Disabled people being 'bullied' by benefit regime regulations

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The Government was accused of "bullying" severely disabled people after guidelines to staff said controversial MoT-style interviews for claimants would only be waived as "a last resort".

The Government was accused of "bullying" severely disabled people after guidelines to staff said controversial MoT-style interviews for claimants would only be waived as "a last resort".

The regulations, which were introduced in 50 jobcentres yesterday, force people claiming incapacity benefit to attend "job-focused" interviews every three years or risk losing payments.

Tony Blair defended the scheme, promising MPs that "if people are severely disabled and cannot work, we will give them every protection; indeed, we will increase it".

But draft guidelines for jobcentre staff, seen by The Independent, say: "These options are to be considered only as a last resort when a meeting with a personal adviser is inappropriate and would be of no benefit to the customer. Deferrals should be used infrequently and waivers very rarely."

The document warns staff to take care dealing with people suffering from mental health problems and warns that threats of suicide must be taken seriously.

Opposition MPs will seek urgent changes to the new rules governing incapacity benefits on Thursday.

Yesterday, Professor Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat Work and Pensions spokesman, said: "Severely disabled people will have been through a medical and to suggest that they talk about work is heartless at best."

He called on the Government to rewrite the guidelines, and warned that some people would feel under intense pressure if they were forced to attend an interview.

He added: "You have to question the fundamental approach when officials have to be warned about the danger of people committing suicide in response to it.

"If it is going to be that pressurised and difficult for people, does the Government really have to be so heavy-handed? It is just macho posturing."

A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said jobcentre staff would decide whether to waive interviews on a case-by-case basis and stressed that staff would be sympathetic to claimants. It would be "inappropriate" to ask severely disabled people or the terminally ill to attend, he said.

The Conservatives will also attack the policy during a 90-minute debate on Thursday. James Clappison, the shadow Minister for Work, said: "These regulations do not say who will conduct the work-focused interviews, what form they will take or how effective they are likely to be.

"Unfortunately, Labour think that more bureaucracy is the only way to reduce the Incapacity Benefit caseload."

Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The crucial thing is that I believe that these regulations will mean, for the first time, we can make sure that everyone of working age gets the help and support they are entitled to, because our objective is to make sure we get as many people into work as possible."

He added: "I announced I intended to do this in July. I said we would table regulations so that MPs could see them. I did that in September. When you make secondary legislation, it is laid before the Commons and MPs can object to it. Sometimes these things don't get debated for months.

"By the middle of last week, I discovered that neither the Tories nor the Liberal Democrats had asked for a debate, so I asked our whips to arrange for a debate. The first slot I could get was this Thursday."

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