A government-backed report is set to make it harder for disabled people to claim out-of-work disability benefits, while potentially delivering another lucrative assessment contract to the private sector.
The authors of the report on “sickness absence” admit their proposals would “put more pressure on people to return to work”, but claim that in many cases this would “be in their own best interest, not just that of employers and taxpayers”.
David Cameron, the prime minister, appeared to back the report’s conclusions in an interview this week in the Daily Mail in which he described sick pay as a “conveyor belt to a life on benefits”, and said the government needed to “end the something for nothing culture”.
The health at work report was written by Dame Carol Black, the government’s national director for health and work and a former president of the Royal College of Physicians, and David Frost, former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce.
They claim that 11 million employees a year take sick leave, with about 300,000 going on to claim employment and support allowance (ESA) – the new replacement for incapacity benefit – while sick pay costs employers £9 billion a year.
The report says its recommendations would reduce the number of new ESA claims by half.
It calls on the government to scrap the 13-week ESA “assessment phase” because of “wasteful delays” in the average 17 weeks it takes to complete the work capability assessment (WCA), which tests ESA eligibility.
The report points out that just over half (53 per cent) of those assessed are eventually declared “fit for work”.
Only those disabled people with enough evidence to show they would not need a face-to-face assessment would be allowed to claim ESA straight away, with the others having to claim jobseeker’s allowance until they had been assessed.
The report also says that Jobcentre Plus should do more to “to prevent large numbers of people being inappropriately directed towards ESA”, and should ensure that the face-to-face assessment is carried out “as soon as possible”.
The authors say these measures will help disabled people secure support sooner and help those who can work to find a job quicker, as well as saving the government £100 million a year, because of fewer people on ESA, lower administrative costs and increased tax revenue.
Another key recommendation of the report is for employers or GPs to be able to refer those on long-term sickness absence from work – more than four weeks – to a new “independent assessment service”.
The service would not replace the WCA, but could provide “useful evidence” to any subsequent assessment by Atos Healthcare, which is paid £100 million a year to carry out the tests for the government.
Activists fear the government will also award the contract for the new assessment service to Atos.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said she was “dismayed” by the prospect of an “independent assessment service”.
She said: “We have an expectation that it is going to be another WCA scenario and another money-making opportunity for the likes of Atos.
“They seem to be trying to roll out the WCA model even though it is clear it is fundamentally flawed.”
She said it was difficult to understand a measure that would create more bureaucracy when the government was constantly talking about efficiency savings.
And she said it was “frankly bizarre at a time when the government is saying it wants to hand over the NHS to GPs because of their relationship with patients. So they trust GPs with the NHS, but not on this issue.”
Dame Carol said in a statement: “If implemented, these recommendations will ensure many more people with health conditions are able to enjoy the benefit of work; far fewer will needlessly lose work and fall into long-term benefit dependency.”
Lord Freud, the Conservative welfare reform minister, said the government was “committed to supporting more people with health conditions to work” but that sickness absence causes an annual £15 billion loss to the economy and “we cannot continue to foot this bill”.
He said such “needless inactivity” damaged people’s aspirations, their health, and their families and communities.
The government will publish a response to the review next year.