20 February 2005

In a bizarre attempt to increase pressure on IB claimants, Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has claimed that being unemployed is as harmful to claimants' health as "smoking 10 packs of cigarettes a day", a level of consumption that would undoubtedly lead to devastating health problems and premature death in the vast majority of cases. He also drew a link between long-term unemployment and a 35 times greater risk of suicide and stressed the importance of GPs getting people back to work as a way to make them healthy.

Lies, damned lies and ministers' statistics
The minister made his astonishing claim in a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research entitled “Fit for Purpose – Welfare to work and Incapacity Benefit” on 18th February. He told his audience that:

"We know that perhaps a million Incapacity Benefit claimants would like to work if they were given the right help and support. Indeed, nine out of ten people coming onto IB expect to get back to work in due course.

What’s more, there is growing medical evidence that for many conditions working is much healthier than being inactive.

Take back pain for example. We used to think that rest was the best response. But now, as Gordon Waddell’s work has shown, rest might actually delay recovery. In contrast, by advising patients to stay active, they can expect a faster recovery and a speedier return to work.

The same is also true for mental health, where periods of unemployment or inactivity can be even more damaging. Suicide rates are 35 times higher among the long-term unemployed than the employed.

One piece of research from the mid-1990s – found that being unemployed has a higher mortality risk than any occupation – even the most dangerous ones. And it stated that – and I quote - “so heightened is the risk of death, that being unemployed is equivalent to smoking 10 packs of cigarettes a day!

What is clear is that failing to help those on Incapacity Benefit who want and expect to get back to work is not just bad for the economy but bad for the people on IB themselves."

"Nurse, get this man a contract of employment . . . and hurry!"
The minister went on to explain that GPs will play a vital role in saving the unemployed from early graves . . .

"The role of medical professionals is also crucial . . .

For now, let me say that the success of our whole approach hinges on GPs and other health professionals re-enforcing the message that work is a route back to health – and not something that people need to be protected from."

Government plans to have back to work advisors in every GPs surgery can thus be seen as part of a programme to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of IB claimants.

Enemies of the state
The governments IB rhetoric seems to be developing in three directions. The first is to mention fraud and IB claims in the same context, even though the government admits there is very little fraud in connection with incapacity and disability benefits. The second is to link the number of IB claimants to a lack of money to pay pensioners - the suggestion being that we have to choose between the deserving elderly and the undeserving sick. Now the third is to suggest that claiming IB is as deadly a habit as smoking 200 cigarettes a day and claimants need to be rescued from their suicidal habit.

This last, we would argue is based on a crass and wilful abuse of statistics. Of course mortality is higher amongst people on unemployment and incapacity benefits. If you have a severe - even terminal - mental or physical illness you are likely at some point to be no longer able to work and end up on an income replacement benefit. Because of your health condition you are also more likely to die prematurely. But the causal connection is between your health condition and your early death. To suggest, instead, that there is something in the benefits system itself that is as inherently poisonous to human health as smoking 200 cigarettes a day is simply dishonest. But no doubt expedient when there is money to be reallocated.

If anyone had any doubts that the sick and disabled are to be cast not only as the new enemies of the state, but also as their own worst enemies, this speech should go a long way to dispelling them.

You can read the minister's entire speech on the DWP's website.


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