There is an interesting debate emerging at present about sickness and disability benefits in the UK. The interest is not in the quality of ideas on display or of the debate itself. For me, the interst is in the degree to which the obvious questions are not being asked.
It is taken for granted that the numbers receiving long-term benefits related to sickness or disability which limit a person’s availability for work are too high. Numbers are around 2.6 million in some sources, though there does appear to be some confusion between different sources. We have heard stories of the numbers receiving benefits for what appear to be spurious reasons. Some have severe acne, we are told. Some are too fat to work. Some are too thin, or rather suffer from eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia.
The government is trying to reduce this number by changing the nature of the medical assessment that forms part of the decision-making process. Rather than simply accept evidence of incapacity, evidence should now identify what people can do. So instead of signing people off work as sick, doctors will need to sign people as capable of certain types of work. This seems to make sense and might, indeed, lead to a change in numbers over time (though even the government puts this at a very low level).
This morning, the discussion has recognised that there is no way of translating this assessment into employement in practice. Just because someone is capable of performing some types of work, it doesn’t mean those jobs are available or that the person will get the job. So what sanctions are there? Do they become, in effect, unemployed? Or is their incapacity in some way to be recognised in the benefits they are awarded?
But why are the numbers on these benefits so high? Is this not the most basic question we should ask? Rather than look at big numbers and extreme examples, should we not be better informed about the people we are talking about? And there is a history to this debate. It has gone on for 20 years and more in the UK.
It has long been recognised that sickness benefits are used to give people a degree more comfort than simply being unemployed. There is less supervision (e.g. there is no requirement to seek work) and the money is better. It has been the refuge for people injured at work or made redundant with no realistic prospect of another job. And often, these have combined, so that former miners with lung diseases or injuries in a depressed economic area might sign-on as sick rather than unemployed. Now they are to be told that they can use a keyboard or wash dishes in a restaurant. What have we really gained?
Yes, there are cases of abuse. Yes, some doctors sign people off sick when they perhaps should not. But those are different matters. And we can also point to the sorts of stupid decisions that benefit officials have made in the past. I recall stories of a woman being told to take a job as a model or lose her benefit. I guess we are all capable of that to some degree. But should we be obliged to do work we may have good reason to object to?