I fully appreciate the concerns many people have had with regard to these changes and unfortunately some of this is down to a lot of misinformation and scaremongering published in the media.
I want to tackle this £30 figure, which has been widely circulated, head-on. At the moment, ESA claimants placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) receive a higher benefit than people on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) – currently £102.15 compared to £73.10 (this is the £30 difference). When ESA was set up by the last Labour Government, that additional payment was meant to help claimants to move closer to the labour market. The evidence shows these higher payments are not achieving that aim, with just one per cent of WRAG claimants moving off benefit each month. People in the WRAG are receiving a higher benefit but are not getting the appropriate support to progress towards work. That is why the Government is aligning ESA payments for those in the WRAG with the rate of JSA, and is recycling that money into practical support specifically to help people who have limited capability for work to move closer to employment. This new funding will be worth £100 million by 2020-21. Whilst 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. This is going to go up in real terms every year of this parliament compared to 2010.
The change will only affect new claims made after April 2017, so nobody will actually see their entitlement fall. Those with the most severe conditions are placed in the Support Group; this group will not be affected and will continue to receive a premium on their ESA.
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. However this focus on welfare treats the symptoms, not the causes of poverty. 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:
- Universal Credit (UC) is already beginning to transform people's lives by introducing earlier support and putting claimants in the best possible position to move into and stay in work. Under UC, claimants with health conditions and disabilities will gain more support earlier in their claim to take steps towards work with their dedicated Work Coach working alongside health professionals to ensure they receive personalised integrated support;
- The DWP and Department of Health have created the Work and Health Unit to help support people with health conditions and disabled people back into employment. This Joint Unit has at least £115 million of funding, including at least £40m for a work and health innovation fund, to pilot new ways to join up across the health and employment systems;
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;
- We know that returning to suitable work can improve mental health, and that is why the Government is committed to ensuring that people with mental health conditions receive effective support to return to, and remain in, work. £43 million is being invested over the next three years in trialling ways to provide specialist support for people with mental health conditions;
- The Government also recognises the importance of promoting positive attitudes towards employing disabled people, and seeks to do this by challenging the attitudes of employers towards recruiting and retaining disabled people through the Disability Confident campaign.
With regard to the House of Lords, the Government did make a number of concessions in response to issues raised in both Houses, including an additional £15 million for the Jobcentre Flexible Support Fund to be targeted specifically at people with limited capability for work. The changes have been debated extensively and I think the Government has listened carefully to views expressed in those debates. I do think this reform is the right thing to do, and it has now been agreed by both the Lords and the Commons.
These reforms are aimed at improving the quality of life of those in greatest need. The Government can be proud of that and is determined to ensure that those in need get the support they require, but we should be particularly proud that under this government a record number of people have been helped from disability benefits into sustainable employment.
You may also be interested to know what we are doing to support those with specific illnesses:
Specifically on claimants with Multiple Sclerosis, the vast majority of people with MS are placed in the Support Group. In fact, the most recent figures showed that of 20,800 MS sufferers who had been assessed for ESA, 19,600 were in the Support Group as of February 2015, which means around 95 per cent of claimants who had been assessed are getting the maximum financial support for claimants out of work due to a health condition or disability.
For those ESA claimants who are placed into the WRAG and UC claimants determined to have limited capability for work, a trained professional has advised that they are capable of some work-related activity. However, if an individual's condition deteriorates they may have their eligibility reassessed. On this basis they may then be moved into the Support Group in ESA, or the UC equivalent.
Motor Neurone Disease
MND is a rapidly progressing and incurable condition, and as a result the vast majority of ESA claimants with MND are in the Support Group. These people will continue to see their Support Group payments uprated. The Government recognises that for some people there is no realistic long-term prospect of them moving into employment, and is keeping its pledge to maintain and improve support for these vulnerable groups.
The vast majority of people with Parkinson's are placed in the Support Group. In fact, the most recent figures showed that of 2,600 claimants with Parkinson's who had been assessed for ESA, 2,400 were in the Support Group as of February 2015.
Similarly to those claimants with Multiple Sclerosi, those ESA claimants who are placed into the WRAG and UC claimants determined to have limited capability for work, a trained professional has advised that they are capable of some work-related activity and it is important we do not write these people off. On their website, Parkinson's UK recognise that "Many people with Parkinson's continue to work for many years after their diagnosis" but may need changes to the way they work to do so. However, when an individual's condition deteriorates, they may request to have their eligibility reassessed. On this basis they may then be moved into the Support Group in ESA, or the UC equivalent.
In the case of cancer patients, the Government listens regularly to representations from cancer charities to ensure sufferers are treated fairly. Professor Harrington in his second review of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) asked Macmillan Cancer Support to look at how the WCA assesses people with cancer and provide him with recommendations for further improvements. As a result, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) carried out a consultation seeking a wider range of views on the proposed changes.
The DWP published its response to the consultation, setting out proposals for changing how the WCA assesses the effects of cancer treatment. These proposals expanded the categories of cancer treatments under which a claimant may be treated as having limited capability to undertake work-related activity to include individuals who are: awaiting, receiving or recovering from treatment by way of chemotherapy irrespective of route; or awaiting, receiving or recovering from radiotherapy.
As a result, over 80 per cent of people on ESA who have had an assessment are in the Support Group. This includes anyone who is preparing for, receiving, or recovering from chemotherapy or radiotherapy that will significantly limit their ability to work. Those ESA claimants who do find themselves in the WRAG, or UC equivalent, have been advised that they are capable of some work-related activity by a trained healthcare professional; however, if an individual's condition deteriorates they may request to have their eligibility reassessed. On this basis they may then be moved into the Support Group in ESA, or the UC equivalent.
However, employment can play a vital part in supporting an individual's recovery and Macmillan recognises this, stating in a report that: "Many people who are working when they are diagnosed with cancer would prefer to remain in work, or return to their job, during or after treatment."
These are all terrible conditions for anyone to have to deal with, and I agree it is absolutely crucial that sufferers and their families receive all the support they need. I hope this has also gone some way to explaining the ways the Government is ensuring the system protects those with the most serious conditions, including exempting the Support Group component in ESA and its UC equivalent from the benefits freeze and the Benefit Cap.