Welfare Review held over Sickness and Disability Benefits

Work and Pensions Secretary, Damian Green, held a welfare review earlier this month, to look more closely at how people qualify for sick pay, the use of doctors’ notes, and the controversial ‘work capability assessments’.

These assessments aim to determine whether disabled people are eligible for welfare, but Green has claimed that working is better for people’s health than “sitting at home living on benefits”. It is the secretary’s aim to encourage people back into the world of employment, as he claims this will improve their health, as well as reduce the annual figure the government spends on benefits.

While some have welcomed the review, others are worried that sick and disabled people could be pressured to return to work before they are fit and well enough to do so. In light of this, we thought we would give you a brief overview of what the review will look into, who has shown backing for it, and what other concerns the government is facing over its changes to welfare in recent years.

What’s the review?

The review was held by the Department for Work and Pensions, together with the Department of Health, with the aim of assessing how the UK could help people with long-term conditions reap the benefits of work and improve their health. The departments also wanted to focus more closely on helping those with mental health problems and musculoskeletal conditions.

There were a few key aims up for discussion, including:

  • a review of Statutory Sick Pay and GP notes to support workers getting back into work faster, and for longer
  • a review of the GP considerations, and whether patients could be referred other healthcare professionals to ensure that people receive more tailored support
  • encouraging Job Centre Plus work coaches to signpost claimants to therapy
  • the launch of a consultation on Work Capability Assessment reform, the process for assessing Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Universal Credit claimants’ capability for work
  • encouraging employers to work with their employees on health issues
  • a wide-ranging debate about recognising the value of work as a health outcome
  • working with Health Education England, Public Health England and others to make the benefits of work an ingrained part of the training and health workforce approach

Why is it happening?

It has long been debated that the welfare state needs reform, but it was Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt who noted just how detrimental the growing cost of long-term sickness to the NHS is becoming. He said it costs a staggering £7 billion per year to treat long-term health conditions that have kept people out of work, and suggested that employment could be a part of recovery.

Hunt added: “This green paper launches a wide-ranging debate about recognising the value of work as a health outcome. With all the evidence showing that work is a major driver of health, this is a big opportunity: to make sure that people get the support they need, improve their health, and benefit the NHS all at the same time. I hope that health professionals will contribute their expertise so that we can ensure the best possible outcomes.”

Speaking about the review, Damian Green told the press: “In the long-run, there is nothing more expensive than saying to someone, Here’s a benefit you can have for the rest of your life and we will ignore you. It’s not only expensive, but bad for the individual concerned.

“The great mind-set change I want to achieve is the acceptance that a good job is good for your health. The idea that sitting at home living on benefits is in any way good for people, particularly people with a mental health condition, is completely wrong.”

In support of the review, Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive of Public Health England, added that health, well-being and happiness were “inextricably linked to work”. He said: “People in work generally have better health, so it makes perfect sense for the government to do all it can to support employers to close the gap around employment, disability and illness and to enable people to work when they can.”

The UN Inquiry: disabled people “demonised”

Although the review raises some questions over whether it’s with the aim of reducing financial outlays or helping members of the public, a recent inquiry by the United Nations would have you believe that it’s purely the former.

According to their investigators, who were sent to London, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast in October 2015, the UK government’s welfare reforms and austerity policies up until this point have done far more harm than good. They claim that they have led to “grave and systematic violations” of disabled people’s rights.

This is certainly an ill-timed report for the Work and Pensions department, as it looks as though more reforms are on the horizon, but the UN stated that the string of legislation introduced since 2010 as part of welfare reforms have had a negative impact, looking specifically at the Welfare Reform Act 2012, Care Act 2014, and Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016.

Although charities originally came out in support of the welfare review proposed by Green, the release of these inquiry findings has seen them express concerns that Tory policies make life harder for disabled people. The UN report went on to warn that cuts and changes to disability support under the Conservative-led government had “hindered disabled people’s right to live independently and be included in the community”.

The report also claimed that disabled people were routinely portrayed as being “dependent or making a living out of benefits, committing fraud as benefit claimants, being lazy or putting a burden on taxpayers”, whilst other policies (including the bedroom tax) had disproportionately affected the disabled. Work schemes were also targeted as being counterproductive, given their tendency to put people back into work too soon, leading to further health problems.

What it means for you

In response to the statements, Damian Green hit back, commenting: “The UK is a recognised world leader in disabled rights and equality. Not only do we spend about £50billion a year to support sick and disabled people, but we also offer a wide range of tailored and effective support, which this report fails to recognise.

“Our work and health green paper marks a turning point in our action to confront the attitudes, prejudices and misunderstandings within the minds of employers and across wider society.”

Although we live in uncertain times, with changes to the benefits system seemingly constant, it’s important to remember that welfare reform is not something to be worried about. There have been debates about this for many years, but new methods will need to be trialled and we should always approach these with an open mind.

When it comes to staying up to date with these developments though, at least you’re safe in the knowledge that you have experienced legal consultants on your side, to help you understand how they will affect you. If you’re unsure of where your benefits stand, our experts are always on hand to give you the guidance you need to make the right decisions, but the most important thing is to contact us as soon as possible. You can call us on 020 7381 8111, or email us at [email protected].

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