On the surface, the tornado that blew through Westminster after the EU referendum turned everything on its head – projects paused, ministers came and went and suddenly all changed in Number 10.
As the storm calms though, Theresa May’s government will very soon find itself facing the same big domestic problems as David Cameron did. Namely, how to boost productivity, balance the books and help people get on in life.
The referendum result might reduce the parliamentary time and civil service muscle the new government has to tackle those big strategic problems but it does not make them go away. If anything solving them becomes more urgent, not less, and anyone from outside government who can help with the planning or heavy lifting will be more welcome than ever.
When it comes to productivity, reducing the fiscal deficit and improving people’s life chances, everyone in government now accepts helping people with health problems to stay in work is fundamental.
That was not always the case. Traditionally, government focussed on people who had already fallen out of employment. That’s where it had levers to pull leading to countless controversial reforms to welfare to work programmes that did little to increase employment rates.
But the government now accepts that the best returns will come from preventing people from falling out of work in the first place. It is not alone. Responses to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee Inquiry into disability employment saw charities, the Association of British Insurers and clinicians all calling for more support for people to stay in work. Increasingly, it is employers, not government, who are centre stage in this debate.
In the coming months, there will likely be a Green Paper calling for new ideas on how to increase employment among people with health problems. An Autumn Statement and Budget also loom. Brexit or no Brexit, the government is hungry for new thinking.
Sniffing an opportunity, there is now a huge industry in Whitehall devoted to coming up with those fresh ideas on health and work. Each week there seems to be a report from a Select Committee, trade body or think tank. Some, such as those by EEF and the Resolution Foundation, highlight how good income protection is at helping people return to work. At Unum, seven out of ten people who use our rehabilitation service get back to work.
So, as insurers with years of expertise in helping employers care for their staff, we have a lot to contribute to this debate. Here is what Unum will be calling for to increase employment, protect working people and boost productivity.
First, we would like to see the introduction of a temporary tax incentive for SMEs that provide group income protection to all their employees. When employers buy income protection there is a triple benefit for taxpayers. Workers with income protection are more productive as they are less likely to be off work for health reasons. When they do fall ill they are more likely to return to work and their absences are shorter. Those who cannot work pay tax on their insured income and are less likely to claim state support. Workers in SMEs are the least likely to be protected. A tax break for SMEs would raise awareness, lower cost and energise the market.
Second, the government must look again at the Fit Note and sickness certification by GPs. Almost all the problems identified by Professor Dame Carol Black and David Frost CBE in their seminal report five years ago remain today. Patients are missing out on the physical, mental and financial benefits of a swift return to work because of problems with sickness certification. It costs the UK economy and taxpayers billions of pounds.
Third, we would like to see more concerted action to increase referrals to Fit for Work and to improve people’s financial capability. Fit for Work is a great idea that brings occupational health expertise within reach of every employer and employee. But EEF found very few businesses and even fewer GPs are using it. This is a massive missed opportunity.
As part of a holistic solution, we also need to help people prepare better in case they are unable to work one day. The government’s Financial Advice Markets Review is a positive step forward we should all support. However, I fear scrapping the Money Advice Service will mean no one single organisation is responsible for building financial capability in the UK. This is an area that needs government’s attention as a matter of priority.
In her first speeches, the Prime Minister has made clear that her government will look for bold ways to restore economic stability and make the country fairer for everyone. At Unum, we will keep developing our ideas for how the government can achieve that vision for health and work.
John Letizia is head of public affairs at Unum