It’s been widely announced that Iain Duncan Smith is about to deliver a “major speech” about getting people who are disabled back to work: see e.g. the Mail and the Guardian. Normally I’d wait for the speech, but IDS is a serial self-publicist, so it’s fairly certain that the reports (and the quotations from the undelivered speech) are based on a formal release of the text. The main points seem to be that
- it is possible for ESA claimants to work
- a million claimants could be ‘put back to work’
- some people could work part time
- people are ‘languishing’ on ESA
- lots of people go back to work from Jobseekers Allowance, relatively few from ESA
- we have a ‘sicknote culture’
- the current test “decides whether people are too sick to ever work”
- people on ESA are to be required to look for work.
This is not exactly new stuff; it sounds a lot like Peter Lilley’s arguments for introducing Incapacity Benefit in 1995. Since then, tests and assessments have been tightened, other heavily incapacitated people have been reclassified to claim this benefit rather than the benefits they got before, hundreds of thousands of claimants have been reassessed (and many ejected), and most claimants have been required to make themselves work ready even if they can’t actually work.
It is possible for ESA claimants to work. The express statutory purpose of the benefit, and of the current assessments, is to determine whether or not it is reasonable to expect people to work. It may be possible – after all, sick people had to work in prisoner-of-war camps, and some of them even built a railroad – but it isn’t reasonable.
A million claimants could be ‘put back to work’. From surveys, up to a million claimants do say they’d like to work, if only they can get better. That doesn’t mean they’re up for road-mending or the board rooms of international finance now. They’ve been tested, by rather strict criteria, and what’s been established by the assessments is that it’s not reasonable to ask them.
Some people could work part time. Some could, and the old rules for Incapacity Benefit allowed for some therapeutic work. That doesn’t mean that the recipients are ready to engage with the labour market. That’s why the pilot programme, Pathways to Work, was such an abysmal failure.
People are ‘languishing’ on ESA. ESA is a long-term sickness benefit – short term sickness is largely dealt with through Statutory Sick Pay. So yes, people are on the benefit for the long haul. We might say with equal or greater justice that older people are ‘languishing’ on state pensions.
Lots of people go back to work from JSA, relatively few from ESA. This is the same as the last point. People with long term, debilitating sicknesses are not going to get back to work in the same way as people who are unemployed.
We have a ‘sicknote culture’. The benefits are not in general given on the basis of sick notes, and haven’t been for years.
The current test “decides whether people are too sick to ever work”. It doesn’t. The controversy about the current test is that it’s been applied harshly and inappropriately to people who are very ill. The tests have been revised repeatedly, with big changes under both Conservatives and Labour, to emphasise people’s capacity to work.
People on ESA are to be required to look for work. This is back to the first point. These are people who it’s not reasonable to expect to work. The announcement implies that they’re going to be forced to apply for jobs regardless.
There is another, more general point about the reporting. This is not about disability as such; it’s about people being unable to work. Some people who are disabled can and do work; some people are not disabled and can’t. ESA is a long term sickness benefit. It goes for example to people who have complications with pregnancy, to people whose employers fire them for getting ill, to people with debilitating mental illness, to people with terminal illnesses, to people recovering from stroke, and so on. As a teacher, I’m covered for lengthy illness, so I’m all right – but if you don’t have private insurance, pray you don’t get ill.