DAA News Network

International/UK: OECD calls for reform to sickness and disability benefit systems

Posted 29/11-10 at 23.28

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has issued a report calling for governments to reform their sickness and disability benefits regimes so as to help people get back to work and reduce the burden on public finances

Badge saying "Disabled People Want Jobs"Disability benefits represent 10% of public social spending in most OECD countries. This is equal to 2% of GDP and twice the cost that unemployment benefits were before the current economic crisis. Also, once people move onto disability benefit, they almost never leave it for a job, the report says.

Mental health issues are becoming the main cause of people claiming disability benefit. One-third of all new disability benefit claims over the past 15 years have been due to a mental health condition, rising to 70% among people aged 20-34.

The best way to help people with health problems or disability avoid poverty, according to the OECD, is to strengthen the financial incentives to work: reforming the tax and benefit system so that they can do paid work and still receive some benefits.

On the situation in the UK, the report shows that 7% of Britons of working age receive disability benefit, above the OECD average of 5.7%. It is also says it is an "extremely worrying fact" that among 20- to 34- year-olds, rates for disability payments are around 2% in most countries, but 4% in the UK. Furthermore, mental health problems have replaced physical causes for long-term sickness payments.

Professor Malcolm Harrington, the occupational health specialist tasked with improving the government's medical assessments, has told ministers that "people do not attempt to get benefits by pretending they are mentally ill".

The OECD praised the coalition government for continuing where the last government left off in undertaking welfare reform. In many cases, it was being bolder, said the report, by testing claimants and simplifying the benefits system and also by paying private firms to place people back in work.

More information is available at www.oecd.org/els/disability, including short studies of disability benefits systems in, the US, Canada, UK, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the Netherlands.



Editorial comment: The OECD's essentially right-of-centre economic approach seems to precludes any serious consideration of the deeply ingrained discrimination that most disabled people face when looking for a job. There is then the little matter of the very high levels of unemployment and the fact that budget cuts are bound to make it more difficult for everyone to find work in most OECD member countries.

With respect to what is happening in the UK, as the OECD says, the coalition government's policies are very much in tune with their suggestions. However, judging on the information currently available, either they have not read the fine print or they don't feel it is important that government's policies are punitive rather than positively helpful. For example, their headline claim for changing is wanting to cut disability benefit by 20%, when it is admitted that fraud accounts for only 0.05% of claims. Furthermore, the medical test for disability benefit is extremely harsh and poorly administered, with almost 50% of decisions being overturned on appeal. The Independent Living Fund, a lifeline for many disabled people, has been frozen and this will make it hard to fund the support needed to hold down a job. Other cuts to such things as social care and housing benefit will also have a negative impact on the ability of disabled people to access the support needed to go out to work.



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