Welfare Reform and Work Bill

Written evidence submitted by Elina Rigler (WRW 03)

Welfare Reform and Work Bill 2015-16: ESA-WRAG Component

This submission is based on my personal experience of, and research into, the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), and provides evidence in support of the amendment preventing cuts in ESA for the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) of £30 per week.


· The Incapacity Benefit (IB) reform was based on selective evidence and dubious assumptions. It was therefore entirely predictable that it would have limited

success; in particular, that the vast majority of those in the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) would fail to secure employment.

· Research shows that for ESA claimants the main barriers to work are ill health and a lack of suitable employment opportunities. There is no evidence that they lack motivation to work or that the ESA-WRAG component acts as a disincentive to finding a job.

· Removing the ESA-WRAG component is a cynical and illogical cost-cutting measure that fails the address the root causes of the failures of the ESA/WCA process and the Work Programme.

1. The IB reform was based on flawed and selective research; and, as a consequence, the ESA/WCA scheme was designed for an imaginary group of claimants and imaginary labour market. It was therefore entirely predictable that the reform would not achieve its stated aim of getting one million IB claimants into work.

2. First, it was assumed that the majority of IB claimants suffered from temporary or mild and easily manageable conditions and that the main reason for their ‘worklessness’ was a lack of motivation and skills. [1] [2] Second, it was assumed that, thanks to the changing nature of work and the equality legislation requiring employers to make reasonable adjustments, sick and disabled people were no longer excluded from the workplace. [3]

3. There is now a substantial body of evidence indicating that the so-called ‘IB problem’ was misdiagnosed and the wrong remedies were prescribed to fix it. Too much emphasis was placed on individuals’ employability, while too little attention was paid to labour-market and health factors. [4]

4. The rise in IB claims can be partly explained by a shortage of suitable employment opportunities. For one thing, the pace and pressure of the workplace have increased [5] and employees have less control over their work [6] , making it harder for those with health conditions and disabilities to find and sustain paid employment.

5. For another thing, the equality legislation has not created a level playing field for sick and disabled people, who tend to find themselves at the back of the queue for jobs. DWP’s own research reveals that employers are unwilling to recruit people with fluctuating and unpredictable conditions, especially those with mental health issues. Some would make any kinds of adjustments for only exceptional candidates; others might offer minor adjustments but only in the short-term. [7]

6. Many ESA/IB recipients experience multiple barriers to employment, including a low level of skills and a poor work record. However, contrary to DWP’s assumptions, it is not a lack of motivation or unwillingness to work that ‘traps’ them on benefits. [8] [9] A recent study showed that long-term IB recipients are significantly sicker than the general population, and that chronic ill health is their main barrier to work. [10]

7. The proposed policy to remove the ESA-WRAG component has clearly been influenced by the report How to run a country: Working age welfare by Charlotte Pickles and Hannah Titley. [11] This report relies on flawed evidence, repeating the same dubious assumptions about ESA/IB claimants. Specifically, it asserts, without providing any evidence, that "the monetary incentive for claimants to ‘fail’ the WCA and move onto ESA is significant".

8. ESA is indeed "replicating the problems of IB", but not for the reasons the authors suggest. The ‘IB problem’ has turned into the ‘ESA problem’ (i.e. as many claimants were ‘languishing’ on ESA in 2014 as in 2008) because its root causes have never been addressed. Instead, ever since IB and the functional assessment were first introduced in 1995, successive governments have been tweaking a system that is beyond tweaking.

9. It is likewise true that the WCA is not fit for purpose, but, again, not for the reasons stated by Pickles and Titley. The three ESA ‘bands’ are ill-conceived, and the criteria for allocating claimants into the different groups are arbitrary and absurd. Thus, the assessment does not measure fitness for work or work-related activity. Many of those deemed fit for work have limited capacity for work in the real world, while claimants in the WRAG are often no closer to moving into work than those in the Support Group.

10. In 2010, research undertaken by the IES found that welfare-to-work providers were concerned about the "unexpectedly severe conditions" of people allocated to the WRAG, reporting that "these people would be particularly difficult to help into employment". [12] In 2012, Chris Grayling stated that claimants in the WRAG "have proved to be sicker and further from the workplace than we expected". [13]

11. Last year, the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s inquiry concluded that the WRAG is a ‘catch-all’ group that covers a broad spectrum of claimants, varying from those expected to recover within three months to those with chronic, even progressive conditions who are unlikely to work again. [14] They also stated that the "conditionality attached to the WRAG, and the focus on moving into work in a relatively short period of time, means that this group, as it currently operates, is not appropriate for many of these claimants".

12. Given the significant health and other barriers faced by WRAG recipients, i t was obvious that the Work Programme would not be effective for them. But, despite being aware of the true nature of the ‘ESA problem’, the government has now decided that the best way to support WRAG claimants into work is to impoverish them.

13. The DWP’s impact assessment states that the majority of ESA claimants want to work, yet it implies that the WRAG component is discouraging them from taking the appropriate steps to finding a job. [15] In other words, we are expected to believe that claimants are disincentivised by the extra £30, but not incentivised by the financial, social and health benefits associated with paid employment. This assumption is not just insulting but also utterly devoid of logic.

14. ESA has been an expensive fiasco that has caused a good deal of suffering to claimants. As the promised revolution and projective savings have failed to materialise, the government has found another way to reduce spending on it.

15. Removing the ESA-WRAG component is a shameless cost-cutting measure which will punish claimants for the failures of the ESA/WCA scheme and the Work Programme, and do nothing to improve their chances of moving into a job.

September 2015

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/209510/hwwb-is-work-good-for-you-exec-summ.pdf

[2] http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Politics/documents/2007/03/05/welfarereviewreport.pdf

[3] http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130128102031/http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/work-capability-assessment-review.pdf

[4] Edited by Colin Lindsay and Donald Houston (2013). Disability benefits, Welfare Reform and Employment Policy. Palgrave Macmillan.

[5] http://ec.europa.eu/health/mental_health/eu_compass/reports_studies/disability_synthesis_2010_en.pdf


[6] Baumberg, Ben (2011). The role of increasing job strain in deteriorating fitness-for-work and rising incapacity benefit receipt. PhD Thesis. LSE. http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/192/1/Baumberg_The_role_of_increasing_job_strain_in_deteriorating.pdf

[7] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/214529/rrep754.pdf

[8] http://www.mind.org.uk/media/1690126/weve_got_work_to_do.pdf

[9] http://www.mind.org.uk/media/933438/2014-support-not-sanctions-report.pdf

[10] http://dro.dur.ac.uk/12797/1/12797.pdf?DDD14+kvsp45+dhs0cb1+d700tmt

[11] http://www.reform.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/HTRAC-WA-Welfare.pdf

[12] http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130128102031/http://research.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd5/rports2009-2010/rrep631.pdf

[13] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-work-programme-a-year-on-a-revolution-is-under-way

[14] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmselect/cmworpen/302/302.pdf

[15] http://www.parliament.uk/documents/impact-assessments/IA15-006B.pdf

Prepared 11th September 2015