Disabled activists have called on disability charities to boycott any further co-operation with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), after it wrongly claimed that disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) had helped draw up its punitive new work scheme.
DWP claimed that DPOs “co-designed” plans to force new claimants of out-of-work disability benefits to take part in its health and work conversation (HWC).
Disability News Service (DNS) revealed in March that nearly all new claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) would have to attend a compulsory HWC with a DWP job coach, and would face having their benefits sanctioned if they failed to take part in the session “without good cause”.
The HWC will take place weeks or even months before a claimant has had their ability to work tested through the much-criticised work capability assessment.
The DWP’s plans have been described by disabled activists as “DWP skulduggery”, “pernicious”, “oppressive”, “punitive”, and “abusive”.
Details about the HWC, which is already being rolled out across the country, were revealed in slides used at a presentation delivered by two senior DWP civil servants, and seen by DNS.
The two civil servants – Ian Anderson, DWP’s project and programme management head of profession, and Matt Russell, its policy advisor for disability employment strategy – claimed in their presentation that the HWC was “co-designed with the Behavioural Insight Team (BIT), health charities, front-line staff, disabled peoples’ organisations and occupational health professionals”.
But DNS has now obtained the names of those disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and charities through a freedom of information request to DWP, and those contacted by DNS have denied any such endorsement of the HWC.
One of the DPOs, Manchester-based Breakthrough UK, made it clear that it had not and would not endorse the HWC.
Peter Jackson, Breakthrough UK’s deputy chief executive, accused DWP of a “misrepresentation” of what had taken place at a meeting with other disability organisations in a north London jobcentre about 18 months ago.
He said DWP had asked for feedback on a voluntary scheme in which job coaches would carry out informal conversations with ESA claimants about work and their attitude to employment.
He said: “There was no conditionality to it. It was entirely voluntary. There was no talk of sanctions for people who didn’t want to have that conversation.
“We would not have endorsed or supported anything that had any conditionality or potential sanctioning attached to it because that is completely and fundamentally in conflict with our approach.”
He said that any mention that ESA claimants would be penalised if they did not take part “would have sent alarm bells ringing”.
He added: “A big focus was on the fact that it was a voluntary thing.
“Quite categorically, there was absolutely no mention of conditionality or sanctioning in that meeting.
“That is definitely something that has been introduced since that meeting.
“I would be very annoyed if [DWP] were claiming that the organisations around that table had endorsed something that was basically not discussed in that meeting.”
Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK (DR UK), another of the organisations listed in the freedom of information response, said she was “not happy” that DWP had said that DR UK had helped co-design a mandatory HWC with sanctions.
But she said it was “important also to say we want government to involve disabled people early in policy making. We just need everyone to be clear how decisions are made.”
She said DR UK was “vehemently opposed both to the current sanctions regime and to any extension of it”, and had made that clear in meetings with ministers and civil servants.
She said DR UK was “consulted but did not agree with the proposal for mandatory work and health conversations”.
Jane Hatton, director of the user-led disability employment social enterprise Evenbreak, said she and other DPOs had stressed their opposition to sanctions at a DWP consultation event on the government’s work, health and disability green paper.
She said there was “much discussion about the sanction regime and how disabled jobseekers were terrified of being penalised for no good reason”.
She added: “I had attended the meeting as an opportunity to share my views, as had other participants. I suspect our views were both unwelcome and ignored.
“And yes, I am extremely concerned about the impact [of the HWC] on disabled people whose lives are already made much more difficult than they need to be.”
At another event she ran herself, to inform jobcentre staff about Evenbreak, she “made it very clear that Evenbreak should be a resource that people can choose to use, rather than it being something claimants have to commit to under the threat of sanctions”.
The mental health charity Mind, another of the charities listed by DWP, said it had been clear in its discussions with the department that any employment support “needs to be offered without the threat of sanctions, which we believe to be cruel, inappropriate and ineffective”.
Paul Spencer, Mind’s policy and campaigns manager, said: “We had hoped that the HWC would be an opportunity for people to discuss the support that could be put in place to help them achieve their ambitions, free from the damaging pressure of sanctions.
“Unfortunately, while the HWC has some good principles behind it, we are hugely disappointed that this support will not be voluntary.”
Disabled activist Rick Burgess said: “It’s clear the DWP are again acting dishonestly and misleading organisations they consult with. Which reinforces the need to boycott them.
“Hopefully in future, organisations will see this fraud being perpetuated by DWP and refuse involvement.
“The reputational harm done by being involved with the DWP will only grow, so better to get out now and side with disabled people, and not their oppressors.”
Another disabled activist, Gail Ward, from Black Triangle, who discovered the presentation slides and passed them to DNS, said DWP’s comments proved that it could not be trusted as it attempted to “hound” claimants towards the workplace before they felt ready.
She said that it was guilty of “breathtaking arrogance”, and backed the call for disability charities to boycott any further involvement with DWP.
A DWP spokesman refused to apologise for the claims by Anderson and Russell that the health and work conversation was co-designed by DPOs, when those organisations had made it clear they were firmly opposed to sanctions, conditionality and a mandatory HWC.
Even though DNS had asked in the freedom of information request for the names of organisations referred to by Anderson and Russell as co-designing the HWC, the DWP spokesman said the names provided were just those that “were consulted during the development of the HWC”.
He said: “We used various feedback to help design the HWC – however not all contributions will have been used.
“It would be inappropriate to comment on who gave what feedback as part of the process.”
He said that any actions agreed by a claimant in the mandatory HWC would be voluntary, while there would be DWP “safeguards” to ensure “appropriate exemptions from attending the HWC”.