IDS Calls For Another Major ESA Shakeup
A crackdown on the sick pay culture which costs Britain billions of pounds a year is being ordered by Iain Duncan Smith.
The Work and Pensions Secretary is particularly keen to slash the numbers off work with anxiety and depression.
In what is expected to be the biggest welfare reform of this Parliament, he will call for the shake-up of the ‘fundamentally flawed’ Employment and Support Allowance. Currently the 2.3million claimants on ESA are either assessed as being fit to work or signed off altogether.
A crackdown on the sick pay culture which costs Britain billions of pounds a year is being ordered by Iain Duncan Smith
But under a policy document to be unveiled within weeks, they will instead be tested for what they are able to do – not what they cannot.
They will then be found work for around ten hours a week, or whatever is possible, to get them back into the workplace – reducing the £14.2billion sickness benefits bill in the process. Those who repeatedly refuse could have their support cut.
The move is expected to put ministers on a collision course with disability campaigners, who claim the sick are already put under too much pressure to return to work.
But Mr Duncan Smith argues his plans are about helping the disabled and delivering ‘social justice’.
‘The sickness benefit culture in this country is in dire need of reform,’ he said. ‘Getting people into work is more than just earning a salary and certainly more than balancing the public purse. For culturally and socially, work is the spine that runs through a stable society. I want those who remain trapped and isolated on welfare to move from dependence to independence.’
Official figures reveal that while the number of claimants on unemployment benefits is down by almost 700,000 since 2010, the overall number on sickness benefits fell by just 88,000 during the same period.
Under the new test Mr Duncan Smith is particularly keen to target those signed off work with conditions related to their mental health. Almost half of ESA claimants have a mental or behavioural disorder as their primary condition, often ‘depression or anxiety’, according to officials.
To qualify for ESA – worth up to £102.15 a week – claimants must undergo a ‘work capability assessment’ to establish if they are able to return to employment immediately. Those who are not are divided into two groups – the severely disabled who will never be able to work, and those who are judged to be capable of work with the right support.
But Mr Duncan Smith said the test is too ‘binary’, adding: ‘It is a system that decides that you are either capable of work or you are not.
‘Two absolutes equating to one perverse incentive – a person has to be incapable of all work or available for all work.
‘In the world beyond ESA, things are rarely that simplistic. Someone may be able to do some work for some hours, days or weeks, but not what they were doing previously.’
The new test will focus on establishing what an individual might be able to do, although inevitably some claimants will still be judged unable to work at all. Those deemed capable of some types of work will then be required to look for employment, or risk losing some of their benefits.
Firms will also be encouraged to do more to prevent staff taking long-term sick leave, and to help them back into work after illness. GPs will be called on to refer the long-term sick to back-to-work programmes.
ESA was introduced in the final years of the last Labour government. Ministers thought it would be a short-term benefit, and forecast that the number claiming it would drop by a million after a decade.
Last week it emerged that a new drive is to be launched to help those with severe addictions, such as drink and drug problems, into work after it was revealed that they are costing taxpayers up to £10billion a year.
Under the Universal Support scheme, job centres will identify the addictions which are stopping some claimants finding work.
Once claimants have found employment, they will remain under the care of a job centre until they are doing sufficient hours to leave the Universal Credit benefits regime.