Work-from-home plan to reduce UK's welfare bill

Test that measures if people are unable to work to be changed to encourage more disabled people to work

The new proposals are part of a post-pandemic drive to encourage more people with long-term conditions and disabilities into the workplace. Getty Images
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Benefits reforms are to be brought in to encourage people with disabilities to return to the workforce.

Those with disabilities could be given more help to work from home as part of plans to reduce the number of people claiming sickness benefits, the Work and Pensions Secretary said.

Mel Stride said new plans could lead to those with health conditions which have kept them out of work “given the right support and opportunities to move off benefits and towards the jobs market”.

Mr Stride said the government is considering changes to the Work Capability Assessment, the test aimed at establishing how much a disability or illness limits someone’s ability to work. He conceded, however, that necessary consultations would delay any changes until 2025, after a general election.

The new proposals are part of a post-pandemic drive to encourage more people with long-term conditions and disabilities into the workplace, following a £2 billion investment announced by ministers earlier this year.

An estimated 2.5 million incapacity claimants are currently registered as unable to work, while surveys suggest that about 500,000 of those wish to return to employment. Those unable to walk or wheel themselves 50 metres without discomfort are exempt from seeking work. But the surge in working from home since the pandemic means more people may be able to find employment, the government believes.

But disability charities say the changes could force people into work when they are not well enough.

Mr Stride told the House of Commons: “We know many people who are on out-of-work benefits due to a health condition want to work, and, assisted by modern working practices, they could do so while managing their condition effectively.

“We have seen a huge shift in the world of work in the last few years, a huge change that has accelerated since the pandemic.

“This has opened up more opportunities for disabled people and those with health conditions to start, stay and to succeed in work.”

He added: “The Work Capability Assessment doesn’t reflect how someone with a disability or health condition might be able to work from home, yet we know many disabled people do just that.

“Our plans include taking account of the fact that people with mobility problems or who suffer anxiety in the workplace have better access to employment opportunities from the rise in flexible and home working.”

He said that the changes would not affect those at the end of their life, or with severe learning difficulties or disabilities.

Mr Stride said a consultation on the changes would run for eight weeks, and that the government hopes they could come into force by 2025.

James Taylor, executive director of strategy at disability equality charity Scope, urged ministers to ensure new employment support for disabled people is “flexible, and voluntary”.

He said: “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.”

Sarah White, head of policy at national disability charity Sense, meanwhile, said the plans could “cause huge anxiety for disabled people up and down the country”.

“We’re seriously concerned that if the government does overhaul its assessment process without putting any additional support in place, then disabled people are just going to be put under more pressure to find work, without having the support they need to do so,” she said.

In the Commons, shadow work and pensions secretary Liz Kendall described the proposals as “tinkering at the edges of a failing system”.

She said: “But if you run your NHS into the ground for 13 years and let waiting lists for physical and mental health soar, if you fail to reform social care to help people caring for their loved ones, and if your sole aim is to try and score political points rather than reforming the system to get sick and disabled people who can work the help they really need, you end up with the mess we have today.

“A system that is failing sick and disabled people, that is failing taxpayers, and failing our country as a whole. Britain deserves far better than this.”

Conservative former minister Sir John Redwood said he strongly supports the initiative but urged Mr Stride and his officials to “speed it all up” rather than wait until 2025.

He said: “Why on Earth is it going to take so long? This is something we need to be doing now to ease our workplace shortages and to give those people earlier support and hope.”

Mr Stride said he shares Sir John’s eagerness to see changes made as soon as possible, adding: “It is the case they will require quite a lot of work around IT systems and the … providers themselves will of course have to incorporate the changes that may or may not come forward as a result of this consultation.”

Updated: September 06, 2023, 9:01 AM