Deputy Sasha Kazantseva-Miller claimed at a recent States meeting that payments had nearly doubled over the past 15 years – roughly twice the rate of inflation.
‘One in 10 people of working age who could be working right now is basically out of work,’ she said.
‘It probably presents either a health or stress epidemic happening and we are not really on top of it.’
Since 2016 States policy has been to increase contributory benefits – including for incapacity and sickness – by inflation plus one-third of the increase in median earnings across the economy. The policy was adopted to limit the income gap between beneficiaries and wage earners.
ESS president Peter Roffey said his committee was also concerned about the increasing costs of incapacity and sickness benefits but denied it was failing to deal with the issue. He pointed to an ESS project known as 'Sohwell' to promote occupational health and wellbeing in the workplace. He claimed the project, which started in 2015, had faced several new challenges in recent years.
‘There are a number of aggravating factors,’ said Deputy Roffey.
‘I think the Covid epidemic didn’t help and long waiting lists in some areas of healthcare don’t help. More of our working-age population are towards the top end of that age than used to be the case, and that’s where these instances [of incapacity and sickness benefits] tend to be more prevalent.
‘It is a matter of deep concern. It seems to be happening everywhere in western Europe. We are not as bad as the UK, but that is no reason for complacency, and Sohwell is designed to address exactly this.’
ESS also faced questions about income support, its main means-tested benefit to support the least-affluent islanders, including social housing tenants.
Deputy David De Lisle asked whether ESS was succeeding in ‘getting people off welfare and into productive employment, like finance’. He claimed the finance industry had lost about 1,000 jobs in recent years, partly because of a lack of staff to fill the roles.
Deputy Roffey said the question revealed misunderstanding about income support.
‘I think we are very successful at getting people into productive employment but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be off welfare,’ he said.
‘Income support, which is our largest benefit after the pension, is an in-work benefit. Somebody getting back into work doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t need any benefit. It depends on their family circumstances, their housing costs, their number of children, etc. But are we successful at getting people back into work? When you look at the unemployment rate in Guernsey, it’s incredibly low.
‘I think of more concern is the people who are out of work because they have been signed off work by their doctor and that is something which, in a way, is even higher up our agenda.’