Time to accept labour market realities for sick and disabled people

By Bernadette Meaden
February 28, 2016

When the government began reassessing Incapacity Benefit claimants in 2010, they expected the majority to be found fit to work. They believed their own spin, which implied that most claimants could work but were content to live on benefits. In reality, the vast majority of the people were found to be, indeed, unfit to work. 

With that attempt to cut the number of claimants failing spectacularly, the government has now decided to achieve the same saving by simply cutting the benefit, so that many sick and disabled people will in future receive no more than a healthy Jobseeker. The government says that this cut, which means people who are unfit to work will be expected to live on £73.10 per week, will 'incentivise' people to get a job.

 But is it the unbridled luxury of living on £102.15 per week that prevents sick or disabled people from working? Or is it very real barriers and employment practices which make it almost impossible for them to get or keep a job? Evidence would suggest that it is very much the latter.    

In 2010 Group Risk Developments (GRD), a trade organisation for the insurance industry, did a survey of employers. Expecting an influx of people found fit to work on to the jobs market, GRD wanted to know whether employers would re-employ a former worker who had lost their job due to illness or disability. They found that, "only eight per cent will accommodate a return to work for those whose Incapacity Benefit is withdrawn."

Now, if  only eight per cent of employers could accommodate an ex-employee returning, how much more reluctant would they be to take the perceived risk of employing a new person with a similar illness or disability? This is the reality of the jobs market for sick and disabled people.

Here is the government's own advice to employers on the government website:

"Sometimes an employee may have to stop working because of long-term ill health. They may resign, or you may have to consider dismissing them."

In law, if a person has a disability, the employer is required to make 'reasonable adjustments' to enable them to do the job, but the government advises employers,

'"f the employee can’t do their job because there are no reasonable adjustments that can be made, it may be fair for you to dismiss them, even if they’re disabled."

 Add to this the common practice of sacking people who take too much sick leave, and we can see that it is very difficult for a person with a long-term health condition to keep a job even if they manage to get one.

No matter how talented, committed and hardworking people are, there will be times when they cannot perform to their full capacity. One cannot be expected to work whilst simultaneously having an epileptic seizure, an angina attack, or a bout of vomiting. And if a job applicant is honest with a prospective employer, disclosing that these things could happen in the workplace, how many employers will be undeterred, go ahead and offer that person a job?

The government's customary answer when barriers to employment are raised is to quote its Disability Confident campaign, or the amount of money it will spend on disability work coaches. But in September 2015 we learned that only 68 employers in the whole of the UK were 'active partners' in the Disability Confident campaign. And between 2011 and 2015, the number of disability employment advisors was cut from 226 to just 90, again for the whole of the UK. 

In the real world, in a real jobs market, the government's current policy of cutting ESA to encourage disabled people to find a job is akin to throwing everybody out of an aircraft whilst thinking about ordering a few parachutes.

 Instead of always looking at disabled people and asking why they aren't getting jobs, let's start looking at employers and asking why they aren't employing people who are sick or disabled, and why they dismiss workers when they get ill. Not to challenge employers in a hostile or an accusatory way, but so that the government and public can understand the barriers to work, and see why reducing people's incomes before these barriers are removed is simply cruel. That would be the honest and realistic thing to do. 

As the situation for sick and disabled people deteriorates with every step the government takes, Pat's Petition has today released a statement which calls for the scrapping of ESA, to be replaced by a new benefit, paid, "without conditionality, to anyone who cannot find work because of reduced productivity."

This recognises the harsh reality of current barriers to work in a highly competitive jobs market. The statement has the support of a diverse group including disabled people, academics, and trade unionists, and would welcome support from all quarters. Please read the full statement (click here)and add your support if you agree. Until the jobs market improves and becomes more accessible, pressuring people and cutting their benefits is simply punishing them for a situation that is largely beyond their control.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

*Ekklesia's research into alternatives to the work capability assessment is currently in progress, the report will be published in the early summer

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