A shadow minister has pledged that a Labour government would do more to help disabled people into work, but warned that changes to the system of employment support would have to be “incremental”.
Her comments and those of other shadow ministers during the party’s annual conference in Manchester suggest that a Labour government would want to see a more localised system of employment support for disabled people, with more attention paid to the barriers within the workplace.
Kate Green, the shadow minister for disabled people, told a fringe meeting that there needed to be more emphasis on working with employers to dismantle barriers, as opposed to the current focus that is almost solely on trying to push disabled benefit claimants into work.
She said it had become clear that the coalition’s Work Programme “does not meet the needs of employment and support allowance [ESA] claimants”.
She told the fringe meeting, organised by the IPPR thinktank and the Work Programme provider Working Links, that the much-criticised work capability assessment – which tests eligibility for ESA – was “doing nothing useful in terms of moving people into work”.
Green said that the 30 per cent employment gap between working-age disabled and non-disabled people was “utterly, utterly unacceptable”.
She called for much more emphasis on local employment support services, rather than big national providers.
But she warned: “The kind of scale we are talking about you are not going to do this big bang.
“I am not talking about we have got to put everything back to where we were five years ago. I am talking about a much more incremental approach.”
Tony Wilson, policy director at the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, told the same meeting that the government’s employment programmes were seen “as a punishment that people have to go through”, and he called for an end to the “obsession with payment by results”, particularly with results based on job outcomes.
He said there was far too little funding to pay for support for ESA claimants on the Work Programme.
He said: “Support needs to be greater the greater one’s level of need. Currently we don’t have a system where support is greater the greater the level of need.”
In a fringe event run by the Employment Related Services Association, Elizabeth Taylor, chief executive of the Work Programme provider Bootstrap Enterprises, said she believed people were “under pressure to apply for jobs, whether or not they are ready and able to apply for those jobs”.
And she said she believed that the coalition’s new Universal Jobmatch system was being used “as a monitoring tool”, to check up on whether benefit claimants were actively seeking work.
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who chairs the Commons work and pensions committee, said that part of the problem with the Work Programme was that “the tools to assess who needs the greatest help do not exist, because the decision is taken on benefit type and not on barriers to work”.
She said: “The WCA has failed completely to do any of that kind of assessment. It really has become an eligibility-for-benefit test.”
She pointed out that the coalition had scrapped the work focused health related assessment (WFHRA), which had looked at the barriers to work for disabled people claiming ESA.
She said: “Whether it is the WFHRA or something similar, there needs to be something in the system where someone can sit down with the job-seeker and work out where the barriers are.”
And she said she had been “horrified” to find that every single person in her area on Work Choice – the government’s specialist employment support programme for disabled people – was actually claiming the mainstream jobseeker’s allowance.
She said: “That’s not what I thought Work Choice was supposed to be about.”
She added: “Sometimes it seems those with the greatest need are getting the least support. It is all about pushing people into work when they are not ready rather than, ‘The help is here when you need it.'”
Meanwhile, the shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves told a Resolution Foundation fringe event that jobcentres had become “somewhere you go to be sanctioned or punished or penalised”.
She said: “I want to see the Department for Work and Pensions find a very different function, a function of helping people to make the most of their potential to get a job, but also getting the skills [they need].”
25 September 2014