The government’s planned cut to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) in April should be delayed until it has clear plans for identifying where new claimants have additional, unavoidable living costs relating to their conditions, and how it will ensure that these costs are covered, a parliamentary committee has said.
A report by the Work and Pensions Select Committee has criticised the government’s plans to cut ESA for new claimants deemed unfit for work but placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) from April to receive £73.10 per week, the same as Jobseekers Allowance (JSA), and £29.05 less than is currently the case.
The Committee says the evidence supporting the idea that introducing a lower rate of ESA will enhance incentives to work is "ambiguous at best". It added that where new ESA claimants have unavoidably higher living costs related to their conditions, the change may leave them with lower disposable incomes than JSA claimants.
In addition, ESA claimants are not expected to find work as quickly as JSA claimants and are likely to need support for longer.
Disability charities have echoed the report’s criticisms and called for the government to abandon the planned cut.
The Committee also questioned the government’s aim of halving the disability employment gap, noting that no timeframe for it had been committed to and referencing an estimate from the Learning and Work Institute that on current rates of progress, halving the gap would take more than 200 years.
To address this, the Committee called for greater emphasis on retention and supporting people who become disabled while in employment. In addition, it said the government and Jobcentre Plus must work with the third sector agencies that have specialist knowledge and expertise to help employers to recognise the benefits of employing and retaining disabled staff.
It also floated the idea of using incentives such as reductions in National Insurance contributions to encourage employers to consider employing people with disabilities.
It also noted concerns about the effects of the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) sanctions and conditionality policies on disabled people’s progress towards work. The Committee heard that inappropriate sanctions can cause significant hardship, making it less likely, rather than more, that a disabled person will move into work
The Committee called on the government to develop a Code of Conduct for Jobcentre staff on safeguarding vulnerable disabled claimants, including how to consider claimants’ mental and physical wellbeing when deciding whether to make a referral for a sanction.
Another concern highlighted by the Committee concerned the new Work Capability Assessment (WCA) model proposed by the government in its recent green paper on work and health.
The Committee said that if Work Coaches are to be more involved in the WCA and have much more discretion over setting benefit conditionality, they must do so from a better-trained, better-informed position. It called for a new frontline, senior disability specialist role for Work Coaches to be developed.
Heidi Allen MP, Conservative member of the Committee, said: "To make the government's ambition a reality we need to unleash the expertise of the 3rd sector. This will only be achieved by direct commissioning of their services by Jobcentre work coaches who themselves have detailed knowledge of disability and health conditions. This will require significant upskilling of Work Coaches and a change to the payment by results method used in the legacy Work Programme and Work Choice initiatives.
“Until this support mechanism is up and running and working well, I believe the DWP should delay the removal of the ESA WRAG benefit. People with disabilities and long-term health conditions require extra financial support above Jobseeker's Allowance while they make their slow but steady return to work."
Neil Coyle MP, Labour member of the Committee, added: “The Committee is agreed that disabled people the Government has assessed as not being fully fit for work should not lose out under benefit cuts, until new employment support promised by DWP is delivered. Ministers must also make good on commitments to reduce other non-avoidable costs disabled people experience before new ESA benefit cuts are imposed.”
Mhairi Black MP, SNP member of the Committee, said: “We heard countless pieces of evidence that the imposition of benefit sanctions push disabled people further from work, and where there is substantial risk of damage to their health as a result. I am delighted that the committee has united behind my bill that would establish a code of conduct to protect those at risk from benefit sanctions. It’s imperative that the Department now take our recommendations on board to at-least, deliver safeguards to protect disabled people from the devastating effects of cruel and callous sanctions regime and ensure that their progress towards work is not impeded.”
Rt Hon Frank Field MP, chair of the Committee, said that he expected the government to respond to this report before the proposed new lower rate of ESA is due in April. “If they intend to proceed with these cuts, we expect an explanation of how this will not be detrimental to its target of halving the disability employment gap, by making finding and keeping a job even more difficult for disabled people than it already is.”
Halt the cut
Paul Spencer, policy and campaigns Manager at Mind, said: "We are pleased that the Committee has recommended postponing planned cuts to the financial support available to people who cannot work because of illness or disability. We urge the government to reverse these cuts entirely. Reducing someone’s support from about £5,000 to £3,500 a year will make their lives even more difficult and will do nothing to help them return to work.
“People being supported by ESA receive a higher rate than those on JSA because they face additional barriers as a result of their illness or disability, and typically take longer to move into work. Almost 60% of people on JSA move off the benefit within 6 months, while almost 605 of people in the WRAG need this support for at least two years. It’s unrealistic to expect people to survive on £73 a week for this length of time. Making massive cuts to the benefits bill will have a knock-on effect on our overstretched NHS services, as people’s mental health deteriorates due to financial worries.
“We welcome the Committee’s recognition that the current punitive approach – which sees people having their benefits cut for failing to do certain activities – can have negative effects on people with mental health problems. All too often, benefit sanctions make people’s mental health worse and push them further away from the hope of work.
“It’s concerning that the government is even considering extending the threat of benefit sanctions to people in the Support Group. These are people who have been assessed as too unwell to take steps towards work and it’s vital that any support they are offered is entirely voluntary and sensitive to their health needs.
“If the benefits system is to truly work for people with mental health problems, it needs to be built on understanding and empathy, with personalised support delivered by skilled and experienced staff, and a culture of supporting people to fulfil their individual aspirations, not simply pressuring them to comply.”