Chris Grayling admits sick benefits change 'challenge'

More than half the population of Phillipstown is working, but nearly one in five is on sickness benefits

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Changes to sickness benefit will be "challenging" and "difficult" for some people in Wales, the employment minister has warned.

There are 180,000 people in Wales claiming sickness benefits. Almost all will be tested to see whether they now qualify for work-related allowances.

Disability campaigners said the system was making genuinely sick people lose necessary benefits.

Minister Chris Grayling said they were aiming to make the system fair.

BBC Wales' Week In Week Out programme has been examining what impact the changes, which started taking effect in April, have had on people in Wales.

All long-term sickness benefit claimants on the old incapacity benefit are to be moved to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which has regular tests to assess a person's capability for work.

Three generations of the Harris family from Phillipstown, New Tredegar, are unemployed, with half on sickness benefit.

Mother and grandmother Joan Harris said: "How are we scroungers? If they're ill, they're ill.

"There's no work about. How can they chuck people off the sick when they're not very well and get them signing on, and if they don't they lose their benefit. It's totally wrong."

Mrs Harris's son Tommy was claiming ESA for depression but has come off it to find work. However, he does not think there is a job for him in the south Wales valleys.

ANALYSIS by Prof Steve Fothergill, Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research

"Pushing people back into the workplace increases the scramble for jobs.

It doesn't necessarily increase the number of people actually in work.

In the Welsh Valleys in particular, more people looking for work will simply mean that there is a greater scramble for the very few jobs that are available.

It will not bring benefit numbers down much if at all."

"If it works, it works," he said. "If not, I'll just go back on the sick."

Of the new people claiming ESA, very few are found to be too ill to do any work.

Most are moved onto Job Seekers Allowance, or into the work related activity group of ESA, where they are made to get ready for the jobs' market.

Former asbestos worker Steve Parker from Maesycwmmer, Caerphilly county, is in the latter group.

He has been assessed as ready for work in three month time, despite a number of health problems, but was recently refused a job on health grounds.

Mr Parker said: "The employers are saying that I'm unfit for work, and yet the government are saying I am fit for work, so right now, I don't know where I stand."

One former civil servant, Annie Mills, 57, successfully appealed against a decision to place her in the back-to-work group against the advice of her consultant.

"Sometimes the pain is so bad, it's difficult enough to survive the day. I don't need the worry of thinking I have to go back to work or I could lose my benefits."

Tommy Harris says he will 'just go back on the sick' if he cannot find work Tommy Harris says he will 'just go back on the sick' if he cannot find work

Kate Howell, of Disability Can Do in Caerphilly, said the system was making genuinely sick people give up on benefits they were entitled to.

"We are talking about people that are very ill, very depressed, and they are having to go for board after board and filling out forms which are pages long, 50 or 60 pages long that they don't understand.

"I personally think that the state are just hoping people are going to give up on the process because it's so long.

"We are finding people are dropping off because they don't want to go through the appeal process again. It's too distressing for them."

Employment Minister Chris Grayling said: "Some people will find the process of reassessment difficult. My message to them is we will do everything we can to make it a fair process.

"Those who cannot work, those who will need long term unconditional support will of course get it, but if somebody can do something different to spending the rest of their life on benefits, surely we should try to help them do that."

Week In Week Out is broadcast on BBC One Wales at 22:35 BST on Tuesday.

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