'Disaster' as sickness benefits crackdown brings 20,000 MORE claimants

Doctor explaining diagnosis to patient

Doctor explaining diagnosis to patient --- Image by Mika/Corbis

Labour's pledge to end abuse of sickness benefits was in tatters yesterday after figures revealed the roll of claimants is growing.

They showed a dramatic early failure for the reforms of Incapacity Benefit made to remove the fit and healthy from handout dependency.

Ministers said the tough reforms - involving a rigorous fitness test - were the first step towards removing a million people from benefits by 2015.

However, the latest count shows the numbers successfully signing up for a new and updated handout have gone up rather than down.

In the three months to May just under 161,000 people were accepted to receive Employment and Support Allowance, which is paid in place of Incapacity Benefit.

That was a rise of almost 20,000 in those who were given the new benefit in the previous three months - an increase of 13.7 per cent.

Analysts said the reversal of ministers' hopes was 'a disaster'.

More than 2.6million live on Incapacity Benefit or the replacement that was introduced in October last year.

A majority are thought to be healthy enough to work, but claim handouts because they pay more than unemployment benefits.

The new benefit was introduced alongside a list of tough tests to allow doctors to determine whether claimants really were too ill to work.

Independent doctors are supposed to oversee the tests which check ability to walk, stand and sit, and manual dexterity.

Also covered are speech, hearing, vision and concentration.

However, claimants who say they cannot touch their knees and straighten up again because they have a bad back will automatically score the 15 points required to qualify for the new benefit.

Both Incapacity Benefit and Employment and Support Allowance pay claimants a basic long-term rate of £89.80 a week.

By contrast, the basic level of Jobseekers' Allowance is £64.30 a week.

The 161,740 accepted for the benefit in the three months to May is the highest signing on for sickness handouts since November 2004 - meaning the new system of tests has admitted far more claimants than the one it replaced.

Susan Hutchinson

Earlier this month Susan Hutchinson, 56, was filmed running the Race for Life in Cardiff despite claiming more than £20,000 for being 'too weak too walk'

In February 2008 just 137,080 new claimants of Incapacity Benefit joined the rolls.

Overall, numbers claiming Incapacity Benefit and Employment and Support Allowance went up in the three months to May to 2,621,430 - first major reversal in a downward trend since numbers peaked in November 2003 at 2,822,270.

Labour has accused past Tory governments of shunting millions on to sickness benefits to hide the real level of unemployment.

But the latest figures suggest in a new recession growing numbers on the sick are also disguising the scale of joblessness.

Lawrence Kay of the Policy Exchange think tank said: 'It is a great shame but the system seems to have failed. A downturn in the economy should not mean we all get ill.'

Employment Minister Jim Knight said the new system would work, explaining: 'Despite the recession, the numbers on key out of work benefits has actually fallen by around 300,000 since Labour came to power.'

Tory work and pensions spokesman Theresa May called the rising number of sickness claimants 'deeply worrying', adding: 'Labour have deserted the 2.6million people on incapacity benefit treating them as mere statistics.

'Now it appears yet more people are being trapped in the benefit dependency cycle.'

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