Peter Hoskin

Reforming incapacity benefit will not be easy – but it is crucial

Reforming incapacity benefit will not be easy – but it is crucial
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'500,000 to lose sick pay as welfare reforms bite'. Those words boom from the front-page of the Times this morning – and they're based on an article by Iain Duncan Smith (£) in which he admits that some 23 percent of the country's 2.1 million Incapacity Benefit claimants could be found fit for work. This, it is said, should save the Exchequer some £4 billion.

The numbers are striking enough, but the policy behind them shouldn't be surprising at all. Even the last Labour government intended to reverse a political deceit that they had nurtured, but which was birthed during the Thatcher years: the artificial swelling of the sickness rolls. And the coalition has long planned to put rocket boosters under that process. Provisional figures, released in July, even suggested that 40 percent of IB claimants could be shifted back into the labour market.

This is not a cruel process. It may involve more stringent medical tests, but the aim is not to shuffle the genuinely ill into jobs that they cannot perform. Rather, in IDS's words, this is a plan to reinvigorate the "lost potential of so many people who have been dumped to languish at the bottom end of society". And when the number of under-25s claming IB has risen by 52 percent since 1997, it's clear that there is plenty of lost potential to go around.

For now, I imagine the public are on side with the thinking behind this reform. It appeals to a natural sense of fairness: that taxpayers' cash shouldn't go towards those who are able to work. But this will still not be easy for the government. There are already dark question marks hovering over the new testing regime, waiting to clatter down should someone be wrongly forced off IB. And the government will have to accept that unemployment figures might go up as more and more people are classed as jobseekers.

Whatever the difficulties though, the coalition should keep ploughing ahead. This is not just an economic cause – a means of pushing the country back into growth while trimming the public spending bill – but a moral one too. This government will achieve few more important things than an utterly reshaped benefits system. Moving claimants off Incapacity Benefit is a step towards that goal.