Fears over Equality Act threat in ‘sickness absence’ report


Recommendations in a major government-backed report on “sickness absence” have placed a worrying question-mark over vital new equality laws that protect disabled job-seekers from discrimination, say campaigners.

The health at work report was published last week and has already secured backing from the prime minister, David Cameron.

But hidden in the report is a recommendation to “reconsider” the new ban on employers using health questionnaires to discriminate against disabled job applicants, which was introduced through Labour’s Equality Act.

The measure only became law in October 2010 and was welcomed by disabled people’s organisations as a major step forward for disability rights.

Liz Sayce, chief executive of RADAR, said she would be “very concerned” if the government moved to scrap the measure, which she said would be “incredibly retrograde”.

The ban was first recommended by the Disability Rights Task Force in 1999, and Sayce said there had been a “huge amount” of discussion and research that showed the need to ban the use of such questionnaires.

She said: “This is not the time for reconsideration of proposals designed to enable more disabled people to get into employment.”

Sayce said there were “some positive things” in the report, particularly its focus on reducing the annual flow of 300,000 people who leave their jobs due to ill-health or disability.

But she said she had concerns about one of the report’s key recommendations, for the government to fund a new “independent assessment service”, to which employers or GPs could refer people who have been on sickness absence from work for more than four weeks.

Sayce said it would be crucial that any such service “understands the adjustments that people need, the support that might enable people to work”.

She said: “It must not be a clinical, medical assessment. It must be something that is much more social model.

“If it is only about checking up on people then it will not work well. People need something that is quite supportive.”

The report was written by Dame Carol Black, the government’s national director for health and work and a former president of the Royal College of Physicians, and David Frost, former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce. The government will publish a response to their review next year.

The report also calls on the government to scrap the 13-week “assessment phase” for employment and support allowance (ESA) – the new replacement for incapacity benefit – because of delays in completing the work capability assessment, which tests ESA eligibility.

The report says 11 million employees a year take sick leave, with about 300,000 going on to claim ESA. The authors claim their recommendations would cut the number of new ESA claims by half.

30 November 2011

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