Disability benefits attack prompts Lib-Con tension

By Ian Dunt

A fresh attack on disability benefits from George Osborne has sparked signs of tensions with the Tories’ Lib Dem coalition partners.

The chancellor stressed that rules surrounding incapacity benefit and its successor, the employment and support allowance, needed to be tightened up, as did housing benefit.

Housing benefit has already been mentioned by Mr Osborne, but the comments on incapacity benefit come on top of those directed towards disability living allowance.

Writing in her blog, Lib Dem Home Office minister Lynne Featherstone questioned how effective testing people for disability is when it comes to reducing benefit costs.

“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,” she wrote.

“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.”

Some commentators have questioned the chancellor’s commitment to ensuring the rich suffer as much as the poor when it comes to reducing the deficit.

“We have given very specific commitments on some and we have not given specific commitments on others,” Mr Osborne said.

“That is what I want to be part of the spending review over the summer. It is a trade-off and some of these benefits are very much larger than most government departments.

“We have got to look at all these things, make sure it protects those in genuine need, protects those with disabilities and protects those who can’t work but also encourages those who can work into work. That is the purpose behind our welfare reform.”

The total annual cost of the employment and support allowance stands at £12.5 billion, with some 2.6 million people claiming the welfare payment.

The government also has its hands tied behind its back in terms of which benefits it can cut.

David Cameron repeatedly accused Labour of lying about Tory plans to cut benefits for the elderly, such as pension credit, free bus passes and the winter fuel payment, making it politically impossible to do so now.

Shadow work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper said the government should stick the mechanism put in place by the previous government.

“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 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.”

The spending review is due on October 20th.