The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has refused to confirm reports that it plans to force more sick and disabled people into work through its imminent shake-up of employment support.
In an interview with the Daily Mail, work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith referred to the “sickness benefit culture” and issued new hints about the content of a white paper, expected in the next few months, which will set out his plans to reform employment support for disabled people.
The newspaper suggested that Duncan Smith (pictured) wanted people currently claiming employment and support allowance (ESA) – the out-of-work disability benefit – to face a new test that would find out “what they are able to do”.
They would then be “found work for around ten hours a week, or whatever is possible”, while “those who repeatedly refuse could have their support cut”, although “inevitably some claimants will still be judged unable to work at all”, according to the Mail.
It also reports that GPs will be told to “refer the long-term sick to back-to-work programmes”.
Duncan Smith is “particularly keen to target those signed off work with conditions related to their mental health”, the Mail added.
Duncan Smith is reported to have told the Mail: “The sickness benefit culture in this country is in dire need of reform… I want those who remain trapped and isolated on welfare to move from dependence to independence.”
Duncan Smith had already said in a speech last August that he believed there was a “fundamental flaw” at the heart of the ESA system, and that its much-criticised eligibility test, the work capability assessment, was at odds with universal credit, the government’s new, simplified, working-age benefit system.
Disabled activists warned then that they did not believe the government had any intention of designing a new system that empowered disabled people, rather than subjecting them to blame and punishment.
They said they feared and suspected that Duncan Smith’s reforms would be aimed instead at cutting support even further.
The reaction from some activists this week suggests that those fears were justified and that he is planning to introduce a new form of workfare for disabled people previously considered “not fit for work”.
Disabled campaigner and blogger Mx Sumpter, who tweets at @latentexistence, said Duncan Smith’s plans would “turn ESA into JSA [the mainstream out-of-work benefit]”.
Sumpter added: “Where are all these employers that IDS thinks will hire sick and disabled people for 10 hours a week? He means workfare. Tell me how this is different from the Workhouse.”
But when asked to confirm the accuracy of the Daily Mail article, and the comments attributed to Duncan Smith, a DWP spokeswoman said: “The work and pensions secretary of state outlined his intention to reform the WCA in a speech last year.
“Further details will be set out when we publish the white paper.”
She then added lengthy briefing notes containing details of government policies on the WCA and ESA, employment, the government’s Disability Confident scheme, and its target to halve the disability employment gap.
She was asked again to confirm the accuracy of the Daily Mail article and Duncan Smith’s comments, but by noon today (21 January), had failed to do so.