Crackdown to prevent the young falling into life on state benefits

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Indy Politics

The Government will try to halt a sharp rise in the number of young people claiming incapacity benefit to prevent them slipping into a life on state handouts.

Payments to the sick and disabled have been seen as an unofficial form of early retirement for workers who lose their jobs in their fifties and are unlikely to work again. Now mental health problems have largely replaced industrial injuries as the main reason for claims, many of them by young people with depression.

Although the overall number of incapacity benefit claimants has fallen from 2,655,460 to 2,643,290 since 1999, the number of those aged between 18 and 24 on it has jumped from 149,830 to 159,140 over the same period. The number of young claimants with "mental problems and behavioural disorders," which include schizophrenia, severe learning disabilities and chronic depression, has increased from 81,360 to 91,420 since 2001.

Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, will hold talks with GPs' leaders in the new year in an attempt to persuade them not to sign off so many young people as unfit for work, which allows them to claim a higher rate of benefit than if they were unemployed. It is part of a wider government effort to reduce the number of so-called "Neets", young people not in education, employment or training.

Mr Hain told The Independent: "The problem is that a sick note can very quickly be transformed into a long-term claim for incapacity benefit if we are not careful. Doctors don't start out with that intention. They are very positive about finding a way forward."

The Government will also apply tougher "fit for work" tests to existing claimants under 25 rather than merely new ones. It is part of what Mr Hain calls a radical policy to move people off benefits and into work through intensive counselling, interviews and skills training.

Mr Hain said: "I have become more and more convinced that there are hundreds of thousands of people on passive benefits who, in their own, the country's and their community's interest, ought to be brought into a work-focused and skills-focused environment leading to a job.

"The longer you stay on benefit, the more likely you are to die or retire on it. After you have been on it for a couple of years, and have a life of watching daytime television, your children are brought up in that environment. It is no better for them than it is for you. There's a steep fall in mental and physical health. That's bad for the individual and the public purse."

He drew a dividing line with the Tories, who will unveil their own "tough love" welfare policy in the new year. The Tories are attracted by the US "workfare" system in Wisconsin which Mr Hain rejected, saying that up to one in three claimants have been forced to rely on charities after being forced off benefits without finding work.

Mr Hain said Tory plans were designed to produce big savings rather than help people. "Our policies are firm, fair, funded and deliverable. Their policies are reactionary, unfair, unfunded and undeliverable."

A key battleground will be lone parents. The Government wants to lure them back to work by ending automatic income support payments earlier. It now happens when the youngest child reaches 16 but this will gradually reduce to seven.

"Most lone parents want to work," Mr Hain said. "This is not forcing them to do something they don't want to do. There is no way I will implement a policy that could result in the children being worse off. The child of a lone parent on benefit is five times more likely to be in poverty than the child of a lone parent in work."