The Simon Heng Column

It appears the government has listened to disabled groups in putting together its plans for incapacity benefit reform – but only to a point.

Incentives like the Pathways to Work scheme, which offers financial incentives as well as a guarantee that people can return to their original benefit levels if their return to employment is unsuccessful, encouragement through work-focused interviews, and a higher rate of benefit for those who are “genuinely” incapable of work look like genuine improvements, as is the promise that assessments will focus on people’s capabilities rather than their disabilities.

Added to  the Access to Work programme, offering advice and financial support to employers who employ disabled people, and the anti-discrimination legislation, which will demand compliance from all employers, and tax credits, it would seem that disabled people will have unprecedented employment opportunities. And all of these acknowledge the social model of disability, rather than the medical model, and seem to be aimed at encouraging people to take responsibility for their lives, and to move out of a mentality of dependency.

But what about the other financial benefits – through income support – such as council tax relief, housing benefit and free prescriptions, which have kept many disabled people from destitution but also trapped them within the benefit system?

With proposals that GPs will receive  incentives to reduce the number of sick notes that they write, or that eligibility for incapacity benefit will be decided by interview – presumably by a civil servant – with reductions in benefits for those who don’t “co-operate”, I can see that many of my colleagues with less visible disabilities, with mental health problems, learning difficulties and variable conditions like ME, will be branded as workshy.

One other set of considerations: the government estimates that one million people will stop claiming incapacity benefit. Where will these jobs appear from? Many employers are prejudiced against employing disabled people, particularly those with mental health problems. Is anti-discrimination legislation going to be strong enough to deal with these prejudices?

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