The long-term sick will be forced to look for work or see their benefits cut, under government reforms.
By Tim Ross, Political Correspondent 7:00AM GMT 17 Nov 2012
More than 300,000 stopped claiming the benefit before they were assessed last year, according to the Department for Work and Pensions.
But under plans to be introduced from 2013, anyone claiming Employment and Support Allowance because they are ill will face sanctions if they do not take steps to prepare for work.
They will be expected to maintain regular contact with Jobcentres and to look for employment opportunities while awaiting the assessment of their fitness for work.
The new arrangements, being incorporated into Iain Duncan Smith’s flagship Universal Credit welfare programme, will be seen by critics as another assault on state support for the sick and disabled.
However, officials insisted that it was necessary to bring sickness benefits into line with reforms to place conditions on benefits for people who are out of work.
The DWP said anyone claiming ESA under the new system would be given “immediate support to help them return to work” as soon as they are able, warning that long periods of unemployment can cause significant damage to long term careers.
Minister for Welfare Reform Lord Freud said: “The overall aim of our welfare reforms is to ensure that people who can work get the support they need to find a job. This simple step will give people access to employment support months sooner than under the current system, so that the time spent waiting for a sickness assessment is not wasted.
“Individuals who are too ill to work will not be forced into a job, but for the first time, we will work with them to help them get a job when they are ready.”
Last year, ministers commissioned a major review of sickness absence, which costs the economy 140 million work days each year.
An estimated 700,000 people applied for the benefit, but only 389,000 were still in the system three months later to undergo a work capability assessment.
Many drop out of the benefit before the assessment and return to work because they have recovered.
More than half of claimants are found fit for work when the assessment takes place, often because their condition has improved since they first applied three months earlier.
A further 20 per cent are found capable of taking “steps into work” in the future with the proper support.
Work capability assessments have been highly controversial since they were first piloted under Labour in 2008 and later rolled out across the country under the coalition.
Critics claim the tests have been skewed towards forcing people back to work and the results have been challenged by thousands of disabled people.