Lord Freud ignores impact of policies on people with disabilities

If you’re off work for more than four days, you can get £87.55 per week in Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) for up to 28 weeks. This is paid by your employer, but previously they sometimes could claim a proportion of this back from the Government. This policy – known as the Percentage Threshold Scheme – was abolished on 5 April 2014.

Earlier this year I received a letter from a constituent who is disabled and employs a Personal Assistant. He noted that while other employers might be able to absorb this extra cost by increasing earnings or making savings elsewhere, people in this position are often dependent on money from their local council to fund their care, and given recent cuts to council budgets, people in his position could be forced to either reduce the amount of care they purchase or cut back on other essentials to absorb the costs of any SSP.

I raised this on 13 October in a letter to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith – you can see a copy here – and I received a response from his deputy, the Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud, on 27 October – you can see a copy here.

At no point in his response does the Minister address the specific issue I raised with him, regarding the impact of this policy for people with disabilities employing Personal Assistants. I’m surprised that Lord Freud has been so careless with respect to an issue that affects people with disabilities, given that he recently had to apologise for suggesting that companies should be able to pay disabled people below the minimum wage. I’ve already written back asking him to address this specific point, and I’ll post any reply I receive here.

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Press release: Sheila Gilmore MP slams Government’s cruel plans to slash benefits for sick and disabled

Edinburgh East MP and Work and Pensions Select Committee member Sheila Gilmore today slammed the Government’s cruel plans to slash benefits for sick and disabled people.

Employment and Support Allowance is paid at one of two rates – £101.15 a week for those placed in the Work-related Activity Group, and £108.15 a week for those in the Support Group. The BBC are reporting that Ministers are considering cutting payments to those in the Work-Related Activity Group to £72.90 – 50p above the weekly payment to Jobseekers Allowance claimants.

Sheila Gilmore said:

When Labour created the Work-related Activity Group in 2008, the rationale was to ensure that sick and disabled people who couldn’t work in the short term but might be able to in the future weren’t simply written off. Those in this group would receive support from Jobcentres and be encouraged to do appropriate training.

However we were clear that up until their next reassessment – which would occur at least every two years – these people were still unable to work.

This is something Tory Ministers now seem keen to ignore. By cutting payments to those in the Work-related Activity Group by nearly £30 per week, Ian Duncan Smith is effectively saying that these people are only a hop, skip and a jump away from being a fully fit, able-bodied Jobseekers Allowance claimant.

This just isn’t the case in reality, as has many people who are placed in this group have serious mental health issues or are recovering from serious accidents.

Cutting the benefits of sick and disabled people who are unable to work through no fault of their own is cruel – Ian Duncan Smith and his Tory Ministers should be ashamed.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.

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New ‘fit for work’ contract will not be fit for purpose

Today I’ve written about the news that US firm Maximus are set to take over administering Work Capability Assessments for Progress. My article is available here but I’ve reproduced it in full below.

Today the government announced that American firm Maximus have been awarded the contract to carry out medical assessments to determine whether people who claim they are unable to work due to ill health or disability should be entitled to benefits.

When this work was first outsourced to the French firm Atos Healthcare in 1998, this decision seemed relatively uncontroversial. However, in 2008 Labour replaced the old incapacity benefit with employment and support allowance, and alongside this came a new test – the work capability assessment.

We did this with the right intentions. With the decline of heavy industry, the number of incapacity benefit claimants had more than doubled from 1.2 million in 1979 to 2.6 million in 1997. Although this figure then stabilised, Labour ministers realised that some of these people might be able to work and that this would benefit their health in the long term.

However, by the general election in May 2010, it was becoming clear that the WCA was getting too many decisions wrong. Unfortunately, the new Conservative-led government was so unmoved by these failings that Iain Duncan Smith ordered that the number of assessments be increased. So while assessments had previously been restricted to new applications for ESA, in November 2010 Atos started to put all 2.2 million existing incapacity benefit claimants through the WCA.

Unsurprisingly things did not improve – many people who were genuinely unable to work were still being declared as fit to do so, and there is now a backlog of more than 700,000 claimants awaiting an assessment. These delays not only cause financial hardship – they also often exacerbate people’s existing physical and mental health conditions.

Although they initially defended Atos, by summer 2013 ministers had decided to use the firm as a lightning rod for discontent. This led to Atos announcing that it would negotiate an early exit from its contract earlier this year, and as a consequence responsibility for WCAs will now pass to Maximus.

I am clear that Atos did not cover themselves in glory. Although many of their staff are decent, hardworking people, I regularly heard stories about others being unprofessional, insensitive and rude.

But critics should resist the temptation to channel all their anger towards Atos or Maximus – ultimately the WCA is government policy, and whichever contractor is in place, they will simply be doing ministers’ bidding.

A whole series of changes need to be made to the WCA. At a minimum:

  • Assessor training needs to take account of fluctuating and progressive conditions
  • Evidence from GPs and other experts needs to be given more weight
  • Informal targets need to be lifted
  • The frequency of reassessments needs to be reduced

The easiest (and cheapest) way to make these changes would be through a new contract but I fear that the government will have missed this opportunity in their deal with Maximus. In June the minister who was then responsible for this issue, Mike Penning, said ‘I just do not have time to negotiate a brand spanking new all-singing all-dancing contract.’

This highlights the flaws in outsourcing such a controversial and flawed process. If the government had been brave enough to take the process back in-house, even if just for a temporary period, it would be far easier to sort these problems out. Instead by simply changing the provider but not the test, thousands of sick and disabled people could be incorrectly assessed as fit for work for years to come.

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Supported employment works

Today I’ve written about the closure of the Engine Shed and supported employment more generally for the Edinburgh Evening News. You can find my article here but I’ve also reproduced it in full below.

Last month I was saddened to learn that the Engine Shed, a well-respected social enterprise based in the Southside, is set to close. It specialised in providing training and employment to young people with learning disabilities, who would work in its cafe and bakery.

This follows on from the closure of both Blindcraft (pictured below) in 2011 – which provided jobs for people with visual impairments, and produced good quality beds and mattresses – and of 33 Remploy factories across the UK in 2012 – which employed disabled people to make various products ranging from air filters to school furniture.

As a result of government cutting funding for organisations such as this – commonly referred to as supported employment – people with disabilities are increasingly expected to take up mainstream jobs. I have two concerns about how this shift in policy is working in practice.

The support disabled people need to stay in work often isn’t there – the UK government’s Work Programme has badly let down disabled people over the last four years. I think for some more severely disabled people, it will be very hard for them to get a regular job in the first place. This problem is often exacerbated by the fashion for ‘payment by results’ contracts, where those who are easiest to help are cherry-picked by contractors, and those who need more support left behind.

I accept that places such as Blindcraft and Remploy needed public money. But I fear that much of the savings realised by closing these factories is used on benefits to former employees, many of whom have struggled to find work.

It’s important to emphasise that this isn’t just a UK government issue – Scottish Government guidance requires councils to withdraw funding from those that provide a slower, supportive ‘training first’ approach, preferring a ‘jobs first’ view instead. This is what led to Edinburgh Council withdrawing funding from the Engine Shed.

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Sorting out separation

In advance of a debate I led on Tuesday, I wrote a piece for PoliticsHome on the support given to separated parents to ensure both make a contribution to their child’s upbringing. I’ve reproduced it in full below.

When families split up the Government clearly has a role in ensuring that parents who live away from their children contribute financially to their upbringing. In the past this function was administered by the Child Support Agency, which enforced payment agreements between nearly 2 million separated parents.

However earlier this year the Coalition started to wind down the CSA, with a view to encouraging parents to sort out their own arrangements following relationship breakdown.

Now all would be applicants to the CSA’s statutory replacement, the Child Maintenance Service, must first talk to the Child Maintenance Options Service; and parents who still wish to use the CMS have to pay a £20 charge, with additional collection charges kicking in if parents fail to pay maintenance between them.

Ministers also set up the £20 million Help and Support for Separated Families (HSSF) Programme to provide specialised help and support for parents come to their own agreements, but following research over the last year, I’m concerned that the programme simply hasn’t reached enough separated families.

For example the £400,000 Sorting Out Separation website was intended to signpost 260,000 parents per year to relevant help and support, but between November 2012 and January 2014 only 9,132 users clicked through to an external organisation (that’s a cost of over £45 per user).

A similarly story emerges when I looked at the HSSF Innovation Fund, which was meant “to learn what works best in helping separating and separated parents to collaborate and resolve conflict in order to support their children.” The first £6.5 million tranche of money was to fund projects that would reach over 280,000 parents, and yet as at 31st January, only 3,724 parents had participated.

Its findings like this that prompted me to secure a 90 minute Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday 21 October, where I’ll be pushing Ministers on both the use of HSSF Programme funding, and what arrangements will be put in place going forward.

As a former family lawyer I know how difficult it can be for many separated parents to behave collaboratively and in the best interests of their children. If the Government is really serious about parents sorting things out themselves, we need initiatives like the HSSF programme to succeed; and if they don’t, we need Ministers to re-double their efforts.

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