Green Paper 'start of action to confront prejudice' over disabled people in work
Consultation on reform of the controversial Work Capability Assessment test for benefits is among a range of new proposals to help people with disabilities and long-term health problems find work and stay in their jobs.
A paper published by Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green set out plans to confront "prejudices and misunderstandings" which get in the way of employment for those with physical and mental health difficulties.
Among the measures planned is a review of the system of statutory sick pay and GP "fit notes" to encourage people to make "phased" returns to work as they recover, as well as early treatment to prevent them falling out of employment in the first place.
Mr Green said he wanted to raise awareness of the health benefits of having a good job and make clear that "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".
The Government will consult on reform of the WCA tests to deliver more "targeted and personalised" support and end the division of Universal Credit and Employment and Support Allowance claimants into groups deemed to be able or unable to work.
Employers will be encouraged to work with staff with long-term conditions to stop them falling out of work while Jobcentre Plus work coaches will help direct claimants to therapy.
Unveiling the Work and Health Green Paper in the House of Commons, Mr Green reiterated his commitment that no welfare savings were being sought as part of the reforms.
He said the Government aims to close the gap between employment rates of disabled and non-disabled people, which currently stands at 32 percentage points, with 4.6 million people with disabilities and long-term conditions out of work.
"When things need improving, like the Work Capability Assessment and fit notes, we mustn't shy away from big decisions," said Mr Green.
"We must be bold in our ambition to help disabled people and those with health conditions. This Green Paper marks the start of our action to confront the attitudes, prejudices and misunderstandings that, after many years, have become ingrained within the welfare state, within the minds of employers and across wider society."
With the NHS spending £7 billion a year on treatment of long-term health conditions that keep people out of work, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, said: "It is vital the health service is part of this new conversation on health and work.
"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."
Mark Atkinson, chief executive at disability charity Scope, welcomed the Green Paper but said it must lead to concrete action.
"Disabled people are twice as likely as the general public to be unemployed," he said. "For this consultation to succeed it must lead to real changes in policy, legislation and employer attitudes."
However, Labour said that it was the Conservatives' "disastrous" social security strategy which had resulted in a widening of the disability employment gap.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams said: "For Damian Green to claim that this Tory Government is confronting the negative attitudes and prejudices that it has spent six years encouraging is ridiculous.
"It is an insult to the hundreds of thousands of disabled people who have been on the receiving end of their callous social security regime."
NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said: "The evidence is now clear that early treatment for mental and physical health problems helps working age adults get and keep well-paying jobs, and this in turn positively improves their own health and social wellbeing. So for most people, health and work are a virtuous circle."
Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England, said: " Our health, wellbeing and happiness are inextricably linked to work.
"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 Labour chairman of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, Frank Field, said: "People with disabilities have been amongst those least well-served by jobcentres and welfare-to-work programmes in recent years. All too often, having a health condition or disability means dropping out of work and struggling to return.
"The committee welcomes the Government's ambition to support people into work faster and more sustainably. Equally important is the review of the Work Capability Assessment, which for too long has been a source of anxiety and fear for disabled people.
"Getting this right is key not just to ensuring that disabled people get the support they need, but also to building confidence that the department has their best interests at heart."
Charity Mencap warned that any change to the "Support Group" provisions for people assessed under the WCA system as unable to take steps towards work could create "deep concern" among people with learning disabilities, just 6% of whom are in employment.
"We want to work with the Government and employers to open up access to the labour market for people with a learning disability," said Mencap's head of policy Dan Scorer.
"However, we are concerned by proposals that could undermine the position of people with a learning disability in ESA's Support Group, who have been assessed by the Government as being unable to take steps towards work.
"This would come on top of the £30-a-week cut to ESA coming in next April, which we believe will be deeply damaging to disabled people's wellbeing and ability to find work. It would also go against recent ministerial assurances that there will be no further cuts to disabled people's benefits."