The basic principle of the welfare state is that the taxpayer should provide money to help those in our society incapable of helping themselves. Few people disagree. But there are fierce arguments over the issue of exactly who is and who is not capable of providing for themselves. Incapacity Benefit is one of the most sensitive political issues precisely because many think there are people receiving it who shouldn’t be entitled to such support.

This perennial problem has come into focus again this week. The Government has published figures showing that among the two million people on IB (costing around £7 billion a year), over 80,000 are alcoholics, drug addicts and those suffering from obesity. Over a quarter of them have been receiving the benefit for over a decade.

The figures provide a snapshot of IB claimants from last August. 42,360 claimants in that month had alcohol addiction, 37,480 were drug-dependent and 1,800 were obese.

The Prime Minister himself was quick to acknowledge the political dynamite in these figures. He told BBC Scotland: 'I think a lot of people who pay their taxes and work hard will think: ‘That’s not what I pay my taxes for. I pay my taxes for people who are incapacitated through no fault of their own.’

This distinction, between those who are incapacitated involuntarily and those who seem to be choosing a lifestyle which renders them incapable, provides the dividing line between those beneficiaries most people would regard as legitimate and those they would think are not. The distinction is as much a moral one as a simply practical one.

To many, alcoholism, drug-dependency and obesity are the result of choices people make and cannot remotely be compared with incapacitating misfortunes such as, say, severe arthritis. No one forces you to take up drink, experiment with drugs or take so little care of what you eat that you end up too fat to work. And even if you do go down these perilous routes, all it needs is a little effort to put yourself back on the right track. It may not be easy, but it can be done.

If, however, the state pays you benefits because of the condition you’ve got yourself into, then it’s taking away the incentive for you to start getting a grip on your own life. Much better, then, not to provide the benefit, so forcing you to get your act together and get a job in order to support yourself.

That, in essence, is the case of those who think it wrong for the government to be paying IB to such claimants. It’s wrong not only because the taxpayer shouldn’t be asked to subsidise such people; it’s also morally wrong because it’s bad for those people themselves.

Opponents of this view say it is misguided on two counts. At a purely practical level they say it would be absurd to try and force such people back into work not only because there are so few jobs going at the moment but also because their addictions make them incapable of holding any jobs down. But opponents object on a more fundamental level too.

They argue that although, in principle, it is right when deciding who should and shouldn’t get benefit to distinguish between involuntary misfortune and the seemingly self-inflicted misfortune that falls on those who make bad choices in their lives, it is in practice not always an easy distinction to draw. The ability to make good, considered choices is itself determined by the conditions people find themselves in and in the case of many drug addicts, alcoholics and the obese, they are simply not in that condition.

Many drugs, of course, are notoriously addictive, taking away the capacity to make informed decisions. Alcoholism is often directly the consequence of deep-seated emotional and psychological problems and its addictiveness is promoted by the availability of cheap alcohol. The profusion of cheap junk food outlets provides the same route to obesity. In short, say proponents of this view, what such people need is not their benefits taking away but treatment to help put them back on the straight and narrow.

So what attitude is the Government taking? The coalition has had its eyes on IB from the moment it came to power. It acknowledges that, for political reasons, previous governments of both parties used IB as a way of keeping official unemployment figures lower than they would otherwise have been and that as a result the numbers 'left to rot' on IB soared. Now it is in the process of reassessing the criteria used to decide who should and who shouldn’t get the benefit. Part of its motive, of course, is to save money but it also wants to get back into the workforce people it thinks are capable of working.

Does this include the 80,000 who are obese, alcoholic or dependent on drugs? In principle the answer is ‘yes’ because the Government regards these conditions as treatable. But will those suffering from these conditions get the treatment?

Critics are sceptical. Public spending cuts, they say, are already being felt in the very services set up to provide such treatments. The Government is pinning its hopes on the private and voluntary sectors which it is recruiting on a payment-by-results basis to wean addicts off their addictions and get them into jobs. It regards this approach as ‘revolutionary’.

Whether it will work remains to be seen. But some commentators argue that an even more radical approach needs to be taken. They say that even if existing addicts can successfully be treated, taken off benefit and put back into the workforce, there will be as many new addicts filling their ranks among benefit claimants. So long as government fails to tackle the problems of cheap alcohol, the easy availability of drugs and the addiction to junk food, they say, the issue of how we deal with those rendered incapable by them will remain unresolved.

What’s your view?

  • Are you surprised or not by the number of people receiving Incapacity Benefit simply as a result of alcoholism, drug-dependency or obesity?
  • Do you think such people should or should not be eligible for IB?
  • Do you think IB should be paid only to those whose incapacity is 'no fault of their own'?
  • Do you think alcoholism, drug-dependency and obesity should be regarded as conditions that people bring on themselves or of which they are victims?
  • What do you make of the argument that paying IB to people suffering from such conditions is morally wrong because it provides a disincentive to them to get their lives sorted out?
  • Do you think that more help should be provided to help treat people with these conditions?
  • What do you make of the government’s reliance on the private and voluntary sectors to provide such treatments?
  • Do you think the government is doing enough to tackle the alcohol, drug and obesity addictions in the first place?
  • And how would you like to see the Incapacity Benefit system changed?
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