Disabled people could soon be forced to work for their benefits for an unlimited period of time, campaigners fear.
Measures in the welfare reform bill will mean many disabled people found eligible for employment and support allowance (ESA) – but capable of some “work-related activity” – could be asked to carry out periods of work experience.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) this week confirmed reports that there will be no upper limit to how long this work experience could last.
A DWP spokeswoman insisted that any work experience would only be carried out with the agreement of the disabled person, most of who would carry out short periods of between two and eight weeks.
She said: “We are not saying by any stretch that people are going to do unlimited work experience.”
But Linda Burnip, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, one of the groups that set up the national Boycott Workfare campaign, said the plans were “terrifying”.
She said: “We are opposed to anyone who is disabled being forced to have a work placement, particularly if there are sanctions available if they do not jump through the right hoops.
“If they do not jump through those hoops, their money will be stopped.”
She pointed out that she knew of disabled people in the work-related activity group (WRAG) of ESA who have had their benefits stopped for a fortnight for failing to attend a WRAG interview, with one unable to get there because of a seizure and another who was late because she was taking powerful painkillers.
Burnip said: “The main problem is that the staff who will be sending people on work placements will not have any idea about their condition or what their needs are for reasonable adjustments.”
She said it was “difficult to believe” that the placements would only be voluntary, as every [non-disabled] unemployed person she knew who had been sent on work experience placements had been told they would lose their benefits if they did not co-operate.
The DWP spokeswoman insisted that the WRAG scheme was not “workfare” – being forced to work for your benefits – because participation would be voluntary and “not coercive”.
But she confirmed that sanctions could be used, for example for those who “decided after two weeks that they would not turn up and [they had] no reason”.
She said only those in the WRAG who were “moving closer to the job market” would be likely to be offered work experience, which would be with charities, public bodies or private sector companies.
She said: “At the moment there is no provision for it. Why shouldn’t they get the chance to do work experience if they feel it would help them?”
Responding to concerns that disabled people could be forced into inappropriate jobs that could harm their health, she said: “The person would obviously be monitored to see how they are reacting to it.
“To somebody with a mental health condition, if it was not appropriate for them they would not be penalised for pulling out.
“We want them to feel that they are being looked after, that they can do this and maybe it is the step they need to get them back into work. There are routes out. You are not going to be trapped.”
Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, said: “Disabled people want jobs and want work experience that leads to real paid work.
“It has to be good work experience – which means real development and training opportunities, a serious chance of paid work through doing it, and strict time limits on any unpaid work experience. Requiring long term unpaid work is not fair.”
And she said the government must also offer support through its Access to Work scheme so disabled people can carry out internships and work experience.
She said: “At the moment they are often excluded. It is time to put in place the right support and adjustments rather than wave the ‘stick’ of benefit sanctions.”
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who chairs the Commons work and pensions select committee, said she didn’t know the details of the government’s proposals, but didn’t believe that ministers understood yet “how disabled or ill people will be who are in the work-related activity group”.
She added: “I would certainly have concerns about what pressures might be put on people because they are in the WRAG. It could set people back if it is inappropriate.”
23 February 2012