Disability’s Not Working

The government has plans to further sanction long-term sick or disabled people if they deem these people to not be working hard enough.  There are already sanctions if these people do not attend all of their ‘work focussed interviews’ or fail to satisfy ‘work-related activity’ requirements.  The government is extending this ‘work-related activity’ to include work experience; it is now legal for officials to mandate people in WRAG to carry out work experience,[1] although plans for unpaid work experience have not yet been finalised.[2]

“Ministers strongly feel there is a link-up to support those moving close to the labour market, and the individual’s responsibility to engage with the support.  Ministers feel sanctions are an incentive for people to comply with their responsibility.”

I find this sort of statement deeply frustrating.  I’m not interested in what Ministers feel.  I’m interested in facts.  What exactly does it mean for a long-term sick or disabled person to ‘engage with the support’?  Who decides what is engagement and what is not, and does the decision maker understand what it means to be long-term ill or disabled?  In what way will sanctions successfully incentivise people to comply with their ‘responsibility’?  What is their responsibility, given that they are long-term sick and thereby have reduced capabilities?

Work-related activity as defined in the Welfare Reform Act 2007 is that which “makes it more likely that the person will obtain or remain in work or be able to do so.”  The 2012 extension is that this work “includes work experience or a work placement.”  Work-related requirements for those found to have limited capability of work (i.e. in WRAG) is limited to ‘work preparation’:

Section 16 of Welfare Reform Act 2012

(1)In this Part a “work preparation requirement” is a requirement that a claimant take particular action specified by the Secretary of State for the purpose of making it more likely in the opinion of the Secretary of State that the claimant will obtain paid work (or more paid work or better-paid work).

(2)The Secretary of State may under subsection (1) specify the time to be devoted to any particular action.

(3)Action which may be specified under subsection (1) includes in particular—

(a) attending a skills assessment;

(b) improving personal presentation;

(c) participating in training;

(d) participating in an employment programme;

(e) undertaking work experience or a work placement;

(f) developing a business plan;

(g) any action prescribed for the purpose in subsection (1).

(4)In the case of a person with limited capability for work, the action which may be specified under subsection (1) includes taking part in a work-focused health-related assessment.

(5)In subsection (4) “work-focused health-related assessment” means an assessment by a health care professional approved by the Secretary of State which is carried out for the purpose of assessing—

(a) the extent to which the person’s capability for work may be improved by taking steps in relation to their physical or mental condition, and

(b) such other matters relating to their physical or mental condition and the likelihood of their obtaining or remaining in work or being able to do so as may be prescribed.

(6)In subsection (5) “health care professional” means—

(a) a registered medical practitioner,

(b) a registered nurse,

(c) an occupational therapist or physiotherapist registered with a regulatory body established by an Order in Council under section 60 of the Health Act 1999, or

(d) a member of such other profession regulated by a body mentioned in section 25(3) of the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Act 2002 as may be prescribed.

The plan is that those considered capable of ‘work-related activity’ may be mandated to carry out voluntary work for charities, public bodies and high-street retailers.  There is no plan for a time limit for such work, despite the existence of time-limits for people on JSA.  There is also no evidence that this will be at all effective; it may even be detrimental.  The government’s paper on work and health, published in 2006, concluded that there is no data on the impact of work on people with chronic health-problems, and that there is a significant minority for whom work has negative effects.[3]  Whilst it is to be hoped that this significant minority would be placed in the Support Group, there is no confidence amongst disabled and long-term sick people that this is the case.

There is a real risk that this requirement will cause deteriorations in people’s health.  These people have been found unfit for work; some of the reasons they are unable to work will also apply to their ability to carry out mandatory unpaid work.  If a person would find paid work exhausting or painful, or would be unable to regularly attend due to fluctuations in health, surely this will also be the case for mandatory unpaid work?  Advisers lack medical knowledge that would enable them to assess a patient’s ability to carry out work, whether paid or not, or understand why health issues can make such work impossible.  There is then the possibility that advisers will require people to carry out work that is beyond their capabilities, and then sanction them when they are unable to carry on.

Added to this, the government is making sanctions are even harsher.  It is as if they have forgotten that they themselves assessed these people as unable to work due to health problems.  Current sanctions have a maximum of £28.15 a week, but from 3rd December this will change to £71 a week, which is 70% of the weekly payment.[4] As Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said, “Whatever an individual’s health problems, slashing their benefit is only going to exacerbate the strain they are already under. The additional stress and anxiety incurred by the sanction – worries about paying for bills, rent and even food – risks devastating their mental health.”

It is essential that the government starts listening to disabled people and what they need, not what the government wants.

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