Most major news outlets today are reporting the story that more than 80,000 people claiming incapacity benefit are dependent on drugs, or too obese to work.
The detailed figures on medical assessments for the two million people on sickness benefit were released by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). They show that 42,360 of claimants are alcoholics and more than 37,000 are drug abusers. A further 1,830 are claiming because they are obese.
These headline figures are shocking, and there is no question that it would be better for these people if they were given help with recovery and returning to work.
However, one must question the motivation behind Employment Secretary Chris Grayling releasing this information as his government unleashes swingeing cuts on incapacity benefits. Since February this year, no new claims have been accepted and the government wants to reassess all current incapacity benefit claimants by 2014.
First, there is a grave risk of confusing the many with the few. The 80,000 claimants out of a total of more than two million account for roughly 4 per cent of the total (the 1,830 people “too fat to work”, which the Times leads on, account for 0.09 per cent). What about the 96 per cent who are not substance-addicted or obese?
That neither Grayling nor the DWP made any attempt to point out that the figures represent a small minority of those claiming incapacity benefits indicates that this is dog-whistle politics, in the same vein as George Osborne’s attack on those who make a “lifestyle choice” to be on benefits.
The figures lend support to the harsh new testing that the government has piloted in several towns and plans to roll out across the rest of the country. Campaigners and charities have raised concerns about the test and its inflexibility, which has resulted in some people with serious illnesses such as Parkinson’s being told that they are fit to work.
Second, there is no suggestion of concrete measures to help these people back to work. Adopting a punitive approach to getting people back to work and simply withdrawing their benefits is utterly unproductive, as removing benefits from vulnerable people could make their situation even worse.
Alcoholics are likely to suffer from psychological problems even if they appear physically able to work, and are unlikely to be an attractive prospect to employers, which is particularly relevant, given the shortage of jobs. The same is true of recovered addicts.
Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, draws attention to the shortage of treatment centres:
We have serious doubts about whether the DWP is committed to investing in the infrastructure needed to support dependent drinkers back into work and if it actually just wants to cut the welfare benefits bill.
Unless the changes are matched by a concerted effort to tackle addiction and help people back into the workplace, this will look like another cynical move in the government’s assault on welfare, the sick and the vulnerable.