More claim income support than under Tories

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The Government was accused of failing its pledge to tackle poverty after new figures showed that the number of people on income support was higher than that inherited from the Tories.

The Government was accused of failing its pledge to tackle poverty after new figures showed that the number of people on income support was higher than that inherited from the Tories.

Quarterly statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions reveal that nearly 4 million people are now claiming benefit. The income support figures, compiled for Whitehall by the Office of National Statistics, show 3,963,000 claimants in August this year, compared with 3,958,000 in May 1997.

The number of pensioners claiming the benefit has gone up, but much of the rise stems from the number of people registered disabled on income support, up from 827,000 four years ago to 1.03 million today.

The Conservatives claimed that the statistics exposed the gap between the Government's rhetoric on welfare and the reality of the situation. They also claimed that the rising proportion of disability claimants was a means of "massaging" the statistics to cover up the real level of unemployment – a neat role reversal from the 1980s, when Labour accused the Tory Government of fiddling sick and disabled figures to keep jobless numbers down.

David Willetts, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said that every main group of claimants, lone parents, pensioners and the disabled had more claims for income support than in May 2001.

"When Labour came to office four years ago they promised not only to cut what they called the 'bills of social failure' but also to tackle poverty. These figures indicate they have failed on both counts," he said.

The number of claimants fell briefly under Labour, but rose steadily over the past three years, Mr Willetts pointed out. "The number of people claiming income support, the main means-tested benefit, is now higher than in May 1997. The number of disabled claimants has shot up by 200,000 since then. Even this spin-obsessed Government cannot wriggle out of those figures."

David Heath, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on work and pensions, said: "Had ministers acted immediately this situation might have been averted altogether. Now the Government is admitting that many of the most vulnerable people may not receive their benefits this Christmas. This is the latest in a long line of Labour bungles and again it is the needy who will pay the price."

A spokeswoman for the Department of Work and Pensions said much of the increase may be down to better publicity of the benefit, particularly among pensioners. "As people are getting to know more about the different benefits to which they are entitled, there has been an increase. We have tried hard to increase take-up through publicity campaigns."

The figures emerged as Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, warned Labour MPs that a forthcoming strike by benefits staff would hit the most vulnerable in society.

In a letter obtained by The Independent, Mr Darling said that "the elderly, the sick and disabled, the unemployed, lone parents and their children" would all suffer because of the action by the Public and Commercial Services Union.

Jobcentre and benefit office staff voted this week to strike over plans to remove security screens. Workers will be asked to support five days of industrial action every month.

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