In the next few hours the debate over the future of Employment and Support Allowance will be decided. The impact on many disabled people could be significant.
The government's defeat in the House of Lords on Monday offered disabled people at risk of losing as much as £30 a week in benefit support, a temporary reprieve.
It remains to be seen if the government is prepared to revise its plans or whether the 48 hours in between the vital votes in the Lords and Commons offers the 2.5 million people claiming out of work benefits due to illness or a disability, little more than false hope.
All the indications suggest that the Chancellor is not likely to reverse the planned cut to ESA in the Budget.
However something has to be done to address the impact that cuts to ESA will have on the government's own ambitious target of halving the disabled employment gap by 2020.
At Papworth Trust, we have developed some policy proposals that will help the government to reach its goal and provide disabled people with the peace of mind they need as they enter employment.
One of the biggest barriers to work for ESA claimants is the fear of the unknown. It is the fear that if they accept a job and it doesn't work out, they may lose their benefits altogether or become embroiled in an elongated process of assessment which could see them lose months of benefit support that they rely on in order to live independently.
It is a leap in the dark that at present, many disabled people simply won't be prepared to take.
Importantly, therefore, Papworth Trust believes that in order for the government's ESA plans to work, there should be an automatic entry route back onto ESA for claimants who have fallen out of work within a year of moving into employment.
The government must also reconcile how they plan to encourage people on ESA to take that leap off their benefits and into work with no hard and fast guarantees around their re-enrolment onto ESA if the new job doesn't work out.
We believe the government should be announcing, alongside the ESA cuts, some form of initial, upfront support for a disabled person's first couple of months in a new job, to acknowledge the additional cost of entering work, and the gap before the first full month's salary is paid.
In Papworth Trust's experience, if people who were previously ESA claimants succeed through the first precarious months in work, the chances of them going on to stay in their job long term are high.
It is well recognised that attitudes towards disability and health problems, age discrimination, language barriers, criminal records, lack of experience and transportation needs restrict the opportunities and ability for people to gain work. A major barrier for Papworth Trust's disabled customers is that employers often seek 'ready-made' employees who are proficient in their role with minimum training, support or cost to the employer. Extra support or training is viewed by some employers as inconvenient, time consuming and costly.
The Trust is seeing both through our own work and the work we are doing with Newcastle University that there are significant issues with the most basic of pre-employment skills, such as literacy, numeracy, basic communication skills, or basic anxiety management. This is an area that can get overlooked as jobseekers are often unwilling to disclose these issues as they are ashamed.
Therefore much of the existing provision in this space is inappropriate to meet their needs. A training pot where jobseekers can be supported to gain transferrable skills (for example improving literacy skills) to get them 'job ready' would make a real difference.
Finally, if the government is serious about halving the employment gap amongst disabled people, they should implement reforms that reverse the perverse situation where disabled people can't get hold of Access to Work type support whilst seeking employment, as it is outside the current definition of the Access to Work scheme.
In our experience, customers are motivated to return to work by focussing on what they would like to do and the skills they possess. Our approach is to progress customers to the next stage in their return to work, not to focus on the end goal of getting a job. Taking smaller steps reduces the fear of returning to work sometimes felt by customers, and allows us to address each barrier into work. By addressing each issue, we build up an individual's confidence and ability to return to work.
Things like access to travel support or specialist equipment would be hugely beneficial in this area in getting more ESA claimants into work. This could be delivered through extending Access to Work to ESA claimants who are currently seeking work.
If support in managing additional needs can be improved, and clearly defined and automatic routes back onto ESA are outlined by the government, the worst excesses of the cut to ESA as outlined in the Welfare Bill before Parliament, may be mitigated.
Without this joined up approach, the laws of unintended consequences will once again mean that life for disabled people becomes harder, not easier.
CEO of Papworth Trust
Chair of the Care & Support AllianceSuggest a correction