EMPLOYMENT is a form of “health treatment” for the sick and disabled, Tory work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has claimed as he unveiled his latest plans to reform the benefits system.
But the former Conservative leader, who famously discovered his zeal to overhaul the welfare system while on a visit to Easterhouse in Glasgow, has been accused by critics of “punishing” the most vulnerable with his “ideologically driven” proposals.
In a major speech in London, he denied that he had a target of taking a million disabled people off benefits, arguing it was sensible to ask whether individuals could do some work rather than writing them off altogether.
Mr Duncan Smith said: “The present system of sickness benefit has a problem. It has at its heart a test that asks a simple question – are you too sick to work or can you work full time?
“My answer is, that is the wrong question. Labour started this process and it has never quite worked in that regard.
“Quite often, people want to work if they are on sickness benefit, but they cannot work because they are not allowed to, otherwise they lose their benefits. So, we want to look at a process that allows us to be able to assess them properly, ask what can you do, not just what can’t you do.
“And actually then be able to say, ‘look, we want to get the right support for you and enable you to stay in touch with the world of work’.”
He said: “Work is actually a health treatment, in a sense. Those who are in work tend to be better and those who are out of work, on sickness benefit, tend to get their conditions worse.”
Asked how he would reassure Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claimants that they would be fairly treated, following heavy criticism of work capability tests, Mr Duncan Smith said: “The system will be about what can you do rather than what can’t you do. That’s the big change I want to make.
“I want to feel that we are saying to people, so you have a particular problem, what does that mean for you in terms of work?
“Can you do certain hours, can you do certain types of work? We will figure out what you can do and then help you get jobs that are able to do that.”
Mr Duncan Smith denied that he was committed to halving the number of disabled on ESA, insisting it had been Labour ministers who suggested a million claimants could be taken off the roster in 2008.
“I’m not in that prediction game. I think the whole objective here is to save lives, to help them get better lives,” he said.
Condemning the proposals, SNP social welfare spokeswoman Eilidh Whiteford MP said: “Ian Duncan Smith’s speech is his way of trying to hide further benefit cuts and is yet another example of the Tories’ ideologically-driven attack on our social security system. Once again, it is society’s most vulnerable who will suffer most as a result.”
Shadow health secretary and Labour leadership contender Andy Burnham said: “It’s clear that Iain Duncan Smith is now preparing a new attack on disabled people to cover for his own failures on social security.”
Charities and trade unions also raised concerns.
Fran Woodard, director of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “It is imperative that people with cancer only return to work when they are able to do so and have the correct support in place.
“The Government must now clarify how it will ensure any proposed changes to the benefits system will not negatively impact people with cancer.”
Mark Serwotka, of the PCS union, said: “The Government wants to cut the numbers of people on ESA by at least a million and appears intent on punishing those in need of support in order to meet that target.”