From the TUC

The Conservatives and welfare reform

02 Oct 2009, by in Labour market, Politics, Society & Welfare

One of David Cameron’s recent pledges has been to “reassess 2.6 million people on Incapacity Benefit to see if they are fit for work” – this is an interesting development given that:

a) it was Conservative Governments who were responsible for moving thousands of people onto IB in the first place and;

b) the numbers of people claiming have been falling under Labour, in part due to more disabled people moving into jobs.

In fact you could argue that Cameron is giving his support to the Government’s existing policies – his rhetoric is not dissimilar to much of what Labour has had to say about those on incapacity benefits and the introduction and ongoing roll out of Employment and Support Allowance will, for better of for worse, probably lead to the same ‘reassessment’ that Cameron is committing to.

But although the differences between Tory and Labour welfare policy may be slim, they do exist – the Conservatives are more likely to publicly blame people in poverty for their own predicament, and consequently favour even greater benefits conditionality and place much less emphasis on support for claimants as a means to enable them to move into work (convenient given the Tories are committing to sweeping public spending cuts).

As the Government points out, 90% of people claiming incapacity benefits would very much like to have a job – and as neither party is completely ready to acknowledge, enabling this to happen isn’t cheap. It would require massive investment in areas including Access to Work (a scheme which helps employers meet any extra costs involved in employing a disabled person, and has always been under-funded); enabling disabled people to improve their skills; ensuring public transport is fully accessible; providing disabled people with flexible working options; and ensuring that all disabled people have full access to appropriate rehabilitation and treatment services.

And the realities of discrimination against disabled people also need to be acknowledged. For example, a CIPD survey found that 33% of employers said that they deliberately exclude people with a history of long-term sickness or incapacity when recruiting staff; 45 per cent thought disabled people would be less reliable and 43 per cent thought that people who had been claiming Incapacity Benefit would be less productive.

But challenging discrimination and supporting disabled people into jobs isn’t the Conservative plan – as their ‘welfare policy agenda‘ makes clear. In addition to maintaining Labour’s model of contracting out welfare to work services (although cuts in these budgets would surely be on the cards if we had a Tory administration) the plan outlines the following measures:

  • People who refuse to join a return to work programme will lose the right to claim out of work benefits until they do.
  • People who refuse to accept reasonable job offers could lose the right to claim out of work benefits for three years.
  • Time limits will be applied to out of work benefit claims, so that people who claim for more than two years out of three will be required to work for the dole on community work programmes

There are many reasons why these sanctions would not work – the evidence on the existing sanctions regime suggests it is ineffective as a means to move people into sustainable jobs. But there is another key reason this policy would be doomed to failure – the Conservatives have made no committments on tackling unemployment. Attempting to move people off benefits into work while cutting budgets that are invested in reducing unemployment would be a ridiculous and unworkable strategy. But the inevitable failure of Conservative policies would be little solace for the unemployed people who would find themselves attacked by them.