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Last Updated: Friday, 20 January 2006, 16:33 GMT
Q&A: Incapacity benefit
Major reform of the incapacity benefits system is under way - but what is the benefit and who receives it?

Who gets incapacity benefit?

Around 2.67m sick and disabled people claim incapacity benefit in the UK.

Although it has remained fairly stable in recent years, according the Department of Work and Pensions, it has more than trebled since the late 1970s when just 700,000 were claiming it.

There has been a particular rise in the number of people with mental health problems on the benefit, with an estimated 40% of total claimants citing illnesses such as depression.

In order to get the benefit, an individual has to have been unable to work for six months.

How is it decided if someone is eligible?

If someone is unable to work because of illness GPs can sign them off sick for up to 28 weeks during which time they will receive statutory sick pay.

Before the 28-week limit is up, the doctor will see their patient again to fill in a Med Four form to start the incapacity benefit process - although they are not asked to give a judgement on the claim.

Short-term - For the first six months on the benefit, claimants are given 57.65 a week
Medium-term - During the second six months, they are paid 68.20
Long-term - Once a claimant has reached the one-year mark, they are put on the top rate of 76.45

The Med Four form is sent to the Department of Work and Pensions, which then can request more information before getting its own doctors to carry out an assessment of the claimant to see what functional capability they have.

Government officials will then decide if the individual is fit for work.

Is the GP role controversial?

While GPs are kept out of the assessment part, some believe they should be removed from the process altogether so they can concentrate on the health of patients in a bid to get them fit for work.

The NHS Confederation, which represents health service managers, has called for family doctors to be relieved of their duty to sign the incapacity benefit forms.

A report published last year said independent panels of doctors and other health care professionals should be set up instead.

What are the concerns?

Critics have claimed the government has used the benefit to keep down the unemployment figures.

The issue has been particularly sensitive for ministers and current Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton has been promising he will be getting tougher on claimants by cutting their benefits if they refuse to take jobs.

An often quoted, but telling, statistic is that after two years on the benefit, someone is more likely to die or retire than to find a job again.

And while many say the system is abused, it also seems clear that once people are on the benefit they receive little help to find work.

A National Audit Office report in October 2005 found only 5% of people claiming the money were supported by back-to-work schemes in 2003-4.

The study said when people were given help there were "significant positive benefits".

Does everyone agree a crackdown is needed?

While many recognise the need for reform, the government is facing strong opposition from their backbenches who are concerned they will come down too tough on some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Mr Hutton has written to 100 backbenchers to try to alleviate their fears, but the last time the government reformed the benefits system in 1999 it faced a rebellion of over 60 MPs.

Doctors' leaders have also voiced doubts about the scale of the problem.

The British Medical Association has said while the system was undoubtedly abused, it was not likely to be by more than in 10% of cases.

What is the government proposing?

A new bill has been unveiled which spells the end of incapacity benefits. The system will be replaced by an employment and support allowance from 2008, saving an estimated 7bn.

Claimants assessed as being able to work would have to receive help to get jobs.

Those refusing to take part would have their benefits cut, but the most severely disabled would be exempt and entitled to receive more money.

Mr Hutton says about nine in 10 claimants want to work again and should be given the support to do so.

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