Ministers may risk rebellion over soaring claims for sickness benefit

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Indy Politics

The number of jobless people moving on to sickness benefit is soaring by 3,000 a week, the Government has been warned.

The number of jobless people moving on to sickness benefit is soaring by 3,000 a week, the Government has been warned.

Latest figures show that the number of people claiming incapacity benefit rose from 2,259,000 in February last year to 2,310,000 in November. Ministers are so worried about the rise that they are to risk a Labour backbench rebellion by ordering another clampdown on sick claimants. In 1999, more than 50 MPs voted against the Government's decision to means-test incapacity benefit.

Officials now believe many jobless people are exploiting a loophole in the rules by persuading their GPs to sign them off as sick when their six-month period on unemployment benefit ends. This means they avoid being called to interviews with Jobcentre staff under the New Deal programme ­ and escape sanctions, including cuts in their benefits, if they refuse to attend or turn down offers of jobs and training.

"The figures are staggering; it is very bad news," one senior government source said yesterday. "If we don't stem the tide we will have a big problem. Many of these people ought to be in work. There is a drip, drip effect into incapacity benefit which we need to stop if we are to get the figures down."

Alistair Darling, the Social Security Secretary, and David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, are discussing measures to close the loophole. The options include introducing tougher "fitness-to-work" tests before people can move on to sickness benefits. The ministers would try to head off another revolt by arguing that this merely brings the jobless into line with workers on sick leave, whose employers normally want a medical test after a certain period.

Ministers admit that Labour MPs would be nervous about withdrawing cash from people already on sickness benefits ­ especially from men in their 50s who are unlikely to work again. But they believe it would prove less controversial to prevent people moving from unemployment on to sickness benefits in the first place.

In the longer term, a re-elected Labour Government is expected to cut benefits for disabled people who refuse to be interviewed to assess their ability to work. They would then be treated in the same way as lone parents who, from this week, can have benefits cut if they refuse interviews. However, unlike other jobless people, single parents are not further penalised if they do not to take up offers of work or training.

When the Tories were in power, Labour accused them of encouraging the jobless to claim sickness payments in order to keep down the unemployment figures. Now the Tories are claiming that Labour has pursued a similar strategy to get the number of jobless on benefits below one million before the general election.