Guest post by Catherine Hale, @octoberpoppy
The Work and Pensions Committee published its report on the future of welfare to work this week. Its key message is that the government must focus employment support on people with complex needs, in particular expanding provision for people with substantial disability.
There is an obvious solution to the flaws identified in the design of the existing specialist disability employment scheme, Work Choice. And it is the same solution to some of the legendary flaws in the Work Capability Assessment, especially the vexing issue of the work-related activity group (WRAG), where people with severe ill health are put through a punishing back to work regime incapable of addressing their needs. Yet no one seems to have had the insight or will to name it.
The Committee did at least partially acknowledge that the government’s specialist disability employment programme is a perverse contradiction:
Work Choice is supposed to help those with “substantial disability”, who can’t be helped by Access to Work or mainstream back to work programmes, and need specialist support. But they have to be capable of working 16 hours per week or more within 6 months. Otherwise (the implication is) they are not worth investing in.
This is borne out by the fact that only 17% of the referrals to Work Choice come from the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) caseload. The majority are referred from Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA), meaning they are not disabled enough (as assessed under the work capability assessment, WCA) to qualify for ESA. The referral system for Work Choice seems designed to cherry pick disabled people with the least complex barriers to work, perhaps to ensure that contracted providers receive enough outcomes payments to sustain their business model.
The UK is one of the only countries where the assessment system for work-related incapacity (the WCA) does not act as a gateway to specialist disability employment support.
If our sickness benefit and disability employment support system were rational and coherent, people put into the ESA WRAG should automatically be referred to Work Choice, or whatever replaces it, because the WRAG of ESA is supposed to be an acknowledgement of substantial barriers to work but not complete incapacity for work. 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 JCP have to mandate WRAG claimants to the conditionality regime of the mainstream Work Programme.
This leads to a woeful situation for most people in the WRAG: they are not disabled enough for the ESA Support Group, where they get unconditional financial support, yet they are too disabled for Work Choice, and so are consigned to the brutal no-man’s land of conditionality and sanctions on the mainstream Work Programme. And they are now about to face a £30 per week cut in income to incentivise them to a miraculous recovery, despite the fact that the WRAG includes people with chronic and progressive conditions like Parkinson’s and Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Tweaking the payments system for the Work Programme and the referral criteria for Work Choice, as the Committee suggests, won’t solve this perverse paradox.
The ESA WRAG and specialist disability employment support programmes such as Work Choice should be seamlessly integrated. Iain Duncan Smith’s aspiration to reform the WCA to get more disabled people into work could be the perfect vehicle for achieving this. Work Choice has much better outcomes for disabled people than the Work Programme; surely it makes sense to put everyone with limited capability for work on a specialist scheme.
The only coherent solution is to refer everyone in the ESA WRAG to Work Choice automatically, and if Work Choice providers believe they can’t be supported into work within 12 months they should be placed in the ESA Support Group.
(Editor’s note: this is an excellent explanation of one of the inherent contradictions of the current system for supporting disabled people to get back into work. Another essential change that would be needed, for the system to make sense and achieve good outcomes, is reform of the WCA into a vehicle that can properly assess fitness for work…. but I’m not holding my breath on either front! Readers may also be interested in “Fulfilling Potential?”, Catherine’s excellent report on the experiences of disabled people in the WRAG)