Improving Lives: Ministers back down on ‘mandatory’ activity for ESA support group

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Ministers have backed down – at least temporarily – from plans to force all sick and disabled people on out-of-work disability benefits to take part in compulsory work-related activity.

There was an outcry among disabled campaigners last year when the government’s work, health and disability green paper suggested that 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 Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department of Health (DH) finally published their joint response to the Improving Lives green paper last week, and it stressed that respondents to the green paper had been “clear that accessing any support [for claimants in these groups]should be voluntary”.

A DWP spokesman said the government had listened to responses to the green paper and was now “researching and trialling activities people in the support group would be able to undertake on a voluntary basis”, although he refused to rule out the possibility of compulsory work-related activity being introduced in the future.

The 10-year work, health and disability strategy includes proposals across social security, the workplace and healthcare, in response to a consultation on last October’s green paper which produced about 6,000 comments, including more than 3,000 emails.

Despite ministers previously suggesting that they were set for major reform of the much-criticised work capability assessment (WCA) – which other political parties have promised to scrap – there were no solid proposals laid out in the strategy.

Penny Mordaunt – at the time the minister for disabled people – promised during an election hustings event earlier this year that a Tory government would “dismantle” the WCA.

And Damian Green, at the time the work and pensions secretary, said when publishing the green paper that “when things need improving, like the work capability assessment… we mustn’t shy away from big decisions”.

But the new strategy says that responses to the green paper “gave multiple and differing views on what the WCA should look like”, so DWP would “focus on building our evidence base so that we get it right” and “build evidence for future reform and legislative change”.

The strategy also includes no reference to the cuts of nearly £30-a-week for new claimants placed in the ESA work-related activity group (WRAG), a cut that disabled people’s organisations have warned will move claimants further from the labour market.

A DWP spokesman declined to say why the strategy document failed to mention the WRAG cut.

Serious concerns were also raised over a reference in the strategy to trials being carried out on whether DWP work coaches can combine job search skills training with “interventions to enhance motivation” for out-of-work claimants.

Ellen Clifford, campaigns and policy manager for Inclusion London, said: “While it is something of a victory and testament to all the efforts gone to by so many disabled campaigners in responding to the Improving Lives consultation that suggestions of compulsory work-related activity for disabled people in the support group seem to have gone quiet, the publication of the government’s employment strategy is not something that should be welcomed.

“The announcement that work coaches are trialling interventions to ‘enhance motivation’ alongside job search skills training is deeply concerning in that psychological interventions should ever only be undertaken by professionals with appropriate qualifications, particularly when working with people with complex psychological support needs.”

Clifford also raised concerns about the dangers of “conflating work and health” and the “continuing failure to tackle any of the substantive barriers to work” faced by Deaf and disabled people (see separate stories).

Dr Jay Watts, a consultant clinical psychologist and a member of the campaigning Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, said: “Increasing focus is given to the role of ‘work coaches’ who are expected to conduct ‘health and work conversations’ with claimants.

“These conversations are based on principles from positive psychology to change mindsets, yet there is no consideration to the ethics of holding dual roles as coach and punisher (for it is work coaches who decide on sanctions).

“How is informed consent possible in such a scenario? How is this anything but psycho-compulsion?”

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) said its initial reaction to the strategy was that it was more of “the same old empty, worthless promises and still no idea about the actual barriers disabled people face getting and keeping work”.

The document also says that responses to the green paper made it clear that employment support for disabled people should be “flexible” and “voluntary”.

It says the government is currently testing peer support models which involve people “who have themselves experienced unemployment or health problems”, to see if this “helps build people’s belief in their ability to work, and achieve better health and work outcomes”.

But there was fierce criticism from the industry body, the Employment Related Services Association (ERSA), which said that, under the government’s plans, the “vast majority” of disabled jobseekers would not receive the specialist support they needed.

ERSA described the new Work and Health Programme, which the government began to roll out at the end of last month, as “very small” and said – according to research it published last year – that it would help only one in eight of those disabled people who wanted to work, with spending on specialist employment support falling by 80 per cent.

So far, although DWP has announced the names of the organisations that have been awarded contracts to provide employment support services across England and Wales under the Work and Health Programme – Remploy (mostly owned by the discredited US company Maximus), Shaw Trust, Reed in Partnership, Ingeus and Pluss – it has refused to say which organisations will be involved as sub-contractors.

The programme will support disabled people, but also those who are long-term unemployed, and other groups such as ex-carers, ex-offenders, homeless people and those with drug or alcohol dependencies.

David Gauke, Green’s replacement as work and pensions secretary, described the strategy as “ambitious” and said the aim was to secure jobs for one million more disabled people by 2027, an increase from 3.5 million to 4.5 million.

A DWP spokeswoman declined to say whether the department accepted the ERSA figures on spending.

But she claimed that the government would be increasing real terms investment in employment support for disabled people over the period 2016-17 to 2020-21, including £500 million on the Work and Health Programme over five years, another £100 million for local versions of the programme in Greater Manchester and London, and £115 million on developing new models of support.

On delays to WCA reform, the spokeswoman said: “We are committed to continuing to improve the WCA.

“We’ve done a lot since 2008 and will not stop now – the recent reform to stop reassessments for people with the most severe lifelong conditions in ESA and universal credit is one example.

“We heard broad support for WCA reform in the green paper consultation but there was no consensus on what the right model of WCA reform would look like.

“We know that we need to get reform right and will therefore focus on testing new approaches to build our evidence base for future reform.

“We will work with external stakeholders to inform future changes, including to engage with concerns about the specific model* consulted on in the green paper.”

*This model would “separate decisions on the financial support an individual receives from the discussions they have about the employment and health support available to them”

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