Incapacity benefit proposals published today

The UK Government will today pledge to get 1 million people claiming incapacity benefit back into employment in the next decade. Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton will unveil a Green Paper on welfare reform that proposes a new benefits system aimed at getting those who can back to work.

Under the new proposals incapacity benefit will be replaced with an Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) with claimants split into two groups: those assessed to be permanently incapable of work, and those assessed as being capable of work given the appropriate training and support.

Those judged incapable of work will receive a greater payment than at present. Those judged to be capable of work will get support to become employed – or, if they refuse this help and do not attend work-focused interviews, they will have their benefits cut. The new system will also entail GPs working side-by-side with employment advisers to encourage patients on benefit back into work. Patients in work who request a sick note may be advised to find different jobs rather than go on benefit.

With around 40 per cent of incapacity benefit claims based mental illness, concerns have been voiced about how people with severe mental illness will be affected by the proposals. The main concerns are that:

• someone with a severe mental illness might come across as difficult or unwilling to cooperate, and this could prevent them from getting the higher payment

• judging who is severely ill and who is not will be more difficult when it comes to mental illness, particularly if severe mental illness is not properly understood by assessors, and people could be inappropriately assessed as being able to return to work

• 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 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.”

A pilot scheme of the new incapacity benefit system is expected be trialled in the South Wales Valleys. Mental Health Wales will keep you updated.