Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Grainne McKeever, School of Law, University of Ulster


  DWP research on the role of the Incapacity Benefit Personal Advisor (IBPA) illustrates that there were four main categories of claimants attending for interview, the first of which was the claimant group who were not yet ready or willing to consider receiving help or support to overcome initial key barriers to work. For this group of claimants in particular there are arguments for and against compulsion to attend a WFI. In favour of attending is the view that such claimants may be unduly pessimistic about their work prospects, and may therefore be encouraged by what the WFI can provide, either in terms of advice, contacts or potential jobs/job related activities. Against this is the fact that many severely sick and disabled people are unlikely to be able to work again and will, understandably, regard jobseeking activities as a waste of time. Although some may "progress" and be "positively influenced" after "persistence" by IBPAs, in order to do this sensitively and appropriately IBPAs need more time, resources and support than was available to them during the pilot stage. It is not clear that this will be universally available for IBPAs if the pilot programme is rolled out nationally, and broad statements of commitment to properly resource the process may be viewed cynically in light of target pressures to push claimants from benefit to work. In terms of claimants with mental health conditions, the National Schizophrenia Association has, in the past, argued that such claimants be exempt from the WFI because the stressful nature of the interview may cause irreparable medical harm and may have the effect of persuading people to seek jobs that they are not ready to take. Although this approach was rejected by Government at the time, it is critical that the Committee consider the issue since the purpose of IB is to assist such claimants, and any part of the reforms should support rather than undermine this purpose.

  More generally, theories of compulsion for the jobless have been attacked partly on the basis that they are wrong in principle. Any implication that the victim is to blame for his/her unemployment and/or incapacity is unjust, and ignores the practical and economic realities of the situation. In a job-market which discriminates against the sick and disabled, the role of incentives to find work or increase one's employability is limited, and the value of compulsion is thrown further into doubt. Moreover, if the interview is as valuable as the Government claims, the likelihood is that claimants will want to attend, and will not need to be compelled. If the interview is of no use, compulsory attendance is unlikely to improve it. There is also a concern that the Government is missing the point by concentrating on employability rather than employment. While working is to be welcomed for all the advantages it provides, setting claimants up to fail goes against every positive feature of the Government's IB reforms.


  The DWP research cited above emphasises the importance of IBPAs as "enablers" rather than "enforcers". IBPAs have attributed their success in moving claimants towards work to their ability to emphasise the voluntary nature of participation in job-focused activity, and argued that this was critical to gaining claimant commitment and co-operation. To make participation in job-focused activity compulsory obviously undermines the ability of IBPAs to work successfully with claimants, and is likely to create hostility and resentment rather than trust and a willingness to accept help and direction. It must also be recognised that compulsory participation in work focused activity may also create undue stresses for claimants, may be inappropriate in individual cases and will depend greatly on the ability of IBPAs to be sensitive and flexible in their handling of this issue. Unfortunately however, even with the existence of experienced and dedicated staff, the social security system is not renowned for being flexible or sensitive, or for supporting frontline staff in what promises to be an extremely challenging role. (see below)


  The DWP evidence is that sanctions for failure to attend WFIs was used inconsistently by IBPAs, often due to individual views on the morality of imposing sanctions. The force of this finding cannot be underestimated, particularly since it is likely to be a view shared by others within and outside the benefits system, including claimants themselves. Public perception of the treatment of the sick and disabled should be of critical concern to Government, who must learn the lessons of the revolt faced when IB was reformed under the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999, which attracted vociferous opposition from all quarters.

  The reforms appear to be part of the Government's wider strategy to enforce responsibility among benefit claimants. However, this social contract is essentially unbalanced, and the emphasis on responsibilities is not being matched by an increase in or maintenance of, rights for claimants. This is particularly worrying in terms of benefits for people who are sick and disabled, for whom the rights/responsibilities paradigm is more complex. The research evidence demonstrates that there is a discernible work ethic or at least a desire to work among the incapacitated. Nevertheless there are substantial barriers to work, including structural and institutional barriers to retaining paid employment, a lack of suitable opportunities and unsympathetic employers. Imposing responsibilities on the incapacitated to return to work without providing adequate support to access and maintain suitable paid employment is unjustifiable. Creating a system of sanctions to be imposed for failure to participate in a scheme which cannot deliver what it promises is unacceptable. There is also a blind assumption that the sanctions will work. In the past, social security sanctions have not always been effective, and the circumstances of their application are not universally known. For example, the sanctions which deny strikers Income Support had no obvious impact on the 1984-85 miners strike. In addition, research examining the effects of sanctioning JSA claimants reveals that, despite the harshness of the penalty, the sanctions may still be ineffective for many claimants. Some believed that their personal circumstances had made their disallowance or sanction unavoidable and that they could not behave differently in the future. In some instances, claimants may be unaware of the full range of "benefit conditionalities", or unaware that penalties will be automatically and swiftly invoked. Incapacity Benefit claimants are already among the most vulnerable members of our society and attaching sanctions to their failure to attend a WFI, which may be of no real use to them or to lead to meaningful employment, demonstrates that responsibilities without rights is meaningless.


  The relationship between the claimant and his/her IBPA is critical. The role of IBPAs, while often rewarding, is also demanding. IBPAs have identified that there are gaps in their training and support, and time pressures which mitigate against helping claimants in particularly difficult circumstances. Can the quality of this relationship be guaranteed if compulsory interviews are rolled out, especially given IBPAs concerns over increasing effort needed to match existing demand? Job entry targets are likely to be counterproductive for "difficult" cases, and undermine the purpose of compulsory WFIs. The targets may also lead to IBCAs being less focused on the pre-WFI contact designed to thwart potential FTAs—identified as crucial by IBCAs—and make sanctions more likely for those least likely to be ready for or benefit from the interviews.

Grainne McKeever

29 September 2005

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