IDS MUST DELIVER ON WELFARE REFORM
AT FIRST glance, the Government’s plan to crack down on disability benefits, which is likely to result in around half a million claimants losing their allowances, seems the stuff of political suicide. The cash is paid out to help with the extra needs that arise from an impairment or health condition, so the charge that the Government is callously targeting society's most vulnerable and weak is easy to mount. The idea of our soldiers returning from the front line in Afghanistan minus some of their limbs and now possibly minus their benefits is gruesome and it will test the mettle of this Government to stick to this plan.
However, while bowing to the waves of public unrest would undoubtedly be the easier option, it would also be the wrong one. It would mean giving in to the "sick-note culture", accepting the system is being hideously abused by hundreds of thousands, watching money being effectively robbed from the public purse and having to impose necessary spending restraints possibly unjustly elsewhere, just because the fight was too tough.
Forget momentarily the images of once strapping young soldiers now strapped to wheelchairs or frames and the sight of disabled people in wheelchairs padlocking themselves together, and then to the gates of parliament, and pouring buckets of fake blood over themselves.
Instead, look at the cold, hard facts. There are now 3.2 million people receiving the Disability Living Allowance and the expected spending on that for 2011/12 is £12.6billion. To give you an idea what that means, we now pay out more on disability benefits than on unemployment benefits and it is part of a total welfare bill that will account for a third of ALL public spending. If you worry about police cuts, teachers' pay or public sector job losses, just try getting your head around how much money we are handing out in this area.
In less than 10 years, the number of people claiming DLA has jumped by 30 per cent. No corresponding rise in illnesses, trend in society, plague or epidemic supports this considerable jump so it's being fuelled by an ugly combination of motives: greed and the ease of claiming.
Perhaps the most telling statistic of the sorry lot is this: 130,000 have been claiming the benefit for 20 years without having ever had any form of assessment or review as to whether they still need the money. A further 70 per cent were granted lifetime awards. That meant they never have to justify their claim ever again.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith is brave to take this on. He wants the DLA scrapped and replaced with a Personal Independence Payment that, in many cases, would be granted only for a limited time. It is thought up to 500,000 people will lose out and the savings could be as much as £2.24billion each year.
He also wants every claimant to be assessed. What, pray, is so wrong with that? If we're dishing out hundreds of pounds every month, is it so wrong to ensure the money is actually deserved?
For this to work, Mr Duncan Smith will need two things: delivery and determination. This newspaper has rightly highlighted that in his handling of the Remploy dispute he appeared more dictator than diplomat and bringing that approach to potentially an even more explosive issue could prove fatal. He will also have to keep his Coalition colleagues, who have proved themselves as resolute as QPR's defence in the closing minutes of a game, on side and resolute.
Tony Blair tried a similar reform in 1997 and buckled under the weight of sustained and vivid protest. It now falls to the man who confronted Blair across the despatch box when leader of the Tory party to show he can do better.