We love to point blame at people on welfare and other benefits, rather than looking at why so many people are sick rather than at work, writes Ben Ramanauskas.
It is a tired story, dredged up time and time again to serve different purposes: people on benefits gaming the system. When Allegra Stratton, the erstwhile press secretary for Boris Johnson, was a journalist with the BBC, she accused a single mother of claiming benefits when she could simply live at home. This time, it’s Matthew Parris, the Times columnist who thinks our “mental health crisis” is not quite what it seems; and indeed is the result of a system which incentivises people to claim welfare rather than seek gainful employment.
These arguments – and those that came before them – amount to nothing more than spurious nonsense. But they should draw our attention to the acute mental and physical health crisis facing our economy as well as the failings of the benefits system.
We have seen an increase in economic inactivity since the Covid-19 pandemic, but there is zero evidence to suggest that this is due to people being lazy and attempting to game the system. Rather, it is due to a rise in people being diagnosed with physical and mental health conditions meaning that they themselves are unable to work and other people are forced to work fewer hours or leave the labour force completely as they care for their relatives.
This is obviously a problem for the economy. We have seen businesses struggle to fill vacancies which in turn has hampered their productivity and exacerbated the cost of living crisis. Rather than blaming individuals and accusing them of being lazy fraudsters, we need to instead help people to get better and return to work.
Take mental health, for example. Despite successive governments paying lip service to parity of esteem between mental and physical health provision, waiting lists are still far too long and provision is unacceptably poor for mental health treatment. For people across the economy, around 12 per cent of the work age population struggle with a mild to moderate mental health condition, according to the Office for National Statistics.
The situation is not much better for those struggling with physical health conditions. The NHS is still facing huge backlogs and the government still has no real plan for sorting out adult social care.
We also need to look at housing. Our homes can have a huge impact on our physical and mental health but too many people are living in crowded and poorly insulated flats owned by slum landlords. The country’s dysfunctional planning system means that many households are forced to spend a significant proportion of their incomes to live in one of these properties as it’s almost impossible to build new homes.
The benefits system itself also needs to be reformed. The majority of people forced to rely on foodbanks are disabled with disabled people being three times more likely to face hunger than people without a disability. Poverty and hunger themselves make it even more difficult for people who are already struggling to work.
It is true we are in a vicious cycle where people become ill and are unable to work, and the fact of being out of the workforce can both make people more ill (often as a result of the ensuing poverty) and make it harder for them to return to the labour market. But the resulting burden on the taxpayer is not because of fraudsters.
Rather than blaming people struggling with sickness and disability, the government needs to radically reform health and social care and the benefits system in order to provide adequate and timely support to those who need it and help people back to work.