Peter Hoskin

Why the Tories are right to tackle IB claimant numbers

Why the Tories are right to tackle IB claimant numbers
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So far as political stories are concerned, the Sunday papers are surprisingly action-packed.  Few are more eye-grabbing, though, than this item on p.2 of the Sunday Times, headlined "Tory benefit cuts may raise jobless to 4m".  Sounds bad, huh?  But, when you read the full thing, it turns out that the Tories may have had a good, honest idea.

Basically, the ST story claims that "senior Tories" are planning to move around 1.5 million people who claim incapacity benefit (IB) on to jobseeker's allowance (JSA) within a year of taking office.  Hence the big leap in jobless figures, from what will be around 3 million, up to 4 million.  It's unclear whether this is the anticipated result of existing Tory welfare policy (e.g. their more extensive 'work capability assessments'), or whether they have more policy announcements up their sleeves.  But, either way, it's the first time I've seen that ambitious 1.5 million figure.

This is important.  One of the most dispiriting trends in British politics began during the Thatcher era: moving claimants from JSA to IB, to hide the full extent of the nation's unemployment.  And this has continued apace during the New Labour years, until there are now around 2.4 million IB claimants - and plenty of those are long-term claimants, with little hope or expectation of getting back into the labour market.  I'm sure many of the claims are legitimate, but there are tell-tale signs that there's an artificial element to the IB rolls.  For instance, the number of under-25s claiming IB has gone up by 52 percent since 1997.

Anything which deals with this systemic problem is welcome - and, it should be said, some progress has been made since the Employment and Support Allowance reforms implemented by James Purnell (see UPDATE below).  Not only would is it more honest of the government to stop the politically-motivated practice of shifting people off JSA on to IB, but it also brings thousands of people closer to the labour market, into the kind of workfare schemes which are more likely to see them permanently employed.  Good for the economy, of course.  But good, too, for the life chances of people previously stuck in a welfare rut for the sake of a statistical fiddle.

Perhaps most encouraging for Tory supporters are the signs that the party are willing to take on Gordon Brown over this.  You can just bet that Brown will spin this as some kind of cruel Bullingdon plot to increase the numbers of unemployed people.  But a Tory source tells the Sunday Times that they will "begin a campaign [on this] in September".  It's crucial that they do so.  If our country's to stage anything like a decent recovery, then a lot will rest on the successful implementation of welfare reform.  And that, in turn, will require a good deal of public support for the measures.

A thoughtful comment from Maslo below, who points out that IB claimant numbers have been falling since some of the Purnell reforms introduced last year - namely, the shift over to the Employment and Support Allowance.  S/He's right: significant progress has been made, and you do hope the Tories will continue along a similar path.  But I should have been clearer above - the Tory idea is to get 1.5 million people of IB within 12 months of taking office.  It's an ambitious plan, and far outstrips what has so far been achieved with ESA (which has seen IB claimant numbers drop by roughly 150,000 in about 10 months).  Whether they'll be able to achieve it is a different matter, of course, and both Maslo and i have our doubts.  But, when it comes to Tory welfare policy, two words give me some hope: David Freud.