The UK Government has announced new plans to tackle the barriers faced by disabled people and those with mental health problems, in a move that has been cautiously welcomed by charities but may be more difficult to sell to those who have been affected by years of cuts.
A potential Green Paper will include plans to consult with disabled people and their organisations on reforming the benefits system, which campaigners say is failing disabled people and those with mental health issues.
The Government will also look at overhauling Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) “so it is better enforced, more flexible to encourage a phased return to work, and covers the lowest paid”.
And a new disability unit could be set up in the Cabinet Office. One of its first tasks will be to work with Government departments to make housing more accessible to disabled people.
Other proposals include new employee rights to request workplace modifications on health grounds, improving access to energy and broadband, as well as “new research to ensure disabled people are at the heart of future Government policy”.
Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, said: “Disabled people encounter too many challenges in life and I want to see these end.
“We want to change the landscape for disabled people and to make sure there is always a level playing field for them.
“Because all of us need an equal chance to live a life of opportunity and fulfilment.
“We intend to support disabled people in all phases of their life so that the pursuit of equality is a shared goal.”
Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, said: “Sustained momentum from the Prime Minister and Government to improving support for disabled people is welcome but long overdue.
“We have long been calling for radical changes to the benefits system which we know can often make people’s mental health worse and hinder their ability to move into paid work.
“While it’s good that the enormous impact financial problems can have on our mental health is finally being recognised, a Green Paper on disability benefits must tackle fundamental issues like sanctions – cutting people’s support when they’re unable to do what’s asked of them.
“We also need the Government to address problems with benefits assessments which so often lead to people getting the wrong decision and being left without support or having to endure a lengthy and stressful appeals process.
“We welcome the announcement to overhaul statutory sick pay. We know that 300,000 people with mental health problems fall out of work every year due to a lack of support, left with little choice, but to enter a benefits system that is not fit for purpose.
“Too many people are forced to choose between taking time off work to look after their mental health or paying their bills. Nobody should have to make this choice when they are at their most unwell.
“We all deserve to receive support that helps us stay afloat when our health or disability prevents us from working or when we are not earning enough to keep a roof over our heads.”
Richard Kramer, Chief Executive for the disability charity Sense, welcomed the announcement but said more needs to be done to deliver “meaningful change”.
He added: “For too long now, disability policy has been focused on what benefits or services disabled people do or don’t access, rather than the lives they want, and have a right to lead.
“Equality for disabled people is everyone’s business and cuts across all areas of policy and life, which is why we have been calling for and welcome this new cross government approach.
“We know that today is just the beginning of the journey, but we look forward to working with the government as this work takes shape, and ensuring it is led by and centres around disabled people to truly deliver meaningful change.”
Gail Ward, from the Hands2Mouth Project, told Welfare Weekly: “It is galling that the PM and DWP has announced plans for yet another Green Paper on reforming Social Security for disabled people and improving housing etc. Housing for disabled people is at a premium – in respect there are not enough adapted accessible homes for disabled people to match the need of those needing them.
“With regards to social security, this government has systematically removed the Independent Living Fund and Access to Work Fund is limited, which enabled disabled people to remain independent. They face accessibility issues to buildings and transport also, as well as prejudices from wider society
“It (Government) has demonised and vilified sick and disabled people claiming state support for the last 9 years, while removing vital financial support across the spectrum and disabled people have become targets of Gatekeeper HCPs whose assessments have been proven to contain misrepresentation of claimants lives with appeal rates at their highest which is costing the public purse billions.
“Big reforms need to start within the DWP and its decision making processes and its contractors to get things right first time, the removal of vehicles under PIP tough rule changes that many rely on to go to work has been removed from claimants and the appeals process is long winding and harms the wellbeing of disabled people.
“Those with chronic sickness are consistently failed by successive government’s retrogressive policies and failing to grasp that chronic illness is incompatible with a workplace when employers refuse to make proper adjustments when it bites shareholder profits, it is a difficult balance.
“It is welcome that disabled people are reportedly to be included, but as usual it wont be those affected who will be sitting at the table, it will be charities, who think they know whats good for us!
“It would be very good if those of us who have lived experience of these punitive policies could be sat at the table rather than piecemeal soundbites that they are listening.
“It is time that the government acknowledges that the disastrous Universal Credit along with other previous reforms have failed those it was meant to support, and that the UN report was accurate.”
John McArdle from the campaign group Black Triangle added: “This announcement is completely insincere window dressing by the Government and DWP. Mere PR.
“It is an insult to the dead and the millions of disabled people throughout the UK whose lives have been systematically destroyed during the past nine years or Conservative rule.
“Nothing less than a change of power will suffice to even begin to undo the catastrophic harm that this government has meted out to us. A hot place in Hell awaits Theresa May and David Cameron.”