Work and Income has quietly started bumping dozens of people off the invalids benefit, months before tough new work tests officially come into force, say beneficiary advocates.

They say people with long-term mental illnesses, some of whom have been on the invalids benefit for years, are being bumped down to sickness benefits because they may be capable of part-time work or study within the next two years.

The invalids benefit is only for people with conditions that will last for at least two years and who cannot work regularly for at least 15 hours a week.

But advocates say the new hard line is ineffective in pushing people into work at present because of the recession, so the main effect is to cut the beneficiaries' incomes by $49 a week, from the adult invalids benefit of $243 to the sickness benefit of $194.

Rotorua People's Advocacy Centre co-ordinator Paul Blair - a qualified barrister - said Work and Income regional health advisers were ringing doctors and "cross-examining" them about whether their patients were really incapable of working 15 hours a week.

"There's a nationwide campaign to kick them off the invalids benefit already. They are practising the new law even before it has been changed."

Work and Income head Patricia Reade said there had been no change to the way eligibility for invalids benefits was assessed since the 14 regional health advisers were appointed in 2007.

But Beneficiary Advocacy Federation spokeswoman Kay Brereton said there had been a dramatic shift in the past few months in the way the regional health advisers worked.

"Initially [in 2007] we saw people who were on the sickness benefit being picked up and put on an invalids benefit because their conditions were long-term and severe. Now we are seeing a dramatic shift the other way."

Kerry Dalton, chief executive of the NZ Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, said some welfare advocates, particularly in the Auckland area, were reporting a significant increase in the number of people put off invalids benefit and on to sickness benefit.

North Shore advocate Pam Apera said she had seen a huge increase in people being bumped off the invalids benefit in the past four months, with an average of 10 cases a week this year.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett announced new laws last month including a new medical certificate to take effect from September 27 asking doctors more explicitly about their patients' ability to work in the next two years.

She told colleagues in a Cabinet paper that her officials would be told to apply the criteria for invalids benefits "vigorously" and "rigorously".

Medical Association chairman Dr Peter Foley said doctors welcomed the change because many patients with permanent conditions qualifying them for invalids benefit could actually work.

"I've just seen someone this afternoon on an invalids benefit. He has a limited grip of his right hand. That's the only injury he has, yet he is consigned to be 'sick' forever."

Ben Gray, a doctor at the Newtown Union Health Centre in Wellington who helped to train the regional health advisers, said they did pick up some people who did not need to be on invalids benefits.

"I've had some where I was pushing the boundary a little bit and they rang me and said, 'Is this really correct?' And I said, 'Oh yeah, you're right'."

But Mr Blair said some people were being bumped off the invalids benefit illegally because they were not capable of working 15 hours a week regularly. "You might be able to work 15 hours one week but not the next."

He is seeking beneficiaries willing to challenge the new policy in a legal class action.


Crackdown

* Invalids beneficiaries have increased from 52,000 to 85,000 in the past 10 years.

* They cost taxpayers $1.26 billion last year.

* New laws from September will make doctors be more explicit on medical certificates about their patients' ability to work.

* Advocates say the new hard line is being applied already, six months before the law changes.