Therese Coffey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, told a Tory conference event she wants to focus on ‘what people can do, rather than what they cannot’ – but insisted it wouldn’t be about ‘demonising’ people
The Tory welfare chief is drawing up plans to encourage more people who “think they cannot work” to find a job.
Therese Coffey told Conservative Party Conference delegates she wants to “flip” the benefits system to stop it “encouraging people to show how they really cannot do any work at all”.
Instead she wants to focus on “what people can do, rather than the benefit system being driven currently by what you cannot do”.
Ms Coffey’s comments appear to mark a new push towards pushing people who claim disability or sickness payments towards work.
She said far more people than she expected are in the ‘support group’ – where work is not necessary – of Employment and Support Allowance, which for many is part of Universal Credit.
She also warned more young people than she expected were claiming Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – which is paid regardless of whether people work – due to mental health issues.
She appeared to suggest the number was too high, saying she wanted to “target that even more so to people who really need that support” which “may improve that… public perception” of the benefit system.
Ms Coffey did not rule out trying to merge means-tested Universal Credit with non-means-tested PIP, saying she was not trying to “force fit different benefits together’ but “everything is on the table”.
She did however say she was “not aware” of any plans to cut PIP itself.
The move was branded “grim” and “terrifying” by users of social media.
West Midlands Victims’ Commissioner Nicky Brennan wrote: “This will 100% be able demonising people”.
Labour councillor John O’Shea wrote: “This is going to end well. Time to crack down on those with mental health issues….
“It is already hard enough to get help for people who need it. Let’s not make it worse.”
Author David Hewson said: “It’s Norman Tebbit and on yer bike all over again.”
Quizzed by the Mirror, Ms Coffey insisted the approach would not be about trying to “demonise” benefit claimants.
But her comments could raise alarm among activists who have a long history of fighting flawed ‘fit-for-work’ tests.
Ms Coffey told the fringe event hosted by the Centre for Policy Studies: “One of the biggest things I’m wanting to try and make sure we focus on in the next few years is for people who right now think they cannot work. We published the national disability strategy earlier this year, a cross-government approach in all sorts of ways to try to improve people’s life.
“One of the key things which we still have a target to focus on is about where we flip our system about welfare benefits in terms of people with health conditions.
“Instead of our system basically trying to encourage people to show how they really cannot do any work at all, to actually flipping that and see what is it that you can do and we can support you to…
“I think it is about the agenda being positive, an escalator, trying to help people, it is there as a welfare net rather than a welfare trap. And that will continue I believe to be the agenda.”
Speaking about Personal Independence Payment she said: “PIP has certainly grown in a way that was not anticipated when it was introduced.
“To give you an example, three out of four young people who claim PIP have their primary reason being mental ill health.
“That in itself is 189,000 young people who currently receive benefit focused on that. There may be other benefits they receive as well.
“So that’s one of the things where I’m very conscious one of things I’m trying to do as Secretary of State is very much the issues we face are downstream, and what are the things we need to do to get more upstream.
“And I hope that might give us the headroom then to… how is it that people can think the benefit system is fair.
“And I think by being able to target that even more so to people who really need that support, may improve that prospect of public perception.”
Her point was echoed by Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, who told another fringe event: “I think specifically in relation to the disabled, one of the great objectives of policy is to see what people can do rather than what they can’t do and to be positive about it.
“And I’ve had the most amazing people come to my constituency at work who want to do things and want to maximise their abilities and there are supports within the state system to help them get jobs.”
Questioned by the Mirror Ms Coffey insisted she was not trying to “demonise” people who genuinely could not work.
She said: “In terms of ESA [the sickness and disability payment in Universal Credit], I think one of the things I’m keen to do is see what more we can more as… what people can do rather than the benefit system being driven currently by what you cannot do.
“That’s the approach I’m trying to turn around… That’s the whole theme and push of not trying to demonise people who can’t work.
“I know your paper and the BBC will have ready images of people where wrong decisions are being made, quite clearly, but generally I think it is about trying to help people in that direction, without demonisation.”