Ministers focus on invalidity benefits to reduce spending: Planned guidelines for family doctors would tighten the rules on eligibility for allowances. Colin Brown reports

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The Independent Online
CUTS in invalidity benefit are expected to be endorsed by social security ministers at a weekend review of long-term curbs on welfare spending in a grace and favour country retreat.

Ministers have privately told the Independent that they intend to issue new guidelines to family doctors to tighten up the eligibility for invalidity benefit which is set to rise by pounds 2bn to pounds 7bn over the next two years.

Claimants will get pounds 56.10 per week in basic invalidity pension when benefits are uprated on 12 April. In addition, they may get invalidity allowance ranging from pounds 3.75, pounds 7.50 or pounds 11.95, depending on their invalidity. They also qualify for free prescriptions and bus passes.

This contrasts with basic unemployment benefit of pounds 44.65 a week, which is withdrawn after a year. General practitioners are under pressure to sign patients on for invalidity benefit when the jobless - often suffering illnesses related to their unemployment - are threatened with losing unemployment benefit.

A total 1.5 million are claiming invalidity benefit. Ministers believe the numbers will continue growing, unless action is taken. They are convinced many now claiming the benefit may be unfit for heavy work, but could switch to light work if it was available.

'We will have to tighten up the rules of eligibility. It is no good locking people who may be fit for light work into the welfare state for life,' one ministerial source said.

The decision, likely to be announced in the autumn, in the first combined Autumn Statement on public expenditure and the Budget, is expected to be agreed when Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State for Social Security, hosts a review of the welfare state for his team at Chevening, the Foreign Secretary's residence in Kent, on 24-25 April.

The review will prepare ministers for the long-term review of the welfare state ordered by Michael Portillo, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Mr Lilley, a Thatcherite, ruled out means-testing in this Parliament for the state pension and child benefit in spite of the need to curb social security spending, now accounting for 29 per cent of the Government's budget.

Mr Lilley told Sir David Frost on BBC television that the Tories did not need to target the state pension, because, unlike Labour, it had not made the mistake of committing itself to linking it to pay and prices.

'We committed outselves in the manifesto to the present system of child benefit. That is a commitment and we will stick by it,' he said.

However, the long-term review will study proposals by the right-wing Adam Smith Institute for voluntary opting-out of the state pension into private pension plans, and targeting of child benefit.

He went close to confirming what ministers have been saying privately for weeks, that the Government will equalise the pension age at 65 - raising the 60 limit for women. Britain is being forced to end discrimination against the women's pension age following a European court ruling and he said equalising it at the men's pension age would save pounds 4bn.

Mr Lilley said he would announce details of compensation for the imposition of VAT on domestic fuel in November - in time for the April imposition of the tax.

Donald Dewar, the shadow social security secretary, said: 'Mr Lilley's comments show the Government's agenda is purely about saving money and not about social justice.

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