Around one-quarter of 23,000 people in the Westcountry on sickness benefit for more than a decade are at risk of losing the state handout and sent back to work in a Government crackdown.
Official figures have revealed the scale of long-term dependence on Incapacity Benefit (IB) in Devon and Cornwall as details emerged of claimants being stripped of their welfare payments.
Across the two counties, around 121,810 men and women rely on out-of-work benefits – with 24,690 of them in receipt of state help for ten years or more. All but 1,000 of the decade-long claimants are on IB.
Ministers are in the process of a three-year national re- assessment of about 1.5 million people on the sickness help, and will potentially place them on the new Employment and Support Allowance which is worth more.
New Department for Work and Pensions research, seen by the Western Morning News, has revealed tens of thousands of people who had been on IB for over a decade were actually fit for work.
Between October 2010 and February 2012, 147,600 people on IB for more than ten years were tested. Some 39,500 – or close to a quarter – were found fit for work after being reassessed.
Extrapolated to Devon and Cornwall, this could mean around 5,500 people sent back to work.
In total, 145,000 people of a 462,100 caseload are ready to start employment immediately, the DWP said.
While critics claim the most vulnerable are at risk of losing much-needed support, the Government insists that people who are genuinely too sick to work will continue to receive unconditional support from the state, and will not be expected to look for a job.
Mark Hoban, Minister for Employment, said: "These figures show how broken the old incapacity benefit system was. We're determined to give people all the support they need to help them on the long road back towards work.
"I don't underestimate the scale of the challenge. For many people it will take time to get back into work, but we are determined to do all we can to help."
The Government's £5 billion welfare-to-work programme is designed to help people like those who are reassessed and found able to go to work, officials said.
Ministers have promised to cut the welfare bill by roughly 10 per cent during the course of the Parliament in an attempt to make work more attractive than a life on benefits.
But unions and Labour politicians fear the poor and vulnerable who rely on state help through no fault of their own will be pressured back into work.
Adrian Sanders, Liberal Democrat MP for Torbay, sounded a note of caution. He said: "The system has to be one that ensures benefits don't go to the people who don't deserve it, while ensuring those who need it get it. So you do need to have a system of assessment.
"But it should never be about money, as people who are perfectly entitled will not get it. That is the concern the public have."
The Westcountry figures, recently deposited in the House of Commons library, also highlight long-term jobless benefit dependency, though only 20 people in Devon and Cornwall have been claiming the dole for more than a decade.
However, in Cornwall 330 people have been looking for work for more than two years while claiming Jobseekers' Allowance (JSA). In Plymouth, 260 people have been on JSA for more than two years.
A DWP spokesman said: "Long-term unemployment is a big challenge, but we know there are jobs out there with Jobcentre Plus offices in Devon and Cornwall posting 10,437 vacancies in October alone.
"When people have been out of a job for many years, whether through ill health or other circumstances, we know it can take time before they are ready to return to work.
"That's why we introduced the Work Programme, which offers two years of support for people who are furthest away from the world of work and who need the most help to eventually move into a job."