The Government has made no secret of its desire to reduce both the amount of time people take off work sick and the numbers receiving incapacity benefit. On both indicators, Britain can be classified a sick nation, compared with many of our European partners. Ministers should not be condemned for trying to tackle what is undoubtedly a problem.
Even so, they are not having it easy. Last month the Health Secretary provoked some derision with his call for GPs to sign "well-notes" to replace what he called the "sick-note culture". In his Budget this week, the Chancellor drew the opprobrium of some disability charities for announcing that people who already claimed incapacity benefit would face a new qualification test from April 2010.
It was already known that incapacity benefit was to be renamed employment and support allowance from this autumn and that all new claimants would be assessed for their ability to work. Alistair Darling duly confirmed this on Wednesday. He added, however, that existing claimants would be required to take the new test from April 2010.
Now 2010 is not tomorrow. Two years is not an unreasonable lead time for introducing such a measure. But it is hard not to suspect that, in selecting the date he did, the Chancellor had the next election primarily in his sights. His announcement effectively matches a Conservative pledge to impose regular tests for incapacity benefit recipients with a view to cutting numbers by 200,000.
That the move may have had more than a tinge of party politics about it does not, however, automatically make it undesirable. It is news to no one that incapacity benefit has been used to massage the unemployment figures. In an age when much work was heavy and manual, a bad back could rule someone out of employment for good. With so many more jobs now desk-bound or in services, such ill-health need not exclude someone from the labour force. It is in everyone's interests – not least the claimant's – for people to be encouraged to look for work within their capability, and offered training, if necessary.
While this is the sort of approach the Government may be advocating, its emphasis on numbers risks leaving the impression that its main purpose is cutting costs. And, unless clear exceptions are made, at least some of those caught up in the testing process will be people for whom employment is never going to be a realistic option.
This is not a reason for abandoning what is essentially an audit of incapacity benefit. It is an argument for proceeding with sensitivity, and recognising that this benefit also says something good about our society, even if at present it may be too widely spread.