It’s refreshing to see Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Withington, Lucy Powell, using her Guardian blog to tackle issues around incapacity benefit, or the ‘sick note culture’. Refreshing because too many of our politicians shy away from difficult issues.
The phrase ‘sick note culture’ is incendiary, so Lucy’s sending a strong message just by writing under that headline (although I guess she might be able to blame a sub-editor, should that land her in hot water), but there clearly is a significant section of society that has failed to grab the opportunities of the last ten years. We have to go back to 1971 to find employment rates so high, but a significant number of people have remained benefit dependent and we have to import labour. That’s partly because Tory labour laws, which government’s been afraid to repeal for fear of looking radical, help create crap jobs that only really appeal to immigrants, but not entirely.
I don’t really like using anecdotes, but some stories are worth telling. A friend of a friend is a nurse at Christie Hospital, which is a demanding job especially as she has multiple sclerosis. She has to work because her husband has been on incapacity benefit for over ten years; effectively retiring from his job as a painter and decorator in his early thirties. She’s been quite depressed lately as her eldest son has more or less given up on education; dad, who’s never felt any incentive to retrain (even though he could), has not been a very good role model.
And yet the incapacitated should never be victimised.
So Lucy Powell’s not threatening to come after the sick with a big stick, but working with a charity that helps those who want to change. More people – like this friend of a friend – need to want to change. Lucy’s keen on health secretary Alan Johnson’s idea of changing sick notes, which simply sign people off as unable to do their usual job, for well notes that identify the abilities they retain.
However, to work effectively the kind of multi-agency approach Lucy Powell discusses in her blog, will need to be a reality. It’s no good a doctor identifying a basic skill set, unless somebody with a friendly face is standing in the wings ready to help the formerly incapacitated retrain and find work.