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Government plans to push disabled workers into employment condemned

A proposal to tighten access to benefits for those unable to work due to mobility or mental health issues has been slammed by legal and HR experts.

The proposed policy was set out on 5 September by work and pensions secretary Mel Stride and is expected to come into force by 2025. It includes:

  • Proposals to make it harder for those on long-term sick to claim benefits, which ministers argue could reduce the number of people unable to work.
  • Changes to benefits categories linked to mobility and social interaction, which can impact whether a person is required to look for work.
  • A focus on how new work practices, such as the ability to work from home, to enable more people deemed unable to work to access employment.
  • Rollout of tailored support for those with individualised needs.

Stride said: “[More people being deemed unable to work] is holding back the labour market and the economy but perhaps most important of all, it is holding back human potential.”

However, critics say the plans do not solve hiring problems or support issues for employees with additional needs.

Read more: Million more disabled people in work than five years ago

Jo Mackie, head of employment law at Lawrence Stephens, said the government cannot force genuinely disabled people into work and further measures are needed to close the UK’s skills gaps.

She told HR magazine: “The skills gap will be closed with investment in training and education, not by putting unskilled or unqualified people into roles they are not suitable for.

“Taking people into the workplace who are unwell and not able to perform at their best puts a business at great risk and it can make a business liable for disability discrimination claims, costing time and money… and will increase the burden on employers.”

Similarly, Kevin Poulter, employment partner at Freeths, said the plans will meet resistance from employers who have to accommodate needs and make health and safety assessments for those deemed able to work from home.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “For those with mental health disabilities, working away from the workplace or in isolation may not always be preferred or beneficial.

“And anyone returning to work after a long period of absence will require additional support from an employer, colleagues and possibly healthcare professionals.”

For Jim Moore, employee relations expert at Hamilton Nash, such a broad-brush approach fails to take into account the fact there are significant barriers to employment.

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “Reducing benefits and suggesting they work from home is not a magic wand that can make reasons [they cannot work] disappear.

“And managers and HR professionals may not have the resources or training to provide the high level of supervision and support that these individuals might require.”

Joseph Williams, CEO of Clu, said that while getting people with additional needs into work is good, workplace accessibility issues and a consideration of how to properly set them up for success need to be centre-stage.

He told HR magazine: “Setting them up for success and retaining them is the only way to shift economic mobility – and boost the economy.

“At Clu, we have seen countless cases of individuals who have been hired in the new wave of popularity for disabled hiring but, in the worst cases, had been neglected and subject to abuse.

“There is so much to gain from unlocking this incredibly talented, resilient, creative pool of problem-solvers but without access, equity and inclusion in the process it will go wrong.”

Currently, 2.4 million of the most unwell or disabled people claiming state support are categorised as having limited capability for work.

In June this year the Business Disability Forum’s (BDF) Great Big Workplace Adjustments Survey 2023 also found that reasonable adjustments are failing disabled employees as nine in 10 found it challenging to get what they need.