The idea underlying the WRAG was to take people who, while unable to work at present, could do so in the future, and provide them with support, advice and training. While I support this in principle, from speaking to people with experience of it there appears to be remarkably little on offer.

Limited support
One constituent told me about her experience of being in Work Programme, which placed lots of emphasis on job finding despite many referrals being for people who are on long prognoses and therefore far from fit. It is a failing in the design of the Work Programme and a failure in the ‘sorting’ process!

Another constituent explained that she received a letter asking her in for a work focused interview. The letter was, she said, mainly about what would happen if she didn’t attend. This of course made her anxious. In the event however the interview was short, the adviser agreeing she was in no way ready for work activities and telling her she needn’t come back until after the outcome of her appeal to the Support Group (which she eventually won). I have another constituent who was told she needn’t return for a year.

Now on the one hand such outcomes can be a relief, but on the other it makes a mockery of the whole idea of it being about moving towards employment. If people are placed in the WRAG and simply ‘languish’ there for a long period of time, then it does nothing to help them while at the same time they receive less money than if in the Support Group.

My impression is that increasingly the DWP is simply using the Work Programme to provide the help and support for people in the WRAG. Ministers are also considering increasing the number of people mandated into it from those thought able to return to work within 6 months to those able to return within 12. However there is growing concern about the quality of the Work Programme, especially for people with health problems.

For example when a constituent of mine was placed in the WRAG and referred to Work Programme contractor A4E, the only activity she did was searching for jobs on the internet, despite the fact that she has Complex Regional Pain Syndrome and would be unable to take up any job offered. Unfortunately even this resulted in her treatment being disrupted and her condition being exacerbated.

As part of our July 2014 report on ESA, the Work and Pensions Select Committee concluded that:

The ESA outcome groups are too simplistic: the WRAG has become a “catch-all” group for those claimants who do not meet the narrow criteria for being placed in the Support Group, but who are not fit for work. The conditionality attached to the WRAG, and the focus on moving into work in a relatively short period of time, means that this group, as it currently operates, is not appropriate for many of these claimants.

Time-limiting contributory ESA
In addition people in the WRAG can now only claim the contributory version of ESA for a year, after which point they will lose benefit altogether if they have a working partner, a pension, or savings. This policy was announced in the Spending Review 2010:

Time limit contributory Employment and Support Allowance for those in the Work Related Activity Group to one year, to improve work incentives while protecting the most severely disabled and those with the lowest incomes, saving £2 billion a year by 2014-15.

Estimated savings were:

Contributory Employment and Support Allowance: time limit for those in the Work Related Activity Group to one year

• 2011-12:0
• 2012-13:1,025
• 2013-14:1,530
• 2014-15: 2,010

The Equality Impact Assessment for the policy change is here, and the key section reads:

11. The policy is expected to affect around 700,000 people in total by 2015/16. These people will lose their entitlement to contributory ESA. However, not all of those affected will see a loss of income, and on average the net income of all those affected is estimated to reduce by around £36 per week. There are three main groups of people affected:

  • Around 30 per cent are expected to be claiming both income-related and contributory ESA, so when the time limit applies they will continue to receive income-related ESA. For the majority there will be no change in the total amount of ESA received.
  • A further 30 per cent are expected to become entitled to income-related ESA when their contributory ESA is removed. This will either be at the same rate, or a lower rate depending on their other income.

The remaining 40 per cent are not expected to qualify for income-related ESA because they have other income, including that from a partner. These people will lose their ESA, but will be able to retain National Insurance credits by becoming an ESA credits-only claimant. Approximately half are expected to see increases in other benefits such as tax credits and Housing Benefit. For example 19 per cent of those affected by time limiting will gain on average £6.90 per week on Council Tax Benefit and 8 per cent will gain an average £28.80 per week.

I wrote a column piece on this for the Edinburgh Evening News when the policy first came into effect.

This letter from DWP Minister Esther McVey from 4 February 2014 indicates that 161,000 stopped receiving contributory ESA in 2012/13, of which 69,000 got income-related ESA while 82,000 got nothing.

A group of charities that represent people with progressive conditions made a joint submission to the fifth independent review of the WCA in September 2014. It highlighted the fact that the Government’s justification for this change was that people in the WRAG were likely to get better anyway and so would be in less need of the benefit. Yet the whole point of the ESA is that people are regularly reassessed to check if they are able to work again. In reality this one year time limit is entirely arbitrary.

Finally I’m concerned about the increasing threat of sanctions on people in the WRAG, and the effect of this not only on their finances, but on their mental health. This Guardian article by Polly Toynbee from 8 July 2014 includes an allegation from a Jobcentre Plus manager that the DWP impose targets for ‘off-flows’ from ESA that are met by bullying claimants and making it difficult to transition from contributory to income-based ESA. I raised this in a Westminster Hall Debate on the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s report on Jobcentre Plus on 10 July 2014.

I highlighted all of these concerns and more in a Westminster Hall debate on 3 February 2015. I also touched on some of these issues in a speech in a further Westminster Hall debate on the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s report on ESA and the WCA on 5 February.