The Government has announced more information about its plans to get the sick back to work as well as a stricter sanctions regime to get the long-term unemployed off benefits.
The Government is today launching its new WorkWell service which it says will support around 60,000 long-term sick or disabled people to start, stay and succeed in work as part of its £2.5 billion Back to Work Plan.
The service, announced in the Budget, will be rolled out in around 15 areas and aims to support people at risk of falling into long-term unemployment due to sickness or disability, through integrated work and health support.
The Government has also announced additional investment in four programmes to help those with mental or physical health conditions get back to work:
The Government has previously stated that participation in the programmes is voluntary.
In addition to the support, the Government is increasing sanctions for the long-term unemployed. Universal Credit claimants who are still unemployed after the 12-month Restart programme will have to take part in a claimant review point: a new process whereby a work coach will decide what further work search conditions or employment pathways would best support a claimant into work. If a claimant refuses to accept these new conditions without good reason, their Universal Credit claim will be closed. Moreover, they will be required to accept a job or to undertake time-limited work experience or other intensive activity to improve their employability prospects. If they don’t they will be sanctioned.
In addition the Government will close the benefits claims of individuals on an open-ended sanction for over six months and solely eligible for the Universal Credit standard allowance, ending their access to additional benefits such as free prescriptions and legal aid.
The Government says that, as a result of the reforms, “no claimant should reach 18 months of unemployment in receipt of their full benefits if they have not taken every reasonable step to comply with Jobcentre support”.
Ministers are also planning to trial reforms to the fit note process which they say will make it easier and quicker for people to get specialised work and health support.
Experts welcomed the focus on support, in particular the fact that the four support programmes mentioned are voluntary, but were concerned about the language used to describe the measures.
Tony Wilson, IES Director, said: “Today’s announcement of significant investment in employment support is welcome news, but it risks being drowned out by divisive rhetoric around ‘coasters’ who want to ‘take taxpayers for a ride’. This sort of language just pushes people away – alienating those who could benefit from support, alienating employers, and alienating partners like GPs and voluntary services.
“With more people out of work than before the pandemic, and most of these not required to attend jobcentres in the first place, we need to make employment support more open, accessible and supportive – based on ‘you can’ rather than ‘you must’. Ironically the substance of today’s announcements arguably get us closer to that point, but the language being used risks pushes us further away.”
There was also concern about the announcement on sanctions which Wilson said were “less positive”, in particular the emphasis on mandatory work placements which he said “looks to be an attempt to force more of the long-term unemployed off benefit if they don’t find jobs through Restart”. “These measures are very similar to those trialled by the Coalition government after the Work Programme – which didn’t work then and won’t work now either,” he said.