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Stephen  Bevan

Welfare reform for workers with chronic illness

Authors: Stephen Bevan Stephen Bevan

04 October 2010

One of the ‘hot’ issues being debated at the Conservative Party Conference this week is welfare reform. While the headlines will be about changes to universal benefits (eg Child Benefit) and about how savings can be made from the welfare budget, the proposals which will affect people with chronic illness are worth a closer look.

 Yesterday ( 3 October 2010)  I chaired a Work Foundation fringe meeting at the conference with Lord Freud, Minister for Welfare Reform. We were joined by Phil Gray, Chief Executive, Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, Paul Jenkins, CEO, Rethink and Alistair Dornan, Head of Wellness and Productivity Management, Right Management. In a lively session we discussed the implications of a recent Work Foundation report called Body & Soul which highlights the increased risk that workers with chronic illnesses like diabetes, coronary heart disease and musculoskeletal disorders have of developing mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

 One of the Coalition Government’s proposals involves supporting people back to work through the use of a phased or ‘tapered’ benefit which will mean that there is no financial penalty to returning to work compared with languishing on benefits. These proposals echo schemes now being used internationally (eg in Scandinavia and Israel) where benefits are paid on a ‘sliding scale’ which is linked to the percentage of work disability an individual has. This means that a worker with a work disability who phases their reintegration into the workplace can do so without suffering a financial disadvantage.

 If this implemented in the UK – and we still have to see the detail of these proposals – then it offers the opportunity for people with chronic health conditions to phase their return to work gradually and give employers to chance to make workplace adjustments which support successful rehabilitation. However, it is important that any changes to these benefits are also accompanied by improved support for employees and employers. Only in this way can we make sure that return to work is sustained and that we avoid the ‘revolving door’ between welfare and work which has characterised the experience of too many people in recent decades.