Government policy in sore need of sick note

Posted by Alexander Hay

The coalition's plans to get the long term ill back to work are just a cynical attempt to reduce the welfare bill and pick on those least able to fight back

GET BACK TO WORK!!!Much as advertising relies on selling you a problem (and then the solution), so politics needs to sell a bogeyman (and then the grubby tissue used to wipe him away). A case in point are the government's plans to 'crack down' on disability benefit claimants:

A survey suggested 77% of GPs had admitted they signed people off sick for reasons other than their physical health, the report authors told the BBC.

Which is to say, the government is trying to claim this is proof that GPs are somehow unable to make the best decision as to their patients' health. There is a disturbing precedent being set here.

The real issue is depression which abounds in areas of extreme economic deprivation. Not coincidentally, these are also the places where the largest concentration of those who have been 'signed off'. But depression isn't a physical condition, even though it can make you unable to work, and so GPs are left in a quandary.

The government, however, isn't, and the real beneficiaries are made clear:

It is estimated the changes would send 20% of those off sick back to work.

The review also suggests tax breaks for firms which employ people who suffer from long-term conditions.

Yes, welfare for the long term ill is a bad thing, but corporate welfare is perfectly acceptable. Quite how anyone can be sure that the 20% in question is able to work in the first place has not been made clear. Presumably, crystal balls stop working if you try to explain their magic.

In truth, this is a money saving exercise with added bullying thrown in as an attempt to pressure people to not get signed off:

...If the recommendations are accepted people who are signed off sick would also be put on to Job Seekers' Allowance, instead of Employment Support Allowance, for a period of three months.

They would receive less money and have to prove they were looking for work...

Where to begin? How is it a good idea to insist that people who can't work look for a new job? If you're so ill that you get signed off, then thumbing through the 'vacancies' pages of your local newspaper may be somewhat low down in your list of priorities. For the government, it's not whether the benefits go to the right people, but whether they can avoid paying anything out at all:

BBC political correspondent Robin Brant said the new service was likely to assess people "more quickly and more stringently".

Which is code for rushing through the process so the claimant has less of a chance to make their case. The real goal is made very clear:

The report authors estimate the changes could save taxpayers at least £350m each year.

So just as long as those taxpayers don't get ill, they'll be getting value for money. As welfare minister Lord Freud (whose expertise in the matter of benefits and poverty comes from, err, being a business journalist and making lots of money) inadvertently revealed on last Saturday's edition of the Today programme, it's more about the morality of making people work and not cost anyone money (or "fewer wasted lives" as he piously put it) than looking after people and trying to find what's best for them.

Meanwhile, the media reports benefits cheats as if they're commonplace occurrences. Sadly, being too depressed or pain-wracked to work doesn't make for good copy, by contrast.

And as for the real implications of the plan, senior BMA member Dr Richard Vautrey may diplomatically say its intentions are good, yet he knows only too well what they will really mean:

"But if it turns out to be a punitive process just to try and save money without the best interests of the patient at the heart of the process then it will fail."

And of course, this will be what it really is - as the poor, vulnerable and infirm are forced into the workplace, resolving a problem the government is desperately trying to sell us. Facing up as to how endemic social and economic problems ruin people's health or make the workplace so inimical to the disabled, meanwhile, are overlooked, perhaps because that too would be an expensive kindness, and it is always cheaper to be cruel.


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Alexander Hay

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