Half a million sick notes

Apparently there are now more young people on incapacity benefit than on the dole. So that's why we're approaching full employment...

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The FT has unearthed some government stats that show there are now over 504,000 people under 35 who are too ill to work, compared to the 443,000 receiving jobseeker’s allowance. That’s despite the fact that we’re living longer and more prosperous lives – and despite the countless government initiatives and crack-downs designed to get people off welfare and into work.

The main reason for the growth in the number of claimants in the last decade or so has been the massive increase in non-physical complaints. It’s telling that about 60% of those receiving incapacity benefits are claiming for ‘mental and behavioural disorders’ – that’s 300,000 young people.

The government’s latest wheeze (launched by minister Peter Hain back in November) is to bring in a new incapacity test that would focus on what claimants can do, rather than what they can’t. But inevitably, that’s likely to focus on getting those with physical complaints off the sick list.

It’s not that the various crack-downs aren’t doing any good – although the number of incapacity benefit claimants has risen substantially since Labour came to power, the total has actually fallen by 10% in recent years. But they don’t seem to be getting to the root cause. The FT reckons that most of this 10% were claiming on physical grounds, whereas ‘a high proportion of those left are hard cases signed off on mental or behavioural grounds’.
 
So are doctors being too easy on claimants (after all, it’s harder to assess depression than a gammy leg)? One expert told the FT that ‘the medical system has… taken people’s responsibility for their own health away from them’. Or is there a cultural problem that needs to be solved? Another suggested it was to do with ‘ingrained hopelessness in particular areas’ (sounds a bit like one of our school report cards).

Either way, this is where the government needs to focus. Admittedly ‘welfare to work’ schemes are much easier to run in a growing economy, rather than one which is seemingly slowing down. But since it won’t want these half million people suddenly transferred onto the unemployment figures, and since it’s currently spending more than £7bn a year on incapacity benefit, it has a pretty strong incentive to act.

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