Ministers have been accused of ignoring a public consultation and ploughing ahead with plans that will make their “fitness for work” testing regime even more stressful and unfair for sick and disabled people.
A presentation delivered by two senior Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) civil servants earlier this month suggests that ministers have decided – as many disabled activists feared after the publication of last year’s green paper – to introduce new benefit sanctions for sick and disabled people with the highest support needs.
The presentation at a DWP “Operational Stakeholder Engagement Forum” appears to confirm that the government had decided how it would reform the system of out-of-work disability benefits before its “consultation” process had finished on 17 February.
The government had claimed that it wanted to make the work capability assessment (WCA) less of an ordeal for claimants, with work and pensions secretary Damian Green telling last October’s Conservative party conference he wanted to support those disabled people who cannot work, and “sweep away unnecessary stress and bureaucracy which weighs them down”.
But slides from the presentation appear to show that his new regime will be even harsher, and that many employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants with the highest support needs and barriers to work will for the first time face having their benefits sanctioned if they do not co-operate with the regime.
The slides show DWP has already begun introducing a compulsory, face-to-face “health and work conversation” (HWC) with a jobcentre work coach that will apply to nearly all new claimants of ESA, weeks or even months before they go through the WCA process to decide whether they are not fit for work and eligible for the benefit.
The presentation says that “vulnerable” claimants will not have to take part in the face-to-face HWC.
A DWP spokesman has told Disability News Service (DNS) that work coaches will be “issued clear guidance on who will be exempted from the HWC” and “will also be able to defer the HWC if the claimant cannot attend due to temporary circumstances”.
But disabled activists have warned that these decisions will be taken by non-medically trained civil servants.
The slides say: “Currently Jobcentre staff do not routinely engage with ESA claimants before the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) which can take place many months into the claim.
“We know that the start of the claim can be a challenging time for claimants and that the longer a claimant is on benefit, the more difficult it is for them to move into employment where appropriate.
“The Health and Work Conversation (HWC) will provide this early support to claimants.”
The presentation said the HWC – which it claimed was co-designed with some disabled people’s organisations – will draw on “behavioural insight techniques and research” to “develop voluntary action plans” and help claimants “move closer to the workplace”.
And it said that all new ESA claimants would have to sign a new “ESA Claimant Commitment”, which would “set out the expectations and legal requirements that claimants will be required to accept in order to receive ESA”.
It added: “A sanction will be applied for failure to attend or participate in the HWC without good cause. This means a claimant’s ESA payment will be reduced.”
It also appeared to suggest that jobcentre work coaches would only receive one day of face-to-face training – as well as online training – before they begin delivering the HWCs.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, said the presentation “confirms our worst fears about the green paper”, that the consultation was “nothing more than a tick box exercise and the DWP had no intention of listening to feedback and reviewing their proposals”.
She said it confirmed that “instead of overhauling the WCA in order to make it fairer and less stressful for claimants, the green paper instead seeks to make applying for ESA even more difficult, with the aim of excluding as many disabled people as possible from entitlement to social security”.
She said: “Imposing a mandatory HWC will create an added barrier and undoubtedly cause more harm and distress.”
Gail Ward, from Black Triangle, who discovered the presentation slides and passed them to DNS, said they showed that “DWP skullduggery is at play yet again” and that the green paper consultation was “merely a tick box exercise” that will be ignored by DWP.
And she said they showed the government was again using sanctions like a “rod of iron to effect behavioural changes”, even though they have been shown as an “ineffective means to get people into work and find them suitable employment”.
Joe Whittaker, chair of Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, said: “The imposition of yet another stage in the already oppressive process to ‘support disabled people into employment’, cynically named a ‘health and work conversation’, is another pernicious attempt to weaken the rights of disabled people.”
He said that conversations “should be based upon mutual respect, honesty and transparency”, whereas the government was “conditioned to treat disabled people in a callous way, making any meaningful conversation impossible”.
Gerry Zarb, from SPECTRUM Centre for Independent Living, said the impact of the HWCs on disabled people “crucially depends on how they are conducted, and how they are to be used.
“If they are genuinely used as a means of exploring what kind of support people might need to move them closer to work then that would be positive, as some people need all the help they can get.
“However, if the main intention behind the proposals is simply to add to the existing checks on eligibility then the process is much more likely to be detrimental to disabled people.
“At this stage we cannot be sure – although it’s fair to say that previous experience with DWP is unlikely to fill most people with optimism.”
Caroline Richardson, one of the authors of a report on the green paper for the Spartacus Network of sick and disabled campaigners last month, said the plans show “a total ignorance of the level of sickness or disability that the claimant may be experiencing, and will subsequently lead to huge stress and deprivation at what may be a crisis point in people’s lives”.
The Spartacus report accused ministers of using the green paper as a “smokescreen” to disguise their intention to cut support and force sick and disabled people into inappropriate work.
Richardson said it seemed “incredible” that the government believed that a non-medically trained jobcentre worker would be able to “triage the most sick and disabled people via a conversation and a fit note, and hence make them subject to sanctions, two months before the claim is assessed under the WCA.
“It is a callous and ignorant process that cannot benefit the claimant, and will significantly harm many more than it helps.”
Another disabled activist, Rick Burgess, said the slide showed the claimant commitment would be similar to the one the government had introduced for the mainstream jobseeker’s allowance under the new universal credit system.
He said: “So together with sanction-mandated HWCs this is further making ESA as punitive, abusive, and conditional as the system is for well and non-disabled people.
“As such it will simply harm more people at the time when they are most vulnerable.
“It makes clear the government remains determinedly set on their policy goals without regard to how much damage they do, their consultations are a mockery, their ‘parity of esteem’ a falsehood. These are the politics of democide.”
The new HWC system began with “small-scale ‘test and learn’ activity” in Alfreton, Chesterfield and Tottenham jobcentres on 30 January, with “incremental rollout” due to begin in further national jobcentres from today (30 March).
The government plans to lay regulations in parliament this summer to allow it to introduce the new ESA “claimant commitment”.
Asked about fears that the new plans would put more people’s health at risk and would make ESA more “punitve” and “abusive”, a DWP spokesman said the HWC was “an opportunity for the individual to get to know their work coach, and hear about the support available to them early in their claim.
“Any actions agreed in the conversation will be voluntary and safeguards will be put in place to ensure there are appropriate exemptions from attending the HWC.
“The ESA claimant commitment is a tailored agreement between the individual and the work coach that sets out the expectations and requirements to receive ESA.
“This agreement can be updated if the claimant’s situation changes.”
He said that work coaches would “receive training to deliver the HWC safely and effectively – the conversation will cover a wide range of issues but will not cover subjects requiring medical expertise.
“Sanctions are only ever used as a last resort and there will be extensive safeguards in place to ensure individuals are not sanctioned inappropriately.”
He claimed that the HWC and the claimant commitment were not part of the green paper consultation and that the powers to implement them had been introduced in 2008 and 2012 respectively and were “debated extensively at the time”.
He said: “The consultation process for the green paper ended on the 17 February and the feedback is now being considered.”
He also said that ESA claimants subsequently placed in the support group “will not be required to undertake mandatory activity” as part of the HWC.
But he stressed that the HWC was separate to a proposed post-WCA “keep-in-touch discussion” for those in the support group that is part of the green paper consultation and is “currently under consideration”, and according to the green paper could be a mandatory requirement.
Despite the presentation saying that the claimant commitment would set out the “legal requirements that claimants will be required to accept in order to receive ESA”, he said: “Any actions agreed in the claimant commitment prior to the WCA will be entirely voluntary.”
He had not confirmed by 1pm today (Thursday) how both of these statements could be correct.