A government consultation will look at introducing more stringent rules for people to qualify for out-of-work sickness benefit
“Just like physical illness, working from home when mentally unwell stops people performing at their best and can delay their recovery. People must take time off if they need to, regardless of where they are working.” Vicki Nash, associate director of external relations, Mind
The government is to reform disability benefit assessments to encourage more people with long-term illnesses, such as mental health conditions, back into work.
Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary, announced a consultation on Tuesday into how benefit assessments can be changed so that people with certain health conditions are motivated to rejoin the workplace.
Stride cited the example of mental health problems, arguing that the increase in flexible and home working “brought new opportunities for disabled people to manage their conditions”. If employers could improve their understanding of mental health conditions, that would also make it easier for people to find working conditions that suit them, he said.
Earlier this year, the government published a Health and Disability White Paper, which included proposals to remove the work capability assessment – currently used to assess whether someone is well enough to work – by 2029. The new proposals outlined in the consultation are an interim measure that would tighten the criteria used in the work capability assessment, reducing the number who qualify for benefits.
“The scale of our reforms means it will take time to implement, but there are changes we can make more quickly that will also make a difference,” Stride said. “So before the White Paper reforms come in, I want to make sure that the work capability assessment – the way we assess how someone’s health limits their ability to work and therefore what support they need – is delivering the right outcomes and supporting those most in need.” The reforms proposed in the consultation will not come into force before 2025, he said, after the general election.
Under the changes proposed by Stride, people who no longer qualify as having “limited capability for work related activity” would lose approximately £400 a month in additional payments, and would be required to prepare for work or search for a job if they wanted to keep receiving the rest of their benefits.
The consultation will also look at the substantial risk category, where claimants who would otherwise be capable of work-related activity are excluded from work preparation requirements, on the basis that this could create a risk to themselves or others. It will consider whether the application of this category is being applied too broadly and excluding a significant number of vulnerable people from support that would prepare them to move closer to work, financial independence and a more fulfilling life.
There has been a large increase in the number of people classed as having “limited capability” to work, which has pushed up the benefits bill. The government is forecast to spend £26 billion on incapacity benefits this year, £6 billion more than before the Covid-19 pandemic.
The proposals have been greeted with concern by some economists and charities. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said the timeline of the proposed changes would lead to only limited savings.
Sam Ray-Chaudhuri, a research economist at the IFS, said: “Reforms implemented in the last three decades that were aimed at reducing the numbers moving onto disability and incapacity benefits have often failed to deliver the savings that had been claimed.
“It should also be remembered that just in March the government committed to scrapping the work capability assessment by 2029 that it is now proposing to tighten.
“This reform – which at its earliest will be implemented in 2025 and then will only apply to new claims and reassessments – will therefore at most deliver a short run saving before becoming irrelevant.”
Mental Health charity Mind said that the proposed reforms “will take away much needed financial support”.
Vicki Nash, associate director of external relations at Mind, said: “It is also untrue to say that people experiencing mental health problems can simply work from home instead.
“Just like physical illness, working from home when mentally unwell stops people performing at their best and can delay their recovery. People must take time off if they need to, regardless of where they are working.”
There are good arguments for encouraging people with long-term mental health problems into work. Keeping busy, having a routine and socialising with other people all have a positive impact on mental wellbeing. But mental health problems can also be debilitating, and forcing unwell people into work can be counterproductive. Charities are right to express concern that the proposed measures might simply take much-needed financial support away from people who are too unwell to work. We hope that the consultation leads to some considered reflection about how to encourage people into work if they can benefit from it, while continuing to support those who need to be given time to recover.