perhaps we should make lone parents put their children in care so that they're more employable. Women could have sex changes, people from minority ethnic groups who are unemployed they could be made to white up. Following in Norman "Get on your bike" Tebbitt's footsteps it seems John "Work shall set you free" Hutton wants us to rise up from our incapacity, take to our wheels, grab our white sticks, switch on our hearing aids, take our Prozac and go get a job.
There are usually, however, reasons why people don't or can't work and contrary to popular belief these reasons usually have very little to do with laziness or work-shy-itis. There are many disabled and non-disabled people of working age who are unemployed and who want to work yet little is being done to support this group of people.
Instead of rehabilitating disabled people, of assessing us, of making us wheel through numerous hoops, the costs of welfare reform could be redirected into curing many of the real causes of our incapacity to work like inaccessible public transport, lack of aids and assistance and discrimination in employment. At 30% the poverty rate for disabled adults is now twice that of non-disabled adults and higher than it was a decade ago. Too many disabled people are in a poverty trap despite their willingness to work and improve their prospects. So will the Welfare Reform Bill do anything to change this? Well that's about as likely as me starring in the next series of Beyond Boundaries.
Peter has been speaking to Guy Parker, Policy and Campaigns Manager of the charity Leonard Cheshire. He asked him first whether there was hard and fast evidence that benefit cuts would follow as a direct result of the Welfare Reform Bill.
Certainly the potential for that to happen is there within the bill and it is something that we are very concerned about. The bill would allow a system whereby sanctions could be imposed to a certain part of an individual's benefit, that's something we've been opposed to across the whole process. Basically we've asked the government - what's the evidence that sanctions are actually the best way of getting people back into work? - and to be honest there's not been a great deal of evidence that these are the best way but this seems to be the path that the government is determined to go down. If they do go down it we need very, very strong safeguards to make sure that people aren't going to be left further impoverished because sanctions are wrongly applied.
And I gather there's also some concern about who might be able to make that decision that a benefit should be cut?
Yes absolutely. At the moment in Pathways to Work, which is a system that's operating in various parts of the country and is due to be rolled out further, there are some sanctions within that particular part of the benefit system. But what this bill would allow would be sanctions that could be delivered by, for example, private companies. The whole bill can be contracted out and the whole process of running this benefit could be contracted out to third parties and you could have a situation where one company or one voluntary sector organisation, working in one part of the country, could apply sanctions in one way, at another part of the country a different company could apply them in a different way. If they are contracting out parts of this new benefit then personally we don't think that sanctions should be one of them, the government needs to make those decisions.
Because presumably there is some question about what qualifications people would have to make those kind of decisions?
It's a difficult question in any case - who really is capable of making that sort of decision. At the moment you would have - and the broad principle is to have - people in Job Centre Plus who will be trained to make that sort of decision. Will that training be adequate? For someone with a mental health condition, for example, the reasons why that person may be hasn't attended an interview they're meant to attend or hasn't perhaps engaged in a course that they were supposed to engage with might be very complex, can a single personal advisor in a job centre really make that decision as to whether that person has had good cause not to have been engaged or not?
Now we also heard the worry there that people might be put under pressure to have certain kinds of treatment, what does that mean really and is that something that has been debated?
It has received some coverage in the Commons committee, it didn't really clear the issue up though. Basically there's a clause within the bill that says that people can be disqualified from receiving the benefit if they don't take medical advice. We've been assured by the DWP that this is absolutely only intended for people who are clearly defrauding the system but we're still pretty concerned that they've given themselves this authority.
Because presumably the worry is that there are some kinds of quite aggressive treatment for forms of both psychiatric and physical disability and some people may have decided they don't want to go through that.
Absolutely and the side effects of medication can be a real factor in determining whether someone is easily able to work or easily able to engage in all the activity that the government may want them to engage in.
What about the role of employers in all this?
Is absolutely critical. I mean Leonard Cheshire published a report in Scotland not long ago which looked at discrimination in the recruitment process and we found it's still there, it's still rife. We basically sent in near identical CVs but one from a disabled person, one from a non-disabled person and the non-disabled candidate received twice as many interviews. There is virtually nothing in the bill that actually tackles this, I mean we would like to see at the very least mention of the DTI - the Department for Trade and Industry - in the bill, for example, they've surely got a crucial role in actually engaging with employers in making sure that employers are willing to employ people who are coming off benefits because if they're not then you'll end up with people jumping through all the hoops but then not getting jobs, through no fault of their own but because employers won't employ them.
Is this bill likely to meet opposition?
It will meet opposition. There was a reasonably broad consensus on most of it going through the Commons but the problem is - and a huge amount of the bill is set out in regulations that haven't even been published yet, great big parts of it, like the rate of the benefit, that's still not known and it's absolutely crucial and exactly what the eligibility for the benefit will be - all these things are absolutely crucial and they haven't actually been set out yet.
So with all things being equal when is this likely to become law?
It'll probably become law sometime this summer, although the actual new benefit isn't due to be brought in until 2008. So it'll be a while before all this actually comes into force and it won't apply to existing claimants but there'll be all sorts of regulations and hopefully consultations about the shape of the benefit still to come and it's very important that people continue to engage with the issue.
Guy Parker, Policy and Campaigns Manager of the charity Leonard Cheshire talking to Peter. And later this week we'll be hearing from the minister responsible for disabled people, Anne McGuire. We'll be asking her about the issues that have made the headlines in the last 12 months, including her response to those criticisms of the Welfare Reform Bill.
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