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"Ministers seem determined to show that the right to help to help from the state goes alongside the duty to work"
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Wednesday, 4 July, 2001, 15:22 GMT 16:22 UK
Blair squares up for benefit battle
benefit office
Disability benefits cost the Treasury 7bn a year
Prime Minister Tony Blair has vowed to push through changes to the benefits system which could see disabled people undergo medicals to check whether they are fit for work.

He said a proposed shake-up of incapacity benefit, with the introduction of medical tests every three years, was "entirely sensible and justified".

Benefit proposals
A three year limit on incapacity benefit.
An assessment, including a medical, to decide whether it can be renewed
Work-based interviews to test suitability for employment
Loss of benefit if tests are failed

His comments in the Commons came in the face of stinging criticism from left wing Labour MPs and disability campaigners over what they called "MoT tests" for the sick and vulnerable.

Left-winger Dennis Skinner brought cheers from the Labour benches when he told Mr Blair to "get stuck into the fat cats ... and leave the sick and disabled alone."

The government believes that that up to 70% of 2.3 million people claiming incapacity benefit could return to work.

No checks

Mr Blair told MPs: "It cannot be right that we have a situation where people coming on to disability benefit receive up to 4,000 a year for 10, 15 or 20 years without anyone ever checking if they have recovered from injury and are able to work.


The government is walking into a quagmire by reviving the 'scrounger disabled' slur

Lord Ashley

"If people are taking money from the state they must justify it."

Mr Skinner reminded the Commons of cuts to incapacity benefits that provoked a bitter rebellion by 60 Labour MPs two years ago.

"Travelling down that road again is bound to be strewn with difficulties," he said.

'Quagmire'

The Commons exchanges followed an announcement by the Work and Pensions Secretary, Alistair Darling, that people with disabilities or long-term illness, who claimed incapacity benefit, would have to take a medical every three years.

Among others to attack the proposals were Labour peer Lord Ashley, a leading campaigner for the disabled.

He told BBC News Online that the government was "walking into a quagmire by reviving the 'scrounger disabled' slur."

Birmingham Selly Oak MP Lynne Jones, who led the previous Commons revolt against benefit cuts, said she wanted to see better support for disabled people who wanted to work.

But she added: "This is turning it into a policing regime rather than a supporting regime and will be very counter-productive."

Excluded

Disability benefit starts at 53 a week - the same as claimants over the age of 25 receive from the main unemployment benefit, the Jobseeker's Allowance.

Lynne Jones MP
Lynne Jones MP warns changes wil be counter-productive
This sum rises to 62 a week after six months and 69.75 after a year.

The system costs 7bn a year.

When the government cut incapacity benefit two years ago, more than 60 Labour MPs voted against the move in one of the biggest rebellions of the parliament.

'Labour's failure'

Shadow works and pensions secretary David Willetts accused Mr Darling of "pitching a battle with the left to disguise Labour's failure".

He said: "The fact is there has been a steady upward trend in incapacity benefit just as the number of unemployed claimants has come down.

"Labour's welfare-to-work schemes have been pushing people on to incapacity benefit as an alternative to unemployment benefit - exactly what they accused the Conservatives of."

Liberal Democrat spokesman Steve Webb said the government was increasingly moving away from contributory benefits to a system of means testing for the poor.

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See also:

20 Jun 01 | Business
Pensions and benefits shake-up
11 Jun 01 | Business
Welfare reform: The tasks ahead
21 Mar 01 | Facts
Strategies of welfare reform
04 Jul 01 | Scotland
Benefits shake-up fears
04 Jul 01 | UK Politics
Blair takes on disabled
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