It's been a significant week of news about disability benefit, where the prevailing messages have changed profoundly.
There is now widespread acceptance, even inside Government, that the component parts of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and the Work Programme are not working for disabled people, employers, or the taxpayer.
Last Thursday the BBC published excerpts of leaked memos detailing how the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is failing to deliver the disability benefit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). The article said that ESA is not helping people get jobs and is a 'fiscal risk' for the Government.
Given that almost half of those claiming ESA have a mental health problem, Mind has long been campaigning for changes to this benefit and specifically the way that it is assessed through the Work Capability Assessment. We have fed into the independent reviews of this assessment for the last few years, calling for the use of assessors who have mental health expertise and greater use of evidence to help assessors recognise the impact having a fluctuating and complex condition like a mental health problem can have on someone's ability to work. Now that Atos have pulled out of the contract, the moment has come to use the opportunity of a new provider to take on board our concerns and recommendations.
On the same day the Government released figures showing the 'success' of the Work Programme - one of the main ways back-to-work support is provided to those in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) of ESA. People in this group are expected to actively engage in activities that are meant to help them back to work, otherwise they could have their benefits stopped. The new statistics have been portrayed as an indication of the success of the Work Programme, because they indicate that the rate of 'job outcomes' has risen - i.e. the number of people who've moved into work. But these figures must be scrutinised carefully because, whilst the proportion of people getting jobs to number of referrals is higher, this is largely down to the fact that ESA referrals onto the Work Programme have halved in the last year. This is partly because, thanks to the campaigning of organisations like Mind, more people with disabilities are being placed in the 'Support Group', in recognition of the difficulties they would face in seeking work. Add to this the fact that there is still a huge backlog of people stuck in the assessment system ESA, and you begin to realise that the increased rate of job outcomes has very little to do with a well-designed back-to-work support programme.
In fact, Mind and the Centre for Welfare Reform have recently supported an independent report which suggests the opposite - that back-to-work support provided through the Work Programme and Jobcentre Plus is pushing people with disabilities further from work. Based on data from over 500 people with a range of disabilities, the report, authored by Work Programme user Catherine Hale, who has ME, found that back to work support had helped just five per cent of respondents move into work. Furthermore, more than half of respondents (six in 10) said that their health, finances, confidence and sense of purpose had all suffered as a result.
In the past week we have also seen the release of a report from the Public Accounts Committee which was heavily critical of the implementation of Personal Independence Payments (PIPs), with Margaret Hodge referring to it as 'shocking' and a 'fiasco'. PIP, the benefit which is replacing the existing Disability Living Allowance (DLA) is aimed at helping people cover the extra costs associated with having a disability. We know that delays to being assessed and accessing this benefit are causing people not only huge financial worries but also a great deal of distress and anxiety. For many people a lack of information is causing a deterioration in their health.
With the general election fast approaching, it is clear the current benefits system is not working for people supported by ESA, especially those with mental health problems. Transforming the support offered to those who are out of work because of their mental health is one of Mind's key manifesto asks. This is the time to look at new options - some of which were set out by the IPPR report on the condition of Britain.
Whoever forms the next Government must acknowledge and tackle the many barriers people with mental health problems face in finding and retaining a job. The benefits system is very complex and we often hear how people struggle to navigate it, so we also need to ensure such individuals can access advice and support to help them. We urgently need to see people supported back to appropriate work when they are ready, and offered support in the meantime whilst they're too unwell to work.