Osborne secretly plans £2.5bn cut to sickness benefit

Leaked document shows that the Chancellor wants to slash support for people too ill to work.

Leaked document shows that the Chancellor wants to slash support for people too ill to work.

Leaked documents have shown that George Osborne is secretly planning to cut sickness benefits by £2.5bn.

The plan is detailed in a confidential letter from Osborne to the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, which was seen by the Observer.

Written on 19 June (three days before the Emergency Budget) and also sent to David Cameron and Nick Clegg, the letter says:

Given the pressure on overall public spending in the coming period, we will need to continue developing further options to reform the benefits as part of the spending review process in order to deliver further savings, greater simplicity and stronger work incentives.

Reform to the employment support allowance is a particular priority and I am pleased that you, the prime minister and I have agreed to press ahead with reforms to the ESA as part of the spending review that will deliver net savings of at least £2.5bn by 2014-15.

The employment and support allowance (ESA) is the successor to incapacity benefits, and is paid to those who are unable to work because of disability or illness.

Duncan Smith is currently locked into negotiations with the Treasury over his proposed reform to the welfare system, which will require immediate investment in order to incentivise working in the long-term.

This revelation has done little to ease the tension. The Department for Work and Pensions insisted that nothing has been decided, stressing that "our reforms will ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected." Some within Duncan Smith's camp have even accused the Treasury of leaking the letter to force them into accepting the plan.

The proposed cuts are disturbing, but hardly surprising. Just last week, Osborne launched an astonishing attack on people who have made the "lifestyle choice" to be on benefits, announcing an extra £4bn cuts.

A government spokeswoman dismissed the leak, saying that the £2.5bn figure was "totally out of date", and that negotiations on ESA were ongoing. Possible changes could include means-testing recipients, and limiting the amount of time that people can spend on ESA.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies showed unequivocally last month that the Budget was regressive, and would disproportionately affect the very poorest in society. To this already punitive Budget, with its drastic cuts to housing benefits, add the extra reductions that Osborne announced last week and this latest news. You have a picture of an assault on the welfare state and a worrying propensity to go after the most vulnerable in society.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear