The first step towards getting a quarter of a million West Midlands people off incapacity benefit came into force this week.
New claimants will be put on to a new benefit called Employment and Support Allowance, with tough checks to see whether they are capable of working.
The next stage will be to move the regions’s 236,410 claimants on to the benefit, forcing many to find work.
There are 52,250 incapacity benefit claimants in Birmingham and 16,160 in Sandwell, according to the Department for Work and Pensions. Walsall ihas 13,180 claimants with 13,090 in Dudley and 6,730 in Solihull.
Ministers hope to end the culture of “worklessness” in deprived areas, where people claim incapacity benefit and are not classed as part of the workforce.
It means they are not included in unemployment figures, because they are not eligible for Jobseekers’ Allowance, and not obliged to prove they are seeking work.
Ministers are careful to avoid accusing incapacity claimants of cheating the system. The Government claims they are victims of the Conservative government, which it says failed to give them the help needed to rejoin the workforce.
Work and Pensions Minister James Purnell said: “In the 1990s people were written off on incapacity benefit with no help to overcome problems or support to get them into work.
“It is even more important in an economic downturn we increase support for people, not take it away.” Business leaders have warned Britain cannot afford to have so much of its workforce on benefits.
Some sectors of the economy, such as agriculture and food packaging, rely on immigrant labour. However, the supply of immigrants is likely to recede as Britain’s economy slows.
New claimants who cannot work due to ill-health or disability will be put on to the new allowance, and within weeks will have their capability assessed by an expert health professional.
But existing claimants are also expected to be moved onto the new benefit between 2010 and 2014.
The Disability Alliance said it hoped the new allowance would bring about positive improvements in the employment rates of disabled working age adults.
“The need for personalised, tailored, employment support that actively assists disabled people to overcome barriers to work will be key and we will be closely monitoring the effectiveness of this provision,” said a spokesman for the charity.
But Conservatives claimed the Government needed to improve the programmes designed to help people into work.
Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Chris Grayling said: “The problem with this change is that the Government’s plans to help people on incapacity benefit are still just not up to the job.
“Only a tiny fraction of the 2.6 million people claiming incapacity benefit are currently getting any kind of back to work support. The launch of this new allowance isn’t changing that.”