Disabled young man with an artificial leg is working at furniture factory
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A new UK policy will kick people off benefits if they don’t try to work

People who are chronically ill or disabled are likely to be particularly affected

Get back to work. That’s the - increasingly insistent - message being passed to UK residents by their government. In January, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt said Britain “needs” those who had retired early to return to the workforce. In May he suggested that in-office work should be the “default” because remote workers had less team spirit. Now, as part of his Autumn Statement, Hunt has unveiled a plan to “help up to 1,100,000 people with long-term health conditions, disabilities or long-term unemployment to look for and stay in work”. The government's implicit linking of the labour we do with our human value is not unusual in economic and policy circles. But does the idea stand up to scrutiny?

There are almost 68 million people currently living in the UK. Government figures guesstimate that just under 33 million of them, or about half, have paid jobs. There are a whole host of reasons why the other half don’t. Millions are too young and millions more are too old. Millions are doing something that is economically productive but unpaid: studying, training, providing care. Some people are not working because they do not want or need to, while about 80,000 are asylum seekers who the government bans from working. 1.45 million people are unemployed, which means they are actively searching for a job but have not yet landed one, and some 21,000 people are discouraged workers, which means they have given up looking for work because they’ve been unsuccessful. 2.6 million people are not working because of a long-term illness, and a further 180,000 are temporarily incapacitated.

It is these last few categories of non-workers that Hunt is targeting in his back-to-work bill, and specifically those who are using state support, such as Universal Credit, as a source of income while they are off work. His approach contains some carrots, including employment coaching, money for businesses to make accommodations for disabled or unwell workers, and more mental health funding. But the policy also comes with a whopping big stick: if the government thinks you’re not trying hard enough to get a job, you can now lose access to out-of-work benefits. (There are apparently exceptions for parents and disabled people.)

The government also wants to have the option to remove free prescriptions from benefit claimants as a punishment for not seeking work, to be able to track their phones to make sure they’re showing up at job fairs, to check their bank accounts to make sure they don’t have some savings they could use instead, and to be able to force these people to take on specific work placements or work experience. It’s also changing how sick notes work, asking medical professionals to use them to suggest how workplaces can accommodate unwell people, rather than signing them off from work entirely.  Unsurprisingly, this hostile approach hasn’t landed well with many people. Disability rights groups in particular have been vocal in pointing out that the policy will increase poverty, stress and ill-health for many already vulnerable people.

The government’s repeated attempts to get more people working (and working in person) suggests it believes that the higher the employment rate, the better things will be for both individuals and the country. It lists the benefits of more workers on its website: “growing the UK economy, managing inflation, controlling spending, improving living standards… good jobs are also good for individuals and the best route out of poverty”. There are truths behind these statements. Work is generally about productivity, or producing goods and services of value. More workers means more people who could be creating things of value, and more value being produced is how economic growth is traditionally defined. (Whether economic growth is actually a good thing is often challenged by new economy organisations and thinkers.) Achieving a certain standard of income is indeed a big predictor of life quality, and in general you will have more money if you work, not least because benefits are capped. (A single adult living outside of London can get up to £283.71 a week, while the average weekly wage is £621.) Most workers also pay income tax, which goes into government coffers, and use fewer government benefits. That leaves more money for the government to spend on other things voters like, such as the NHS.

But this is also an oversimplified picture. If everybody, including the government, actually thought that full employment was an unalloyed good then there would not be so many popular UK policies that aim to reduce, restrict or ban employment for certain groups. For example, over the years our society has outlawed child labour and heavily restricted it for teenagers. We give higher education students financial support so they can study instead of work. We have introduced retirement ages and provide state pensions. Then there are the bunch of rules governments have introduced to restrict employment in this country for people who are not UK nationals. 94 percent of those 80,000 asylum seekers say they want to work rather than living off state support, but the government actively blocks them from doing this.

A dream of full employment would also ignore the importance of unpaid work, which is predominantly undertaken by women and particularly women of colour. Since there are only so many hours in a day, there is an overall inverse correlation between the amount of paid work being done and the amount of unpaid work being done. If as a society we prioritised people performing any paid work over the current unpaid work that is being done, we would undoubtedly see some negative economic consequences. Research from Carers UK calculates that the care work being provided for unwell and disabled UK residents in England and Wales is worth £162 billion a year. If these carers stopped, governments and taxpayers would presumably pick up that tab.

The second assumption to untangle is that just getting someone into paid employment is enough to generate the positive outcomes the government lists. Take productivity. People who feel they have been pushed into doing a job they do not want, which is mismatched to their skillset, and/or which is exacerbating their health conditions are unlikely to be stellar workers. Increasing income and living standards requires not just jobs but jobs that pay well, have good benefits and are pleasant places to work. There is already a shortage of such work: the Living Wage Foundation has estimated that during 2023 one in five jobs (held by 5 million people) paid less than the minimum wage they’ve calculated people need for a reasonable quality of life, and about a quarter of British workers say work is often exhausting and has a negative impact on their physical and mental health. Given that employers who have the option usually prefer not to hire someone who has been out of work for a while and/or has health issues which could limit their working ability it seems unlikely that most of the types of work that would be offered to many current benefit claimants would be particularly high-quality or desirable.

The government’s point about their back to work scheme shrinking state spending seems more robust, at least on the surface. While the human cost may be horrific, if a large number of current claimants are no longer on benefits because they’ve been forced into miserable work or booted off the scheme entirely then the government’s welfare bill will undoubtedly go down. But in such a scenario the state will end up on the hook in other ways. For example, unwell people who cannot afford their medication because their prescriptions are no longer free, or who have been forced back into an unsuitable workplaces, will probably experience a deterioration of their health, and will then require more treatment from the NHS including expensive hospital stays. Removing income from people will increase the poverty rate, and this alongside worsening health conditions will translate into an uptick of social problems that are both tragic and unpopular with voters en masse, including visible homelessness and distressing public behaviour. The scheme itself will also cost huge amounts of money to implement, reducing any savings made by cutting benefits. One study by PoliticsHome calculated that once the people who would have returned to the workforce without the scheme are excluded, the back to work programme will cost the government £40,000 per employment created. (The government disputes these figures.) A single person on Universal Credit currently receives £4,425 from the government each year.

A government scheme to get people back into work would not be unpopular amongst the people it is targeting if it was done well. Talk to poverty or disability charities, and it becomes clear that many of their users would like to up their income, gain new skills, and broaden their horizons. But what they need to do this is for the blockers that prevent them from working to be lifted. They would like more good-quality, well-paying jobs that align with their interests and are suitable for people of all skill and experience levels. They would like jobs that combine flexibility and part-time hours with a wage high enough to live off. They would like more training, coaching, and upskilling to be available, especially for people who come from marginalised backgrounds. They would like affordable and reliable childcare. They would like stricter legislation to prevent disability-based discrimination from employers and colleagues. They would like greater awareness and codes of practice to ensure workplaces are accessible to people of different needs, backgrounds and lifestyles. They would like more investment in the NHS, including in things like mental health provision, so they can better treat or manage their health issues. They would like to be appropriately valued and compensated for the skills and experiences they bring, rather than being treated as a drag on the team or a pity hire.

In short, there are plenty of things the UK government could do to up employment levels and reduce the number of people who need out-of-work welfare. The Back to Work Plan  as it currently stands, however, is not one of them.

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