POLITICAL and community leaders and residents in Burnley have voiced mixed reactions to latest shock figures which revealed nearly a third of claimants re-tested for incapacity benefit to be fit for work.
Burnley MP Mr Gordon Birtwistle said it was still early days for the pilot scheme which was launched in Burnley and Aberdeen last October. But claimants and members of other political parties said they were worried the most vulnerable members of the community could be left even more isolated.
The statistics also showed 31.3% qualified for Employment and Support Allowance and 39% are to be helped back into work.
Ministers launched the three-year pilot in Burnley in October last year in a bid to but an end to the so-called “benefits culture” and give people who want to get back into work the help to do so.
Burnley and Padiham MP Mr Gordon Birtwistle said he was surprised by the number of people found to be fit for work and had expected the figure to be lower.
“I’m a bit surprised, I suspected it would have been around 20 to 25%. It’s a higher number than I expected. The scheme is in the very very early stages. Some people have appealed, a number of people have got jobs and been transferred onto other benefits and assistance is being given to people.
“We’ll have to see how it works out. If some of these people can be trained in these skills for the future it will be good for them and the economy.”
Mr Birtwistle said anyone concerned about how the scheme could visit him at one of his surgeries.
Employment Minister Mr Chris Grayling, who came to Burnley to launch the pilot, said: “The initial findings from Burnley and Aberdeen serve to underline why it’s right to reassess incapacity benefit claimants and to launch the work programme to give those who can work the specialist help they need to do so. Too many people were simply abandoned to a life on benefits. We are determined to put a stop to that terrible waste of potential.
“The welfare state in this country is no longer fit for purpose that’s why our broad range of reforms are so important.”
But Coun. Julie Cooper, leader of Burnley’s Labour group, said she was worried people with physical and mental illnesses could be made to work or have vital benefits cut under the scheme.
“I’ve not seen a break-down of the figures but a lot of very distressed people ring me who are not able to claim because their assessment has been changed,” she said.
“It’s been a very harsh test and one of the most worrying things is how on earth you can assess people who have been claiming benefits due to mental illness.
“I don’t think that has been taken into account.
“Like any responsible person if people are fiddling the system then I am all for weeding them out. I’m not saying people shouldn’t be regularly tested however a decent society should look after the most vulnerable.
The Government is set to roll out the programme nationwide in April and by the summer, the new Work Programme will be launched which is aimed at providing help for those capable of work.
One Burnley woman, who did not wish to be named, said she had been forced to claim incapacity benefit after years of working for a living. She said people were too ready to label claimants scroungers.
“The new assessment is not the way forward at all. People with illnesses such as ME are especially suffering because of the way the assement is being done.
“It’s a misconception that all people on benefits are scroungers.
“ It’s not a choice. Nobody in their right mind would choose that.”