Skills shortages could hamper welfare reform programme

Plans to review the incapacity benefit system and get more people back into work could be hindered by chronic skills shortages, employers groups have warned.

The caution follows the Government’s unveiling of the first phase of its welfare reform programme on Monday 11 October, which revealed that long-term incapacity benefit claimants in Burnley and Aberdeen will be the first to be reassessed for their ability to work.

Under the new trial, work capability assessments that determine what a person can do, not what they can not, will be carried out.

The first phase runs from October 2010 to January 2011 and involves 1,700 incapacity benefit claimants. Those deemed fit enough to work – using a points-based system – will be moved to jobseeker’s allowance.

Currently 2.14 million working-age people claim incapacity benefit. Of those, 1.2 million have received the benefit for five years or more and 900,000 have been claiming for a decade.

2007 figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show more than one-third of those on incapacity benefit do not hold any qualifications.

Professor Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser at the manufacturers’ body EEF warned that a glut in skills could end up costing the Government money. “An awful lot of people are on benefits and are unskilled,” he told Personnel Today.

“That’s a real problem. The Government are going to have to skill-up people. Some of the older guys are more skilled than the younger guys and there might be a willingness to employ people who are older.”

Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development agreed there were issues around skills and said there were also employability factors to consider.

“If you have been on incapacity benefit or employment and support allowance for many years, there’s the real alienation you have had from workplace and issues around basic employability,” he said. “Are you capable of turning up on time? Do you have the confidence to be able to communicate effectively at work? Can you look after your personal appearance so you are dressed appropriately?”

Chris Grayling, minister for employment, said: “The new work programme which will come on stream next year will ensure that everyone who can work will get the help and support they need to get the skills and training which will make them job ready.”

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