Page last updated at 17:05 GMT, Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Q&A: Welfare reform white paper

The government is unveiling its proposals to reform the benefit system which they say will mean virtually everyone on benefits should be looking for work.

What is happening today?

Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell is publishing a white paper on UK-wide welfare reform. A white paper contains detailed proposals the government wants to take forward and is the last step before being finalised in a bill. The bill was announced in the Queen's Speech and is expected to be published in January.

Haven't I heard this all before?

The government has been trying to reform the benefits system for the past decade, starting with then PM Tony Blair's instruction to his welfare reform minister Frank Field to "think the unthinkable" in 1997. A Green Paper on the issue was published in January 2006. There have been two reviews in the past year one by city financier David Freud and one by Professor Paul Gregg of Bristol University.

Why do they want to change it?

The government says it is wrong to leave people to a life on benefits. They say there are children in families where two generations have not worked and radical change is needed to break the cycle. There is also the cost of the welfare bill - around 20bn a year - which they want to reduce. Its target is to get one million people off incapacity benefits by 2015.

Who will be affected?

The changes mean most people on incapacity benefit and income support- such as lone parents - will be expected to look for work. People on Jobseekers' Allowance for two years will be expected to take part in "full time activity" to develop work habits and skills in return for benefit.

Does everyone on benefits have to get a job or do community work?

No. The main proposal is that people on out-of-work benefits will be expected to agree to the goal of eventually getting a job although it may take years. To keep claiming they will be expected to stick to a plan agreed with an adviser. They will not be forced to do community work.

Will all single parents have to look for work?

No. Those with a child under one will still be able to claim without qualification. The Gregg Review proposes that those with children aged between one and seven have to start preparing for work - for example by tackling health or debt issues, attending work-focused interviews and agreeing an "action plan" to get them back into work. By 2010 those whose youngest child is seven would be moved off income support onto Jobseekers' Allowance and expected to look for work.

What will happen to people on incapacity benefit?

The government says the most severely disabled will not be expected to work but others who refuse to take part in schemes to help them into work could lose up to a week's benefit. Those with debt or drug problems will be expected to sign up to counselling while others may have to agree to go on courses to improve skills. Incapacity benefit is being phased out and replaced with the employment and support allowance, which includes a medical assessment for new claimants to see if they can work.

What about people with a serious disability?

Those "genuinely not capable of work" will be entitled to the new employment and support allowance and get more benefit - the government says many of the poorest and most disabled will get an extra 17.60 a week. Disabled people would also get more control over public money spent on their behalf. They could choose how they want to spend it "to achieve outcomes agreed with the state" - for example buying equipment for courses to help them get a job they want. This would initially be tested in England only,

Are carers affected?

People entitled to carers' benefits will not be expected to look for a job, unless they want to. It is recognised that their responsibilities are at least as much as those in full-time work, even if they are unpaid. They will remain on income support for now but ministers say the needs of carers will be "central" to future benefit reform.

What will they do to make people work?

The government says financial sanctions - for example docking benefits - will be aimed at those people who repeatedly turn down jobs, miss interviews and meetings. They could lose a week's benefit - 60.50 for Jobseekers Allowance claimants or 12 followed by 24 for a second offence for those on the new version of incapacity benefit. Those with children are more likely to be penalised in terms of time rather than money by "requiring them to come in and do more in return for their benefits", says Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell. There will be trial schemes where people who have been on Jobseekers' Allowance for two years are put on "work for your benefit programmes" to help them acquire work-related skills. This could mean full-time work experience for up to six months.

What sanctions are there for benefit fraudsters?

The proposals would mean people caught committing benefit fraud would be docked four weeks' payments after a first offence. Current rules mean people can be disqualified from benefits for 13 weeks but only if caught twice within five years. Serious cases are referred for a criminal prosecution.

Any other changes?

Private firms and voluntary organisations will be paid to get people off incapacity benefit and into jobs, that was a recommendation in the Freud report. There is also going to be more support for drug users to get off drugs and get a job. And people will have to have paid National Insurance contributions for a minimum of 26 weeks within the past two years to be eligible for JSA or the ESA successor to Incapacity Benefit - with some exceptions for the self employed and vulnerable groups.

When will this all start?

The bill is expected in January and will be debated by MPs next year. Mr Purnell has said the measures, if passed, will be in place by 2010/11.

Who is likely to oppose the plans?

Some campaigners and Labour MPs say it is wrong to try to punish people who cannot find work when the country is going into a recession. The head of the government's social security advisory committee, Sir Richard Tilt, said it should be delayed. The GMB union has urged Labour MPs to vote against it. The pressure group One Parent Families Gingerbread says sensitive decisions about children's needs will be put in the hands of job centre officials.

What do the opposition parties say?

The Conservatives are likely to support the reforms as they say many are similar to their own plans outlined in January. But they say the government has repeatedly promised radical reform but not delivered it. The Liberal Democrats say it is right people should be encouraged back into work but have raised concerns about childcare and have urged the government to ensure Jobcentre Plus can cope. The Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru have raised concerns that the plans attack vulnerable people and there will not be enough jobs for people to go to.

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