Belfast Telegraph

We’re robbing old and sick to give to landed and rich

The problem with our economy isn’t poverty – it’s wealth and how it is distributed, says Derek Alcorn

Some weeks ago The Belfast Telegraph highlighted the plight of a family which was suffering from asbestosis because the father had worked in the shipyards. Nothing could more graphically illustrate the price that people pay for working in heavy industries.

If you map the payment of Incapacity Benefit, it is concentrated in post-industrial areas - south Wales, Tyneside, Glasgow and Belfast.

The government of the sixth-largest economy in the world borrowed some £700bn to rescue the banks and seeks to recover the repayments from the poorest of its citizens.

Labour had already started the attack on Incapacity Benefit and the coalition is continuing where Labour left off.

Who is on Incapacity Benefit? Your aunt who had the stroke, your uncle who had an industrial accident, that relative with mental illness. There isn't anyone reading this whose family doesn't use the welfare state. Child benefit anyone? NHS treatment? State education? Who uses the nanny state? The banks and private industry, with a continuous hand held out for compensation and an annual subsidy of £10bn.

The Government is only too keen to tell you the cost of Incapacity Benefit and the number of people claiming it, but in May, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs banned - unlike other EU countries - the publication of information about recipients of the £3bn annual EU agricultural subsidy paid in the UK. Recipients included the Royal family.

Fined £60m this year by the EU for poor administration of agricultural subsidies in Northern Ireland, DARD said "no one was really to blame". It promptly got £4.8m from the Executive to improve its maps (this in the age of Google). Clearly, the deserving and undeserving poor are still with us and claimants should explore the concept of working in partnership with the Social Security Agency.

From his work on the Conservatives' social justice commission, Ian Duncan Smith is to be commended for understanding that people moving off benefit into work need financial support to get established.

There is certainly scope for improving and simplifying the system but the idea that benefits are easy to get and generous must be challenged. Sixty per cent of the people Citizens Advice helps are people who've given up trying to fill in a Disability Living Allowance form - including senior civil servants. The idea of reducing the system to two benefits, one for those in work, another for those out of work, is radical, but we await details.

Meanwhile, as people are dumped off Incapacity Benefit on to Employment Support Allowance, we await Government lists of employers waiting to offer jobs to people with mental health problems and long-term illnesses.

The problem in the sixth-largest economy in the world isn't poverty, it's wealth and its distribution.

If we are honest, we should admit that every part of society has its hand out to government. The assault on benefits goes to the central question of political economy: how should the nation's wealth be divided up.

If we can't afford to look after those who are elderly, sick, and disabled, then we can't afford two wars, the £7bn subsidy to airlines through VAT relief on fuel and the agricultural subsidies to some of the richest land owners in the country.

Let's have the debate.

Derek Alcorn is chief executive of Citizens Advice

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