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It seems that the Department for Work and Pensions is sticking to the ‘Adolf Hitler’ model of public relations: If you tell a big lie and repeat it often enough, people will believe it. The press release announcing the new ‘Health and Work Service’ is riddled with long-debunked old lies – and one new statement that deserves our scrutiny.
This is the press release used by the BBC in its article on Saturday, telling us that the new, privately-run service is needed to combat the high cost of long-term absence from work.
It seems to be the DWP’s new practice to pass announcements to – let’s call them “trusted” – media outlets before putting them up on the government’s own press website, as a kind of test-run, allowing any credibility problems to be fixed before the government commits itself in an official way.
That’s why the announcement appeared on the government website yesterday (Monday) – two days after the BBC broke the story. Now – in just half the time it took to appear – let’s look at why it’s a load of rubbish.
“As many as 960,000 employees were on sick leave for a month or more each year on average between October 2010 and September 2013, the government has revealed,” the document begins.
Oh really? The DWP reached this figure by applying the findings of a survey, showing the ratio of long-term absences to total days of sickness absence, to findings by the Labour Force Survey showing the total number of days of sickness absence in the UK. That’s 9,000 sick days and 70 absences, applied to an average of 120 million sick days per year. This is based on 2,019 interviews with employees. There’s just one problem.
At the time covered by these surveys, there were around 4.9 million private sector employers.
Considering the huge size difference between the sample surveyed and the body it represents, it seems unlikely in the extreme that the figure is accurate. If it is right, it would be by luck; it’s probably wrong. The figure might as well have been made up – and you should treat it as though it was.
“The government has already taken big steps in getting people on long-term sick benefits back into work as part of the government’s long-term economic plan, with almost a quarter of a million coming off incapacity benefits since 2010-” Let’s stop there and examine the information content of this sentence so far.
The “government’s long-term economic plan” is a phrase that is being shoe-horned into every press release possible and means nothing. There never was a “long-term economic plan”, and there isn’t one now. Have you seen it? Of course not – it doesn’t exist. This is just a comforting nonsense inserted to lull people into false security that somebody knows what they are doing; I suspect the newly-privatised “nudge” unit may have had something to do with this.
As for “almost a quarter of a million coming off incapacity benefits since 2010”, check out this interview with Iain Duncan Smith, published in the Telegraph & Argus in 2010. He said: “I intend to move 1.5 million off incapacity benefit by 2014.”
It’s now 2014. We don’t have up-to-the-minute figures but on November 13 last year, the DWP press office helpfully tweeted us its then-current figure for people moving off incapacity benefits in a handy chart: 156,000.
That is a long way from a quarter of a million, and only around one-tenth of the Secretary-in-a-State’s 2010 target.
“- and almost a million who put in a claim actually have been found fit for work.” This is a bare-faced lie. It relates to a statement that 980,400 people were judged capable of work between 2008 and March 2013, but there are two problems with this. Firstly, it does not take into account the number of successful appeals against the ‘fit for work’ judgement (125,700); when adjusted to account for these, the total drops to 854,700. Secondly, this refers to the cumulative number of ‘fit for work’ outcomes of initial functional assessments since October 2008, and it seems likely that many people will have made repeat claims after being knocked off-benefit by an adverse decision. We do not know how many people have done this. Therefore the figure is meaningless.
So far, the DWP has told us that working people get sick (no surprises there), that it has failed to reach its target for clearing people off incapacity benefit and that its work capability assessment system is failing to push as many off-benefit as it should, because it is riddled with errors.
How does this connect with the creation of a new ‘Health and Work Service’, dedicated to ensuring that people who spend more than four weeks at a time off work with an illness get back into their job with a minimum of difficulty?
It’s obvious, isn’t it?
This is a scheme to ensure that people are discouraged from claiming incapacity benefits; the idea is that a drop in new claims, coupled with the number of uncontested ‘fit for work’ decisions, might lead to a larger drop in the number of active claims – which means the amount of money being paid out in benefits would also drop.
Inclusion of the word ‘health’ in the title of the new service is misleading, as it seems unlikely that consideration of an employee’s physical condition will have anything to do with the aim of the exercise.
Look at what the release has to say: “The Health and Work Service will offer a work-focused occupational health assessment and case management to employees in the early stages of sickness absence.”
It continues: “The work-focused occupational health assessment will identify the issues preventing an employee from returning to work and draw up a plan for them, their employer and GP, recommending how the employee can be helped back to work more quickly.”
Health doesn’t get a look-in.
No, what we’re most probably seeing is an expansion of the “biopsychosocial” method employed in work capability assessments, in an attempt to convince sick people that their illnesses are all in their minds. Don’t expect this approach to be used for people with broken limbs or easily-medicated diseases; this is for the new kinds of ‘subjective illness’, for which medical science has not been prepared – ‘chronic pain’, ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’, fibromyalgia and the like.
People with these conditions will probably be sent back to work – with speed. Their conditions may worsen, their lives may become an unending hell of pain and threats – I write from experience, as Mrs Mike spent around two years trying to soldier on in her job before finally giving up and claiming her own incapacity benefits – but that won’t matter to the DWP as long as they’re not claiming benefits.
That is what we can all expect from the new ‘service’.
It will be a fake, necessitated by failure.
Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike
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