UK unemployment has halved over the past decade. More people than ever are in jobs, the government reassures us. Public health has improved. Why, then, are so many young people too sick to work?

Weaning the long-term ill off welfare and into the workforce has long been an intractable problem. It has its roots in the decline of the UK’s industrial base and coal mining communities, where doctors were tacitly encouraged to classify the out of work as sick rather than push up unemployment.

Labour has had 10 years to come up with an answer. In that time, despite steady economic growth, the number of claimants has risen to 2.6m. The disclosure that more than half a million people under the age of 35 claim incapacity benefit, more than the number who qualify for unemployment benefit, is troubling. It suggests a generation has grown up with little interest in work and even less incentive to find it.

Not all claimants are malingerers. Mental illness and stress-related disorders may be a more common reason for joblessness since both ailments are better understood than in the past. But the benefits system is flawed. It is inevitable that people will try to claim incapacity benefit because it is so generous. Claimants do not need to attend a job centre and can be signed off repeatedly by doctors. The tests used to ascertain eligibility are, moreover, ill-suited to modern workplaces. Questions such as whether a person can lift a heavy object are outdated. Sitting claimants in front of a PC is better.

To declare someone incapable if they tick the right boxes is a counsel of despair as much as an invitation to abuse. Labelling claimants incapacitated contributes to worklessness. Detachment from the labour market can take its toll on people’s mental state. But being at work is almost certainly better for you than doing nothing at home.

The government is moving in the right direction. Revamped tests and a new employment and support allowance to be introduced in October will provide more support for people wanting to return to work and a rigorous assessment of their capabilities. The Conservatives want to screen all existing claimants to assess their ability to work.

The problem with the government’s approach is that it only addresses numbers coming on to benefit. The slowdown in flows coming off benefit is the reason claimant numbers have risen. The Tories, at least, recognise this much. Greater experimentation is needed. That in turn will require investment. With the welfare budget shrinking in real terms, it may fall to the private sector to fill the gap.

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