Iain Duncan Smith: A helping hand back to independence

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THERE is one area of welfare reform which we haven’t focused on enough – how work is also good for your health.

Growing evidence over the last decade has shown work can keep people healthy as well as help promote recovery if someone falls ill.

By contrast, there is a strong link between those not in work and poor health so it is right that we look at how the system supports people who are sick and helps them into work.

Let me be clear… a decent society should always recognise that some people are unable to work because of physical or mental ill health – or both. Despite the scaremongering, we in this country spend more on sick and disabled people than the OECD average.

However we are seeing a continued rise in the number of disabled people getting into work. The latest figures show a rise of more than 200,000 disabled people who are now in work compared to the same time last year. That’s now over three million disabled people who are in employment.

Yet, this is only the beginning. For we know there remains a gap between the employment rate of disabled and non-disabled people. We want to ensure everyone has the opportunity to transform their lives for the better by getting into work. That’s why, as part of our one nation approach, we have committed to halving this gap. On current figures, that means getting one million more disabled people into work.

I want to be clear – this employment gap isn’t because of a lack of aspiration on the part of those receiving benefits. In fact, the majority want to work or stay in work, but I believe this gap exists because of two factors.

First, some employers are reluctant to employ people with disabilities. That is why I have set up the “Disability Confident” campaign. This shows employers that the reality is quite different from the perception. Once employed, people with disabilities are in the vast majority of cases more productive than others.

Second, the poor quality of support they receive leads too many sick and disabled people languishing in a life without work, when work is actually possible for them.

It is why I want to look at the support people receive right from the start when they first get sick – which can very often be from their employer. Too many businesses do not pay any attention to the health condition of an employee who has fallen ill. The employee goes to their doctor, and after a short assessment, their doctor signs them off work. Too often, even early on, no one at work maintains regular contact with them. And after successive sick notes, their original condition then gets worse.

An opportunity to keep the prospect of a return to work within sight is lost. Instead, they move onto sick pay, and then at some point are left to cascade onto sickness benefit. This has become a damaging cycle which affects everyone.

Instead, employers need to recognise the importance of staying in touch with their staff when they get sick and of providing early support to someone to stay in work or get back to work. It makes sense to ensure that a fellow human being isn’t written off with all the negative consequences that follow for them and their families.

Some companies understand this. Sadly, this is however, by no means common practice.

Other countries do this better than us and it’s something that both the private and public sector in Britain need to get much better at. But employers can’t do it alone – GPs are also vital in this process.

They need to see the health benefits for their patients of early support and a return to work. The good news is that now businesses and GPs will be able to use the new Fit for Work service that is being rolled out by us. So, instead of asking, “how sick are you?” the new service asks “what help can we give you now that will help and keep you close to your job?”

As part of our One Nation approach, we are committed to continuing to reform the system so that it travels with people through every step of their journey from dependence to independence.

When we achieve that, we will finally have a welfare system fit for the 21st century… a welfare system that focuses on those most in need, and helps ensure that, people who can, become independent from the state and live better, more fulfilled lives.

Iain Duncan Smith is the Work and Pensions Secretary who delivered a policy speech on welfare reform. This is an edited version.