This week the UK government announced a major consultation designed to encourage people living with disabilities to return to, or enter, the workplace.  The steering committee will assess those with physical and mental issues and search for options including part-time employment and working from home, with skills training and tailored assistance programmes to be offered to enable more people to lead productive lives in future. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated ‘Work transforms lives – providing not just greater financial security, but also providing purpose that has the power to benefit individuals, their families, and their communities.  That’s why we’re doing everything we can to help them take advantage of modern working environments and connecting them to the best support available’.   And Mel Stride, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions added ‘Anyone helped towards work through these proposals would receive appropriate support tailored to their individual circumstances, allowing them to safely access the life-changing impacts that work can provide.’  He told the Commons one in five people deemed too sick to work want to have a job, adding the rise in homeworking since the pandemic has opened more opportunities for sickness and disability claimants “to start, stay and to succeed in work”.

The UK is currently grappling with the dichotomy of thousands of well-paying job vacancies in all the major cities juxtaposed with many more people living on benefits and seemingly unwilling to take up the slack; this is due in no small part to the generous unemployment benefits system in the country which in many cases makes it financially more beneficial to claim allowances rather than take up part-time or full-time employment.    Currently there are around 3.5 million unemployed around the country, a figure which includes both able-bodied job seekers and those deemed medically unfit, including both physical disabilities and mental illness.  The consultation is designed to examine ways to encourage some of those adults through a major Work Capability Assessment, following the Health and Disability White Paper published earlier this year.  According to the government website, ‘Changes represent the next step in welfare reform, reflecting the rise of flexible and home working and better employer support for disabled people and people with health conditions….they also reflect that one in five of those with no work preparation requirements would like to work at some point in the future, with the right support…..the consultation will go further to facilitate appropriate work opportunities for people, by reviewing a range of categories in the assessment designed to determine what activity people can do and how that affects their ability to work.  Those found capable of work preparation activity considering the proposed changes would receive tailored support, safely helping them to move closer to work and ensuring a significant proportion of people are not automatically excluded from the support available.’ 

Jane Gratton, Deputy Director of Public Policy at the British Chambers of Commerce explained that ‘Across the country, businesses are crying out for workers to fill job vacancies.  Being employed has many positive benefits for people, so it makes sense to help everyone who wants to work to find a good job that meets their needs and personal circumstances.  Employers understand this and want to be as flexible as possible to assist. To be effective, it’s crucial that, both sides, have the right support in place for as long as needed to help people find work, stay in work and have fulfilling careers.  The Work Capability Assessment is being reviewed to ensure it reflects the latest opportunities for employment support, so that growing numbers of people are not missing out on the help available, particularly given the known health benefits from working.’

The consultation and subsequent implementation have its emphasis on the physical and mental health benefits to being in work, even if that work is done from home.  Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, Tom Pursglove, confirmed these objectives, stating ‘I am incredibly passionate about supporting disabled people to have the most fulfilling life possible, including through work, and these proposals would enable us to provide help to people who could benefit greatly from it. We will continue to look at ways to safely support more disabled people into work, unlocking all the positive wellbeing benefits that it brings.’

There is already currently a £2 billion (30 billion Pula) government investment programme helping those with long-term illnesses and disabilities get into work, and funding for work coaches to help people who need further support.  This includes the new Universal Support programme assisting people with health conditions by matching them with vacancies and providing support and training to help them start and stay in that role.

However, charities worry the changes could force people to work when they are not well enough and make them more ill, though this has been strenuously denied by its supporters.  And cynics have pointed out that this 18-month consultation will be interrupted by the 2024 election and what many predict will be a change in government from Tory to Labour, the latter likely to cancel the scheme completely or ignore the Consultation’s conclusion.  And of course, no matter how empathetic the philosophy nor how accommodating are the rehabilitation options, this will not be for everyone.  There are those too mentally and physically incapacitated that they are simply unable to function as members of the workforce.  So, it is vital that persuasion, not pressure, is the watchword of the day but those who can be helped, should and those who simply can’t, should continue to receive sympathy, support and financial security.