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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Forget gaining £350m a week, Brexit would cost the UK £300m a week

Figures from the government's own Office for Budget Responsibility reveal the negative economic impact Brexit would have. 

Even now, there are some who persist in claiming that Boris Johnson's use of the £350m a week figure was accurate. The UK's gross, as opposed to net EU contribution, is precisely this large, they say. Yet this ignores that Britain's annual rebate (which reduced its overall 2016 contribution to £252m a week) is not "returned" by Brussels but, rather, never leaves Britain to begin with. 

Then there is the £4.1bn that the government received from the EU in public funding, and the £1.5bn allocated directly to British organisations. Fine, the Leavers say, the latter could be better managed by the UK after Brexit (with more for the NHS and less for agriculture).

But this entire discussion ignores that EU withdrawal is set to leave the UK with less, rather than more, to spend. As Carl Emmerson, the deputy director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, notes in a letter in today's Times: "The bigger picture is that the forecast health of the public finances was downgraded by £15bn per year - or almost £300m per week - as a direct result of the Brexit vote. Not only will we not regain control of £350m weekly as a result of Brexit, we are likely to make a net fiscal loss from it. Those are the numbers and forecasts which the government has adopted. It is perhaps surprising that members of the government are suggesting rather different figures."

The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts, to which Emmerson refers, are shown below (the £15bn figure appearing in the 2020/21 column).

Some on the right contend that a blitz of tax cuts and deregulation following Brexit would unleash  higher growth. But aside from the deleterious economic and social consequences that could result, there is, as I noted yesterday, no majority in parliament or in the country for this course. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.