A series of changes to disability benefits were announced in the Chancellor’s Spring Budget on Wednesday, amounting to what Jeremy Hunt called the “biggest change to our welfare system in a decade”.

The reforms included the scrapping of the work capability assessment (WCA) to determine eligibility for sickness benefits, a move which was welcomed by campaigners.

Mr Hunt also announced a new employment scheme for disabled people called Universal Support.

Why is the work capability assessment being scrapped?

The work capability assessment (WCA) is used to assess eligibility for sickness benefits, however it has come under fire in the past for allegedly mis-assessing those who are too ill to return to work, and insisting on repeated assessments even of patients with long-term illnesses which are unlikely to improve.

The Chancellor has now announced it will be scrapped, allowing disabled people to work without fear of losing their benefits.

It is hoped the move will boost employment figures. Half the vacancies in the economy could be filled with people who want to work but are inactive due to sickness or disability, Mr Hunt said during his speech on Wednesday, adding that remote working had opened up new possibilities.

According to a white paper, published by Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride, the Government wants to switch the focus on to what people can do – rather than what they cannot.

What will replace the work capability assessment?

Removing the WCA will leave just one health and disability assessment in place – the personal independent payment (PIP) assessment.

Under the new system, a new universal credit “health element” will be awarded to claimants of PIP, “ensuring there is a safety net in place for the most vulnerable”.

This will be the same amount as the top-up payment universal credit claimants deemed to have limited capability for work currently receive, which is up to £354.28 per month.

When the changes come in, new claimants who do not qualify for PIP would not receive an additional benefit top-up, and would be expected to look for work.

What are the new sanctions on work?

The Chancellor also announced tougher sanctions for benefits claimants who fail to meet requirements to look for work or choose not to take up a reasonable job offer, as part of the drive to get people back to work.

This will involve “additional training for Jobcentre work coaches to ensure they are applying sanctions effectively, including for claimants who do not look for or take up employment, and automating administrative elements of the sanctions process, including sending automated messages to claimants who fail to meet with their work coach”, according to a policy paper.

Campaigners fear this could mean disabled people and carers are forced into inappropriate work-related activity or face the threat of losing their financial support.

What is the new employment scheme universal support?

A new voluntary employment scheme for disabled people and those with health conditions was also announced by the Chancellor.

Called universal support, it will see up to £4,000 spent per person to find them a suitable role and cater to their needs, supporting 50,000 places per year once fully rolled out, the Government said.

Mel Stride’s White Paper outlines how this will be implemented through the expansion of work coach support.

The paper reads: “We are expanding work coach support across the country by providing more dedicated time nationally for universal credit and employment and support allowance claimants with health conditions who could benefit from support or would like further help to move closer to or into work.”

The scheme will “enable work coaches to deliver more personalised support and better direct disabled people and those with health conditions to employment programmes, wider skills support and schemes to help them overcome barriers to employment.”

When will the changes be introduced?

The Government has said it will take time to “carefully consider how best to implement these changes and give security and certainty to claimants”.

The proposals to remove the WCA and introduce a new universal credit health element will require primary legislation, which the Government said it will “aim to take early in a new Parliament, when Parliamentary time allows”.

Universal support is already available in a third of Jobcentres and is set to be available in around a further third of Jobcentres from Spring 2023, then nationally in 2024.

The Government will be extending the Work and Health Programme, which provides assistance to people who expect to find work within 12 months, to September 2024, according to the White Paper.

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