31 October 2005

Tony Blair is exerting pressure on David Blunkett to announce radical cuts in oncapacity benefit in November’s green paper, including replacing £20 a week of current incapacity benefit payments with training vouchers. Other moves urged by the prime Minister in a leaked minute include means-testing more benefits and allowing employers to appeal against a GP’s decision that their employee is unfit for work.

The Prime Minister’s minute, written and sent to David Blunkett earlier this month and subsequently leaked to the Mail on Sunday, has allegedly caused a rift between the two men. According to the Observer Blunkett responded to the minute by sending Blair an ‘intemperate’ letter on Friday protesting at interference with his department and refusing to accept the proposals.

Amongst the proposals in the Blair minute are:

Reduce incapacity benefit to the £56.20 Jobseeker’s Allowance rate, with additional payments either being made only to claimants involved in work related activity or, more radically, being paid in vouchers which could only be exchanged for “rehabilitation and training programmes”.

Limit the length of time for which incapacity benefit can be paid.

Publish a league table of which doctors sign the most sick notes, with the top 10% being investigated.

Give employers the right to appeal against their employees being signed off sick.

Look at setting up a specialist service for sickness certification, taking the role away from GPs altogether.

Widen the scope of means-testing the system” in order to pay for employment training programmes. The reference to “the system” opens up the worrying possibility that Blair is looking at means testing not just incapacity benefit but also disability living allowance.

Principles or privilege?
It appears that even David Blunkett does not share Tony Blair’s enthusiasm for slashing benefits paid to the sick and disabled. However, with new revelations about his private life and financial affairs appearing in the press almost daily and conservatives clamouring for his resignation, the Work and Pensions Secretary may be reluctant to entirely alienate the Prime Minister just at present. So, in order to avoid joining Peter Mandelson as a twice resigned cabinet minister, Mr Blunkett may decide that he must go some way to meeting Blair’s demands for radical reform.

Whether Mr Blunkett will put his principles before his privileged position is something that will be very clearly revealed when the much delayed green paper on welfare reform is finally published in November.


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