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Disability dilemma: Swiss voters will once again be confronted with an emotive issue on June 17 when a referendum aims to overturn controversial cuts in what we spend on the country's disabled.

For the disability lobby and the left-wing Social Democrats who are supporting the referendum, the changes are all about kicking people when they are down. The right counters that it is a necessary first step in tackling rising fraud by 'bogus invalids'.

The only fact that is not in dispute when it comes to the planned overhaul of Switzerland's disability pensions scheme is that the scheme itself is in a seriously ill state of financial health.

Government figures released in March showed annual losses running at SFr 1.6 billion with the total debt incurred to date piling up to a frightening SFr 9.3 billion.

Since the disability pensions are provided for from the same funds that supply Switzerland's old age pensions, the government has warned of a "catastrophe" if drastic changes are not made now.

"If we don't do something the debt will double to 20 billion francs by 2012 and the pension funds will run out of gas," Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin told a March 19 press conference. "We have to put the emphasis on reintegration rather than compensation."

The reform package, which has already been through parliament and is set to come into force on January 1 2008, aims to cut annual spending over the next 18 years by an average of SFr 498 million. Half of the savings are to be achieved by reducing the number of new people receiving benefits with the other half coming from reductions in the level of payments.

It is the fifth reform proposal to be put forward since the founding of the disability pensions scheme in 1961.

Since the stated priority of the reforms is to help disabled people return to the workforce rather than rely on state handouts, those backing the changes say the disabled will themselves be the main beneficiaries of the new regime.

"Those are not just words, but something that is backed by concrete measures and investment," argues Alard du Bois-Reymond, head of invalidity insurance at the federal social insurance office.

"Along with the planned savings, we are also investing half a billion francs in programmes to help the disabled back into employment. We will increase the incentives paid to employers who take on disabled workers, and also speed up the evaluation process so that those who really cannot work start receiving financial support within a matter of months rather than the two to three years that it can take at the moment."

Unconvinced

It seems though that few of the country's disabled groups are convinced by these arguments. More than 60 charities and disability support groups, including the Swiss Cancer League, the Swiss Aids Federation and various national associations for the blind, deaf and mentally ill, have joined forces with the 'no-committee' that spearheaded the vote in order to stop the reforms.

"We are not of course opposed to every measure in the new reforms and can agree with at least the will and intention behind some of the integration measures," referendum campaign coordinator Tobias Schnebli told Swiss News.

"But it's clear that the main emphasis of the reforms is on reducing costs. The people supporting the reforms claim it's about helping get people back to work but they are not providing any real means to achieve this goal. The setting up of quotas or some other form of obligation on employers would be the best way of achieving this, but the idea was rejected by parliament when it discussed the reforms."

According to Du Bois-Reymond, the idea of quotas for disabled workers was discussed during the drafting of the reforms but quickly discounted.

"The first reason was the experience of other countries that tried to introduce such quotas, including one detailed study from Austria that showed that such quotas sounded good but didn't actually work well in practice," Du Bois-Reymond told Swiss News.

"Secondly, those countries that have tried out quotas have often experienced strong criticism that the measures are discriminatory with people being given jobs based on their disability rather than on being the best qualified person for the job. Such a situation can in fact create ill-feeling towards the disabled rather than help their integration into general society."

Without such quotas, though, the referendum's organisers argue that Switzerland's disabled will be denied support so long as they can theoretically work--regardless of whether any jobs are available for them.

"The whole thing is misleading," Barbara Marti, secretary of the disability self-help organisation AGILE, told a press conference in Bern on April 13.

"The reformers tell the voters that the reforms will help more disabled people reintegrate with the workforce--although the corresponding jobs do not exist. The new regulations insist that the disabled find a placement without forcing the employers in any way to give these people an opportunity."

Psychological illness

A further sticking point concerns the specific targeting within the new proposals of those suffering from psychological illnesses--a group whose rising numbers have put particular strain on the pensions scheme in recent years.

According to the social insurance office, psychological illnesses now account for around 40 per cent of all disability pension claims.

Under the planned reforms, specific programmes will be introduced to help the psychologically ill back into work, based on the office's argument that many are "fundamentally able to provide for themselves but need help in building up their ability to reintegrate."

Those behind the upcoming vote say this argument oversimplifies and underestimates the difficulties faced by the mentally ill.

"The reform's supporters are trying to suggest that the rise in psychological illnesses is down to people faking or exaggerating their conditions, but we believe it represents a genuine change in society over the last 20 to 30 years," argues Schnebli.

"Economic and social conditions are much tougher than they were then, and problems of stress, burnout, constant competition and the pressure to be more and more flexible are all making the situation harder."

Bogus claimants

That argument draws scorn however from the right wing Swiss People's Party, which believes in a simpler explanation for the increase--namely that mental illness is hard to disprove.

The People's Party says it is an ideal condition to fake in return for state handouts:

"We are in favour of the reforms because they are a first step against abuse of the system--and there is a lot of abuse in Switzerland," People's Party spokesman Roman Jaggi told Swiss News.

"Our party was the first to coin the term Scheinvalide ('bogus disabled') for these people who say they can't work due to back pain but are then caught doing hard labour on the black market, or those who say they cannot see but are then found one day reading the bus timetable."

While some will no doubt rind the People's Party's concentration on bogus applicants distasteful, the party seems convinced that it has struck a winning chord with its traditional voters and appears ready to maintain its confrontational approach throughout the current referendum campaign.

"In the end, reducing the number of benefit recipients will help make more money available to the real disabled. We believe in taking social responsibility for those in genuine need, but not in paying thousands of francs to Kosovar Albanians who come here and just don't want to work."

No end in sight

With three government parties supporting the reforms--the Christian Democrats, the Radical Party and the People's Party--and only the left-of-centre Social Democrats coming out against them, the anti-reform lobby knows the vote may fail to stop the cuts.

Nor is the issue set to go away, even if the centre and centre-right parties get their way and the reforms are adopted.

For one thing, the People's Party has already called for a sixth set of reforms to further clamp down on bogus claims and to authorise detailed re-examinations of applications that were deemed valid in the past--an idea which Interior Minister Couchepin has criticised as being akin to a military tribunal.

Secondly, while the current reforms will help to reduce spending, they clearly fall well short of solving the annual deficit--let alone biting into the mounting debt piled up by the disability pensions scheme.

Despite the People's Party's objections, the Radicals, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats are in agreement that more funding needs to be made available to accompany the planned cuts.

What they have not yet been able to agree on is where this money should come from with options including a permanent hike in VAT, a temporary hike in VAT or an increase in deductions from employee salaries all so far producing stalemate in the federal parliament.

The latest round of aborted talks on the issue during parliament's springtime session prompted several disabled groups to accuse the politicians of treating the disabled as a political football.

If so, this month's vote may represent something of a half-time pause but is clearly not the final whistle.
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Title Annotation:POLITICS
Author:Ledsom, Mark
Publication:Swiss News
Date:Jun 1, 2007
Words:1477
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