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DWP’s good intentions on disability support will be hard to implement

The new ‘Transforming Support’ white paper has its merits – but turning its contents into a humane and effective system will be no easy task.

Mel Stride, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Rarely can a white paper 13…; have glowed with such self-declared good intentions for those with disabilities. Campaigners have been given something for which they have long wished – the abolition of the much criticised Work Capability Assessment (WCA). The WCA essentially decides whether those on Universal Credit receive additional money related to their health condition, and how much effort those with disabilities do, or do not, have to put into finding work.  

The white paper rightly seeks to “close the disability employment gap” 

The Transforming Support white paper outlines ambitions for more training for work coaches in Jobcentres to assist those with disabilities into work, and help them stay there. Those who actively prepare for work will be able to do so without fearing that having to take the WCA again may lead to them losing benefit. 

The goal, in the white paper’s words, is to “close the disability employment gap”, genuinely providing much more help to get those with disabilities into employment, not least by trying to focus once again on what people can do, not what they can’t. 

Furthermore, the Budget arithmetic 14 shows that there is some investment coming with the warm words in very round numbers, an additional £270m or so next year, rising to around £400m in three years time. This has been billed by the chancellor and others as the most far reaching change to welfare in a decade 15 indeed, since the announcement of Universal Credit in 2010. And yet people with disabilities and their campaigning organisations remain anxious, even sceptical, despite their desire being met for the WCA to be scrapped. 

Implementing the white paper will be a tale of two tests 

The challenge lies in how all this will be implemented, whether the good intentions become good actions, and how far the new disability support system will be humanely adapted in the way the government outlines. 

Currently, in this part of the benefits system, there are two tests. The WCA tests people’s ability to work, or not. Quite separately, there is a test for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) which recognises the additional costs to people living with a disability, whether in work or not. These tests do two very different things – it is perfectly possible to have health conditions that limit the ability to work without incurring significant extra costs for living with disability and that is indeed reflected in who gets what. Currently, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 0.8m people receive only PIP, 1m receive Universal Credit’s additional health-related element, and 1.6m receive both. 

The price for the WCA being abolished is that only those on PIP will qualify for the health-related element in Universal Credit (this will happen automatically). And if nothing else changes that is, over time, a pretty chunky benefit cut. The IFS calculates that some 600,000 people currently receive the health-related element of Universal Credit, but not PIP, and so could potentially lose £350 a month. The government is promising “transitional protection” for these people so that they do not lose at the point of change. But that protection erodes over time, and in addition, any new claimants will not get the health-related UC element unless they are on PIP. 

That is likely to see more people apply for the PIP, which has its own challenges, not least huge delays in assessments being made. 16… There is a hint however in the white paper that the eligibility criteria might be widened to allow more people to qualify – “as we develop out reform proposals, we will consider how disabled people and people with health conditions who need additional financial support may receive it.” 

The government has time to ‘test and learn’ – and it will need it  

For those who do not qualify for PIP there will be a “personalised health conditionality” approach to decide the requirements placed on individuals to prepare for work according to their capacity to undertake it, along with the greater support promised. This is where the investment in work coaches to do that job comes in. 

Work coaches, however, are not health professionals, and while pilots of this approach have been run, how well work coaches can do it, and how rigorous the demands will be before potential sanctions (loss of benefit) kick in remains uncertain. There will be a lot of discretion and the application of a lot of judgement in this new system, with the government promising a “test and learn” approach before fully introducing it.  

In practice, because a chunk of this will require legislation, these are chiefly changes for the next parliament, not this one. So there is time for the government to achieve its stated aim of achieving “greater levels of trust” between those affected and the Department for Work and Pensions. That will be needed, because turning the good intentions here into a humane and effective system will be no easy task. 

Institute for Government

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