6 June 2005

David Blunkett’s insistence that the public should ‘not believe for a minute that the reform of the welfare state for the twenty-first century is somehow punitive — it is not’ would be a lot more believable if it weren’t for the fact that the government is deliberately keeping details of the changes secret from the public. In addition, the information which has been released gives a clear indication that the DWP consider that many incapacity benefit claimants with mental health conditions are using illness as a cover for their real reasons for not working.

In March 2005 the Treasury responded to a Freedom of Information request for “Correspondence between the Department of Work and Pensions, the Treasury and Downing Street on plans to reform incapacity benefit”. They provided copies of two presentations by the DWP made in February and December 2004 and a section from a paper by the DWP from July 2004, all of which have now been published on the Treasury website.

Well, they provided bits of copies of the documents. Out of a total of 8 slides from the presentation relating to the “Longer term reform agenda” six slides were censored, their entire contents being removed. In the section dealing with “Where we’ve got to” which covers the current Pathways to Work pilots 7 out of 13 were censored by being removed. Other slides and whole sections of the report were also censored. The same disclosure is also made on the DWP website, but here no mention is made of the censored material, making it appear to visitors that nothing at all has been removed.

If the DWP genuinely wish to consult with interested organisations and the public about the forthcoming changes, then why would it choose to censor information about its long term plans? And, given that great boasts have been made for the success of the Pathways to Work pilots, in which claimants have a series of 6 work-focused interviews, why is the DWP so reluctant to share details of how well they are going with the taxpayers who fund the initiative?

Crisis, what crisis
One thing the information that hasn't been censored makes clear is that there is no incapacity benefit crisis. A chart headed ‘IB Group – steep fall in the number of new claims’ shows a dramatic drop in the number of incapacity benefit claims since 1996. In fact, as the document also states, in the year to February 2004 the number of working age people claiming incapacity benefit increased by just 3,000 people, a rise of just 0.1%. (Figures for the year to November 2004, not available when these reports were produced, actually show a statistically significant fall in the number of people claiming incapacity benefits). In addition, three fifths of all those who begin claiming incapacity benefit move off the benefit again within a year.

The DWP’s paper complains, however, that more than half of all new incapacity benefit recipients are out of work before they come on to incapacity benefit and nearly half get income support rather than incapacity benefit, because they have not paid sufficient national insurance contributions whilst in work. In other words these were people who weren't working even before they began claiming incapacity benefit; the subtext being that these are work-shy rather than ill or disabled claimants, who are simply expoliting the system.

The paper also claims that “not only do many recipients have a poor work record but” two fifths say they cannot work because of childcare responsibilities, a third think they are unlikely to get a job because of their age and a quarter are not sure they would be better off in work than on benefits. In other words, the real barrier to work for many incapacity benefit claimants is something other than their health, such as a belief that there’s no money in getting a job.

The paper asserts that “people who become disabled are typically more disadvantaged before onset. In particular the following factors affect the likelihood of becoming disabled: unemployment, having no qualifications, age, occupation and low income.”

Mental health
The very next sentence in the paper turns its attention to the group who are likely to be major targets of the new reforms: “People with mental or behavioural disorders account for a third of annual inflows compared to a fifth in 1997 and these tend to be the group with the poorest work record/prospects”. In fact, according to the DWP 38% of claimants report a mental or behavioural disorder as their primary condition with around half of these having a depressive illness. The proportion of claimants with a mental health condition rises to 50% if those with a mental health as a secondary condition are included. These are also one of the major groups of people whom the government regards as having "more manageable conditions" for whom a return to work would be beneficial. As we will be explaining in coming weeks - if we ever get the time to write about it - they are also one of the targets of a coalition of former top DWP staff, academics and a major private sector company, all determined to intefere in the relationship between GPs and their patients to the advantage of employers, the DWP and insurance companies.

Phew, for a moment there I thought we were in trouble
Clearly, if the government’s target of getting one million claimants off incapacity benefit is to be achieved, the number of people getting benefits because of mental health conditions, amongst others, will have to be slashed. The details of how the government propose to achieve this remain, Freedom of Information Act notwithstanding, too secret to be shared with citizens. Happily, there is no cause for alarm. With the announcement this week that the Prime Minister himself is to chair the cabinet committee overseeing welfare reform, flanked by John Prescott and David "silly old me, I thought you could claim for anyone's spouse" Blunkett, we can be sure that the entire process will be open, honest and solely in the interests of people with long-term illnesses.

You can download the treasury documents from here.

You can download the DWP documents from here


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