This seems to be an odd time to reform the benefits system.

There has long been concern the number of people living off benefits is higher than the number unable to work. When employers are clamouring for immigrant labour at the same time as hundreds of thousands are claiming Jobseekers Allowance, it suggests something has gone wrong.

Bodies such as the British Chambers of Commerce have warned generous benefit payments are a problem. If staying in bed pays almost as much as going to work some will take the easy option.

But the recession changes things. We know many are going to lose jobs, with unemployment set to rise as high as three million.

For many, there is simply no work. And when something does come up, there are now many more applicants competing for the same post.

So measures designed to pressure people into the workplace may appear ill-timed.

However, we also know that the longer somebody is out of the workforce, the harder it is to get back in.

Under the proposals set out by welfare secretary James Purnell, claimants are not necessarily penalised if they fail to find work.

There are other activities they can undertake instead, such as training, voluntary work or even updating their CV, to ensure they continue to receive benefits.

The aim is to keep people busy and occupied, and to ensure they see themselves as someone who belongs in employment rather than someone who belongs at home.

One consequence of the recession is that even those people who have so far been spared the worst effects have perhaps realised that all of us could lose what we have quite easily.

This is not a time for punitive measures against those who experience ill-fortune, but it is the right time to ensure the benefits system helps people get into work, rather than hindering them.