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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Sanders.
This is the sixth Westminster Hall or Adjournment debate that I have had on employment and support allowance. I have always acknowledged that the roots of some of the issues clearly lie in the introduction of ESA in 2008, when my party was last in government, but whenever such changes are made in practice we need to be ready to evaluate their effect, monitor their impact and make any further changes that might be required. One of the issues that has come to the fore as the system has rolled out is the experience of claimants who are awarded ESA and placed in what is called the work-related activity group. Claimants in the WRAG receive £101.15 per week and are required to attend regular interviews with a Jobcentre Plus adviser. Those in the other ESA group, the support group, receive £108.15 per week and do not have any conditionality placed on them. The third group consists of those who are declared fit for work and have to claim jobseeker’s allowance with all its associated commitments.
I still think that ESA is a step forward from the previous system. Under incapacity benefit, people were either found fit for work and claimed JSA, or given unconditional financial support. Under the new system, financial support is given while at the same time support can be given to keep people close to the labour market and in the best position to return to work at some point in the future. The work-related activity group, however, has evolved significantly and I will highlight three broad areas of concern: the sort of claimants being placed in the WRAG; the quality of the support provided; and the restrictions on receiving WRAG and the reduction in value of the payments.
I have long believed that many people who should be placed in the support group are instead in the WRAG. One constituent explained to me that once she had been placed in the WRAG she received a letter asking her in for a work-focused interview. The letter was mainly about what would happen to her if she did not attend, which made her anxious. In the event, the interview was short and the adviser agreed that she was in no way ready for work activities and told her that she need not come back until the outcome of her appeal to be in the support group, which she eventually won. Other constituents have been told that they need not return for a year. One was told that she certainly did not need to return for some considerable time when she attended the work-focused interview with her oxygen tank. Parkinson’s UK told me that some of its clients are being placed in the WRAG despite the fact that Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative condition that will not improve over time.
On the one hand, such outcomes—especially if people are told, “We don’t need to see you for another year”—can be a relief for some claimants but, on the other hand, that makes a mockery of the idea of ESA being about moving towards employment. People might sit in the WRAG for long periods, and at least one of my constituents, with whom I am in fairly regular contact, has been in the WRAG throughout the time that I have been an MP, since 2010. She was first assessed in 2009 and is still in the WRAG in 2015.