Last week plans for big changes in incapacity benefits were unveiled by Work and Pensions Secretary Alan Johnson.
The new plans would see incapacity benefit split into two new benefits: Rehabilitation Support Allowance and Disability and Sickness Allowance. This would differentiate between those on incapacity benefit who have a “severe condition” and those with “potentially more manageable conditions”.
How would the new system work?
1. Initially people would be put on a ‘holding benefit’ of about £55 per week. Within 12 weeks they would have a medical assessment plus an Employment and Support Assessment. Then they would have access to the new benefits.
2. After the assessments, those who have “potentially more manageable” conditions – which will be about 80 per cent of claimants according to the Government – would receive the Rehabilitation Support Allowance. This would offer everyone a basic benefit at about £55, but allow people to get more money, first by attending Work Focused Interviews, and then by taking steps to get back to work.
3. Those assessed to be severely ill – about 20 per cent of those on incapacity benefit by the Government’s estimate – would automatically receive around £80 per week on the Disability and Sickness Allowance. They would be able to volunteer to take up employment support.
What do people think about the new plans?
Announcing the new plans, Work and Pensions Secretary Alan Johnson said: “Our radical reform should mean that sickness benefit represents a pause in people’s working life, not a full stop. Our agenda is one of rights and responsibilities: we can expect more of people as long as we safeguard their right to financial security and expand their opportunities to engage with the labour market.”
But reaction to the new plans has been mixed. The main concerns of critics are that:
• someone with a mental illness might come across as difficult or unwilling, and this could prevent them from getting higher benefits
• judging who is severely ill and who is ‘potentially more manageable’ will be more difficult when it comes to mental illness, particularly if severe mental illness is not properly understood by assessors
• the pressure to get back to work might worsen the condition of people with a mental illness.
Bill Walden-Jones, Chief-Executive of Welsh mental health charity Hafal, explained:
“Changes to incapacity benefit are needed. Like many other organizations, we support the notion of getting people into work – and we have our own Wales-wide Back to Work initiative and have just employed a Back to Work Co-ordinator to take that forward.
“However, we are very concerned that people with a mental illness may be penalized under the new system. This could easily happen if they are not recognized as severely ill, or if they are judged to be uncooperative when in fact it is their illness that makes them appear so, and consequently they receive a lower benefit rate.”
When will the changes happen?
Should Labour win the next general election later this year, the new proposals would be piloted and consulted on with all key stakeholders including disabled people. The goal of the Government would then be for key elements to be in place for new claimants by 2008.
Where can I find out more?
Mental Health Wales will keep you up to date on any developments in the reform of incapacity benefit. For in-depth information you can also visit:
The Department for Work and Pensions site to read the full 5 Year Strategy.
The Policy Study Institutes site to find out more about the Incapacity Benefit Reform Pilots.