Sickness benefits overhaul could make disabled people more ill, charity warns

'We are here for those who genuinely cannot work', insists the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, as he announces plans to overhaul sickness benefits for thousands

By ITV News Westminster Producer Lucy McDaid and ITV News' Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana

Plans to overhaul sickness benefits could force huge numbers of disabled people to look for work even if they're not well enough, a major charity has warned.

Ministers have outlined proposals to increase the number of long-term sick people seeking employment, as the number not in work reaches a record high of more than 2.5 million.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions told MPs on Tuesday that thousands will be better supported to find jobs through changes to the Work Capability Assessment (WCA).

But it's a move that will make it more difficult for people with long-term health conditions to claim sickness benefits, which the government hopes will save billions of pounds.

Anushka Asthana asks Mel Stride: 'The amount you're spending on incapacity benefits has ballooned. This is really about saving costs, isn't it?'

What is WCA and what is being proposed?

  • The WCA is a test issued by the DWP to help decide whether a welfare claimant is eligible for sickness benefits

  • It rules whether you have 'limited capability for work' or 'limited capability for work-related activity' - the latter identifies you as someone with such a severe physical or mental health condition that you cannot be expected to work or apply for work

  • Ministers are proposing to update the categories linked to mobility and social interaction so people can be deemed fit for flexible and/or home working

Disability equality charity, Scope, told ITV News the proposals could end up forcing huge numbers of disabled people to look for work when they aren't well enough, potentially making them more ill.

James Taylor, the charity's executive director of strategy, said: “It’s right that the government wants to provide more relevant employment support to disabled people, but it must be flexible, and voluntary. "We’re worried these proposals will end up forcing huge numbers of disabled people to look for work when they aren’t well enough, making them more ill. If they don’t meet strict conditions, they’ll have their benefits stopped. In the grips of a cost-of-living crisis this could be catastrophic."

" Is this about improving employment outcomes for disabled people, or is this about reducing benefit spend", added Mr Taylor.

Last month, ITV News heard concerns that cuts to disability benefits could be on the horizon by the Treasury in a bid to save money - the huge rise in claimants both during and after the coronavirus pandemic resulted in a substantial increase in spending on disability benefits.

But ITV News has now heard Rishi Sunak pulled plans to reform Personal Independence Payment (PIP) just a day before it was due to go out to consultation.

However, the DWP estimates proposed changes to the WCA could save it from a forecast spending increase of £3.4 billion over the next five years.

When quizzed about the financial element, Mr Stride said: "There's no point in spending money keeping people on benefit if they can work and benefit from work, and in many cases want to work. Why would you do that?"

Mel Stride announces plans to overhaul work capability assessments, including for people with mental health exemptions

The government is also looking at changing the substantial risk category, which excludes claimants otherwise capable of work-related activity from finding employment, on the basis it could cause them, or others, significant risk.

People with mental health conditions like anxiety, depression or psychosis could fall into this category.

"The original intention for substantial risk was for it to be advised only in exceptional circumstances," Mr Stride said on Tuesday.

"It was intended to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable, however the application of risk has gone beyond the original intent."

But Scope said this proposal is "especially worrying" as it threatens to remove the "safety net for people who are at risk to themselves or others by engaging with work."

Liz Kendall, the new shadow work and pensions secretary, hit back at Mr Stride's proposals to overhaul the system, pointing towards the record number of people waiting for a WCA and the number of long-term sick seeking treatment on the NHS.

She asked Mr Stride: "Where's the plan to help slash waiting lists for help with anxiety and depression, which we know is a major problem, or get the carers families need to look after sick and disabled relatives, so they themselves can work?"

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), more than half (53%) of those not able to work or look for work have a mental health condition such as anxiety, nerves or depression.

New shadow work and pensions minister, Liz Kendall, hits back at Mel Stride's plans to overhaul the Work Capability Assessment

Labour MP Debbie Abrahams, who sits on the Work and Pensions Select Committee, told ITV News the plans are "another way of restricting financial support to sick and disabled people."

"We need a social security system that is like the NHS, supporting all of us in our time of need, including sick and disabled people," added Ms Abrahams.

Commenting on the proposals, which will now be consulted on, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: "Work transforms lives – providing not just greater financial security, but also providing purpose that has the power to benefit individuals, their families, and their communities. “That’s why we’re doing everything we can to help more people thrive in work – by reflecting the complexity of people’s health needs, helping them take advantage of modern working environments, and connecting them to the best support available. “The steps we’re taking today will ensure no one is held back from reaching their full potential through work, which is key to ensuring our economy is growing and fit for the future.”

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