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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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