This article titled “‘Broken’ disability benefits need total overhaul, says government adviser” was written by Patrick Butler, Social policy editor, for The Guardian on Friday 11th March 2016 00.01 UTC
Controversial fit-for-work tests should be abandoned and benefit sanctions scrapped for people with chronic illness or a disability, an influential government adviser has said.
The current system disability benefits is “broken” and must be comprehensively overhauled if the government is to meet its target of getting a million sick and disabled people into work, said Matthew Oakley, who is a member of the Department for Work and Pensions’ independent social security advisory committee.
After years of major changes, including the introduction of tighter benefit rules and more stringent assessments, the government should be brave enough to give up on a system that has failed disabled people, he said.
In a report for the Social Market Foundation thinktank, Oakley writes that many disabled people have been driven furtherfrom the job market by “well-intentioned” changes that have not only proved to be ineffectual but are hated and feared by vulnerable claimants.
Job outcomes for disabled people have remained static over the past 15 years, while spending has soared on the disability unemployment benefit, known as employment and support allowance (ESA), said Oakley.
He told the Guardian: “All it [the system] has done is upset people and cause huge amounts of controversy. Costs are growing. It has not got disabled people into work. What is clear is that the current system is broken.
“Many people on disability benefit really do want to work but they feel broken by the system. It is not about providing support, it is about getting them to jump through the same hoops again and again, and they feel defeated.”
Oakley argues that it is time to introduce a properly funded system which would identify those people on ESA closest to the job market and pilot new ways of supporting them into work. This would include paying those who engage with the system a voluntary “steps to work” wage on top of their unemployment benefit.
The former Treasury adviser and head of economics at the right of centre Policy Exchange thinktank led a government-commissioned independent review in 2014 which called for reforms to the controversial system of benefit sanctions.
His recommendation that claimants should receive a “yellow card” warning before receiving a sanction for apparent breaches of benefit rules – which could leave them penniless for four weeks – was subsequently adopted by the government.
The current system was introduced in 2008 by the last Labour government with the aim of encouraging hundreds of thousands of people on incapacity benefit back into employment. The policy was adopted and accelerated by the coalition after 2010.
But it rapidly gained notoriety amid widespread criticism of poorly designed and badly administered work capability assessments run by the private outsourcing company Atos, and evidence that benefit sanctions were leaving mentally ill and disabled claimants hungry and penniless.
The government has committed itself to getting 1.2 million workless disabled people into a job by 2020. The work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, is to publish a white paper in the next few weeks setting out the government’s strategy.
Just 44% of the 5.5 million working age individuals in the UK who have a work-limiting health condition or disability are employed, compared with 87% of people who say they are not work-limited. Ministers have promised to halve the gap by 2020.
Oakley’s report, which was financially supported by the disability employment provider Remploy, warns that the target is unrealistic without major reform. Just 8% of sick and disabled people without a job move into work in any one year.
It warns that the government should not look for a “silver bullet” solution, and should take a longer-term approach to improving disability employment, making use of trial projects and extensive consultation with benefit claimants.
The report says that although reforms would require significant investment up front, the longer-term benefits would be susbtantial. Moving 100,000 people currently on ESA into employment would save £1bn a year, it estimates.
The latest official work capability statistics, published on Thursday, show that more than half of fit-for-work decisions were overturned on appeal.
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