The Conservatives are targeting some claimant’s cash, medication and access to justice, in a tougher sanctions regime aimed at forcing more long-term unemployed people into work. Mandatory work placements, fraud investigations as a form of coercion and a “digital tool” for tracking attendance at job interviews are also to be introduced.
Whilst most of the measures will affect a relatively small number of claimants at this stage, there is the possibility that they will become more widespread once the principle that they are acceptable has been established.
The measures form part a “Back to Work plan” to feature in the Autumn statement which Chancellor Jeremy Hunt and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Mel Stride say will “help people stay healthy, get off benefits and move into work.”
Amongst the new features to be introduced are:
- Closing the universal credit (UC) claims of people who have been on an open-ended sanction for more than six months. The DWP point out that this will include removing access to free prescriptions and legal aid. In theory, this should not affect disabled claimants, but in reality could potentially hit disabled claimants who are appealing a decision that they are fit for work.
- Automatically investigating claimants for fraud and error after 8 weeks on an open ended sanction, even though there are no grounds for suspicion.
- Tracking claimants attendance at job interviews and work fairs using a “digital tool”.
- Imposing mandatory work placements after 12 months on Restart.
Stricter sanctions and loss of prescriptions
The DWP say they will introduce “Stricter sanctions for people who should be looking for work but aren’t”.
This will include closing the UC claims of people who have been on an open-ended sanction for more than six months.
An open-ended sanction is one which applies for as long as a claimant does not meet a specified commitment.
So, for example, if a claimant failed to attend an interview with a work coach, they would be subject to an open-ended sanction until they did attend a rearranged interview. They would then have a fixed period sanction applied.
At the moment claimants subject to an open-ended sanction have a deduction applied to their standard allowance until they comply. This can last indefinitely.
Under the new rules their claim would end after six months if they are not receiving additional child, housing or disability UC payments. The DWP say this will also have the effect of “ending their access to additional benefits such as free prescriptions and legal aid.”
In theory, this measure will not apply to disabled claimants.
However, because the mandatory reconsideration and appeal process generally take longer than six months, a claimant who has wrongly been found capable of work could find themselves on an open-ended sanction for failing to do something that, for example, a mental health condition prevents them doing.
They may then find their UC claim and access to free prescriptions stopped before they have an opportunity to have the decision they are fit for work overturned.
Fraud investigations for disabled claimants
If a claimant is on an open-ended sanction for more than 8 weeks and they are in receipt of additional UC payments for childcare, housing or disability they will automatically be investigated for fraud and incorrect payments through the Targeted Case Review system.
This will be the case even though there are no grounds for suspecting any wrongful payment has been made.
The DWP say they are introducing a new digital tool that will allow work coaches to “track a claimant’s attendance at DWP organised job interviews or job fairs”.
The DWP have given no indication of how this tool will work, but say that it will “ensure that claimants who do not attend mandatory appointments without a good reason, are sanctioned.”
Restart mandatory work placements
The Restart scheme, which currently provides coaching and training to claimants who have been on UC for nine months is to be toughened up.
In future, claimants can be placed on the Restart scheme after six months.
In addition there will be a review after 12 months on Restart at which “a work coach will decide what further work search conditions or employment pathways would best support a claimant into work.”
The conditions can include a mandatory work-placement.
Claimants who refuse to accept the conditions laid down by the work coach will have their UC claim closed.
NHS Talking Therapies
An additional 384,000 people will be eligible for free courses of mental health treatment, such as CBT, “for treatment of mild and moderate mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders.”
Individual Placement and Support
An additional 100,000 people with severe mental illness will be eligible for Individual Placement and Support (IPS). The DWP say that IPS employment specialists help claimants to find and keep employment.
Universal Support in England and Wales
100,000 claimants per year, including disabled and vulnerable claimants, will receive up to 12 months “place and train” support from a dedicated keyworker who will help them find and keep a job. Up to £4,000 will also be available to help each claimant manage health conditions or to help employers make necessary adjustments.
The DWP say WorkWell will help support people at risk of falling into long-term unemployment due to sickness or disability, through integrated work and health support. The scheme will begin in 15 pilot areas.
Fit note reform
The government is to “explore reforms of the fit note process to provide individuals whose health affects their ability to work with easy and rapid access to specialised work and health support.”
The concern is that the DWP may be working towards reducing the role of GPs in providing fit notes, replacing them instead with DWP staff. This is hinted at in the Back to Work Plan, which says:
“Primary care (GP surgeries) will continue to play an important role in supporting working age people where their health presents a barrier to work. But there is often pressure on the time and expertise needed to hold the work and health conversation effectively and direct people to the right support, which is why we are exploring reforms.”
A blueprint for the future
If the DWP is successful in imposing these ‘reforms’ on a relatively small group of claimants without opposition, there is a real possibility they may then be introduced more widely.
It is hard to see how anyone could argue that effectively depriving claimants of access to prescribed medication, cutting off their access to legal aid or deliberately using fraud investigations as a method of coercion are legitimate functions of a social security system intended to act as a safety net.
But, it seems, that is exactly what is being introduce.