Feeling the benefits?

Feeling the benefit
Feeling the benefit
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Drug addict Matt has shot his veins into a state of near collapse as a result of countless injections – making it difficult for him to walk, let alone work, unaided.

He’s see himself as a “genuinely sick man rather than a benefits scrounger.”

Matt is one of Blackpool’s generally hidden legion of incapacity benefit (IB) claimants, 8,580 in all.

He faces being summoned between now and June for “capability” reassessment to see whether he is fit for work or able to retain his benefit.

The first letters, under the Government’s purge on the allegedly work-shy, go out to Britain’s 1.6 million IB claimants this week.

By May, invitations will be going out at the rate of 10,000 a week. Reassessments start in June at 140 centres across the UK under the Government’s back-to-work programme.

Nationally, 2.1 million claim IB, but 500,000 are excluded from the equation as they will reach pension age in the next three years.

Others will have to produce written information, and supporting material from doctors, ahead of reassessment.

Government employment minister Chris Grayling calls it a “revolution” rather than witch hunt, and estimates 500,000 claimants will be deemed fit to work immediately and a further 600,000 able to work with the “right support”.

It’s a tall order with an ailing jobs market and likely to put further pressure on Job Centre Plus and allied staff.

The purge could leave roughly half a million people of working age with incapacity benefit entitlement intact – although they will be transferred to employment and support allowance.

There are 11,160 people on sickness (incapacity and employment and support benefits) in Blackpool, with 8,580 on IB (up to £91 a week) in the resort, 3,700 in Wyre and 2,310 in Fylde.

That’s 14,590 claimants. One study of 400 claimants revealed many did not come from Blackpool – labelled so-called “benefit tourists.”

But worried residents are already calling Blackpool Disability Information Support Service for help regarding the coming overhaul of benefits.

The service saw funding renewed by Blackpool Council after fears support would be scrapped.

Service manager Alan Reid, based at Whitegate Drive, says new weekly drop-in surgeries for benefits advice will be packed.

“We’re also getting calls from people emotional about what’s happening,” he adds.

“I understand not everybody claiming is entitled, anyone can be hoodwinked, but many genuinely can’t work. There are more saints than sinners.

“We support applications and represent locals through the process, to appeal, to get what they are entitled to. Appeals are rising each year. They are costly. It is daunting and weighted against those who need help.

“There is nothing as personal as disability health. Some make the distinction regarding drugs and drink, but you could argue there are underlying mental health issues.”

Matt lives off Central Drive, an area defined as more socially blighted than parts of Liverpool and Manchester by Government statisticians last week.

He says there’s a £25 difference between his benefit and the Jobseekers’ allowance claimed by a mate. Both have criminal records. No saints – but are they scroungers?

Matt may have chosen to shove illicit substances up his nose and into his veins for over a decade, but says: “It still means I can’t work. I can’t walk. And what employer would have me? I’ve got a record, I’ve got a habit,

“The Government should ask why there are more people like me around. I’ve met ex-servicemen who are on benefit due to drugs – they couldn’t work once out as their nerves were shot because they had been shot at.

“People can end up disabled as they eat too much, smoke too much, drink too much. If you slag druggies off, why not them? Same result.”

Albeit not for related crime.

Blackpool is seen as an incapacity benefits blackspot in terms of abuse of the so-called sicknote culture. The resort ranked 12th worst in the land for working age claimants of benefits this year. In 1999 it was in 30th place.

Latest figures put Blackpool at sixth place in percentage terms for sickness benefit claims behind four towns in Wales, where the sicknote culture dates back to the decline of mining, and Knowsley in Merseyside.

In Burnley, where 4,950 working-age claimants get incapacity benefit, reassessment found seven in 10 claimants fit for work, 32 per cent of them immediately.

But a local GP, who does not wish to be identified, warns: “This town has far too many problems to tar with all the same brush. There’s not enough slack in the system, and there will be less when reforms go through, GPs shouldn’t have to play devil’s advocate with vulnerable people.”

Peter Legg, head of enterprise and employment for Blackpool Council, says local initiatives have helped some long-term claimants back into work.

Paradoxically the most successful, Working for Health, which offered six-month paid jobs for 90 long-term claimants, many (70 per cent) of whom got permanent work when it ended, was scrapped after Working Neighbourhoods Funds support was lost.

n Incapacity benefit (IB) closed to new claimants in October 2008 and replaced by employment and support allowance, so anyone on incapacity benefit has been claiming for at least two and a half years, and around 900,000 have spent the last decade on it, at a cost of £135bn.