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I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, for that contribution. I will come on to this in more detail later, time permitting, because the situation we are in now is important. If we end up with a default group and people in it for a long time, one of the questions that has to be asked is, how much further have we progressed from where we started?
One of the problems seems to be that different rules or practices from those for people previously on incapacity benefit are being applied to new claimants. The new claimants who go into the support group may be placed there without a face-to-face assessment. In some situations people are having a paper-based assessment and, if people go into the support group, that might seem acceptable. The WRAG, however, has a detrimental effect on income and circumstances, which I will come on to, so if people go into that group because of a paper-based assessment, they will not have had the opportunity to explain more fully their particular circumstances. That might seem a rather strange thing to say, given the debate about there being too many assessments—I have been part of that myself in my Adjournment debates—but it is important that we get things right.
The Select Committee called for the rules to be aligned, so that no claimants could be placed into the WRAG without having an opportunity to explain their particular conditions and its impact to an assessor, but the Government in their response of November last year refused to accept that recommendations. I hope that the Minister has had further thought and might want to reconsider.
Between 2008 and 2014 about 30% of new claimants with Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis were placed in the WRAG. Of those, some 5,000 were given the prognosis that they were unlikely to return to work in the longer term. The Select Committee recommended that all claimants with such a prognosis be allocated to the support group, not the WRAG, but the Government’s response was disappointing, stating that “with the right support”—which I will go on to say is not there—
“that person might be able to return to…work”.
The Government also consider that individuals might be able to adapt to their condition or that advances in treatment might become available. If someone goes into the support group, however, regular reassessments are carried out, so even if claimants were able to adapt successfully or treatments became available, that would be picked up. On its own, therefore, that is not a good enough reason for placing people in the WRAG.
That leads me on to the quality of support. When ESA was first introduced, the intention was that Jobcentre Plus would provide the support, but since 2010 the number of disability employment advisers has declined, meaning many ESA claimants receive no more than two face-to-face interviews per year or, in the experience of some of my constituents, sometimes fewer. Many are now referred to the Work programme, with numbers increasing significantly following the October 2012 decision to expand the range of people referred from those thought able to return to work within three months to those thought able to return within 12 months. Concerns about the Work programme are well documented, but it is particularly inappropriate for those incorrectly placed in the WRAG.
A constituent of mine was placed in the WRAG and referred to Work programme contractor A4E, but her only activity was to search for jobs on the internet, despite the fact that she has complex regional pain syndrome and would have been unable to take up any job offered. She was given little help with how her particular condition might be alleviated or supported, or about what contact she would require with employers to make that happen. Rather, the result was that her treatment was disrupted and her condition exacerbated. Indeed, recent analysis, quoted in the Select Committee report, found that only 5% of claimants from the WRAG who were placed in the Work programme have moved into sustained work since 2011, against a target of 16.5%.
A few months ago, an evidence-based review of the work capability assessment, the test for deciding whether people are eligible for benefit and which group they go into, examined whether different descriptors would work. Part of the process was to ask expert panels to look at the WCA outcomes. Interestingly, they identified that, of the claimants who were found fit for work, 83% would require, on average, two or three adjustments to be able to undertake employment, 50% would require flexible working hours, and 24% would require a support worker. That was a review of fit-for-work assessments; those requirements are likely to be even more necessary for those in the work-related activity group. Such support just is not happening through the Work programme.
I do not have a particular view on whether support should be provided through Jobcentre Plus or a contractor or other provider, but in addressing these concerns it is important that provision is not forced upon people who cannot benefit from it, and that those who can receive it get it in a form that is applicable to their needs and the local circumstances. In that respect, I strongly support the devolution of responsibility and finance for the Work programme to local authorities, as many specialist local providers offer a much more effective and personalised service to those with health problems or disabilities.
As my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee pointed out, there is a major flaw at the heart of the system, which explains some of the problems. The work capability assessment is trying to be a test of both eligibility for financial support and how close people are to being able to work. At the outset, there was in fact a further assessment called the work-focused health-related assessment, which was intended to explore the difficulties and obstacles that people would face in returning to work—that is, after eligibility for benefit had been determined, issues such as the obstacles to and distance from employment would be looked at.
In July 2010, the work-focused health-related assessment was suspended for two years on the grounds that it had not delivered the intended outcomes, although it seemed somewhat early to make that judgment as it was barely 18 months since the introduction of the benefit as a whole. In 2013, it was suspended for a further three years to await evaluation of the Work programme and universal credit.