Fears as £18bn annual welfare bill for Yorkshire faces squeeze

MORE than 100,000 people in Yorkshire have been on incapacity benefit for more than five years, new analysis reveals today as Ministers pledge to curb the region's spiralling £18bn welfare bill.

They are among more than 170,000 people claiming the benefit of up to 91 a week, although a tough new regime being tested from this week could see a quarter of them – more than 42,000 – ordered back to work or forced onto cheaper benefits after medical assessments.

An investigation by the Yorkshire Post today reveals nearly 566,000 people in the region are receiving housing or council tax benefits, while rising unemployment during the recession has left 142,900 claiming out of work benefits. Chancellor George Osborne has already unveiled plans to slash some of those benefits – and cap the total amount any family can receive in handouts to 500 per week – and has vowed to see through the controversial proposal to cut child benefit for higher rate taxpayers from 2013 which he unveiled at the Tory conference earlier this month.

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And he has unleashed a high-tech crackdown on benefits cheats that will see mobile hit squads of inspectors being sent to areas where the problem is rife and a "three-strikes-and-you're-out" rule to strip repeat offenders of benefits for up to three years.

A coalition war on welfare has also left the middle classes braced for an assault on benefits over the coming months, such as winter fuel allowance and pensioners' free bus passes. The Liberal Democrats had been keen to reform the fuel payment amid concern even millionaires and those overseas are given the handout but David Cameron has said pre-election promises to keep them in place are "promises I want to keep".

In total, spending on social security in the region has soared from 13.5bn in 2004/05 to a predicted 18.5bn last year, with Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith determined to introduce a system to ensure people can never be better off on benefits than they are in work.

But some of the changes have concerned charities and disability campaigners who fear the most vulnerable will be unfairly hit.

The levels of incapacity benefit claimants are causing particular concern for Ministers, with new tests being piloted in Burnley and Aberdeen to see whether some are fit enough to return to work. If successful, every claimant faces being retested by 2014.

Employment Minister Chris Grayling said: "There are people genuinely unable to work – we will carry on providing the right conditions and support.

"I don't think it's unreasonable if the state is providing someone with long-term unconditional support that we occasionally get them in and talk to them about their situation. If we can possibly help people get back into work and off benefits it's a positive thing for them. That's really what's the transition is about."

But the coalition is braced for noisy opposition to some of its plans. Capping housing benefit allowance at 400 a week for a four-bedroom property and 250 a week for a two-bedroom home will leave 87, 310 households across Yorkshire losing out on 468 per year, according to Hemsworth MP Jon Trickett, now a shadow Minister for Labour.

He claimed the cut – designed to save 2bn – would hit "the last people in the world that should be suffering cuts to their income".

Mr Osborne said yesterday the spending review would aim to squeeze welfare payments and Government waste as hard as possible, in order to preserve cash for healthcare, schools, early-years education and crucial infrastructure projects.

But he declined to discuss reports he will save billions by cutting thousands of police officers and abolishing Child Benefit for 16- 19-year-olds, currently paid to teenagers who stay on in education or training.

Shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson said he believed that a tax on banks should "play a bigger role".

THE COST OF WELFARE

Total amount spent on social protection 2009/10: 18,466,000,000

Housing benefit claimants: 413,990

Council tax benefit claimants: 530,120

Jobseekers' Allowance: 142,900

Incapacity Benefit: 172,210

Disability Living Allowance: 162,680

Attendance Allowance: 125,840

Winter fuel allowance: 760,000 households

Child benefit: 653,645

Pension credit: 260,150

State pension: 900,000