3 February 2005

Incapacity benefit and income support for people unfit for work are to be abolished for new claimants and replaced with two new benefits, the government announced yesterday. The majority of claimants will be obliged to undertake work preparation or training in order to get full payments. For those who co-operate, however, the new benefits will be paid at higher rates. Although the changes are not expected to be fully implemented until 2008, pilot projects will be put in place much earlier. The likelihood is that areas with high rates of incapacity claims, such as Glasgow, will be targeted first.

Rehabilitation Support Allowance
The plan is that claimants who are signed off as sick will receive an initial ‘holding benefit’, payable at the same rate as Jobseeker’s Allowance – until they have been examined under a reformed Personal Capability Assessment, normally within 12 weeks. The reformed PCA will include an employment and support assessment looking at claimants’ potential future work capacity so that advisers can oversee their return to work

Following this process, the majority of people with more “manageable conditions” will receive a payment that might be called a ‘Rehabilitation Support Allowance’, with a much stronger focus on getting people back to work. Claimants will be required to participate both in Work-Focused Interviews and in activity that helps them prepare for a return to work, such as work preparation, training or basic skills support. They will receive more than the current long-term rate, but those who completely refuse to engage will return to the holding benefit rate. The rules relating to sanctions have yet to be decided

Disability and Sickness Allowance
Those with the most severe health conditions or impairments will receive a payment that might be called a ‘Disability and Sickness Allowance’. The government says they will get more money than now because they are most at risk of prolonged poverty and are most likely to face significant obstacles to getting work. However they will still, as now, be required to engage in some Work-Focused Interviews. They will also be encouraged to engage in return-to-work activity wherever possible but there will be no requirement on them to do so.

The DWP says that existing claimants who want to try out work or training will be protected by linking rules to ensure that their positions are protected if they take a job and then need to return to incapacity benefits.

Bad news
An increase in benefits rates for people too ill to work is clearly welcome, provided it is genuine and substantial. But the imposition of compulsory action plans is very bad news indeed. It will allow unqualified Jobcentre staff to oblige sick people to take part in what are likely to be low quality, mass produced training courses, regardless of the potential effect on their health. Anyone who has taken part in one of the new computer led Personal Capability Assessments will be only too well aware of how inaccurate the proposed employment and support assessments are likely to be. Worse, there is unlikely to be any mechanism for formally challenging the findings of such an assessment, as it will not form part of the benefits claim proper. Whether this system will unleash a wave of judicial reviews, or possibly actions under the Disability Discrimination Act remains to be seen.

No surprise
So, bad news, but no surprise. Back in 2003 we were alone in predicting:

“. . . agreeing to take part in New Deal for the Disabled, job hunting or psychological intervention because you're so misguided that you imagine you're too ill to work - compulsory by the end of 2006. Remember: you read it here first.”

Compulsory work for incapacity benefit claimants by 2006?

With the first pilots almost certain to begin next year it looks like, at least for claimants in high sickness areas, we got it right.


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