Welfare Reform Bill: Bishop of St Albans supports move to halt cuts to Employment and Support Allowance

On the 27th January 2016 the Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke to support an amendment to the Government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill. The amendment, in the name of Lord Low of Dalston, would negative a reduction in the Work Related Activity Group of the Employment and Support Allowance. The Bishop highlighted the likely impact on disabled people. 

StAlbans171115The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, as I said in Committee, if this reduction in benefits for the disabled is about incentivising work rather than simply cutting costs from the benefit budget, I support the Government’s intention. However, the way in which they are going about the task to cut ESA WRAG and its universal credit counterparts is misguided. Clearly, other noble Lords agree with that. For that reason, I am inclined to support the removal of Clauses 13 and 14.

A number of noble Lords have spoken about this stubborn disability employment gap—this sad indictment on a society that has perhaps for too long been willing to ignore the aspirations of the disabled to engage fully in society through work. Reference has already been made to the Government’s impact assessment, which found that 61% of those in the work-related activity group want the opportunity to earn a living. It is quite right that the Government have committed to halving the disability employment gap. The problem is that this is a complex issue. Some have a physical disability, others a mental disability. As the noble Baronesses, Lady Manzoor and Lady Meacher, said, people with chronic illnesses are also lumped into this group.

I declare an interest, in that my sister works for the motor neurone disease charity, which has met with me about this. It is deeply worried about this. This is a disease the progression of which is so rapid that many people would be way beyond any possibility of doing any work even before they get any sort of assessment. It is vital for people with this devastating diagnosis—many are young with children—to have all the support that they need immediately.

However, if this cut continues under the Government’s strategy, I fear that it will be a poor strategy. Indeed, I fully concur with the review into these clauses, published by the noble Lord, Lord Low, which found that,

“the Government’s impact assessment of the removal of the ESA WRAG component is lacking in depth and quality”.

It may be that the case for a cut in benefits will act as an incentive to encourage the fully able to find employment, but I have still to see the evidence that that will apply for the disabled. By removing nearly £1,500 from the future budgets of those who join ESA WRAG or those receiving universal credit limited capability for work, it seems that all the Government are likely to succeed in doing is push more disabled people into poverty, and, as others have said, probably destroy what little confidence and hope that they have as they want to get back into work. Those in this group are not in the same position as fully able JSA claimants and should not be treated as such; many are likely to remain in the WRAG for an extended period and their benefits situation must reflect this reality.

Like many noble Lords, I have met people who are disabled who are longing to get back to work. I do not believe that the basic problem is one of incentivising them. It really is a different problem—one of perception. I remember when I was an archdeacon many years ago and we made some major steps when legislation first came through to get ramps for every one of our churches. We looked at these problems and thought, “How on earth are we ever going to do it?”. Actually, there was a massive change of attitude, partly because we insisted that some of the people who argued against it got in wheelchairs and got themselves into churches. They discovered just how difficult it was. I have to confess that I had a change of perception; I had not got my mind around it.

I believe that we have an even bigger leap to take now. The vast majority of disabled people will need customised, individual help. That is part of the issue and the problem. What is needed is not so much carrot-and-stick incentives, but a wider strategy that helps disabled people to overcome the many challenges that they face in entering, or re-entering and staying in, the workplace. We need programmes and interventions designed to help these groups into employment, not arbitrary cuts to the living standards of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Lord Freud: My Lords, these amendments seek to remove Clauses 13 and 14 in order to prevent the proposed changes to the ESA work-related activity component and the universal credit limited capability for work element. Clause 13 amends existing legislation to remove this additional payment for new claims to ESA and aligns the amount of benefit paid to claimants with limited capability for work with that paid to jobseeker’s allowance claimants. I think I need to clarify that although some Peers have mentioned a loss of £60, the work-related activity component is just under £30 a week. Clause 14 is designed to introduce a similar outcome for UC claimants. The measure will save £640 million over the long term but in 2017-18, it will save £55 million while we will invest £60 million into additional practical support.

This change does not affect the support group component, the UC equivalent or the premiums which form part of income-related ESA. Existing claimants in the support group will be entitled to the work-related activity component if they are reassessed into the WRAG. We aim to protect existing ESA claimants who temporarily leave the benefit to try out work and then return to ESA, an issue which the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, was concerned about.

ESA was set up by a previous Government to support people with health conditions and disabilities into work but it has unfortunately failed the very people who it was designed to help. Despite spending £2.7 billion this year on the WRAG, currently only 1% of people in this group actually move off the benefit every month. As a Government, we want to ensure that we spend money responsibly in a way that improves individuals’ life chances and helps them to achieve their ambitions, rather than paying for a lifetime wasted on benefits.

Currently, those in the WRAG are given additional cash payments but very little employment support. As the Prime Minister recently stated, this fixation on welfare treats the symptoms and not the causes of poverty. Over time, it traps people in dependency. That is why we are proposing to recycle some of the money currently spent on cash payments, which are not achieving the desired effect of helping people to move closer to the labour market, into practical support that will make a genuine difference to people in these groups.

The additional practical support is part of a real-terms increase that was announced at the Autumn Statement. How the £60 million to £100 million of support originally set out in the Budget will be spent is going to be influenced not only by Whitehall but by a task force of representatives from disability charities, disabled people’s user-led organisations, employers, think tanks, provider representatives and local authorities. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Low, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Grey-Thompson and Lady Meacher, for their work in Committee in this area.

The new work and health programme will provide specialist support for the very long-term unemployed. We are committed to supporting everyone who is able to work to do so. The forthcoming White Paper is aimed at ensuring that we offer the best possible support to those with health conditions or disabilities, a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans.

There have been ongoing discussions with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, about learning difficulties. Mencap’s website points out that despite the fact that research shows that 65% of people with a learning difficulty want to work, and the fact that with the right support they make highly-valued employees, only one in 10 people with a learning disability known to social services is currently in paid work. The Autumn Statement announced a real-terms increase in funding of almost 15% for those with health conditions and disabilities.

In Committee, some noble Lords raised concerns that we are expecting claimants who have been found “not fit for work” to be able to work. Although this was discussed then, it is important to stress once again that claimants in the work-related activity group have been found to have “limited capability for work”, which is very different to being unfit for any work. That is an important distinction, as this misconception helps drive people further away from the labour market and perpetuates the benefit trap.

As for returning to work and improved mental health, this Government are committed to ensuring that people with mental health conditions receive effective support to return to and remain in work. The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, was concerned about this issue. We are investing £43 million over the next three years in trialling ways to provide specialist support for people with common mental health conditions. I have trawled the international evidence, and I know that we are going to build up a very substantial body of knowledge in this key area.

The noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, also raised the issue of deteriorating conditions. People with Parkinson’s who are currently getting the work-related activity component will not lose it, and will continue to receive ESA at the same rate, but any claimant who reports a deterioration in their condition can request a WCA to assess whether they may be eligible for the support group. As all Peers in the Chamber will acknowledge, some of these conditions can take a very long time indeed to develop, and there are times when people in the early period of those conditions are able to work, and indeed really want to.

Another area discussed at length in Committee was the evidence to support the Government’s view that the work-related activity component, in some cases, acts as a financial incentive to remain on benefit. I went through that evidence in some detail then but will summarise the points now. The findings of the OECD report, which we have touched on today, covered the whole population. Although the report does not specifically focus on the disabled population, it does not indicate the incentives would not apply there. We have the paper by Barr et al in 2010, which found that,

“eight out of 11 studies reported that benefit levels had a significant negative association with employment”.

It also noted that, “The most robust study”—by Hesselius and Persson—

“demonstrated a small but significant negative association”.

I have already mentioned the Norwegian study of the impact of financial incentives.

It is important to also recognise that the changes to ESA and universal credit work together and cannot be taken forward in isolation. Universal credit will replace income-related employment and support allowance once fully rolled out. We want to ensure that we build on what is working in universal credit to help those with health conditions and disabilities move into work. We have invested a lot in universal credit to make sure that we keep people connected to the labour market from the outset of their claim. Unlike under ESA, UC claimants with a health condition or disability are offered labour market support, where it is appropriate to do so, at the very start of their claim. This helps them to remain closer to the labour market, even if they are not immediately able to return to work.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said that about 116,000 people in the whole country benefit from the disability element of tax credits. The smallness of that number illustrates how the current system is not working. That is why universal credit gets rid of the hours rules that stop people entering the labour market. It makes every hour—every fluctuating hour—pay and gives people the work coach support they need to find and then retain work. I have to say that some of figures from the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, do not accurately reflect the situation. The point is that universal credit will make smaller, regular hours pay. Rather than dealing with a lot of very complicated sums, I will write to her and set out our response.

The findings from Universal Credit at Work show that universal credit is making a real difference in getting people closer to the labour market. It is easier to understand. People are earning more, they say they have better incentives to work and, indeed, they are working more. Universal credit is a step towards modernising the welfare system to one that improves individuals’ life chances, but we intend to go a lot further than that. We will publish a White Paper in the new year that will set out reforms to improve support for people with health conditions and disabilities, including exploring the role of employers, to further reduce the disability employment gap—to which we are committed —and promote integration across health and employment.

As for the impact of another budget, I should point out to the noble Lord, Lord Low, what we spend on disability benefit: it went up by £2 billion in real terms over the last Parliament. We spend £50 billion every year on benefits to support people with disabilities or health conditions, which is rather more than we spend on defence and police combined—6% of government spending.

Clauses 13 and 14, together with the additional practical support announced in the Budget, provide the right support and incentives to help people with limited capability for work move closer to the labour market and, when ready, into work. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Low of Dalston: [extract] …The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans got it in one when he said that the problem is one not of incentivising people, but of mobilising the job opportunities and giving disabled people the support they need to get into them.

(Via Parliament.UK)


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