Disability campaigners warn against more cuts

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Indy Politics

The Government was today accused of ignoring the plight of the disabled as Chancellor George Osborne signalled a fresh round of benefit cuts to help tackle Britain's £149 billion deficit.

Following his £11 billion benefits squeeze in the Budget last week, Mr Osborne said he was now looking to achieve further savings from the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) - which is replacing Incapacity Benefit - and Housing Benefit.

Speaking to reporters in Toronto before leaving the G20 summit, Mr Osborne said he wanted to ensure that those in "genuine need" were protected while encouraging those able to work to do so.

The move was attacked by campaigners who said that the disabled had already been hit once by plans announced in the Budget to restrict the payment of the Disability Living Allowance, which will save more than £1 billion-a-year.

Richard Hawkes, chief executive of disability charity Scope, said: "We know that changes need to be made to the benefits system. However, the current medical tests used to reassess people and move them into work are inherently flawed.

"We fear that simply speeding this process up will mean that corners will be cut, disabled people's needs will not be met and the Government will fail to achieve its aims.

"This is the second attack on vital support for disabled people in two weeks following the changes to Disability Living Allowance in the so-called 'fair' emergency Budget.

"Disabled people cannot afford to keep on drawing the short straw."

The proposed ESA changes - expected to be announced within days - again highlighted tensions with the coalition, with one Liberal Democrat minister warning there must be no "perverse incentive" to declare people fit for work when they were not.

Home Office Minister Lynne Featherstone said that past attempts to get people off allowances like incapacity benefit had a mixed record.

"I would think that everyone wants those who can work but who claim incapacity benefit falsely not to receive that support," she wrote on her blog.

"However, the previous Labour government tried to get people off such allowances and my experience as a local MP from surgery is that the 're-assessment' of people claiming has been variable at best.

"We need to be sure that there is no perverse incentive to determine that someone can work when they cannot. We also need to be sure that those carrying out the assessment are good at it."

Her comments were echoed by Lib Dem backbencher John Pugh, who said it was important that any changes were implemented in a manner that was "properly sensitive" to people's circumstances.

"There are quite genuine concerns about whether people getting this benefit truly deserve it, but we do want to make sure that those who truly deserve it get it," he told BBC Radio 4's The World at One.

For Labour, shadow work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper said it would be "deeply unfair" if the system was changed simply to achieve "an arbitrary target for spending cuts".

"Labour's reforms were due to get around a million people off sickness benefits and save around £1.5 billion from introducing a new medical test and reassessing current claimants," she said.

"That test was worked on with doctors and disability groups and was finding more people fit for work based on proper medical evidence.

"We would be very concerned if they were to rip up the new test and the medical evidence just to reach an arbitrary target for spending cuts - that would be deeply unfair."

Mr Osborne has said that additional welfare savings are necessary to cushion the effect of cuts on public services in the spending review in the autumn.

He warned that without further savings, government departments will see their spending slashed by an average of 25% over the next four years, unless - like health and overseas aid - their budgets are ring-fenced.

However, with the Chancellor also promising to look favourably on defence and education, the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that other departments could be facing cuts of 33%.