Lynne Jones MP
The line in Alistair Darlings speech on July 4 to the IPPR mentioning fixed
periods for incapacity benefit "so that we can review the claim and offer more help
and support" would have gone largely unnoticed had it not been for the press briefing
he gave the previous evening. Journalists were told that, apart from those severely
disabled people who had no prospects of recovery, all recipients of incapacity benefit
would be subject to repeat medical tests every 3 years. These were immediately dubbed
disabled MOT tests and led to angry exchanges during Prime Ministers Question Time.
Tony Blair must have been briefed on the proposals when he told the Commons:
"It cannot be right that
people coming on to incapacity benefit will be
paid an average of about £4000 a year for say 10, 15 or 20 years with no-one ever
checking whether they have recovered from their injuries and are able to work"
and also emphasised the "vast" cost of £7 billion.
But was he well briefed?
During the passage of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999, the Disability Benefits
Minister, Hugh Bayley, explained that the doctors who carry out the All Work Tests on
behalf of the Benefits Agency are given five options in terms of specifying intervals
between subsequent tests. These options are 3 months, 6 months, 12 months, 18 months and
no significant change anticipated. More than 50% of those who are tested are
recommended for retest within 12 months or less. In only 28% of cases was no pre-ordained
re-test time set. Subsequently, the Government acquired powers to carry out tests even if
there was no obvious change in a claimants condition and introduced the Personal
Capability Assessment (PCA), a stringent medical test which takes into account what work a
person can do.
Furthermore, the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics show that the
cost of incapacity benefit (IB) has been declining since 1994 and is expected to be nearer
£6 billion than £7 billion. They also show that fraud in claiming IB (worth a meagre
£69 at the long-term rate) is virtually non-existent. Only three cases (0.5%) were found
out of a sample of over 1400, whereas official errors were four times this level.
Perhaps it would be too much to expect the Prime Minister to have grasped all the
detail but how could he have been so wrong! And surely Tony should have been aware of the
claim in the manifesto that the number getting IB has fallen by 11% since 1997!
I can only guess as to the rationale for this latest attempt to create the impression
that thousands of disabled people are receiving generous benefits that they dont
deserve. Perhaps it is to divert attention away from the Governments privatisation
agenda or just simply because Alistair wanted to say something new to boost his tough
image with Daily Mail readers. Either way, the Government quickly back-tracked and let it
be known that the new arrangements would "only" apply to new claimants. Rather
than having new legislation, as Alastair had initially told reporters, regulations would
be introduced under the provisions for compulsory "work-focussed" interviews in
the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act. These will take place at least every three years and
may result in a referral to an agency doctor for an assessment. The Government has avoided
answering my parliamentary question seeking to ascertain how many extra PCAs will take
place and what impact this will have on the current 90 to 170 day delays.
I share the Governments aim of encouraging disabled people into work. One million
of them say they would like to work and 400,000 believe they could work, given the right
support. Programmes under the New Deal are giving that support but disabled people need
the chance to consider the possibility of working in an atmosphere free from threats. The
proposals for more medical tests are clearly unnecessary and counterproductive.