Suggested Shake-Up of Sickness Benefits Continues Two Decades of Attack on the Long-Term Sick

25/08/2015 16:34 BST | Updated 24/08/2016 10:59 BST

In an interview with the Press Association yesterday (24th August) IDS repeats many of the old mantras we have heard for the past twenty years:

Work is good for you... assessments should be about what you can do rather than what you can't do... stop parking people beyond work...

And in a speech given earlier today, he repeats other mantras garnered from the last two decades:

Benefits paid more than having a job... trapped in a [benefits] system with no hope... worklessness had become ingrained... sickness benefit culture... languishing in a life without work...

Whilst these sound-bites can sound, to the uninitiated, as though they are about positively supporting people, in practice they rely on misunderstandings of long-term sickness, as well as many misunderstandings of the social security system that there isn't space or time to go into here.

Work is not necessarily good for you when you are long-term sick. There are features of work that are beneficial, such as having adequate and secure income, having social interaction, and having some fulfilling and enjoyable activity to engage in. These are not always features of low-paid McJobs, and they can be features of combining secure social security with volunteering, community work or caring roles.

Much focus is made on sickness absenteeism and sick pay, but less attention is given to the impact of sickness presenteeism. The evidence is that turning up to work when sick leads to more sick days in the future, thought to be due to making oneself more ill by working when sick. People often return to work too soon, due to pressures of financial need and a desire to be perceived by colleagues as a dedicated worker.

There is no evidence that the work ethics of people with long-term sickness are any worse than the average person, and in some respects they are better. Studies frequently find that the long-term sick want to work - which is not the same as being able to work, but does show that fecklessness is unlikely to be the problem here.

IDS criticises ESA and the Work Capability Assessment for being binary (can or can't work), for incentivising people to find reasons why they can't work, for creating a sickness benefit culture. He ignores the Work Related Activity Group, a feature of ESA that makes it distinct from previous sickness benefits, and means that some people considered too sick to work have to prepare for work in order to receive benefit. He ignores the failing of the Work Programme to assist these people, and the way in which it is applied that results in increasing pressure, insecurity and ill-health for those mandated to be involved. He insists that ESA means being capable of all work or capable of none, forgetting (ignoring?) that people on ESA are allowed to work up to 16hours a week, and that if a person wants to try more hours beyond this after being on ESA for six months they will then be able to claim disability tax credits. It's not a well-functioning system, with too much risk of being told you're fit for all work before you are, but it's not an all-or-nothing system either.

There are many flaws with ESA, the WCA and the Work Programme, but they are not the flaws posited by IDS. Rather, it is the lack of security, the lack of support and the lack of compassion in the system that is causing many problems for those with long-term sickness. As IDS himself says,

"The more that people feel there's someone with them, helping them get over the hurdles back to work and to stay in work, the more likely their lives will change for the better."