Advisers outnumbered 600 to one by ESA claimants, say MPs


newslatestThere are more than 600 claimants of out-of-work disability benefits to every specialist government employment adviser, according to a new report by a committee of MPs.

The work and pensions select committee, which published the report into the effectiveness of Jobcentre Plus (JCP), called on JCP to address urgently the “unacceptably high” proportion of employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants to disability employment advisers (DEAs).

Witnesses to the committee’s inquiry raised concerns about the “relative lack of JCP resources devoted to supporting ESA claimants”, with just 900 DEAs to about 546,000 ESA claimants in the work-related activity group – those who are supposed to be moving towards employment – a ratio of one to more than 600.

This compares with an average caseload of one JCP adviser to about 140 claimants of the mainstream jobseeker’s allowance.

One witness told the committee that the average ESA claimant attended a jobcentre no more than twice a year before they were eventually referred to the Work Programme or the specialist Work Choice scheme.

Only one in 20 ESA claimants is on the Work Programme or Work Choice.

Although the government is piloting three new approaches to providing employment support for ESA claimants – with one group receiving enhanced support from JCP – only about 8,300 disabled people are due to take part, and the pilots will not be completed until August 2016.

The report concludes that “urgent action” is needed to improve the level of JCP support for disabled job-seekers.

Sue Bott, director of policy and development for Disability Rights UK, said the figures raised questions over how seriously the government was taking the task of supporting disabled people into work.

She said: “All we get is the rhetoric about how we are all workshy, but it is very difficult to get any advice when you want it.

“We had a young people’s forum last August and people were telling us there that it is really difficult to see a DEA. You have to wait weeks for an appointment. It is something we highlighted to the Department for Work and Pensions back in the autumn.”

She said the quality of advice from DEAs was mixed. “What we really need is employment support that is given by people who really understand about disability and that is personalised to that individual.”

She added: “What it demonstrates is that there is very little support out there for disabled people getting into work.”

The committee’s report is also heavily critical of the way sanctions are used by JCP.

It points out that more claimants than ever before were sanctioned – losing some or all of their benefits as a punishment for not meeting strict conditions – in the year to June 2013, while sanctions for ESA claimants were strengthened through the Welfare Reform Act 2012.

The committee said JCP’s performance should be measured by its success in finding jobseekers work and not by how many claimants it pushed off benefits.

Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who chairs the committee, said: “Increasingly strict conditionality must be accompanied by more in-depth and effective advice and support for people struggling to find work, particularly those facing real barriers to employment, including health conditions and disabilities.”

Dame Anne said the current system takes no account of whether someone is leaving a benefit to start a job “or for less positive reasons, including being sanctioned or simply transferring to another benefit”.

She said: “We believe this risks JCP hitting its targets but missing the point. JCP must be very clearly incentivised to get people into work, not just off benefits.”

Among its recommendations, the committee calls on DWP to take “urgent steps” to monitor the levels of financial hardship caused by benefit sanctions, including research on how many claimants are being “signposted” to food banks by jobcentres and the reasons for their need for such help.

30 January 2014