12 October 2004

There are strong indications that compulsory work, training and medical intervention for incapacity benefits claimants is coming sooner rather than later. This follows the resignation last month of Andrew Smith, secretary of state for work and pensions, the announced introduction of a Job Preparation Premium from February 2005 in Pathways to Work pilot areas and the prime minister's enthusiastic support of the pilots in his speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research on 11th October.

Not one, not two . . . but six
In April 2000 the government introduced a system of 'work-focused interviews' in Jobcentre Plus areas. From that date people claiming incapacity benefit or income support as incapable of work became obliged to take part in an interview with a personal adviser at least once every three years. At the interview claimants are informed of the opportunities available to take part in work or training programmes. Claimants have to participate in the interview by answering questions about such things as their qualifications, employment history, skills and medical conditions or face losing benefits.

In October 2003 and April 2004 the government began to beef up the system by introducing additional requirements in six Pathways to Work pilot areas around the country. In these areas, new claimants must attend six work-focused interviews in six months. As well as answering questions they also have to agree an 'action plan' which details the steps they are going to take to improve their employment prospects.

In September 2004 the DWP announced that, from February 2005, the pilot would also be extended to cover those customers in the pilot areas whose claim began in the two years before the pilots went live. However, these claimants will have to attend only three, rather than six, interviews.

10p a week to live on
The action plan claimants have to draw up relates to such things as: undertaking training; taking part in the New Deal for the Disabled; investigating part-time or full-time employment opportunities or participating in new Condition Management Programmes, which include counselling, exercise sessions, pain management and, rather alarmingly, 'behavioural intervention' by psychologists.

Failure to agree an action plan and discuss necessary alterations to it at subsequent interviews leads to repeated reductions in benefits until the claimant is left with just 10p a week to live on.

Deliberately ludicrous
However, although the claimant is obliged to agree an action plan, there are no sanctions whatsoever for failing to carry it out: the claimant is free to ignore it. We wrote back in November 2003 that "A deliberately and calculatedly ludicrous situation" had thus been created in the pilot areas and that the next step was clear: a minister would come to the house and tell MP's that claimants were wilfully refusing to follow agreements they had drawn up and so the agreements were to be made compulsory.

At the time we were a lone voice in warning of this. Almost a year later, we have been joined by the Financial Times. The FT claims, in an article written on September 8th 2004 following the unexpected resignation of Andrew Smith, that it has been told by a government advisor that £10 billion is currently being spent on sickness and disability benefits for unemployed people and the government is looking for ways to reduce the bill. Andrew Smith came under increasing pressure to move faster on benefits reform and this was one of the factors in his decision to resign.

According to the FT, one of the reforms being considered 'is to force people on incapacity benefit to carry out "back to work" plans agreed with their personal advisers. If they do not carry out what was agreed - taking up training or medical treatment to improve their job prospects, for example - benefit could be docked'.

It is entirely possible that this is merely a story invented by journalists trying to come up with a reason for Andrew Smith's resignation. However, there are probably very few journalists in the country who have even heard of work-focused interviews, let alone know the details of how they work. It seems much more likely, therefore, that it was based on a briefing prepared by someone at the department for work and pensions.

No coincidence
It may be no coincidence that the DWP announced last month that, from next February, a new job preparation premium of £20 per week for up to six months is to be introduced in the pilot areas. The DWP say this will be paid 'for agreeing an action plan detailing a return to work and participating in relevant, verifiable activity that supports that return to work'. Now that a bonus is to be introduced for working on an action plan, the government can argue that it is being more than generous to disabled clients who are willing to put their action plan in motion and, equally, that it is only fair that those who do not do so should be prepared to face financial consequences.

Speak in short sentences and look painfully sincere
The most conclusive evidence that big changes to incapacity benefit are on the way came from the prime minister in his speech to the Institute of Public Policy Research on 11th October 2004. Setting out his goals for a third term in office, he told his audience that it was time to get rid of the old fashioned welfare state:

The vision of a true opportunity society replacing the traditional welfare state can be realised only if we deepen the changes we have made to the country and have the courage to see them through .

I want to see social mobility, as it did for the decades after the war, rising once again, a dominant feature of British life.

The prime minister went on to single out incapacity benefit as one area where the state needed to have the courage to cut costs in order to spend money on more important matters:

Despite the changes we have made, for too many the welfare state is one which simply pays out benefits, trapping people into long term or even lifelong dependency. We are piloting new approaches to reach out to those trapped on Incapacity Benefit to help them return to work.

We know that a million IB claimants say that they want to work - given the right help and support. Early evidence published today shows that this works.

It is essential to bring the costs of the system down if we are to deal with rising costs in areas where we need to spend more.

The 'early evidence' referred to is a report on the Pathways to Work pilots not yet available online. Perhaps most worrying of all, however, is the prime minister's insistence that:

At the centre of the service or the structure has to be the individual. They have both the right and responsibility to take the opportunities offered and to shape the outcome.

Insisting on the responsibility to work if you could, as well as the right to help, and merging Job Centre and Benefit Services, has further underpinned the New Deal's success.

That sounds very much like a warning that claimants either take the New Deal opportunity or face the consequences. Yet, in reality, the New Deal for Disabled People (NDDP) has been anything but a success according to a report produced by the DWP just last month. This revealed that only 1.9% of eligible people have so far joined the NDDP. Clearly 98.1% of incapacity benefit claimants are failing to accept that they have a responsibility to become upwardly mobile- how long before they are compelled to do so?

In addition, the report found that only 32% of those registering for NDDP between July 2001 and November 2003 had found jobs. It also found that the majority of those who got work did so by their own efforts rather than via an NDDP Job Broker and of these only 39% - just 8,565 people across the country in over two years- had achieved sustained employment up to the end of May 2003. For the majority, it seems, a period of insecure, low wage work and then back to benefits was as close as they got to the prime minister's courageous new world of social mobility.

When the pilots for six work focused interviews were first announced, here at Benefits and Work we predicted that:

'agreeing to take part in New Deal for the Disabled, job hunting or psychological intervention because you're so misguided that you imagine you're too ill to work - compulsory by the end of 2006.'

Andrew Smith, on the other hand, wrote that ". . . this is not, and never will be, about pressurising sick people back to work against their will" .

Andrew Smith has resigned before those words can come back to haunt him.

We, on the other hand are still here and we still consider that the evidence is growing that by the end of 2006 there will be two opportunities for the majority of sick and disabled claimants: the opportunity to struggle for upward social mobility via low cost training, non-prescribed treatment and the New Deal for Disabled People or the opportunity to struggle to survive on 10 pence a week. In the prime minister's third term there will be no third way.


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