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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.