Helping disabled people into work or pushing them into a broken system?

The houses of parliament and big ben, viewed from an elevated angle

This week the government has announced that it is consulting on the assessment criteria for the Work Capability Assessment (WCA).  This follows the announcement earlier this year that they intend to scrap the assessment in the next few years. 

Speaking in the House of Commons, the Secretary of State cited the changes in working patterns for why they are proposing this way forwards.  They believe that with more people able to work from home and flexible working that there are more working opportunities available. 

Ultimately the government wants to see more people in work.  Lots of disabled people want to and can work.  These two aspirations could align, however at Sense we don’t think the proposals set out will achieve this. 

What is the WCA and what are the proposals?

The WCA is an assessment as part of benefits applications that looks at how a person’s disability or illness impacts their ability to work. The goal of this assessment is to ensure that those who can work are able to, and those who require support are provided with it. 

There are three potential outcomes from a WCA:

  • Fit for work (sometimes referred to as being capable for work)
  • Limited capability for work: this means that you need to prepare for work in the future, but might have limited capability to do so
  • Limited capability for work and work related activity: this means you don’t have to work look for work or prepare for work, although you can if you feel able to do so.

The proposals set out in the consultation are looking to change the criteria used to work out which outcome to give someone when they have an assessment. They want more people to be assessed as fit for work.

The WCA needs reform

We know that the current WCA isn’t fit for purpose.  People tell us that the assessments are stressful, often inaccurate and focus on what people can’t do rather than what they can. 

We have heard from disabled people that they feel their needs, skills and aspirations aren’t well considered in the current WCA.  Many people with complex disabilities can work but may be further from the jobs market and need more support to find and stay in work.  As a result, some people are placed in the wrong group and left without support to find work. Conversely others are pushed to find work when it isn’t suitable for them.

This is why we tentatively welcomed the plans to remove the WCA in the coming years when it was announced earlier in the year.  The additional proposals announced by the Secretary of State seek to change the WCA before it is then abolished.  As it stands, the changes won’t take place until at least 2025

Changing the system without investing in support isn’t the right approach

Looking for and staying in work is already far harder for disabled people who face inequalities and societal barriers.  Putting pressure on them to look for work when there isn’t investment in the support they need to do so is putting the burden on disabled people rather than addressing the root causes.

Recent research from Sense found that half of jobseekers with complex disabilities (50%) didn’t feel that they had the support and equipment they needed to look for work.   Only 46% of people we spoke to told us they feel well supported by the staff at job centres who are specifically tasked with helping disabled people to find work. 

Many disabled people need access to specialist assistive technology, such as screen readers, to look for work.  This technology is often expensive and hard to afford if you’re unemployed.  Almost a third (31%) of jobseekers with complex disabilities said that having assistive tech in their jobcentre would help them find work.  Jobcentres don’t have this technology available, meaning that disabled people can’t use their computers to look for work. 

Is flexible working the solution to disability unemployment?

There is no doubt that flexible working and working from home has changed how many of us work.  We also know that for many disabled people it’s been an incredibly positive change, enabling them to work in a way that meets their needs. 

This is all well and good, but for many disabled people working from home isn’t an option.  Not all roles can be done from home and some people will need additional and specialist equipment to do so.  Whilst the Access to Work scheme is available to help cover the costs of equipment, disability charities are reporting that people are missing out on jobs because of significant delays.

A key element of flexible working is also employer attitudes, understanding and willingness to adapt.  Unfortunately many disabled people tell us that they have negative experiences at work.  Sense research found that:

  • Almost 1 in 6 (15%) people with complex disabilities in work didn’t feel their disability was well understood by their employer.   
  • Over a third (44%) of people with complex disabilities in employment said that they’d been harassed or bullied at work. 
  • Over half (52%) of people with complex disabilities in work said they’d taken a less challenging role because of their needs as a disabled person not being met.  

Will these changes help more people into work?

Whilst the government hopes the changes they’re proposing will help more people into work, we don’t think they will.   Without investing in tackling the barriers disabled people face looking for and staying in work, these proposals won’t see lasting change.

At Sense we’re concerned that these proposals, as well as not being particularly effective at achieving their aim, will have a negative impact on the people who we support.  This is the second announcement on the WCA in almost as many months, causing increased anxiety and confusion for many disabled jobseekers. 

Over the past few months we have seen an increase in negative media reports about disabled people, those on benefits and people who are unemployed.  We fear that announcements like this play into that narrative and don’t reflect the true experiences of disabled people.  This isn’t constructive and it just entrenches societal inequalities that people face.

What happens next?

Ultimately, nothing is going to happen soon.  The government itself has said that these changes, if accepted, wouldn’t be implemented until 2025 and so after the next general election.  The consultation on the proposals runs until 30th October.  Recommendations will likely be put forward to Ministers in November and we’ll know more then.

We’ll be preparing our consultation response over the next few weeks and making it clear that we don’t think the government should proceed.  We’ll also be continuing to call for the solutions we want to see.  This includes putting specialist assistive technology in all jobcentres – something that would only cost the government £5 million.