Disabled people and other campaigners have reacted with shock, anger and concern to government proposals to consider forcing all sick and disabled people on out-of-work disability benefits to take part in “mandatory” activity.
Disability News Service (DNS) revealed last week that the new work, health and disability green paper suggests that all claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) with the highest support needs could be told to stay in regular touch with their local jobcentre, or risk having their benefits sanctioned.
The green paper, Improving Lives, says ministers “could consider implementing a ‘keep-in-touch’ discussion with work coaches” for all people in the ESA support group, which “could provide an opportunity for work coaches to offer appropriate support tailored to the individual’s current circumstances” and “could be explored as a voluntary or mandatory requirement”.
Paragraph 114 of the green paper goes on to say that such contact could use “digital and telephone channels in addition to face-to-face contact, depending on which was more appropriate for the individual and their circumstances”.
Penny Mordaunt (pictured), minister for disabled people, appeared to confirm the proposal in the Commons this week, after she was asked about the future provision of employment advice for people in the support group.
She told MPs the government was “consulting to establish if a ‘keep in touch’ discussion would be of benefit for this group, and if so, how and by whom should it be delivered, to ensure it meets the needs of individuals in this group”.
Many disabled people reacted with horror to the story on the DNS website.
Guy Stewart said: “Sanctions! Making us believe that our inability to gain work is our fault, when it absolutely is not, is cruel, but neatly fits into a government that constantly initiates dogma driven policy, rather then evidence driven policy.”
“Sparkz_” said: “Will people have to phone from their hospital bed to keep in touch?”
In response to Sparkz_, Jeffrey Davies said: “Been there done that, Atos at its best, in the high [dependency] unit. Ouch.”
Rowan Farmer said: “I’m now wishing my life away, I’m 61 and thanks to the government I have another five years of stress and worry about assessments, appeals, benefits sanctions, poverty and homelessness, so much so that I’m actually looking forward to reaching 66 just to get rid of the added stress on top of several chronic, deteriorating and very painful illnesses!”
Brian Mcardle added: “Now you know why [Theresa] May wants rid of the Human Rights Act.”
Among those to comment on the story on Facebook was Erika Garratt, who encouraged other disabled people to take part in the consultation*.
She said: “Filled in the form to tell them how ridiculous this idea is. We should all do this.
“I am in the support group and this scares me so much.”
Keith Evans, who is also in the ESA support group, said: “I’d rather jack ESA in than be forced to work that surely would kill me.”
Beth Von Black replied to Evans: “That’s what they want. They want to scare us so much that we stop claiming what we’re entitled to!”
She added later: “I’ve answered a few questions in the consultation and sent it off; angry that us long term disabled are being hounded into employment regardless of the fact that we cannot work!”
There was also strong opposition to the proposal on Twitter.
Tracey Herrington said: “What a surprise – another unethical u turn. Who are they actually kidding when talking about personalised support… This is a direct attack.”
Rick Meister tweeted: “Are the Tories about 2 sink 2 yet another low re chronically ill/disabled? Any such scheme must be voluntary… help, not threats!”
Warren Belcher said: “This is so devastating, I can’t begin to think of the consequences and I’m dreading the impact this will have for so many people I care about.”
And Hannah Smith tweeted: “How is this even ethical? Surely defeats the whole point [of] ESA in the first place.”
Disability Rights UK (DR UK) said the green paper would “pave the way for success only if it leads to a complete overhaul” of the work capability assessment, one which produces “a system that encourages and supports people to try work where they feel they can, rather than threatening people with sanctions if they do not comply with (sometimes meaningless) activities”.
It said the government would only be able to halve the disability employment gap if employers changed their behaviour, but it pointed to the green paper’s failure to announce any new incentives or requirements on employers, such as requiring the public sector to award contracts to companies with a good track record in employing disabled people, or providing a “comprehensive” helpline for small employers.
It called for “more enforcement of the Equality Act in relation to those employers who simply continue to discriminate”, and said that the government’s strategy “will only work if employers are nudged and required to employ disabled people in greater numbers”.
It welcome proposals such as expanding employment-related peer support, more tailored job support and work experience for young disabled people.
But DR UK warned that research by the Employment Related Service Association (ERSA) suggested a cut in funding – in the move from the current Work Programme and Work Choice to the new Work and Health Programme – from £750 million in 2013-14 to less than £130 million in 2017-18.
The ERSA research suggests this will lead to a drop in the number of disabled people accessing such support from 300,000 from 2012-15 to 160,000 from 2017-20.
Although DR UK said it was “absolutely opposed” to plans to cut payments to new claimants in the ESA work-related activity group from next April, it said that investing all of the savings from this policy into employment support “could help strengthen the support offer to disabled people”.
Philip Connolly, DR UK’s policy and development manager, said: “We have waited almost three years for this green paper and disabled people deserve a plan as ambitious as the government’s manifesto commitment [on halving the disability employment gap]; the green paper isn’t that plan.
“The government’s response to its consultation on the green paper is the chance to really deliver on a plan.”
Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green party, and the father of a disabled son, was highly critical of the green paper.
He said: “It is extremely concerning that the DWP is considering forcing ‘mandatory activity’ on all sick and disabled people.
“It is barbaric to expect someone with a terminal illness, or who has no chance of getting better, to maintain contact with a ‘work coach’.
“The Green party believes society should care for those who are most in need, not place damaging and unnecessary demands on them.
“We call on the Labour party and the Lib Dems to join us in opposing these proposals.”
A DWP spokesman repeatedly refused to clarify the meaning of paragraph 114, but said: “People in the support group have limited capability for work-related activity, but this does not mean that they should be left without any support at all.
“And we want to hear views from as broad a range of disabled people, disability charities, and anyone else with something to contribute, on what more can be done to support this group.”