27 February 2011

ESA claimants in the work-related activity group can be ordered to improve their appearance and undertake work experience or face having their benefits cut. Provisions in last week’s welfare reform bill, if made law, will allow private sector personal advisors to issue instructions to claimants, who can face cuts in their benefits for an unlimited period if they do not comply.  

Under the welfare reform bill most work-related activity group claimants will have to make a ‘claimant commitment’, which is a record of the work-related activities they have agreed to carry out in order to avoid sanctions.

The claimant commitment will set out the claimant’s responsibility to attend work focused interviews – also known as pathways to work interviews – as and when directed.

It  will also include a ‘work preparation requirement’ which will detail the specific actions that a claimant will have to undertake, and the amount of time that must be spent on them, to improve their chances of getting paid work.

The actions can include:

attending a skills assessment;
improving personal presentation;
participating in training;
participating in an employment programme;
undertaking work experience or a work placement;
developing a business plan.

The explanatory notes to the welfare reform bill make it clear that ‘No ESA claimant will be required to look for or be available for work’, though it’s difficult to see how being ordered to attend a work placement is entirely compatible with this.  

Claimants may, however, have to attend a work-focused health-related assessment.  These assessments previously formed part of the work capability assessment, but they were discontinued last year following evidence that they were of little, if any value.

In addition, claimants can be summoned at any time to attend compulsory meetings to check that they are complying with their work-related requirements or to ‘assist’ them in doing so.

Some ESA claimants will not have to draw up any kind of claimant commitment at all.  This will include:

People in the support group of ESA.
People with ‘regular and substantial caring responsibilities for a severely disabled person’ – none of these terms has been defined as yet.
Single people caring for a child under one year of age.

Single people caring for a child aged between one and possibly three – the precise age has yet to be decided – will only have to attend work-focused interviews.

Other groups of people may also be exempted from work-related requirements if the secretary of state so decides.

People who fail to meet their claimant commitments will have their benefit cut until they meet the requirement, or until a fixed period of not more than 26 weeks has elapsed, or a combination of the two.  This would presumably be a fixed period penalty that only begins once the claimant has done what they were told.

Sanctions can only be imposed by a DWP decision maker.  But all the decisions leading up to the sanction, such as  decisions about what will be in the claimant commitment and whether the claimant is considered to have breached that commitment, can be made by private sector advisors or by their voluntary sector sub-contractors.

The value of claimants to a private sector company will range from £14,000 down to mere hundreds, depending on how long they have been on benefits and the type of condition they have.  It will, therefore, be interesting to see  whether some of the high value claimants will be offered cash to help with such things as ‘improving personal presentation’.  

Given that the private sector will have complete freedom to work with claimants as they wish, they could even offer genuinely useful training courses and help with transport to attend them .  

If such help isn’t offered, there’s nothing to prevent claimants attempting to negotiate it as a sort of  ‘private sector bounty hunter’s commitment’ - £14,000 is a lot of money, after all.


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