Not retiring: The Autumn Statement

The Autumn Statement promised cuts in National Insurance contributions, but had worrying news for anyone who may become sick or disabled and little on boosting the care infrastructure.

Middle aged man, clutching his shoulder whilst a doctor examines him indicating occupational health or chronic pain

 

The Autumn Statement touched on many areas that affect older workers. While the headlines were about National Insurance contribution cuts [2% for the employed and abolition of Class 2 contributions and a 1% cut in Class 4 contributions], a rise in the minimum wage and investment in business, there was also a tightening of benefits rules around sickness and disability and little mention of public services. Benefits such as Universal Credit will rise in line with the September inflation figure and the triple lock has been maintained for the state pension, but it could be harder in future to claim sickness and disability benefit.

While much attention before the Statement focused on unpaid work placements for people who have been out of work for 18 months or more, with benefits being stopped for those who don’t engage, this is thought to be a very small number. Many more will be affected by the changes proposed to Work Capability Assessments [which will apply only to new claimants, or those being reassessed, and not before 2025] which aim to push more of the sick and disabled into conditionality, meaning they could face sanctions if they fail to comply with the rules on job search.

The Government says it is increasing support to help those with health issues and disabilities into work, but there has not been a lot of flesh on the bones of what that support might look like. It is thought that for mental health it will involve ‘talking therapies’ – likely to be cognitive behavioural therapy – although it is unclear who will carry this out, given there are long waiting lists for CBT on the NHS. The Government also says many people could work from home, but the number of jobs offered on a work from home basis has flatlined, in part because of the push by the Government and its supporters to get people back to the office after Covid. There have also been concerns raised that working from home could increase mental health issues for some.

All of this comes amid many research reports highlighting that the threat of sanctions does nothing to help people stay in work. If anything, it increases anxiety and, if someone is already suffering from mental health problems, this could push them over the edge.

The number of people who are out of work due to health issues has been creeping up for years, but surged after Covid. There are many reasons for this and many people have a complex mix of physical and mental health ailments. The long waiting list for NHS and social care has not helped. Our annual survey shows 19% of older workers have had to drop out of work due to them or a dependent being on waiting lists; more have had to reduce their hours, meaning they will likely have to work longer. Financial troubles have worsened mental health, but so too has job insecurity. Good quality work is vital.

Many will be looking at the Autumn Statement and worrying. But it’s the people who will get sick or become disabled who have most to fear. That could be any of us. Mental health issues affect a large number of the population. Anything can tip people over the edge – from bereavement to accidents, physical health problems, losing your job or your house. There is often a cumulative effect. Having a safety net there to catch us is vital. That is, after all, partly what we pay into through our taxes. Yet we know that the care infrastructure has worsened considerably in the last years and that there are huge staffing issues in the NHS and social care. More and more is expected of informal carers, but they are only eligible for five days unpaid leave a year unless their employer has an enhanced scheme. Many drop out of the workforce.

The other thing is the kind of rhetoric that has been used around the announcement of the tightening of benefits. The impression given is that the sick and the disabled are somehow scroungers, that they have, in one minister’s words, ‘a duty’ to be at work. One commentator spoke of the “seriously unpleasant framing” by Jeremy Hunt suggesting the choice is fill job vacancies by making the sick work under the Conservatives or more immigration under Labour.

I speak to a lot of older workers. Many of them are keen to get into or stay in the workforce – after all, we are a jobs site. But they often face many barriers. Ageism for one, but also a range of health issues as well as access to care. Of course, that is not all older people, but it is a significant number. Many of these health problems mean they can’t work on a continuous basis or can’t do certain jobs. If you have severe arthritis, for instance, there may be times of the day or the week when the pain is too great to work. You need to be able to flex around that, but where are the jobs that allow that kind of flexibility? It’s not just about working from home. The issues are complex and there needs to be a proper safety net in place to support people. Additional support is a good thing. Many people on benefits want to work, but it should not be under the threat of sanctions and it should not be backed up by cruel rhetoric that shows zero humanity for the kind of situations many of us could find ourselves in.

*More details on the Autumn Statement can be found here.



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