Tough love is the best medicine for incapacity benefit claimants

2005

The Prime Minister's emphasis on 'rights and responsibilities' in order to help move people off incapacity benefit and into jobs is fully justified, according to Dr John Philpott, Chief Economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

Commenting ahead of the publication tomorrow of the government's five-year plan for work and pensions, Philpott said that at least one in three incapacity benefit claimants could be brought back into the workplace if an appropriate mix of support and pressure was applied to them.

Under the new plans, Pensions Secretary Alan Johnson has said that he aims to cut the number of claimants by one million.

"This would not only ease recruitment difficulties in a tight labour market but also represents a compassionate response to the problem of long-term welfare dependency," Philpott said.

"Those who suffer most from a life on incapacity benefit are the claimants themselves. Moving those who can work into jobs should not be seen as some kind of 'punishment'".

Last year, a study by the Bank of England found that half a million men of working age have left the workplace over the past decade and were claiming long-term sickness benefit. Almost all were unskilled workers aged between 25 and 54 - the same group reporting increasing long-term illness.

Under the present system, it is easy to see why. Incapacity benefit is worth up to £74.15 a week, almost £20 more than the with the jobseeker's allowance. The amount paid also increases for people who stay on incapacity benefit long-term.

Unsurprisingly, most of those who have received incapacity benefit for two years remain on it until they die.

An investigation by The Sunday Times last year also showed the extent of abuse of the system, finding that jobcentre staff routinely encouraged dole applicants to make claims for sickness benefit when they had only minor ailments.

Reporters who posed as dole applicants were wrongly told they could be eligible for sickness benefit by claiming they suffered mild stress, had girlfriend problems or found it hard to get up in the morning.

Under the new system, the majority of claimants – estimated at around eight out of 10 - will receive around £55 unless they are trying to find work. Those who are looking for a job will receive an additional £20 a week. In addition, people leaving incapacity benefit for jobs will receive several weeks of in-work benefits.

However those who are seriously ill – a far smaller proportion of claimants - will see a significant increase in the current £75-a-week benefit.

The new strategy was welcomed by John Philpott.

"It is encouraging that ministers appear to have rejected significant cuts in the level of incapacity benefit payments for existing claimants or the withdrawal of benefit once a person has been in receipt of incapacity benefit for a given period of time.

This would penalise incapacity benefit recipients regardless of their circumstances and work potential- while doing little to help them into jobs," he said.

"Reform should instead build on current welfare-to-work practice by making regular work-focused interviews compulsory for all but the most severely disabled claimants - a proposal likely to form a central plank of what the government will announce tomorrow."