Reducing the number on sickness benefits must be fair

Figures show nearly a million people have spent a decade on incapacity benefits, amid doubts over ne

Almost a million people have spent a decade on sickness benefits, according to figures published by the Department for Work and Pensions today.

The figures show that 889,000 people have spent ten years on incapacity benefits, at an average cost of $4.2bn each year.

The welfare minister, Chris Grayling, said that this number would be reduced through a new assessment system. He framed his comments in paternalistic language (caring Conservatives, anyone?):

The sheer amount of people who have been left behind without any help or support to get back into work is outrageous. Under Labour, thousands of people have simply been cast aside by a welfare system that does nothing but put them in a queue for benefits and then forgets about them.

Central to Grayling's plan to reduce the number of people on incapacity benefits is the rolling out of a new assessment scheme. The Work Capability Assessment has already reduced the number of claimants in the areas where it has been trialled -- but it has been controversial.

The BBC reported last week on instances of people with serious illnesses such as Parkinson's being declared fit to work because of the test's inflexibility. In Burnley, one of the areas where it has been piloted, a third of those declared fit for work appeal, and 40 per cent of them win. That such a high proportion of results is changed demonstrates flaws in the test.

Long-term unemployment benefits no one; it can cause depression and social exclusion, and embed deprivation through generations. Giving people the tools to get back to work is a commendable aim. However, knocking as many people as possible off incapacity benefit to appease the right-wing press is not. It is vitally important that those who are genuinely too sick to work continue to get the support they need.

If the restructuring of the system is to work, the government must take account of the efficacy of the Work Capability Assessment in Burnley and other areas where it has been trialled, and amend it to accommodate the messy reality of human illness.

But sadly, it appears that, besides David Cameron's "bounty-hunters" idea, cost-cutting (and "hammering the cheats") is the priority.

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

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.