Plans to make even seriously ill or disabled people work without pay, or risk having their benefits cut, have met with wide criticism. There will be no time limits on such work placements, to be introduced when the Welfare Reform Bill has been passed by the UK Parliament.
There has been much criticism of often inaccurate “work capability assessments”, carried out by private company Atos to decide whether sick and disabled people should receive employment and support allowance. Decisions to refuse this benefit are frequently overturned on appeal. But now, even those whose claim is accepted could (with a few exceptions) be ordered to undertake unpaid work if a job advisor thinks it appropriate.
Those potentially affected include people with terminal cancer who are expected to live for more than six months, those badly injured in accidents and people with severe mental health problems. Under a clause in the controversial Bill, those in the work-related activity group may be required to undertake “work experience” or a “work placement”.
If someone is unwilling to take part or too sick, weak or confused to get to the workplace to which they are ordered to go, they may face financial penalties. “Ministers strongly feel there is a link-up to support those moving close to the labour market, and the individual's responsibility to engage with the support. Ministers feel sanctions are an incentive for people to comply with their responsibility," officials explained.
Being left without enough money for food and heating can cause particular problems for those already experiencing illness or impairment. These include older workers who worked for decades (and paid national insurance) until their health gave out, but have not yet reached retirement age. Those who are religiously inclined may pray, as the psalmist did thousands of years ago, that “the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever“(Psalm 9.18).
This is possibly one of the least cost-effective of the harsh welfare reforms introduced in recent years, many of which may cost more than they save. Consultant-led medical teams may battle to save patients’ lives and improve their quality of life as far as possible, investing valuable resources, only to have their good work undone.
The annoyance of health professionals and carers is unlikely to carry much weight with the government. But politicians may be concerned if the measure proves counter-productive both for them and their partners, for instance supermarkets using apparently free labour.
The amount of work these will get out of people forced on to such schemes may be minimal – for instance someone with advanced lung disease or muscular dystrophy is hardly likely to be the quickest at stacking shelves. And if someone dislocates or breaks a limb or collapses with a stroke or heart attack, the company may face expensive legal action, as well as serious reputational damage. There is also a possibility of sabotage from disaffected workers who have little left to lose.
The government too – in addition to the legal hazards – may find that this savage measure helps to turn the tide of public opinion against the welfare reforms, especially since many people will have friends or relatives at risk. If ministers are wise, they will drop the plans now.
* More information, with links to documents, can be found on http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/feb/16/disabled-unpaid-work-benef... 
(c) Savi Hensman is a Christian commentator on society, politics and belief. She works in the care and equalities sector, and is an Ekklesia associate.