Green light for Green Paper

Plans to reform the way incapacity benefit is administered will, hopes the government, cut the total number of claimants by up to a million over the next decade and eventually result in savings of up to £7bn.

But any reduction in the amount of people making claims has to be matched by a willingness from employers to take on individuals from this sector.

However, those organisations considering drawing staff from the incapacity benefit pool must be aware of their obligations in catering for what is a particularly vulnerable segment of society.

First there are the legal obligations, says Audrey Williams, a partner in HR Group at law firm Eversheds.

Many people returning from long-term absence will have suffered musculoskeletal problems or stress-related complaints, and any potential employer drawing from the incapacity benefit pool will need to be aware of this.

Legislation covering disability discrimination obliges employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for people with such issues to ensure staff can do their job properly.

This may mean allowing the person to take a few hours off each week to visit a physiotherapist or attend a counselling session, says Williams.

There are also duties of care responsibilities that compel employers to take appropriate measures to ensure employees are not at risk at work.

This could involve providing special chairs for people with back problems or ensuring those with a history of stress are not given an over-demanding role or placed in a hectic work environment.

Employers unused to these obligations often shun away from employing disabled or vulnerable people, according to Richard Exell, a senior policy officer on social security and welfare to work at the TUC.

“Once employers have experience of employing long-term sick and disabled employees, these responsibilities become less onerous,” he says.

Exell says funding is available to help employers with the additional costs of installing wheelchair ramps or training people in sign language, for example.

“This is the kind of thing we would like to see companies doing as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives,” he says.

It is also an approach that will bring true diversity to the workplace, says Dave Winning, director of external affairs at Working Links, a non-profit organisation that has help more than 60,000 disadvantaged people find a job since 2000.

He says it is the SME sector that is more open-minded about employing people previously on incapacity benefit. Larger companies, he says, tend to filter out people with gaps in their employment record as part of their standard recruitment processes.

He urges big businesses to change their perception about who is employable and suggests appointing in-house mentors to guide those returning from long-term absence through their daunting first months back at work.

But John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says it may take more than impassioned pleas to make employers change their attitudes.

His reservations are based on a recent CIPD survey that shows a third of employers deliberately exclude people with a history of long-term sickness or incapacity when recruiting staff on the grounds they will be less productive and more prone to absence.

Philpott says the CIPD will be lobby ministers to ensure they do as much as possible to engage employers and encourage more to recruit people who have already been on IB for a long time.

“Even so, overcoming employer resistance to hiring long-term incapacity benefit claimants may require greater use of direct financial incentives to employers, such as the offer of recruitment subsidies or low cost work trials for claimants,” he says.

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