Belfast Telegraph

Target benefit scroungers, not the needy

There is no doubt that a benefits culture exists in modern society, including in Northern Ireland where the dependency on state handouts is proportionately amongst the highest in the UK. But it is wrong to extrapolate from that dependency that all those claiming assistance are scroungers or fraudsters or workshy. Some are, but they account for only a small number in the swelling unemployment lines.

Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, is right to examine the benefits system and see if it can be reformed so that assistance is available for those who really need it and the scroungers and work-shy are forced to seek employment. But his proposed shake-up - which may take 10 years to implement - is notable for its rhetoric rather than its detail, leading to fears among many responsible organisations that even those in great need may face punitive sanctions in the coming years.

While the intent to make people seek employment rather than a life on the dole is laudable, there is an immediate stumbling block. As an investigation in this newspaper today reveals, many of the jobs that are available in these times of austerity are part-time and/or paying wages which make it impractical and uneconomic for people on benefits to take up.

Firms going to the wall, home repossessions and bankruptcies all contribute to soaring unemployment, which rose by 13% in the province in the last year. Just where are those on benefits supposed to find a job in such an economic climate? They will face competition from people better qualified, and since it is a hirer's market, the rates of pay will not be high. Many of those job vacancies examined by our reporter pay less than benefits, and that is without taking into account childcare costs, travel to work expenses and the other costs that go with a job.

Of course benefits should not be treated as a right by even those who don't want to work, but neither should the unemployed be penalised for finding themselves in a predicament not of their own making.

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