“To work or not to work”.
This really interesting Blog was posted by “Denise Stephens & Dom Campbell of Enabled by Design”.
This is certainly the question on the lips of a country going through the biggest overhaul of its welfare system since it began. The overall aim is to simplify out-of-work and in-work benefits being claimed, including housing benefit, Income Support, Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), by introducing a single payment called Universal Credit.
The government has already set to work by replacing Incapacity Benefit, an out-of-work benefit claimed by people who are unable to work due to illness or disability, with ESA. The main difference being that ESA involves a somewhat controversial medical assessment called the Work Capability Assessment with a focus on supporting people to return to work. The benefit divides claimants into two separate groups; a work-related activity group and a support group. Those placed in the support group, due to illness or disability having a “severe” effect on their ability to work, will not be expected to work. Although the majority of people, despite how their illness or disability affects their ability to work, are expected to be placed in the work-related activity group with a view to preparing for and returning to suitable employment.
At this point in time, all new claimants are placed on ESA immediately. Although there is still a not insignificant 1.5 million people who are currently in receipt of Incapacity Benefit and are anxiously awaiting the brown Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) envelope calling them to be reassessed. “But why would people be fearful if they have nothing to hide?”, many people including the media have been asking themselves. For me, this isn’t the right question to be asking in the first place, but more a case of what is at the root of this fear?
I’m confident that most people’s concerns would point back to the computer based Work Capability Assessments being carried out by a private company called Atos Origin who are incentivised to find people “fit for work”. These tests have been widely found inadequate in dealing with complex health conditions including mental health and other fluctuating conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS). This in itself is a huge source of worry and concern for people unable to work due to their health or disability, but combining this with a failure to involve the input of consultants and healthcare professionals directly involved in someone’s care is, in my opinion, a recipe for disaster. Who could be better placed to assess work capability, than a consultant who understands their patient’s condition and is in the position to monitor how it affects them on an ongoing basis?
I feel that the majority of people in receipt of out-of-work disability and health related benefits would love to have both the health and opportunity to return to work. For many people, work holds the key to greater personal and financial independence, confidence and self-esteem. There is no disputing that these are highly attractive and positive outcomes of work, although wanting to work and being able to work are two very different things. This is a goal that isn’t as easy to achieve for many as you would hope, for a wide range of complex reasons including fluctuating health and a lack of understanding, empathy and support from employers, government etc. Which is why it deeply upsets me to read stories in the media stereotyping people in receipt of these benefits as “workshy” scroungers and alluding to this being a “lifestyle choice”. To me, these sweeping statements and insinuations belittle the challenges experienced by people who, through no fault of their own, have been affected by ill health and disability.
Unfortunately, speaking from my own experience, returning to work is not as straightforward as it may sound. Wanting to return to work, which is the case for many, is simply not enough. First there is the minefield of the benefits system to navigate which up until now has very much been an all or nothing affair; you’re either well enough to work or not and there is little or no provision for people with variable conditions or intermittent periods of ill health – nor tailored support for creative adjustments to support opportunities such as working from home. Whether this is set to change with the introduction of a simplified single Universal Credit payment, is yet to be seen. Although there are very real concerns that the Work Capability Assessment being rolled out to decide on people’s fitness to work is itself “a complete mess” and not fit for purpose.
Sadly we still live in a world that is not set up to support people who are unable to fit into the 9 ’til 5 work “norm”. Despite advancements in technology, the working world is still a disappointingly rigid place to be. Very little has improved in the way of employers being open to and readily providing flexible, home working from the outset. This is not only important for those living with health conditions and disabilities, but also older people now unable to retire until later years and other situations such as people needing to balance work with childcare.
With employment levels at an all time low, finding appropriate work is likely to be difficult for anyone seeking employment, without any of the additional barriers already mentioned. Until these barriers to work are acknowledged and addressed, I feel that little is likely to change other than people being moved from Incapacity Benefit or Employment and Support Allowance to the lower rate Jobseeker’s Allowance. To me this feels like a cost cutting exercise, much like the plans to cut Disability Living Allowance by 20%, despite people’s needs not having changed and this is why they are fearful.
Judging “fitness for work” is certainly complex, with far reaching consequences for the people being assessed. This is exactly why it’s so important to get the fundamentals of welfare reform right, and yes this does include Work Capability Assessments. Regardless of the concerns of charities, healthcare professionals and members of the general public alike, there’s no doubt it feels like these plans have been pushed through with little consideration for how they will affect people emotionally, physically and mentally. Unfortunately, time will only tell and this is what worries me so much…
Thank you Denise and Dom for allowing us to post this on the SDN website – If anyone wants to find out more about Enabled by Design just click on the link
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