Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Friday Forum

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Friday Forum

Article excerpt

Byline: By John Adams

Next week, the Department for Work and Pensions will publish its five-year plan. The contents of this plan are likely to form the core of a welfare reform bill, which will be introduced if Labour is returned to power in the forthcoming general election. A key part of this bill will have to be reform of Incapacity Benefit (IB), and it is this element which is most likely to cause most controversy.

About 2.5 million people claim Incapacity Benefit, costing the Treasury about pounds 7bn a year, rising to pounds 13bn when the other disability benefits are included.

The Government hopes that if the numbers of people claiming benefits relating to sickness and disability can be reduced, the savings will provide more money for pensions. Despite what some of the more disreputable newspapers claim, Incapacity Benefit fails to ensure a decent standard of living for people with a health problem or disability who cannot work. While it pays more than Jobseekers Allowance, IB currently starts at only pounds 56 a week, rising to pounds 66 after six months and pounds 74 after a year.

The debate over the future of IB is of particular importance to the North-East because we have a disproportionately high number of claimants. While regional differences in unemployment have fallen in recent years, there are stark differences in levels of claims relating to sickness and disability. Nearly one in five of the working age population of the North-East claims state benefits related to worklessness: unemployment, lone parents, sickness and disability. The claims relating to sickness and disability account for nearly two-thirds of this figure. There are over twice as many claimants in the North-East than in the East and South-East of England.

There are also significant sub-regional differences. DWP figures reveal that a shocking 22.5pc of the working age population of Easington claimed these benefits in August 2004, one of the highest levels in Great Britain. The area with the second highest levels in the North-East is Sedgefield, home to Tony Blair's constituency.

However, the problem is not confined to coalfield communities, and urban areas such as Hartlepool have about 14pc of the working age population on benefits related to sickness and disability, and on Tyneside the figure is about 13pc. …

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