The disgrace of incapacity benefit

Politicians do love a crackdown. Asylum-seekers, sloppy teachers, spendthrift councillors, malingering civil servants, single mothers, drug addicts, beggars, burglars, truants and yobbish youths - all these, and many more, can be guaranteed to set the press salivating and the saloon bars cheer- ing if they are duly cracked down upon. A politician who announces a crackdown looks tough, active, decisive. Now it's the turn of those pesky incapacity benefit claimants, who total 2.7 million, triple the numbers of 20 years ago. They cost the taxpayer £8bn a year, and they look suspiciously like work-shy layabouts. To carry out the required crackdown, Alan Johnson, a dedicated Blairite, has been moved into the Department for Work and Pensions, to replace Andrew Smith who didn't, as it were, get cracking.

The incapacity benefit figures are indeed a disgrace. They suggest that the government's record on jobs is far less impressive than it likes to claim. The official unemployment figure of 900,000 (based on those claiming the job-seekers' allowance) would rise to 1.4 million under the International Labour Organisation's broader definition and to 2.5 million if some of those on incapacity benefit were included, as researchers at Sheffield Hallam University argue they should be. Whether these people are "genuinely" sick or disabled is an irrelevant, meaningless and insulting question. Poverty and unemployment themselves create bad health, and particularly bad mental health (which explains why, to the delight of Tory smart alecs who joke about everybody going mad under new Labour, the numbers off work through "stress" are rising). Incapacity figures are highest in the depressed regions, especially former coalfield areas: a remarkable 23 per cent in Easington, County Durham, and Merthyr, South Wales. In parts of the prosperous south-east, the proportion is below 3 per cent.

In low-employment areas, only the fittest are likely to get jobs. Clearly, many of those on incapacity benefit could and would work if they lived in more favoured locations and if employment were available. But the longer you are out of work, the more unfit you become - physically and mentally and in the usefulness of your skills. In parts of the English north-east, unemployment has been endemic for more than 20 years. It is far more accurate to describe local people in their forties and fifties as "incapacitated", even if they are not sick or disabled in the sense that most of us would recognise, than to call them "job-seekers". Where are they to seek, and what have they to offer in a job? Low educational achievement can itself be a form of incapacity when employers put such a high premium on qualifications and when jobs requiring only physical strength have all but disappeared.

None of this implies that ministers should shrug their shoulders and just dole out the money. Being on incapacity benefit represents a peculiarly vicious form of social exclusion. Most claimants, once they have been on it for two years, will never work again. Far more can be done to get them back into the labour market. The answer is not to confront them with repeated medical tests, designed to deprive them of benefit, or to make them meet stricter criteria to qualify for it in the first place, but to coax them (or, if Mr Johnson prefers, force them) into skills training and into coaching or counselling that could improve their confidence and mental health. But this is not in the end a matter of dealing with individuals. Numbers on incapacity benefit will continue to rise until policies are specifically framed to create jobs in depressed areas. The crackdown we need is on new Labour ministers who have neglected to develop such policies.

The great British land scandal

In this issue, the New Statesman launches a campaign to tackle Britain's astonishingly unequal distribution of land. This is a subject that has lingered on the fringes of politics for nearly a century. It is time to put it back on the agenda. Nobody can easily defend the situation that Jason Cowley describes on page 12, whereby 158,000 families own 41 million acres of land while the rest of us - 24 million families - live on just four million acres. Still less can anyone defend the system whereby, through the European Union, the big landowners receive subsidies from taxpayers.

The lopsided distribution of land is the single most important reason for Britain's chronic housing shortage and for the high prices that prevent so many from buying homes. The view that this should change is not confined to the far left. It was shared by the late-Victorian Liberals and their early 20th-century successors, including Winston Churchill, as Tristram Hunt explains on page 16. It is shared today by Ferdinand Mount, once head of Margaret Thatcher's policy unit. In his new book, Mind the Gap, he writes: "We need to unlock and allot land on a far wider scale than anyone in this country has so far contemplated." It is often said that other countries have less acute housing problems because their people are willing to live in rented urban flats. This is only partly true. As Mr Mount points out, even quite poor people in Ireland, France, the US, Italy and Greece own small plots of land and build on them when they have money to spare.

This ought to be natural territory for a third-term Labour government - a policy that might do for Tony Blair (and/or Gordon Brown) what council house sales did for Margaret Thatcher. There is no need for any "land grab", and the old socialist rallying cry of "nationalise the land" can be ruled out from the start. A mixture of tax (see Dave Wetzel, page 15), incentives and withdrawal of subsidy could do the job. The NS will explore such possibilities in the weeks ahead.