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Thursday 17th February 2011 | 00:01
Let’s start with our understanding of what’s gone wrong with our welfare system.
Politicians often overcomplicate their analysis, but actually, it’s quite simple.
It comes back to responsibility.
When the welfare system was born, there was what we might call a collective culture of responsibility.
More than today, people’s self-image was not just about their personal status or success…
…it was measured out by what sort of citizen they were; whether they did the decent thing.
That meant that a standardised system of sickness and out-of-work benefits – with limited conditions – was effective.
It reached the people who needed that support, and not those who didn’t, in part because fiddling the system would have brought not just public outcry but private shame.
In other words, personal responsibility acted as a brake on abuse of the system.
And because the ethos of self-betterment was more wide-spread, the system supported aspiration rather than discouraging it.
Now let’s be honest about where we’ve travelled to, from there to here.
That collective culture of responsibility – taken for granted sixty years ago – has in many ways been lost.
You see it in the people who go off sick when they could work or the people who refuse job off after job offer.
And why has this happened?
Now of course there is a powerful argument about how it is hard for people to do the responsible thing and get into work when there are not enough jobs available.
But that argument is less powerful when you consider the recent period of economic growth, with millions of new jobs created…
…yet at the end of that period, nearly five million people remained on out of work benefits.
Others make a different argument.
They simply point finger of blame at those living on benefits.
Yes, there are those who, with no regret or remorse, intentionally rip off the system – and that makes hard-working people, including many on low incomes who pay their taxes, rightly angry.
But I refuse to believe that there are five million people who are inherently lazy and have no interest in bettering themselves and their families.
What I want to argue is that the real fault lies with the system itself.
The benefit system has created a benefit culture.
It doesn’t just allow people to act irresponsibly, but often actively encourages them to do so.
Sometimes they deliberately follow the signals that are sent out. Other times, they hazily follow them, trapped in a fog of dependency.
But either way, whether it’s the sheer complexity and the perverse incentives of the benefits system…
…whether it’s the failure to penalise those who choose to live off the hard work of others…
…or whether it’s the failure to offer the right support for people who are desperate to go back into work…
…we’ve created the bizarre situation where time and again the rational thing for people to do is, quite clearly, the wrong thing to do.
On the sickness absence review he will say:
Today, half the people who end up on Employment and Support Allowance each year start by being signed off sick from work.
We simply have to get to grips with the sicknote culture that means a short spell of sickness absence can far too easily become a gradual slide to a life of long-term benefit dependency.
So today we are asking Dame Carol Black, the government’s national director for health and work and David Frost, the Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, to review sickness absence...
…and to recommend what else we can do, to end the sick-note culture and improve health and wellbeing at work.