'Back-door' benefit cuts for severely disabled: Narrower definition of incapacity for work 'being used before law is passed'

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MANY severely disabled people have had benefits stopped in a 'back-door' move to cut the social security bill more than a year before tighter rules are introduced, according to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux.

Thousands more face a drop in income when measures announced in the Budget, to restrict eligibility for invalidity benefit and tax it, are due to come into force, the association warns today, as the Incapacity for Work Bill gets its Second Reading in the Commons.

The association said: 'Citizens' Advice Bureaux all over the country report an alarming increase in benefit withdrawals, demonstrating that a narrower definition of incapacity is already being used, well before Parliament has had a chance to scrutinise the proposed changes. In the vast majority of cases clients have been found, on appeal, to be genuinely incapable of work.'

Other disability groups have also joined in a chorus of opposition to the planned changes to the system whereby invalidity benefit and sickness benefit will be replaced by a new, less generous incapacity benefit, dependent on a more stringent medical test to assess a person's ability to work.

The Spastics Society warns that the new benefit will be paid at a lower rate than invalidity benefit; claimants will have to wait longer before being eligible for the full rate of benefit and the proposed incapacity test concentrates only on whether people can perform specific tasks, which could lead to loss of benefit for people who genuinely cannot work.

The Disablement Income Group condemns the proposal that incapacity benefit will be paid at its full rate only after 52 weeks whereas the invalidity benefit full rate is paid after 28 weeks. 'The effect of this will be to put chronically sick and disabled people in a very difficult financial position at a time when they will be needing to adjust to a new way of life.'

The Disability Alliance warns that people who now receive an extra age allowance up to the age of 55 for women and 60 for men will no longer qualify after 45. And the non-working partners of claimants without children, who now receive pounds 33.70 a week, will not get a penny.

Citizens' Advice Bureaux have also been told that Benefits Agency staff are suggesting claimants should apply for inappropriate jobs such as an artist's model, embalmer, or swimming pool attendant.

Ann Abraham, chief executive of the association, said: 'Changes already introduced by the back door combined with tighter rules now proposed, will leave many disabled people with severely reduced income, unable to find work or satisfy the qualifying conditions for unemployment benefit. The new medical test will particularly affect people whose disabilities are intermittent or who are mentally ill.

'Advice bureaux are being inundated by sick and disabled people who are being denied invalidity benefit wrongly, well before any changes to the system are approved by Parliament. There is no doubt that more people who are unable to work because of sickness or disability will lose a very substantial part of an already meagre income if the proposed changes go ahead.'

Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, has admitted that about 70,000 people a year who would now be eligibile for invalidity benefit would not be entitled to claim the new benefit. Invalidity benefit and sickness benefit are now paid to 1.52 million people at a cost of pounds 6.4bn.

The National Health Service must be a 'listening health service' which takes into account the views and needs of local patients, Dr Brian Mawhinney, Minister of State at the Department of Health, said. He has told the authorities he wants them to tell him how they are consulting GPs, nurses, community workers and the public over their plans as they draw up purchasing contracts for the coming year.

He said yesterday: 'I want the NHS to be a listening health service. This means actively seeking the views of local people about the services they want, not those which politicians and managers think they should have.'