Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Labour's benefits changes hit vulnerable

The Labour Governmenat's welfare reforms, designed to get people off Incapacity Benefit and into work, have come under criticism in a BBC investigation.

The BBC report highlighted the case of Maureen Leitch, who was summoned for a medical examination and told she was fit for work within weeks of undergoing debilitating treatment for Cancer, at a time when she was in excruciating pain.

I suspect that this is not a solitary example. I expect that anyone with any experience of the benefits system whether people making the claims or workers supporting them will have similar tales to tell. They will be able to cite numerous examples of people being told they are fit for work who very clearly are not.

Now, I think the idea of supporting people into work is a good one if it can be done. There is nothing more soul destroying than a system that writes you off and dismisses your chance of ever working again. My husband was made redundant from British Coal in 1994 at the age of 42. It was clear from his treatment by the DSS as it then was that he was not expected to work again - and that was under the Tories. It took him 10 months to find work again, 10 months during which he made hundreds of job applications. He went along to his 6 month review interview with several lever arch files containing copies of the applications he'd made. The person conducting the interview didn't even do him the courtesy of looking at them and dismissed him with barely a word.

Labour seems to have a bit of a split personality on the welfare state. On one hand, they say they're committed to helping people and providing them with what they need to live on and on the other they feel the need to sound tough and say that they're going to force people back to work. In fact, they achieve neither.

The benefits system under Labour is a great big mess. It is completely rubbish at adapting to changes in circumstances. If someone takes a temporary job and comes off benefits, the hassle they often experience when they are unemployed again setting their claim up again can leave them waiting for weeks without any money at all.

It would be nice if all it took to reduce the benefits bill was for a doctor to pronounce someone fit for work on the basis of what is quite an arbitrary test and then they'd go off and happily find a job. Life isn't like that.

For a start, people who have been on benefits for a long time are unlikely to get past the first sift of applications for most jobs, especially in the current climate when so many people are out of work. Employers will look first to the ever growing list of applicants with a recent employment history. They need specialist help in preparing their applications to get themselves noticed. When my husband went through that long spell of unemployment, he was helped by British Coal Enterprise who had an office in Mansfield with PCs where he could make up his applications and get specialist advice and interview practice for each job he went for. Even with that help it took him, with his 20 year employment history, 10 months to get a job.

He was going straight from a job. If someone has been battling with a painful or debilitating condition and been out of the labour market for a while, it's going to be so much more difficult. It takes specialist support to build their confidence and skills. The training on offer through the New Deal is often inappropriate for them and takes no account of their own aptitudes or preferences. There are some excellent training providers but also others where the whole thing is just a tick box exercise.

I would like to see a benefits system that treats people as individuals and not as one big mass of homogeneous gloop. If someone has a long term, serious condition, they should not be dragged to return to work examinations. Why not get medical evidence from their specialists. For those who could be supported back into work, then they need help and support tailored to their needs. That needs giving local managers who deal with people on a daily basis more discretion. But then, the Government has centralised so much of the benefits system that decision makers are often far removed from the people they are dealing with. That's a recipe for mistakes to be made.

The Government itself hasn't got a clue how many people it's got back into work as a result of these changes. If the doctors who are carrying out its examinations feel that the system is flawed, and we can see examples of where the system has told seriously ill people that they can work, then it's clear that things have to change.

Frail and vulnerable people should not be put through the stress of appealing. Making sense of DWP rules is tough enough if you're healthy. I wonder how much the appeals system costs to administer and if some of this money couldn't be better used in proper, meaningful support for people to help them back to work. It seems to me that so many cases succeed on appeal that surely it would be better to make the right decision in the first place. Obviously there has to be mechanism for appeal but it should be the exception, not the norm.

This barely scratches at the surface of what I think needs to change to make the benefits system fairer, more responsive to change, effective and supportive. Labour have failed miserably on all of these counts.

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