A disabled researcher and campaigner has criticised a new report by a cross-party committee of MPs for failing to acknowledge fully the “perverse contradiction” at the heart of the government’s specialist employment programme.
Catherine Hale, who wrote a well-received review on the failure of the employment and support allowance (ESA) system to increase the number of disabled people in paid work, said MPs on the work and pensions select committee had ignored serious flaws in Work Choice.
She said Work Choice had been set up to support disabled people with the highest support needs into employment, but most of those who joined the scheme were disabled people claiming the mainstream jobseeker’s allowance (JSA).
This is because government advisers who work with ESA claimants in the work-related activity group (WRAG) are supposed to ensure that claimants carry out mandatory activities – with the threat of benefit sanctions if they do not comply – rather than offering them the voluntary employment support provided through Work Choice.
Hale said: “This means we have the perverse situation that only the most severely ill or impaired get onto ESA in the first place, from which they face conditionality and sanctions and next to no chance of getting the ‘specialist’ help that’s apparently available through Work Choice.”
Hale said she discovered this “farcical” situation when researching her ESA review.
She said: “I remember being curious, when I was doing the WRAG research, as to who these disabled people were with the most ‘severe disabilities’ who got this relatively privileged Work Choice treatment instead of the grim Work Programme, and was shocked to find most wouldn’t qualify for ESA.”
The government’s latest figures, published in August, show that more than 60,000 of the nearly 115,000 people to have been referred to Work Choice since 2010 had not been claiming any disability-related benefits at all, with nearly 47,000 of them claiming JSA.
In a blog, Hale said most people in the WRAG were in the “woeful situation” where they were “not disabled enough” for the ESA support group, but were “too disabled for Work Choice”, and therefore “consigned to the brutal no-man’s land of conditionality and sanctions”.
And in 2017, new WRAG claimants will face a £30 per week cut in income – thanks to a spending cut announced earlier this year by chancellor George Osborne – to “incentivise them to a miraculous recovery”, she said.
Despite these flaws, the committee said in its report on welfare-to-work policies that the government would be making a “grave mistake” if it decided to merge Work Choice with the mainstream Work Programme.
The committee said Work Choice did not appear to be focused on helping disabled people with the highest support needs into work, but that its flaws should be addressed, and its strengths “maintained”, when the contracts were replaced.
The contracts for both Work Choice and the Work Programme will expire in April 2017, and employment minister Priti Patel has suggested she is considering merging the two.
Participation in the Work Programme is mandatory for those on JSA and in the ESA WRAG, while sanctions can be imposed on those who fail to take part.
About 1.7 million people have received Work Programme support since 2011, while only about 90,000 have taken part in Work Choice since October 2010, says the report.
Government figures show Work Programme performance “lagging behind” for those on ESA, and particularly those who previously claimed incapacity benefit (IB).
Of the most recent group of ex-IB ESA claimants to have completed one year on the Work Programme, only 3.9 per cent achieved three months of employment.
It is predicted that ESA claimants will outnumber JSA claimants on the Work Programme by 2017, says the report.
Of those who started on Work Choice between 1 July 2014 and the end of December 2014, 57.3 per cent had at least entered a job by the end of June 2015.
The committee said the number of people on Work Choice should double, while participation should continue to be voluntary and “have clearer and less restrictive eligibility criteria”.
The committee also said that all of the government’s welfare-to-work programmes should focus more on those with “challenging problems”, such as drug and alcohol addiction, illiteracy and innumeracy, homelessness and “very weak employment history”.
And it was critical of the differential payments model – which is central to the Work Programme and offers contractors more money if they find jobs for those who are furthest from the jobs market – which it said was “unnecessarily complicated”.
The report says that, rather than categorising people by the benefits they claimed, they should instead assess characteristics such as physical and mental ill-health, illiteracy, and alcohol and substance misuse, and use this to place claimants into three groups: those who are work-ready; those in need of intermediate support; and those needing intensive support.
Frank Field, who chairs the committee, said the government deserved credit for designing a Work Programme that “produces results at least as good as before, for a greatly reduced cost per participant”, although he pointed out that nearly 70 per cent of participants were completing it without finding sustained employment.
But Hale said: “The WRAG should be the gateway to Work Choice. Instead, being assigned to the WRAG actually all but bars access to specialist disability employment support because Jobcentre Plus have to mandate these people to the conditionality regime of the mainstream Work Programme.”
She added: “Tweaking the payments system for Work Programme and the referral criteria for Work Choice, as the committee suggests, won’t solve this perverse paradox.
“The only coherent solution is to refer everyone in the ESA WRAG to Work Choice, and if Work Choice providers believe they can’t be supported into work within 12 months they should be placed in the support group.”