Mark Harper is Shadow Minister for Disabled People and writes for ConservativeHome to coincide with today’s second reading debate on the Welfare Reform Bill.

With the news last week that the UK is now officially in recession and as unemployment nears 2 million, it may well go unnoticed that this week Parliament will debate the Welfare Reform Bill. It is a sign of this Government’s failure that, after nearly 12 years in office, it has only now decided to start reforming the welfare state. After 12 wasted years, it is too little too late.

As the dole queues continue to lengthen, attention will inevitably shift towards those people who have recently lost their jobs, and those who face the prospect of redundancy. However, as the recession bites and the unemployment numbers swell, it is important that we do not lose sight of the plight of the forgotten unemployed: the long term out of work.

Most people would have expected that, after 16 years of economic growth, we would be fairly well down the road with welfare reform. Sadly though, there are still millions of people who have been left behind and have not been given the opportunity to release their talents. It is thus all the more disappointing that the Bill currently before Parliament will do little to help the millions of people currently on Incapacity Benefit.

The Government’s failure to deliver change is all the more a missed opportunity now that the economic situation has darkened. Delivering real welfare reform would have been much easier in a steadily growing economy rather than one in the jaws of recession.

At this key point, the Government’s rhetoric on welfare reform is
complacent and betrays a growing gap with reality. In a recent Commons
debate on Work and Welfare, the Government proudly boasted that its
record was a story of ‘so far so good’. The facts tell a very different

As well as the top line unemployment figures, there are 2.6 million
people in the UK claiming Incapacity Benefit, a number that has barely
changed over the last 12 years. The Government itself estimates that
well over half of these people could be working. This is all the more
telling as the Government claims to have created millions of new jobs
in the last decade. There is a very simple question which needs
answering: why have so few of these new jobs been filled by the long
term unemployed?

Having inherited a sound economy, and benefiting from a decade of
economic ‘good luck’ according to Tony Blair, it is all the more
disappointing that Labour has squandered this unprecedented opportunity
to help many benefit claimants into work. In addition, the individual
who has done the most to obstruct and block real welfare reform has
been Gordon Brown.

Tony Blair proclaimed as far back as 1995 that ‘We all agree that the
welfare state has got to be radically reformed’ and that he was ‘the
only one with the will to do it’.  Ten years later, the hollowness of
this promise is plain for all to see.

Frank Field’s appointment as Minister for Welfare Reform in 1997 with
instructions to ‘think the unthinkable’ gave initial hope that genuine
reform was imminent. However, that early hope quickly evaporated as
Blair lost his nerve in the face of his dominant Chancellor and
disposed of Field for doing exactly what he had been asked to do.

Thus very early on in his Premiership, Blair effectively surrendered
control of welfare policy to his Chancellor, and the opportunity and
momentum for radical policies was lost. There has been a steady
procession of Social Security and Work and Pensions Secretaries
continuously reciting a familiar script of radical reform but with
little or no follow through.

The Government has tentatively prodded around the issue of welfare
reform whilst allowing benefit dependency to grow deeper roots in many
of our communities. Vast sums have been spent on the New Deal
programmes, but they have at great expense only moved a fraction of the
long term unemployed into work. All the while, thousands of economic
migrants have filled the vacancies in the job market.

It was not until 2006 that Blair finally summoned the courage to
challenge Gordon Brown and deploy David Freud to carry out a ‘ground
zero’ review of welfare policy. Interestingly, the Freud report was
initially rubbished by Gordon Brown, but was coincidentally
resuscitated just as the new Prime Minister began to slip behind in the
opinion polls. Above all, Gordon Brown has demonstrated over the last
decade that he doesn’t have the ‘will’ to reshape the welfare system

The latest Welfare Reform Bill starting its journey through Parliament
is a small, but long overdue, step in the right direction. However,
there is a disappointing lack of urgency in implementing its proposals.
A good example is the roll out of individual budgets for disabled
people to take more control of their lives. In today’s more challenging
economic times the long term unemployed need action, not just a few
pilot projects. More than ever we need to make sure that we help those
people who have remained unemployed for too long so that they are not
forgotten again.