George Osborne faced anger and dismay last night over his plans to cut sickness benefits, with even a government minister joining the backlash.
Further details of the drive to provide jobs for the long-term unemployed – including those currently claiming incapacity benefit at an annual cost to the Treasury of £12.5bn – will be set out today.
Private companies and charities are expected to be offered extra incentives to help find work for the jobless under the proposals to be set out by Chris Grayling, the employment minister.
The Government believes that an overhaul of the benefits system will eventually reduce by one-fifth the number of people registered as too sick to work.
Mr Osborne, who has already announced plans to cut the benefits bill by £11bn, disclosed he was seeking further savings from the employment and support allowance, which is replacing incapacity benefit, and from housing benefit payments. The Chancellor indicated that the costs of incapacity benefit were no longer sustainable because they exceeded the budget of some Whitehall departments.
Further signs that benefit claimants are being targeted for cuts will put greater pressure on the unity of the coalition Government.
Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat equalities minister, expressed concern that the 2.6 million people on incapacity benefit could soon face more frequent medical assessments. "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 'reassessment' 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."
John Pugh, the Liberal Democrat MP for Southport, said it was important any changes were implemented in a manner "properly sensitive" to people's circumstances. He said: "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."
The coalition Government has said all claimants of the benefit would have their cases reassessed to determine their "readiness to work". Those deemed healthy enough to hold down a job would be transferred to Jobseeker's Allowance, meaning they would receive less money and be required to seek employment.
Assessments carried out by the previous government concluded that 39 per cent were "fit for work", while a further 37 per cent withdrew their claims before the test was complete.
However, Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the disability charity Scope, said: "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."
Yvette Cooper, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said the previous government had, in consultation with doctors and disability groups, designed a new test for gauging fitness for work.
She said: "We have been urging the new government to complete the implementation of those reforms and hope they will do so. "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."
Ms Cooper said that Labour's test – the work capability assessment – would save £1.5bn a year.
Mr Osborne has argued that further welfare savings are necessary to limit cuts to public services in the spending review in the autumn.
He warned that without further savings, many government departments will see their spending slashed by an average of 25 per cent over the next four years.
Barry O'Connell, 64, Essex: 'The Government is hitting out at easy pickings . . .'
"How dare the politicians tell us they care about the disabled, that we have rights and a future, and then show they have no qualms about making our lives miserable like this?
"When you are relying on incapacity benefits, they make-or-break a person. The Government should consult us and ask us how we will be affected. They would never want to be in my position. They should try living in my world.
"These benefits are a lifeline for me and my wife. Having an assistance dog has saved my marriage. My dog's name is Guy – if budget cuts took him away from me, I don't know what I would do; he helps me survive and live life.
"The Government is hitting out at those they see as easy pickings – those who find it far harder to speak up for themselves. The disabled are a soft target. There is no way I could work. I used to work for the Royal Mail before I had my accident: I broke my back in three places when I fell off a ladder in 2003.
"I now have four titanium rods going from my neck to my bottom. I have 80 bolts in my back and a metal plate at the top and at the bottom.
"A person's mental capacity to deal with their disability is already stretched to the limit. To now add to all that anguish the threat of taking the small amount of money I do have is dreadful.
"I understand that in a recession we all have to take the knocks together. But to hit out at the people who need help the most is disgusting."
Cecilia Weightman, 51, Bristol: 'We are all asking: what if they get the assessment wrong?'
"I am really concerned about the medical assessments. I have problems the doctor is not going to be as qualified to pick up as my psychiatric consultant, who is familiar with my situation.
"I know other people who claim incapacity benefits are worried about what is going to happen. We are all asking the question: 'What if they get the assessment wrong?' But those who cheat the system should be treated severely; they should be made to pay back every penny, and not just be given a token prison sentence or a fine.
"I have ultradian bipolar disorder. If I could work, I would. I used to work in community activism for four to five hours per week, but it would knock me out for days afterwards. Every day I can have up to 12 mood changes – that is absolutely exhausting and terrifying.
"At present, there are already considerable delays in the medical assessments so, unless they increase staffing levels, these assessments will only exacerbate the situation.
"At the moment, because of benefits and other provisions, I can go out for the day and enjoy life rather than being stuck inside the house, unable to go anywhere. That is crucial for people with mental-health problems. But if the Government cuts benefits, I would not be able to do that. Things would seem a lot more bleak.
"Maybe a few politicians should try living with a mental health problem, it is hell. These reforms will not put people back into work. It will be a regression."
Rebecca Young, 24, Manchester: 'If I were forced to work, it would be a disaster'
"I am worried that, at the medical assessment, I will be seen on a good day; I am terrified they will jump to the conclusion that I can go out and work, and cut my benefits.
"Some days my speech is fine but others it is not. My disorder means that it varies from day to day. If my benefit were cut, it would cause me massive trouble. I only have enough to get by, as it is. I do not buy luxuries.
"I have a rare degenerative genetic disorder which affects my mobility, my joints, my ability to swallow and also to speak. I also have Asperger's syndrome. I use a specially-adapted wheelchair and need a high level of support. I also have a specially-adapted van. I need all of this to make life worth living.
"My situation is complicated by the fact that the genetic disorder is so rare – the average medic may not even know it exists. Every morning it takes me four hours to get ready. If I was forced to work, it would be a disaster. I am exhausted by the small things I already have to do. On a good day, it might be possible for me to do a few hours paid work; I would love to. But those days do not come around too often.
"I am studying health and social care at the Open University. I would like to work as an NHS manager and change the system from the inside, but I realise the chances are very slim: I would need properly flexible conditions.
"If I were forced to work, I would be scared that the little energy I do have will not last, making the situation twice as bad. The people falsely claiming incapacity benefit are few and far between."