David Blackburn

Benefit reform - one theatre in Cameron’s war

Benefit reform - one theatre in Cameron's war
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The Observer has received letters revealing that George Osborne plans to deliver net savings of ‘at least £2.5bn’ from the Employment Support Allowance by limiting the amount of time people can spend claiming it. Here is Osborne’s letter to IDS, Cameron and Clegg:

‘Given the pressure on overall public spending in the coming period, we will need to continue developing further options to reform the benefits as part of the spending review process in order to deliver further savings, greater simplicity and stronger work incentives.

Reform to the employment support allowance is a particular priority and I am pleased that you, the prime minister and I have agreed to press ahead with reforms to the ESA as part of the spending review that will deliver net savings of at least £2.5bn by 2014-15.’

The DWP denies that any decision has yet been made and Danny Alexander has refused to comment, but let’s assume this cut appears in the spending review. ESA is the successor to Incapacity Benefit, so the argument follows that the government is targeting the sick and infirm. Such opposition is dishonest politicking. There is a difference between targeting the infirm and making limited funds go further for those in need.

Reform’s research has illustrated how Britain’s complicated welfare spending structure, where claimants are shifted from the dole to income support to incapacity benefit to training schemes and back again, has failed to alter social outcomes. Infirm claimants are trapped by more than their wheelchairs: the system keeps them out of employment. Structural reform could deliver a more effective service to, as the saying goes, make work pay. But the government must start making this argument and with its opponent’s passion. This parliament is about more than book-keeping; it concerns the role of the state within society. At the moment, the leaderless opposition is winning.