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Reform recognises the urgent need to reform the welfare system in order to better support people with a disability or health condition. As the Green Paper states, this must ensure appropriate support both for those who can work (according to their capacity, which may be limited) and those who cannot.
For people with a disability or health condition the current benefit system is fundamentally broken, inadvertently placing additional barriers in front of claimants who, with varying levels of support, could work. Delivering radically different employment outcomes requires a radically different model.
Here, the experience of replacing Incapacity Benefit (IB) with Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is instructive. The then Labour Government’s ambition was to tackle the “passive” IB system in order to give “more opportunity to those trapped by the current system”, which meant ensuring that the “vast majority” of claimants were subject to “a clear framework of rights and…responsibilities”. In 2006-07, ahead of the introduction of ESA, there were just under 2.7 million people on incapacity benefits, today there are 2.5 million – then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions John Hutton predicted a million fewer claimants within a decade. Perhaps most worrying, of the almost two million claimants who have moved onto ESA after their Work Capability Assessment (WCA), nearly 80 per cent are in the entirely passive Support Group. Analysis by Reform found that even amongst the Work Related Activity Group, only around 1 per cent leave the benefit in any given month. The expected step change in employment outcomes has not materialised, and Reform believes that this is, at least in part, because ESA was not a radical enough departure from IB.
Whilst this response is focused on the Green Paper’s proposed new approach to assessment, Reform believes strongly that achieving radically different outcomes also requires a fully cross-governmental approach that breaks down the many barriers disabled people, and those with a health condition, face in gaining and sustaining employment. Expecting more from people on ESA must be matched with the expectation that public services and employers will also play their part. Reform welcomes the fact that the Green Paper is a joint publication between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health, but a truly transformative approach also needs substantive engagement from the Department for Transport, the Department for Education (especially in relation to skills), the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and local government (in particular in relation to social care).
Reform acknowledges that the process of change will take time, but encourages the Government to be bold not just in its vision, but also in its action.