Leading article: Welfare reform comes at a cost

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The Independent Online

The Conservatives are rolling out a programme of benefit proposals that owes much to the "tough love" approach of recent welfare reforms in the United States and some European countries. Yesterday David Cameron spoke of introducing more rigorous checks for recipients of incapacity benefit. Today we report his plan to limit the number of job offers a benefit recipient may turn down before forfeiting the job seeker's allowance. Mr Cameron will present the whole package tomorrow.

We note, merely in passing, the succession of announcements about one and the same policy that was once the presentational hallmark of New Labour. Here it is rather the substance that concerns us. Thanks in part to Iain Duncan Smith's analysis of "Breakdown Britain", Mr Cameron is developing a neat line in "compassionate conservatism" that balances promises of help for the deserving with threats of punitive action against abusers. Thus he sets out to banish the image of the "nasty party", while also reassuring those who see in every benefit recipient a "scrounger". So far, a mostly benign public has allowed him to have the argument both ways.

Few can doubt that there are benefit recipients who play the system and job-seekers who do not actively seek jobs. And the number of young people judged unfit to work is a scandal not because anyone is defrauding anyone else, but because so many are thus written out of the social mainstream. The Government is complicit here: high rates of invalidity keep official unemployment figures low.

There are problems here that cry out to be tackled and the Government, to its credit, has tried, though arguably not hard enough, to get those capable of work into employment. Mr Cameron wants much more active measures, coupled with tougher sanctions, and promises a reduction in incapacity benefit claimants of 200,000 as a start.

At 7 per cent of the current total, this target is, in fact, not particularly ambitious which might suggest one of the limits to the policy. The unspoken element, however, which applies to any serious measures to curb the benefits bill, is that they will be expensive.

If those currently on benefits are to be helped into work, they need more training, medical treatment or counselling than they now get. While efforts have been made to ensure that no one is better off out of work than in, the system is complex and the margins may be too slender to provide an incentive. Employers also have to be persuaded to recruit individuals with perhaps a chequered work or health history. The truth is that, in the first instance at least, reducing the numbers on benefits will probably cost more than it will raise.