John Harris

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Stop targeting this imaginary army of long-term sick | John Harris

The sickness absence review will only lead to incapacitated people limply tramping the streets looking for nonexistent jobs

Another week, another government attempt to kick the supposedly malingering and faux-sick into work. Fair play to ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions: despite plunging consumer confidence and flatlining demand, their enthusiasm for shoving no end of people back into an almost nonexistent job market shows no signs of abating. Some would see that as an admirable kind of determination; others might see the distinct signs of a delusional zealotry that is already leaving misery in its wake.

Last week, there came early news of the official sickness absence review – commissioned by the prime minister back in February, and published today – which advocates eligibility for sick leave being decided by “independent assessors” rather than GPs. Moreover, in its vision of things, anyone signed off sick should be placed on jobseeker’s allowance rather than employment support allowance (the successor to incapacity benefit), and thereby have to prove that they were actively seeking work, despite being officially confirmed as being ill. Newly stringent requirements as to what “actively seeking work” actually means will presumably apply. As far as I understand it, this will mean lots of incapacitated people limply tramping the streets looking for jobs that do not exist.

As for the assessing, we can presumably look to the work being done on welfare-to-work by Atos, whose treatment of benefit claimants has created a seething mass of anxiety and fear, and been roundly criticised by MPs.

Now, Britons are regularly accused of taking more “sickies” than other Europeans, though the hard evidence on the big sickness-absence picture suggests something rather different. In 2010, a TUC survey found that 36% of people had gone to work while too ill to do so in the previous 12 months. More conclusively, a 2009 study found that UK sickness absence rates were the second-lowest in Europe: we come in at 5.5 days per year, the European average is 7.4, and in Bulgaria, the figure is a mind-boggling 22.

Bear in mind also that Britons continue to put some of the longest working hours in the developed world, which shrinks the proportion of time lost to sickness even further.

Besides, the brief sickie is not where this review is chiefly aimed.

As is becoming the norm, it targets the “long-term sick” – that is, people on illness-related benefits, part of that great imaginary army who are implicitly accused by ministers of swinging the lead, on an almost weekly basis. As the review’s authors see it, there are “serious flaws” in the way we treat them, and far more should be redirected to work as quickly as possible. To quote from the text:

“Each year 300,000 people fall out of work on to health-related state benefits.
“Before reaching this point, many have been long-term sick off work. Much absence and inactivity is due to comparatively mild illness which is compatible with work – and may indeed be improved by work.”

Best, then, to get after these not-really-very-sick people, and quick.

The backdrop to all this is the fact that Britain is hardly without chronic issues of widespread mental illness, along with cancer, diabetes and other long-term complaints – all of which require much more nuanced and long-term action than the coalition’s punitive approach on welfare changes promises. Even in the Daily Telegraph, which seems to have been cheerleading for the review for a while, you will find sentences such as this: “Of course, people are ill, often with chronic conditions which need long-term management and may mean significant periods of quite justified time off.”

But by way of a copper-bottomed argument against these new moves, try this: in the current climate, even if there are indeed some issues surrounding benefit claims and people’s readiness for work, now is hardly the time to be using such a swivel-eyed approach. For supporting evidence, have a look at this week’s Economist, which quotes one Jonathan Cheshire, the boss of a Hampshire charity that has got 4,000 erstwhile benefit claimants into work over the last 10 years, but which now faces increasingly difficult circumstances. “Mr Cheshire applauds the government’s goal to simplify welfare and make work pay,” says the piece, “but worries that the policy was designed for the labour market of 2008. The whole approach rests on expanding the pool of employable labour, with intensive careers guidance paid for by welfare savings, he notes. ‘Without jobs growth, none of this works.’”

Quite so. But is anyone in Whitehall listening?

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