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Employment and Support Allowance

Volume 833: debated on Wednesday 18 October 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress has been made on getting those on Employment and Support Allowance into work.

My Lords, in 2017 the Government set a goal to see 1 million more people in work by 2027. Last year, we surpassed that goal five years early. The Government have a range of initiatives to support disabled people and people with health conditions to start, stay and succeed in work. This includes work to further join up employment and health systems, including employment advice in NHS talking therapies and individual placement and support in primary care.

My Lords, I welcome the initiatives taken since 2017 to help back into work those who can and to support those who cannot with appropriate measures without penalising them. But is there not a worrying underlying trend in a country that ought to be getting healthier? There are now 2.5 million people out of the workforce due to long-term sickness; that figure is up half a million in the last four years. Last year, there were double the number of new claimants for disability as against the year before. In the last six months, over half those under 24 in work have taken time off because of mental illness. In the last Budget, I welcomed the £2 billion allocated to support back into work those in poor health, but can my noble friend explain how that initiative will reverse the trend I have mentioned in the interests of those who are out of work but also in the interests of the wider economy?

The House will not be surprised when I say that that is one of the Government’s biggest challenges—that is very clear. People with long-term sickness are some of the hardest to help and often face multiple barriers in returning to the labour market. There is a range of complex and interacting factors that contribute to the rise in economic inactivity due to long-term sickness, such as changes in population demographics and the increasing prevalence of work-limiting health conditions. On my noble friend’s question, regarding the support in the spring Budget, announcements included Work Well and universal support, and we have increased our support in particular for helping people to get back into work, where they can, with additional work coach time. There are other multiple national strategies and initiatives, including Excellence in Continence Care and the major conditions strategy, and we are moving at pace on a number of these initiatives.

My Lords, employment and support allowance is one of the working-age benefits potentially under threat because it is rumoured that it may not be inflation-proofed next year, given the inflation rate announce d today. Given that many benefits have already been subject to a series of cuts since 2010 and the growing evidence of acute hardship among recipients both in an out of work, will the noble Viscount make the case within government for full inflation-proofing as strongly as possible?

I should remind the noble Baroness that we uprated by 10.1% in 2023, and I take her point. I can reassure her that the process leading up to April 2024 is beginning; I have no doubt that the Secretary of State will be looking very carefully at all the evidence, and announcements will be made at the appropriate time.

My Lords, I declare a long-standing family interest in ESA, particularly in the support group. I venture to offer my noble friend some advice, as I could write not just a book, but a series of books on applications to ESA. The Government need to make sure that they employ people who fully understand the medical conditions they are dealing with. To give a quick example, it is no good having so-called doctors asking people who suffer from epilepsy and epileptic seizures whether they can get in and out of a bath. When the reply comes, “As someone with epilepsy, I am advised not to get into a bath of water”—for obvious reasons—the reply comes back, “Just pretend you don’t have epilepsy. Could you get in and out of a bath or not?” It is not just a joke—it is tragic, because it causes the most appalling problems for many disabled people.

I have listened very carefully to my noble friend and have every sympathy. It might help to know that we are looking very carefully at the descriptors for those who are disabled and who may or may not be able to return to the workplace or even take up work. Those descriptors, as part of the WCA, are being particularly considered in terms of the focus on mobility, continence and social engagement. A lot of work is going on in this area; it is being done at pace but also with a great deal of empathy and care.

My Lords, let me follow on from what the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, has very movingly said. As the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, described, we are now in a position where those who are out of the labour market long-term because of ill health are the single biggest challenge facing our economy. Whenever we have this conversation, the Minister mentions different initiatives. However, as we now have 2.6 million people who are out of the labour market long-term, and we know that, for example, 23% of them want a job, that is 600,000 people who are desperate to get back to work but need appropriate help. Instead of having a series of schemes, is it not time to make sure that the core DWP, jobcentres and all the staff understand what they are dealing with when it comes to applications and to helping people to get back to work? The country needs it, and so do they.

That is exactly what we are doing. We have been recruiting at pace more experts for the jobcentres and, as the noble Baroness will know, are consulting on the conditionalities and descriptors. It is quite right that we engage with the public and other stakeholders to make sure that we get this right. She will know that the WCA focus is a more rapid matter compared to the National Disability Strategy, which is a much more long-term thing. We are taking this very seriously; she is quite right to point this out, but a lot is going on and it will lead to results.

My Lords, to follow on from various other questioners, the jobcentre work coaches will make referrals to the new programme, which the Minister has referred to. There is then initial assessment and then they receive wraparound support. All this sounds very good on paper, but how even-handed will the training and monitoring of these people, who will be assessing people’s future, be across the UK?

I am not sure about the definition of “even-handed”, but I reassure the noble Lord that it includes training the experts in the jobcentres in dealing with the individuals they are looking at with a great deal of empathy and sympathy. We know that one in four people who are disabled wish to come into work; it is a question of making sure that the assessment is correctly done, that the individuals concerned buy into it and that employers are engaged in taking them on.

My Lords, one such initiative that supports people with a health condition to find and remain in paid employment is called Working Win. It has been piloted in South Yorkshire, and I am assured that both the DWP and the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority consider the pilot to have been a success. What plans do the Government have to roll out this health-led employment programme more widely?

Although I do not have information on that specific programme here, I will certainly write to the right reverend Prelate. It no doubt fits in well with and complements many of the other initiatives we are taking, including, as I mentioned earlier, the work coach support, the disability employment advisers, the Access to Work grants and the Disability Confident scheme—I could go on.

My Lords, in May 2010, 527,000 people were claiming the employment and support allowance. At that time, the NHS England waiting list was 2.5 million; now, it is 7.8 million and 1.63 million people are claiming the allowance. Clearly, there is a correlation between the two statistics. Can the Minister explain why the Government have failed to address the main cause—the degradation of the NHS?

This is much more of a health matter, but we in the DWP are focusing on getting the 2.5 million back into work, should they wish to.

My Lords, getting more people into work requires resources and training for those on the front line, particularly those in jobcentres. However, surely as important are the contacts made with employers, so what is my noble friend’s assessment of progress in empowering national and local employers to take on more disabled people?

There are a few initiatives, such as the Disability Confident scheme, which I have alluded to. Increasing access to occupational health is a very important initiative which particularly requires focus on small and medium-sized enterprises that do not normally have occupational health. I also mentioned Access to Work; it is very important that we empower and encourage businesses to take on those who are disabled.