22 January 2009
Compulsory drug and alcohol testing and treatment, compulsory work at £1.73 an hour, the abolition of income support and part privatisation of the social fund all feature in the welfare reform bill published on 14 January 2009.
The latest welfare reform bill has attracted very little publicity, but some of its provisions are the most radical yet in the governments increasing use of compulsion against claimants.
Full-time ‘Work for your benefits’ schemes are to be introduced for long-term jobseekers. This is a group which will include an increasing number of sick and disabled claimants as the new work capability assessment begins to bite. The aim of the scheme is allegedly to help the long-term unemployed ‘develop work habits and routines they may not have experienced for some time’. In reality it will mean claimants doing a full week’s work for as little as £60.50 a week, or £1.73 an hour, for up to six months, in flagrant breach of the Minimum Wage Act.
Claimants who are known to, or suspected of, misusing drugs can be obliged to undertake a compulsory drug test under the new regulations. They can also be obliged to take part in a drug rehabilitation programme. The bill will also allow the scheme to be extended to claimants who misuse alcohol.
The bill also paves the way for the eventual abolition of income support with claimants currently receiving that benefit being moved onto jobseeker’s allowance, but with fewer job seeking requirements, or onto ESA if they meet the qualifying criteria. Meanwhile, entitlement to income support and income-related ESA is to be removed from couples where one partner is capable of work. In addition, adult dependency increases are to be removed from maternity allowance and from carer’s allowance.
The social fund is to be part-privatised with ‘the provision of credit’ to be handed over to credit unions and similar organisations in some areas. Following a wave of negative publicity the government appears to have backed away from plans to charge interest at credit card rates for social fund loans.
Announcing publication of the new bill, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions James Purnell claimed:
‘This Bill will allow us to bring about the most radical reform of the welfare state for generations. When times are tough, it is more important than ever that we provide people with the extra help they need.'
With the exception of the Child Poverty Action Group, who condemned many of the proposals, there has been little response as yet either from the voluntary sector or from MPs.