This week the Government announced the creation of a new Health and Work service. Once set-up, anyone off sick for more than four weeks will be offered a work-focused occupational health assessment to help them get back to work more quickly.
It is unclear at the moment how this will play out in practice. The service is intended to be non-compulsory, but so was the DWP's Universal job match service. However as of March last year, the Government announced that Jobseeker Allowance claimants could be mandated to use the service or risk losing their benefits. It isn't inconceivable either that an employer will coerce an employee to take part in an assessment with the implicit threat that failure to do so would be seen as proof that they aren't as ill as they say they are. With legal aid for work disputes now cut, an ill person may feel obliged to go through an assessment for fear of being sacked without financial recourse to appeal.
But my concern is that anyone who willingly agrees to a Health and Service review may well find the results come back to bite them. Someone sick for more than four weeks may well have applied, or be about to apply, for Employment and Support Allowance. This is paid out at the same rate as Job Seeker's Allowance, and is only increased to the higher amount after a person has been claiming for more than three months and once further information has been given to the DWP.
As it stands, in June last year the DWP introduced new rules as to who is eligible for ESA. These include harsh rules for disqualification for misconduct which state that the benefit can be withdrawn for up to six weeks if the claimant:
"fail without good cause to attend for or submit to medical or other treatment (excluding vaccination, inoculation or major surgery) recommended by a doctor with whom, or a hospital or similar institution with which, the claimant is undergoing medical treatment, which would be likely to remove the limitation on the claimant’s capability for work."
If a claimant has willingly attended an occupational review and has not implemented its suggestions because they do not agree with them, then it is conceivable that this refusal may well harm the person's right to access higher-rate ESA. And given the Government's track record with hiring companies like Atos who don't appear to understand the real nature of disability, it is conceivable that a person rejects the advice purely on the grounds that it conflicts with that given by their own GP or the self-knowledge they have built up over the years of managing a long-term condition.
Remember, 40% of people with long-term incurable illnesses have been told by Atos after an assessment that they are expected to recover.
It is also easily conceivable that a business will use the assessment, whether it is accurate or not, to claim that the person is well enough to return to work immediately, and if they do not do so will be at risk of being fired.
These are my early concerns and will hopefully not come to fruition. But as always with policies imposed upon disabled people rather than created through discussion with them, it will be disabled people who will have to bear the pain of this new policy if it does turn out to be another 'tool' to push people off benefits or back into work before they are well enough.