The report, Fulfilling Potential? ESA and the Fate of the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG), dismantles the claims of politicians who insist that “welfare dependency” is the main barrier to work, an approach that underpins the coalition’s Work Programme.
Catherine Hale, who carried out the research and is a Work Programme service-user herself, says this approach has led to a “large scale deterioration” in the health, wellbeing and confidence of claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) who have been placed in the WRAG.
It is the first detailed worked to examine the experience of people placed in the WRAG, the sub-group within ESA of claimants who must take part in work preparation schemes as a condition of receiving that benefit.
Instead of focusing on addressing the barriers they face in securing work, she says in the report, the system relies on the threat of sanctions.
The report found “almost no evidence… that consequences of worklessness or receiving benefits created major barriers to work for ESA claimants in terms of their motivation or willingness to work.”
The review – supported by the mental health charity Mind and the Centre for Welfare Reform, and endorsed by 18 other organisations, including Disability Rights UK and RNIB – is deeply critical of the government’s main strategy for moving people in the WRAG closer to work, which it says is “a regime of conditionality and sanctions”.
Hale’s report says the government’s strategy of referring people in the WRAG to mainstream help through Jobcentre Plus or the Work Programme – rather than specialist programmes – was “not just ineffective, but positively harmful, due to the anxiety and stress of engaging with these schemes”.
Successful programmes, she says, use in-work vocational training and individual support, as well as “engagement with and support for employers”.
Hale surveyed more than 500 disabled people who were in the WRAG, and the results suggested that the overall impact of that participation “is to move people further away from work, instead of closer to it”.
One respondent says in the report: “They just seem to be going through the motions. They get me to do things like a CV, despite having one, interview techniques, letter writing. I want a placement but nobody has found one for me despite me asking.”
Another says: “They looked at my CV and laughed because I have a Masters and all they had was shelf stacking.”
Only seven per cent of respondents to Hale’s survey reported that participation in the Work Programme or through Jobcentre Plus assistance had empowered them or made them feel more confident about their employment prospects.
But four-fifths of respondents reported anxiety about being unable to access compulsory activities.
When asked what they thought would help them into jobs, more than half identified a package of support that could be agreed in advance, so they could reassure potential employers that they would be able to do the job, while half suggested help with paying for further education or training.
Half of the respondents said their disability-related support needs were “not acknowledged or addressed at all”.
Hale, who has a first-class degree from the London School of Economics and started work on the review in the spring of 2013, concludes: “The overall impact of participation in the WRAG was demoralisation and increased distance from the labour market.”
Among her recommendations, Hale says employers should be encouraged to offer creative, low-cost solutions, such as flexible hours, working from home, creating jobs involving fewer than 16 hours per week, or offering a job trial instead of an interview.
And she says that future policies should move away from national employment schemes and towards local provision, while employment support should be integrated with health, social care and education services.
Hale said: “At my first back to work meeting, the Jobcentre adviser accused me of fraud and threatened to stop my benefits if I didn’t try harder to get well.
“They assume that people are not working because of defective attitudes and morals, not because they’re ill or disabled. This is wrong and deeply damaging.”
The coalition’s new Work Programme has succeeded in securing jobs for only five per cent of people in the WRAG since its launch in 2011.
Hale said she wanted her review to “shed light on the causes of this failure”, and for politicians to see the “irrationality of the whole concept of the WRAG” and the “catastrophic impact on people’s lives of their efforts to frame disability benefits as an issue of welfare dependency”.
She added: “I just wanted to show exactly what people are going through. People still talk about it as support, but it’s the opposite.”
In a blog published alongside the report, she said she wrote the review “to give sick and disabled people on ESA a voice. No one has looked hard into the reasons for this policy failure, or revealed its often catastrophic impact on our lives.”
12 June 2014