Worklessness – was it really the last government’s scandal?
On Monday, The Sun ran a story about “Benefit Ghettoes”, about areas where a lot of people live on Jobseeker’s Allowance, Incapacity Benefit and “other benefits, including one parent, disabled and carer handouts.” Running alongside was an opinion piece from employment minister Chris Grayling, who concentrated on two million people “on the sick”:
Some of those people will be genuinely too sick to work. But equally many will have been put there by a government who thought it was easier just to write people off to a lifetime on benefits then, when the economy picked up, fill the jobs with workers from abroad who were only too keen to pick up the slack.
Today’s figures for out of work benefits give us a chance to check how accurate that picture is. They only go back to 1999, but they do give us a handy picture of what has been happening during the recession and before.
This first chart looks at what happened to Out of Work Benefits generally – all the income maintenance benefits for working age people, including Jobseeker’s Allowance, Incapacity Benefit and benefits for disabled people, lone parents and carers. (I really dislike using that sneering, ugly word “handouts”.) Surprise, surprise, there was a big increase once the recession began, but before that the trend was clearly downwards.
If you concentrate on Incapacity Benefits, you get a slightly different picture, as the last government first brought down the rate of increase and then reduced the numbers:
Again, there was an increase when the recession hit, but, by the start of this year, the numbers were coming down again. Despite the recession, the number on incapacity benefits was lower than it had been ten years previously. When we come to benefits for lone parents, the picture is even more remarkable, with the numbers continuing to fall, despite the recession:
The last government did not abandon people to a life on benefits that the rest of us have to pay for. A succession of Welfare Reform Acts, each focused on welfare-to-work as the answer to poverty and massive investment in employment programmes (much higher, its now clear, than we can expect over the next few years) were succeeding in bringing down the numbers.
I disagreed with a lot of what the last government did – I thought the new Work Capability Assessment would stop thousands of people who were genuinely unable to work from getting benefits and I disagreed with the way the government tightened up Incapacity Benefit in 1999. But even I wouldn’t accuse them of not being bothered about whether or not people were left “on the sick”.
In fact, Mr Grayling’s accusation is particularly unfair. It was the Thatcher and Major governments (which I imagine Mr Grayling admires), which had an explicit policy of moving people off the claimant count and on to disability benefits – between 1980/1 and 1998/9 real-terms spending on Invalidity Benefit grew by 5.5 per cent a year; between 1977 and 1995 the numbers receiving Invalidity Benefit grew from 505,000 to 1.77 million.