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Compulsory work for incapacity benefit claimants by 2006?

10 November 2003

A new incapacity for work pilot scheme brings much closer the government's goal of forcing sick and disabled claimants to work or train in order to get benefits. The pilot began in October and will be 'evaluated' in 2006, leaving the way clear for compulsion to be introduced before the end of that year.

Meanwhile, sick and disabled claimants in the pilot areas who fail to take part in discussions to the satisfaction of Jobcentre Plus staff will have their benefit cut month after month, until they are left with just 10p a week to live on. Amongst the issues claimants will be obliged to discuss are health related recommendations from medically unqualified Jobcentre Plus staff, such as that the claimant undertakes 'behavioural intervention therapy' or counselling or attends exercise sessions.

Grandmother's footsteps
In a summary to last year's green paper 'Pathways to work' the government made clear its belief that, in their own best interests, most people getting incapacity benefit should be working:

" . . . around three-quarters of new claimants have more manageable medical conditions such as back pain, depression and mild circulatory disorders rather than a severe disability such as Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia or severe learning difficulties; best medical evidence suggests that for the main conditions reported by claimants, a return to normal activity including work is likely to enhance well being and improve long-term recovery."

However, rather than immediately force three quarters of incapacity benefit claimants onto schemes such as New Deal for the Disabled and risk a revolt from their own backbenches, the government is playing grandmother's footsteps towards their goal.

Step one
The first step towards enforceable agreements for sick and disabled claimants, similar to those already in place for jobseekers allowance claimants, was the introduction of work-focused interviews in April 2000. From that date people claiming incapacity benefit, income support and severe disablement allowance as incapable of work became obliged to take part in an interview with a personal adviser. At this interview claimants are informed of the opportunities available to take part in work or training programmes. Although they are not obliged to agree to do anything, they do have to participate in the interview by answering questions about such things as their qualifications, employment history, skills and medical conditions.

Failure to participate in an interview can lead to benefits not being paid to new claimants or to a cut in benefits of £10.79 a week for existing claimants.

Step two
The new pilot represents step two of this process. It began on October 27th in: Bridgend and Rhondda Cynon Taf; Renfrewshire; Inverclyde; Argyll and Bute; Derbyshire. Further pilots begin in April 2004 in East Lancashire, Essex, Gateshead and South Tyneside and Somerset.

New claimants aged 18 or over in the pilot areas are obliged to take part in not one, but six work-focused interviews, one each month from week eight of their claim to incapacity related benefits. This is in spite of the fact that the government's own evaluation of the One pilot interviews, immediate forerunners of work-focused interviews, showed that disabled claimants were less likely to find work after having such an interview. It remains to be seen whether disabled claimants who have six work-focused interviews will be six times less likely to find work.

In the first interview claimants are obliged to answer questions as at Step one above. But, in addition, they are also obliged to 'participate in discussions' about their employability and any action which they and their personal adviser 'agree is reasonable and they are willing to take' to help enhance their employment prospects. They must then 'assist the officer in the completion of an action plan'.

The action plan may relate to such things as: undertaking training; participating in new Condition Management Programmes for incapacity benefit claimants provided jointly with the NHS, which include 'behavioural intervention' by psychologists, counselling, exercise sessions and pain management programmes; taking part in the New Deal for the Disabled and investigating part-time or full-time employment opportunities.

At each of the next five interviews claimants are obliged to take part in discussions about such things as: progress they have made towards obtaining employment; any parts of their action plan they have completed; how the action plan should be amended and any other programmes and support available.

Bridgend on 1.43p a day
The sanctions for failing to take part in discussions are harsh: incapacity related benefits are reduced by £10.79 a week for failing to take part in an interview. This reduction is applied again for each subsequent interview that the claimant fails to participate in, until they are left with only 10p a week to live on. Clearly, for people with long-term health conditions, any reduction in income may have a significant effect on their well being.

Claimants who do have their benefits sanctioned can have them reinstated if they subsequently do take part in discussions as required. Claimants can also appeal against the decision to reduce their benefit.

"Trust me, I'm not a doctor"
As well as the power to recommend medical intervention, the pilot also introduces a great deal of subjectivity and discretion for Jobcentre Plus decision makers.

This is because it is reasonably possible to make an objective decision about whether people have answered specific questions or not, but how do you decide - except entirely subjectively - whether a claimant has 'taken part in discussions'? For example, if a claimant repeatedly maintains that they are not well enough to consider any work or training and insists that they will not undertake medical treatment at the instigation of someone who is medically unqualified, have they refused to participate in discussions? Or have they taken part in a discussion and simply disagreed with their personal adviser about what's best for them?

Worse still, in its green paper 'Pathways to work' the government made it clear that its intention was that making a work-focused agreement would be mandatory. If claimants discuss options, but refuse to agree to do anything at all, how will it be possible for them to 'assist the officer in the completion of an action plan'?

Deliberately ludicrous
It seems entirely possible, then, that some claimants will have their benefits reduced not because they refused to participate in discussions with Jobcentre Plus staff, but because they failed to accept that an entirely unqualified, medically untrained Jobcentre Plus clerk knows best how to manage their health condition. Or because they simply felt too unwell to agree to take up any of the training or job hunting support on offer.

However, whilst making an agreement may be compulsory, keeping it is not. A deliberately and calculatedly ludicrous situation will thus have been created in the pilot areas: claimants who fail to make an agreement can have their benefits cut month after month, but claimants who make an agreement and then refuse point blank to stick to it cannot be sanctioned in any way whatsoever.

Step three to heaven
Step three in the governments strategy is so clear that it is almost possible to write Maria Eagle's sanctimonious announcement to the House of Commons in 2006, when the pilot ends:

"Unfortunately there are a significant number of customers who make firm agreements in relation to receiving incapacity benefit and then month after month after month, for no good reason, refuse to keep to them. At the moment, however, there are no powers to sanction customers who behave in this wholly irresponsible fashion at the taxpayer's expense. This cannot be right.

We are therefore bringing forward legislation to allow for sanctions of customers benefits where, without good cause, they fail to keep to work-focused agreements."

What reasonable person could possibly argue with the proposition that people who make agreements should keep to them, especially where public money is involved?

Time to eat you all up
The government have abandoned their original plan to oblige claimants in the pilot areas to claim JSA whilst appealing against a decision that they are capable of work. Instead they will be able to claim reduced rate income support, like appellants elsewhere in the country. They have also added two new carrots to the pilot scheme in the form of a Return to Work Credit of £40 a week payable for a year for those earning up to £15,000 and a discretionary fund of up to £300 per claimant 'to help find a job'. But the real purpose of the pilot is not to test the effect of a pair of low cost carrots, rather it is to prepare the way for the unopposed introduction of a very large stick.

So, agreeing to take part in New Deal for the Disabled, job hunting or psychological intervention because you're so misguided that you imagine you're too ill to work - compulsory by the end of 2006. Remember: you read it here first.