The law of unintended consequences states that an intervention in a complex system always creates unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes. Nowhere is this more true than when politicians get down and dirty in the benefits system.
To recap, the government intends to cut a number of benefits to disabled people and to put disabled people through various measures intended to clarify whether they are fit for work. If they are deemed fit, to work they must go. Cue a predictable outcry from groups representing disabled people, saying that the measures will drive many disabled people into poverty and make life for families with disabled children worse, as councils chip away at local services that have supported them in the past.
This does not mean that the motives of welfare and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith are bad. I believe that he is convinced both that the welfare system is broke, and that he is the man to fix it. As he put it during his conference speech: “This government and this party don’t regard caring for the needy as a burden. It is a proud duty to provide financial security to the most vulnerable members of our society and this will not change.”
But he, and many others in the Conservative party, seem to be convinced that many people drawing benefits for disabled people (in particular incapacity benefit) are fraudsters. In a recent interview he argued that nearly a quarter of those on incapacity benefits (IB) should be able to work almost immediately—with the clear implication, of course, that a goodly number are those pantomime villains, “benefit cheats” and “scroungers.”
Yet the evidence that many on IB are scroungers is pretty dubious. A department for work and pensions study in 2006 suggested that less than 1 per cent of those on IB were fraudulent claimants. Indeed, the same study showed that far more waste in the system comes from internal fraud by those administering the system, plus human error.
The effect of “cracking down” on “benefit cheats,” as newspapers interpret such initiatives, affects all disabled people, not the few cheats in the system (whether they are disabled or not). So, as soon as the treasury invited comments on its website this July, asking for ways to…