In the sweltering dog-days before the House of Commons rose for the summer recess two events took place.
The first, widely reported, was the "Not The End of the CSA" statement made by Secretary of State John Hutton. John Hutton is a decent and honest man but he has, I fear, made a pig’s ear out of a dog's breakfast!
We now know that those nine hundred thousand people who are either being required to pay money that they believe they do not owe or who are not receiving money to which they believe they are entitled, are to be left to flounder in the morass of an organisation that is dispirited, unloved and past its sell-by date. Many of these thousands appear, judging from my caseload, to live in North Thanet and they represent, in the Secretary of State's own words, "debts of over £3 billion with little prospect of recovery"!
Alongside these unfortunates a new breed of applicant will have claims handled by a "re-designed", as yet to be consulted upon and named, organisation that may or may not prove more able to more efficiently dispense more and fairer determinations. "This is not" says John Hutton "a re-badging exercise but a fundamental change" . The jury may, I suspect, be out for a very long time.
The other, much less-publicised but potentially still more far reaching and disruptive, event was the second reading of the Government's Welfare Bill.
This Bill (John Hutton again, poor man) "sets a new direction of travel for our welfare system" that "marks a major shift away from the established orthodoxy which has always treated functional limitations as automatically disqualifying people from the world of work".
In plain English that means that " we are no longer prepared to accept the fact that because you are disabled you cannot go out and get a job and we have to pay you benefit."
There are many people currently drawing incapacity benefit who would indeed welcome the opportunity to get back into better-paid employment and there is much that can and should be done to assist them. I will support any legislation that properly sets out to provide that assistance and to bring about that end.
I fear, though, that hidden in the fine print of the "transformed medical assessment" to which claimants will be subjected lies the desire to exclude people from what will be known as "the support group" and to reduce benefit paid without a corresponding investment in opportunity for those that wish to and are able to take at least some kind of work. When John Hutton says that "it is not our intention to be punitive as we develop these approaches" I believe him. Sadly, though, when it comes to the interpretation of legislation, particularly by those with little or no medical qualification, injustices are all too likely to occur.
Retrospective legislation (like the Child Support Agency that interfered with existing agreements reached in courts of law) almost invariably ends in tears. Whatever arrangements, under the provisions of the Bill, are made for new claimants it is by no means clear how and when those already in receipt of incapacity and other related benefits will be invited, allowed or compelled to "migrate" (to use the jargon) to the new system. The debate before the recess did not make clear whether or not Members of Parliament will, in due course, face a flood of complaints from claimants who have faced cuts in benefit arising from the provisions of the bill.
The Secretary of State appears to have said that existing benefit levels will be protected. However strong the desire to remove fraudulent claimants from the system we need to know that that is so. If vulnerable people find that they are losing out we shall have the makings of another legislative disaster on our hands, so there is much work to be done and many undertakings to be sought, during the committee and report stages of this bill in this autumn.