Overhaul of the benefits system isn’t black and white

Protestors demonstrating against the bedroom tax.

Protestors demonstrating against the bedroom tax.

It is sometimes difficult to see beyond the rhetoric when politicians are arguing over issues such as welfare.

Of course, it suits some people to paint the exchanges as a simple Tory versus Labour, blue versus red, rich versus poor battle.

They would have you believe that the Conservative party – or Coalition government – is hell-bent on punishing the most vulnerable in society while protecting the well-off.

Initiatives such as the ‘bedroom tax’ – which sparked angry demonstrations in North Staffordshire this week – seem to support the claim that there is some sort of class war going on and you therefore have to choose a side.

But if you look beyond the headlines and the soundbites you’ll see it isn’t quite so black and white.

This week a raft of controversial changes to the benefits system come into force which include the nonsensical reduction to benefits for people in council or social housing if they have an empty bedroom in their homes.

It’s a huge own-goal by the government which has the potential to seriously disadvantage a group of people who can’t afford to have their financial support reduced.

There is also a benefits cap which will prevent any household receiving more than £26,000 a year from the state – a sum which is supposed to reflect the average gross salary of a full-time worker.

The latter sounds fair enough in principle but it stands to reason that the occupants of every home should be assessed depending on their specific circumstances.

Therein, of course, lies the problem with the welfare state.

Blanket rules for everyone don’t work. They simply aren’t fair because everyone’s circumstances differ.

The great shame is that the much-needed debate over the welfare state is being drowned out by the outcry against some changes which are clearly ill though-out.

However you spin it, this country pays out hundreds of billions of pounds each year in benefits (a projected £216b in 2015/16) and it is a bill the UK simply can’t afford.

Under the previous Labour government the welfare bill rose dramatically and it is only right that during these austere times, when everyone is having to tighten their belts, that the benefits system comes under scrutiny too.

Last year I wrote about proposed changes to incapacity benefit – a controversial subject in an area like North Staffordshire which has higher than average numbers of people claiming the allowance.

My column prompted criticism from all quarters, including letters from the local Citizen’s Advice Bureau and various claimants citing their own reasons for being absolutely deserving of the said benefit.

My contention was a simple one: If you were genuinely unable to work through ill-health then surely you had nothing to fear from the new, albeit stricter tests, which the government was introducing.

Now the results of the incapacity benefits review are known.

Official figures show that 878,300 – more than a third of those who had been claiming benefit – decided not to take the tougher medical assessment to determine whether or not they were fit for work.

Another 837,000 people were found to be fit to work immediately.

A further 367,300 were assessed as being able to do some kind of work.

Only 232,000 of the total number of people receiving incapacity benefit in this country were classified by doctors as being too ill to do any sort of job.

This means that, according to doctors, seven out of eight people who had been receiving incapacity benefit could and should have been looking for employment rather than relying on hand-outs.

One could argue that this demonstrates that during Labour’s time in office the welfare state masked the true unemployment figures by ‘hiding’ hundreds of thousands of people behind a fog of sickness benefit.

I would simply say that while certain changes – i.e the ‘bedroom tax’ and cap on benefits per household – seem random, unfair and rushed, these figures clearly show that an overhaul of the welfare state was long overdue.

The government may be wrong about some changes to the benefits system but there’s no denying the unpalatable truth that large numbers of people have been in receipt of benefits to which they shouldn’t have been entitled.

Incapacity benefit is one example of a flawed, bloated system which incentivised not going to work.

It wasn’t helpful to the individuals lulled into a life of dependency and cost the country an absolute fortune.

Addressing this won’t solve all our economic woes but surely every little helps?

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Benefits trawl will unearth malingerers

When I saw the photograph of Paul McGovern in yesterday’s editions of The Sentinel it re-emphasised to me just how important our welfare system is.
At just 49, former engineer Mr McGovern has been struck down with progressive motor neurone disease.
He is incapacitated by this cruel illness, confined to a wheelchair and patently has no hope of returning to the workplace.
Having paid his taxes, Mr McGovern and his wife are obviously deserving of the money they receive from the state.
Surely cases like his are what Incapacity Benefit was created for.
But what about the other 22,069 people in Stoke-on-Trent, Newcastle and the Moorlands currently receiving the same payments?
News that the Government is going to reassess each and every one of them to check whether or not they are fit and able to work has predictably been met with a chorus of disapproval.
The default position of critics when any kind of change to the benefits system is proposed is to claim that it will hit the poorest and most vulnerable people hardest.
Alternatively, you could take the view that it may force a few malingerers to get off their lazy backsides and earn a crust like the rest of us have to.
I don’t believe for a second that the box-tickers will be cancelling the Incapacity Benefit for the likes of Mr McGovern when there are clear medical reasons why they are unable to go to work.
But they will shine a light into a very grey area and I suspect that they will discover an underclass of people who could actually be helped back into employment.
To suggest that every single person in North Staffordshire receiving Incapacity Benefit is unable to lift a finger is plain nonsense.
It is a bit like saying that everyone who has a blue badge is deserving of one and that no-one ever abuses the privilege.
The way I see it, if those on incapacity benefit are genuinely incapacitated then they have nothing to fear from this reassessment as their doctor’s notes and supporting evidence will back up their claim and life will carry on as normal.
Other than the mild inconvenience of having to prove why they are deserving of the benefits I can’t see a problem.
Forget the bleeding hearts. We simply have to act to tackle what is a very serious problem locally because the statistics are, frankly, a disgrace.
Last month this newspaper reported that, between October and December last year, almost 30,000 people of working age were claiming out-of-work benefits in Stoke-on-Trent.
That is 19.1 per cent of working-age people, compared with an average of only 13.8per cent in the West Midlands and just 12 per cent across England.
These benefits include Jobseeker’s Allowance, Incapacity Benefit and the Employment Support Allowance.
These figures tell me two things.
Firstly, the Government must recognise that Stoke-on-Trent deserves to be named in the second tranche of Enterprise Zones to be announced this summer.
Our city desperately needs help in stimulating investment and job-creation and Enterprise Zone status would at least give us a fighting chance.
What these figures also tell me is the unpalatable truth that here in the Potteries some people view claiming benefits and even ill-health as a career choice.
What’s more, we have more of such people than neighbouring cities in the West Midlands and elsewhere in England.
Some people will say there are no jobs to be had and blame deprivation, low levels of academic achievement and poor health for these embarrassing statistics.
But, however we dress it up, there are an awful lot of people sitting at home day-in, day-out who ought to be contributing to the economy.
A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, was made redundant about a month ago.
He has spent every waking moment trying to find a job and has told me how he shushed his lad in the playground when he questioned what ‘dole’ was.
The bloke in question really has no need to feel embarrassed at being unemployed but, because he has worked all his life, he does.
I wonder how many of the almost 30,000 people in the Potteries claiming out-of-work benefits and the 21,000 people in North Staffordshire on Incapacity Benefit have the same work ethic.

I’ve had enough of spongers… it’s time we found Bob a job

There’s a bloke who lives near me. We’re going to call him Bob.

As I put the recycling bin out before driving to work the other day he spotted me and wandered over, morning paper under his arm.

“I saw you last night,” he said. “Burning the midnight oil again were you?”

I took a deep breath and smiled.

Bob was referring to the fact that I could be seen from the street in our box room working on my computer after 10pm.

Having rather a lot of time on his hands, Bob tends not to miss anything that goes on in our road.
It had been something of a long day, I told him.

I had been up at 5.30am, driven to work, done my shift, driven home, made tea, bathed the little ’uns, read bedtime stories to them, made lunchboxes for the next day, had a bath, then done a couple of hours work on the computer in my PJs.

Bob chuckled and told me to be careful not to burn myself out. Then he strolled off to read his paper.

Now, it should be said that I’ve got nothing against Bob personally.

However, as I got into my car that morning I realised I have a problem generally with the Bobs of this world – of whom there seem to be far too many.

Bob, like me, lives in a modest semi-detached house. His family, like mine, has two cars.
But it is there that the similarity ends.

Bob’s little sports car sits on the drive and rarely moves. He parks his clapped out run-around across his driveway – presumably in some deluded belief that it will prevent thieves from making off with his second-hand Toyota.

I work full-time and my wife works four days a week. We use both cars daily and rely very heavily on our parents to help us with childcare arrangements around school dropping off and picking up times.

It is fair to say that, without them, we’d be stuck.

In contrast, neither Bob nor his wife work. They have a little boy, aged three, and Bob’s wife is expecting their second child this autumn.

Despite the fact that neither Bob nor his wife go out to work they send their daughter to nursery every day.

This means that Bob, who is in his late forties, can divide his time between the local golf course (of which he is a member) and DIY on his house.

Now, as far as I know, Bob’s family haven’t won the Lottery, or come in to a huge amount of money recently courtesy of the death of a great aunt.

I know Bob, who is in his late forties, previously worked for a council, but was signed off with stress some years ago and hasn’t been back since. (His words, not mine).

So, here’s the thing. I get rather annoyed when I read letters in The Sentinel from people asking that we don’t tar all benefits claimants with the same brush.

Yes, I know there are genuine cases of people who – for a variety of reasons – cannot go to work despite the fact that they would dearly love to.

However, for every one of them I suspect there must be another four lazy, malingering Bobs and Bobettes who are quite happy to take State handouts and do bugger all seven days a week.

If you doubt me, then take a look at the most recent ‘worklessness’ statistics for Stoke-on-Trent supplied by the Department for Work and Pensions.

In September 2009, 24 per cent of the city’s working population was economically inactive. That’s 35,500 people.

Of these, 8,180 were claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and a further 17,920 were claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) or incapacity benefits.

Thirty years ago not working was enough to bring shame on an individual or a family.

Now we have generations of children growing up not knowing what it is like to have a working role model and thinking that sponging off the State is the norm.

This is a situation that definitely worsened in the last 20 years and one which I sincerely hope the new Government will tackle in its attempt to engineer David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.

In my opinion, the vast, vast majority of people who aren’t working could work – if they really wanted to. Surely, we can all do something.

So, in this time of radical decisions and cost-cutting why don’t we, as a society, do ourselves a huge favour that just might get the Bobs of this world off their backsides?

We should tell them that if they want benefits (of any kind) they have to earn them by doing their local community a service every week because, frankly, I’m sick and tired of working to keep them at home.

So Bob is too stressed to go to work in an office. Fine.

Let’s have him picking up litter, scrubbing graffiti off walls or cleaning up some of the eyesore sites that blight our estates.

Anything to get him off the bloody golf course and back into the real world with me.