Iain Duncan Smith announces plans for changes to ESA with hope of closing disability employment gap

25 August 2015

On Monday, Iain Duncan Smith announced his intentions to encourage more sick and disabled people into work, with a suggestion of potential reforms to the Employment and Support Allowance, which is currently claimed by 2.3 million people who are classified as unable to work due to disability or illness.

In a move which has angered disability campaigners, the Work and Pensions Secretary argued that the current ESA system incorrectly places claimants into the non-work ready ‘support group’, preventing them from entering employment despite many claimants being capable of work with the correct level of support, and restricting the potential health benefits offered by being in employment.

The suggestions are seen as a move by the Government to fulfil their electoral pledge to halve the disability employment gap, which currently stands at 33 percent. IDS highlighted Government support as a method to encourage an extra 1 million sick and disabled people into work; highlighting the merits of the Disability Confident Campaign, which seeks to tackle the reluctance of employers to hire disabled people, and the new Fit to Work Service, which aims to improve the quality of specialist support offered to disabled people.

However, critics are sceptical about the ability of the government to assist 1 million people from ESA into employment, citing the failure of prior government policy such as the Work Programme to support ESA claimants into work. Furthermore, at a time when the poverty rate of disabled people is at its highest level in 17 years, there is concern that the announcement may precede cuts in benefits and in other support in the near future. Sophie Corlett, of the mental health charity Mind commented:

“What people need is support. What they don’t need is more pressure and sanctions. Threatening to punish people by cutting their benefits when they fail to do certain mandatory activities has a negative effect on people’s mental health, and actually pushes people further from work; it is hugely counterproductive.”

A recent report by Scope “A million futures: halving the disability employment gap” lays out detailed proposals to assist the Government’s plan to improve disabled people’s employment, and recommends that any reforms are comprehensive and implemented in a way which is fair and credible in order to ensure they are successful.

If the reforms are a push to transform the attitudes of employers and provide a significant improvement in support for ESA claimants with the overall aim of supporting the sick and disabled into ‘good’ jobs, the benefits could be enormous – with an additional 1 million people in work providing improvements to health, reductions in poverty and an additional £13 billion for the UK economy.