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Disability benefits changes needed to get long-term sick back in work, Labour says

The Government’s refusal to adopt a more flexible approach to benefits for sick and disabled people is adding to the soaring number of people out of work due to ill health, Labour has claimed.

The party has accused ministers of digging their heels in by not changing health benefits allow people to move in and out of work more easily, without being at risk of losing their payments.

It comes as new statistics, released on Tuesday, showed the rate of unemployment in the UK increased from 3.9 per cent to 4.2 per cent in the three months to June, and the number of people out of work due to long-term sickness is at record levels.

The Government has introduced measures to try to bring down the number of people out of work due to ill health, including specialist support for those with mental health or musculoskeletal issues.

It has also pledged to scrap the Work Capability Assessment process, which sees sick or disabled people undergoing a test to see if they are too sick to work, and argues this will give people the confidence to transition into work without fearing they will lost benefits.

But this change requires primary legislation and is not due to happen before the next election.

Labour urged the Government to adopt its “back to work guarantee” for those on disability or sickness benefits to allow them to move into employment without being at risk of losing their benefits, should it not work out.

The party wants ministers to allow those receiving the health element of universal credit to be able to claim for it again if they move in and out of employment, to account for fluctuating health conditions.

Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, previously promised to reform disability benefit assessments to allow people receiving health elements to return to the benefit if they move into employment and then have to stop working again.

Labour sources argue this would make a big impact to the number of those economically inactive due to long-term sickness because it would offer more flexibility and would not force them to undergo the assessment process again if they did take on some work.

Mr Ashworth also argued that NHS waiting lists were a factor in the rising numbers of people who are too sick to work and accused the Tories of being “content to write people off to worklessness”.

“The highest NHS waiting lists in history and 13 years of Tory economic failure mean the numbers out of work for reasons of poor health are now at a record high,” he told i.

“Unemployment has increased, families are struggling and the benefit bill climbs higher and higher.

“The Tories are content to write people off to worklessness. In contrast Labour had proposed key welfare reforms to better support people back into jobs while ensuring security for those not able to work.”

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said the unemployment rate increased by 0.3 percentage points from the previous three-month period bringing it to the highest level since October 2021 and above pre-pandemic levels.

According to the ONS estimates, a large part of the increase in unemployment was because many people without work who were previously not looking for jobs – so-called economically inactive people – have now started to seek work.

But the number of people who are economically inactive because of long-term sickness is now at a record 2.5 million, up 400,000 since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “Our drive to get more people working and grow the economy is paying off – overall inactivity has fallen by 300,000 since the peak of the pandemic – but we are committed to helping the long-term sick to focus on what they can do, rather than what they can’t.

“We set out radical reform plans in March to allow claimants to move into work without worrying about losing their benefits.

“We are also investing an extra £2bn to help more disabled people and people with long-term health conditions into work, including schemes such as universal support and WorkWell which will bring together employment and health support.”

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