Benefits crackdown under way: Claimants say they are being made to feel like malingerers. Rosie Waterhouse reports

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CLAMPING down on the number of people allowed to claim invalidity benefit has already started.

Claimants who do unpaid work for charities have been told by benefits offices that if they are fit enough to be volunteers they are fit enough to work and risk losing benefit.

Richard Gutch, chief executive of Arthritis Care, said a team of six volunteers from its Colwyn Bay branch in North Wales had resigned in the last few weeks because they feared they would lose benefit. He said he knew of two other volunteers who had resigned from a group for back pain sufferers for the same reason.

In the last few weeks the Disability Alliance, a charity which represents sick and disabled people, has been inundated with complaints that benefits offices are questioning their entitlement.

Lorna Reith, the director, said that since April claimants had to fill in more bureaucratic forms and were having benefit stopped if they missed a routine medical examination. Many complained they were being treated as 'malingerers'.

GPs currently assess whether people are incapable of carrying out their normal job and, therefore, able to claim benefit. But ministers want to tighten the rules to ensure only people unable to perform any sort of work would qualify for payment. The basic invalidity pension is pounds 56.10 a week; invalidity allowances range from pounds 3.75 to pounds 11.95.

The leaked documents from the Department of Social Security show that civil servants have studied personal case histories in minute detail and drawn a fine line between people who should qualify for invalidity benefit, and those who should not.

In their clinical judgement, people who would be excluded from claiming benefit would include: 'A 58-year-old teacher retired prematurely because of chronic indigestion due to a peptic ulcer. This has now responded to treatment except for acute exacerbations.'

The paper said the following examples would qualify for benefit: 'A person of 50 years who has paralysis of both legs from childhood. She uses a wheelchair (adeptly) . . .has been getting back pain and pain in the wrists (and) no longer wishes to work.

'A 48-year-old steel worker who . . . has suffered one or two minor injuries to the back but now has degenerative arthritis of the spine.'