Back to work support has failed the people who need it most

It ought to be one of the most fundamental principles of our safety net that nobody with a health condition or disability which makes it harder for them to work should be forced to take a job before they are ready.

Judging who is ready for work and who isn’t has never been an easy distinction, but the Work Capability Assessment – the Government’s means of making the decision – is fundamentally broken.

A new report published this week, linking as many as 600 suicides to the assessment process, offered proof that the process is not just flawed, but fatally so.

Even for those not affected in so extreme and tragic a way, problems with the Work Capability Assessment have had ripple effects which are being felt throughout the entire system of back-to-work support.

As the DWP’s most recent figures show, more than half of the cases where someone appealed against a decision judging them “fit for work” have resulted in the original decision being overturned.

If any other Government department or agency was having the majority of its decisions overturned on appeal, they would be put into special measures.

But not only does the DWP get away with this, it then shoe-horns people into a welfare-to-work scheme – the Tories’ flagship Work Programme – whose record of helping people on ESA into work is nothing less than abysmal.

Looking specifically at people who moved over from Incapacity Benefit following an assessment, fewer than 4% of people have found sustained work after two years on the Work Programme.

Given that this covers a period which also saw a six-fold increase in the number of sanctions for people on ESA, the evidence is as clear as it needs to be that the Government’s approach is a comprehensive failure.

But there’s a difference between failing to achieve a particular goal and making an already bad situation worse. And when it comes to sanctions, that is exactly the effect this Government’s approach has had.

A survey carried out by Mind last year found that 83% of people with mental health problems felt that the “help” they had received in Jobcentres and on the Work Programme had actually made their health worse, while 76% said it had left them feeling less able to work than they did before.   

Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that out of the 162,000 people with mental health problems referred to the Work Programme since 2011, just 8% have moved into work after two years on the programme.

In cutting almost £30 a week from the support available to this group under ESA, in the name of providing an “incentive” for them to find work, the Government claims that it will recycle a proportion of the savings into an improved employment support service.

In other words, Ministers are asking people to trust that they will get it right this time. Their record, however, shows they haven’t earned that trust. Figures released by the ONS just last week, showing a sharp increase in the number of people with long term illnesses and disabilities dropping out of the labour market altogether, were only the most recent reminder that fall in the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits is definitely not the same thing as an increase in employment among those affected.

The promise in the Tory manifesto to halve the disability employment gap was welcome, but it may prove meaningless if the DWP fails to recognise the shortcomings of its approach to date. The fact the promise wasn’t included in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill speaks volumes about the Government’s actual intentions – suggesting they’ve given up trying even before they got started.

Halving the disability employment gap may be just another broken promise from the Tories, but this week’s news should remind us of just how important it is that we make sure it’s a promise they don’t forget they made in the first place.

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