Text Only Version Last Update: Press Releases (22 May 2023)
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Labour's U-turn on welfare reform
Daily Mail, by Benedict Brogan, 28 December 2023
DRACONIAN measures for tackling the soaring cost of sickness benefit have been dumped by Downing Street in a desperate attempt to buy off rebel Labour MPs.
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The Government signalled its latest policy Uturn yesterday just weeks after denying that a retreat was being planned.
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Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton confirmed he will use the delayed Green Paper, due at the end of next month, to set out a revised plan for cutting spending on the Pounds 12billion-a-year incapacity benefit system.
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Proposals for means-testing the benefit and setting strict time limits for how long it can be paid out have been jettisoned.
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Instead, future claimants will have their benefits paid only if they agree to accept Government help to find a job. Existing claimants will be unaffected.
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Other suggestions championed by Downing Street such as replacing payments with vouchers and stripping GPs of their responsibility for 'signing off' those claiming to be unfit to work are also expected to be shelved.
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Mr Hutton used a coordinated briefing to Laboursupporting newspapers to set out what will be seen as a watered-down version of Mr Blair's welfare policy.
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The Government's retreat on social security reform will reinforce those who say Mr Blair's authority is ebbing away.
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But it will delight Labour MPs who will find it easier to back the less contentious changes proposed in the legislation.
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In a major concession to MPs, benefits for the 2.7million existing claimants will not be cut, nor will they be required to submit to meanstesting to assess their needs.
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Incapacity benefit is paid out initially at Pounds 57.65 a week, rising to Pounds 68.20 after six months and Pounds 76.45 after a year. Under the reforms planned by Mr Hutton, who inherited the portfolio from David Blunkett in October, the graduated scale will be scrapped for new claimants and replaced by a higher flat rate.
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In September, the Prime Minister said he wanted to push through 'radical' changes to the way the Government pays out cash to people who are deemed too ill to work, aimed at reducing the number by one million.
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But in the wake of his firstever Commons defeat over the Terror Bill last month, Labour whips have told Tony Blair they cannot deliver victory.
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The Prime Minister conceded last week he was fighting 'on all fronts' against Labour MPs determined to thwart his plans on schools, primary health care, nuclear policy, smoking and welfare.
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And he faces public opposition from his most senior ministers, with both John Prescott and Gordon Brown making public their unhappiness with the way he is running his third and last term in office.
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Mr Blair wants to end the abuse of the sickness benefit system which has seen the numbers claiming soar over the past 30 years despite improvements in health care.
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He is particularly anxious to tackle the problem of people diagnosed with bad backs and stress as catchall reasons for staying unemployed.
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Critics say unscrupulous GPs have pushed people onto incapacity benefit because it pays more than the Jobseekers' Allowance intended for those looking for work.
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Whereas incapacity benefit can be paid out indefinitely, Jobseekers' Allowance pays Pounds 56.20 a week and runs out after six months.
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Mr Blair is also desperate to avoid having to rely on Tory support in the Commons to get contentious legislation past Labour rebels. David Cameron has yet to say how his party will respond.
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Last night, Shadow Minister for Welfare Reform, David Ruffley, said: 'It's clear that Mr Hutton is preparing a major climbdown on what was supposed to be a flagship thirdterm policy in order to buy off Labour MPs.'
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