The BBC has obtained documents showing that ministers are considering reducing payment for new claimants in the work-related activity group (WRAG) of employment and support allowance (ESA) to just 50p above the level of jobseeker’s allowance (JSA).
The coalition is currently struggling with the fact that the number of people in receipt of ESA has risen for every one of the last four quarters. The rise has been caused by a massive backlog in assessments, meaning that claimants who get placed on ESA are very unlikely to have their eligibility regularly checked. The risk for the government is that the rising cost of ESA may cause the next administration to go over the benefits cap.
Removing the work-related activity component for new claimants would effectively turn ESA, other than the support group, into JSA with slightly less harsh job seeking conditions.
This would not only cut the benefits bill, it would also give claimants less incentive to appeal if they were turned down for ESA and were not expecting to get into the support group.
From there it would be a short step to abolishing the WRAG altogether, leaving ESA as a benefit only for people not expected to return to paid employment again in the future. This would massively cut the cost of assessing claimants for ESA and end the problem of assessment backlogs.
The DWP have denied cutting WRAG payments is official government policy, but that does not mean that it is not being seriously considered and that it will not become official Conservative party policy either before or after the next general election.