In the Summer Budget 2015, the Chancellor announced that, from April 2017, new ESA claimants who are placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) will receive the same rate of benefit as those claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). This change only affects new claims made after that date and there will be no cash losers among those who are already in receipt of ESA.
The record employment levels and strong jobs growth in recent years have benefitted many, but these benefits have yet to reach those on ESA. While 1 in 5 JSA claimants move off benefit every month, this is true of just 1 in 100 of ESA WRAG claimants. Those with health conditions and disabilities deserve better than this.
It is important to tackle this as, in addition to providing financial security for individuals, there are economic, social and moral arguments that, for those who are able to, work is the most effective way to improve the well-being of individuals, their families and their communities.
Those in the WRAG currently receive additional cash payments but little employment support. As the Prime Minister has recently stated, this fixation on welfare treats the symptoms, not the causes of poverty; and, over time, it traps people in dependency as, in the current system, the additional cash payment acts as a disincentive to moving into employment. That is why the Government are proposing to recycle some of the money currently spent on cash payments, which are not actually achieving the desired effect of helping people move closer to the labour market, into practical support that will make a genuine difference to individual’s life chances.
This new funding will be worth £60 million in 2017/18 rising to £100 million in 2020/21. It will support those with limited capability for work to take steps to move closer to the labour market, and when they are able, back to work. This additional practical support is part of a real terms increase that was announced at the Autumn Statement. How the support will be spent is going to be influenced by a Taskforce of representatives from disability charities, disabled people’s user-led organisations, employers, think tanks, provider representatives and local authorities.
It is important to improve what is on offer for these individuals because we know that most people with disabilities and health conditions want to work, including 61 per cent of the WRAG, and there is a large body of evidence showing that work is generally good for physical and mental wellbeing.
In order to do more, the Chancellor announced in the Autumn Statement that the Government will publish a White Paper that will set out reforms to improve the system of support for people with health conditions and disabilities. In addition to these reforms there is an emerging package of support which will strengthen the offer to claimants with a health condition or disability:
In the Autumn Statement the DWP announced that they will introduce a new Work and Health Programme to focus on providing the best possible support for claimants with health conditions or disabilities, as well as those who are long-term unemployed;
These reforms are aimed at improving the quality of life of those in greatest need. It is worth noting that we spend around £50 billion every year on benefits to support people with disabilities or health conditions, this is over 6 per cent of all government spending. The Government can be proud of that and is determined to ensure that those in need get the support they require.
An extract from my speech during the debate in Parliament on these reforms is below.
“Briefly on Lords amendments 8 and 9, I share the concerns that were well rehearsed by my hon. Friends the Members for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen), for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy). We met the Minister together. I recognise that the Minister and the Secretary of State have a genuine commitment to this as a reforming measure.
We really need to get the White Paper out there so that the Government’s commitment to reform can be seen clearly.
I recognise that the WRAG is not fit for purpose, as only 1% are getting into work, but it does have a purpose. It has a purpose for the most vulnerable individuals, for whom the financial element of £30 really matters. The way we show our compassion is in how we treat the few, not the many. For those few people, that £30 will have a big impact on their lives. Whether we like the WRAG or not, whether we think these people should be in the support group, which they may well be moved into, or benefit from PIP, they are concerned about the loss of this payment. When dealing with those with progressive illnesses, remitting illnesses or mental health conditions—the Government’s commitment of £1 billion of investment is wonderful—what we do must be matched by careful concern.
As we move towards 2017, with the flow of new applicants, we must do all we can to reassure everyone that we are in the business of reform. We must not only enable more people to get into work, but deal with the practical elements. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford mentioned energy costs. That is undeniably an issue that must be dealt with practically. I will support the Government tonight, but we must get the White Paper out and show our practical support in meaningful ways before 2017.
I will hold the Government to account, as will my hon. Friends, to ensure that we deliver. We must show that we are on the side of these people, we must show our compassion and we must do all we can, for example through Disability Confident events like the one that I have on Friday, to show that we are on this in a way that previous Governments have not been. We must show that we want to see people’s lives transformed through work, but also that we will support people with the safety net, which we are proud of. Even after the WRAG measures, we are more generous than the previous Government were in relation to the disabled. We must not be deflected from the task of supporting people into work and supporting people in the safety net. It is not a pull factor—let us not make that case. We want to reform the measure to ensure that it really works for people who need support and are not able to get into work immediately, but let us keep our focus, as the poverty measures will do, on those who are most in need. I will hold the Government to account over the coming months to ensure that they really mean what they say.”
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