There’s a neat little equation that pundits and politicians are apt to quote. It goes a bit like this. There are around 2.7m people in the UK claiming incapacity benefit, at a cost to the exchequer of around £12.5bn a year. That’s nearly four times as many people as 35 years ago. So we could get, say, half of them back to work and save billions.
At the same time a huge proportion of people with disabilities actually want to work, but don’t get the help they need. So divert some of the money saved into schemes to help claimants back into the workplace and bingo! Problem solved, or at least well on the way. It’s an easy logic: make it easier to get paid work, and at the same time more difficult to get incapacity benefit. Gently push claimants into a position where they’re more likely to take up a job.
If only that was all there was to it. While employers are often sympathetic to those with physical disabilities, they tend to shy away from those suffering mental distress or depression - those they might term flaky, unreliable, more trouble than they’re worth.
Figures compiled by the Shaw Trust, which helps disabled people find work, are telling: while 69% of people with diabetes, 63% of those with hearing problems, and 52% of those with visual impairments, are in employment, only 24% of people with depression or anxiety and 13% of those suffering mental illness are in work. And according to Mind, one in four of us will be affected by mental ill health at some point. If you think your job’s doing your head in, you might just be right.
Mental distress, inevitably, will hit you harder if you’re also poor and live in a neighbourhood where the economy and public services have failed. Carolyn Kagan, professor of community social psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, argued powerfully in New Start two weeks ago that community participation could actually increase such stress. John Matthews, a minister in Glasgow, describes graphically this week the human misery that accompanies deprivation.
Providing incentives to work for people in such circumstances scratches the surface of the problem. Yes, work can be a passport to a life that is stable and rewarding. But without long-term social support for communities as well as individuals, such gains are easily swept aside.
Julian Dobson, editor
- New Start Online Online magazine