Full-time specialist disability employment advisors who are posted in jobcentres have been radically reduced since 2011. The full-time advisors are employed to help disabled people navigate the support system and find employment. Over the last four years, the number of specialist advisors fell by over 60 per cent, from 226 to just 90.
The government says that the advisors will be replaced by unqualified non-specialist “work coaches” as part of its Universal Credit programme, which also extends welfare conditionality, entailing sanctions, to people in part-time and low paid work.
We reported last week that the work coach scheme is to extend from jobcentres to GP practices, to prevent sick and disabled people from “leaving the job market” and “claiming Employment Support Allowance” (ESA), with pilots already underway.
The latest figures on jobcentre advisors were released by ministers in response to a Parliamentary question by Labour MP Emily Thornberry.
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pension said the fall in advisor numbers was consistent with Government policy.
“With the introduction of Universal Credit disabled people looking for work now have access to Work Coaches who are trained to provide tailored support specific to their individual needs. As we continue to make our mainstream services more accessible to disabled jobseekers it is expected that the number of Disability Employment Advisors will continue to decline.”
“The Government is committed to halving the disabled employment gap and the most recent disabled employment figures show that 226,000 more disabled people found work over the past year.”
Charities have responded, saying that the specialist advisors are absolutely crucial for people with disabilities who have to navigate the support system and that their reduction will undermine the Government’s own claim of “supporting people in to work.”
The government have also cut in work support for disabled people, such as the Access to Work fund, which helps people and employers cover costs of disabilities that may present a barrier to work. Under the Equality Act, employers are obliged to make “reasonable adjustments” to the workplace to support people with disabilities.
A coalition of 100 disability charities had warned that the government cuts threaten disabled people’s rights earlier this year, and last month, especially those with learning disability and mental health problems, charities also called for a halt in the government’s cuts to ESA, which will be reduced, removing the work-related activity component, so that people will receive the same amount as jobseekers with no disability, which will make it more difficult for disabled people to find work, and may have an adverse impact on people with health conditions.
The cuts to specialist employment support for people with disabilities flies in the face of Iain Duncan Smith’s comments during the Tory conference – that sick and disabled people need to see work as their route out of poverty. It’s difficult to see how that can be achieved when the government is busy closing down the transport system, as it were.
Duncan Smith commented at the Conservative conference: “We don’t think of people not in work as victims to be sustained on government handouts. No, we want to help them live lives independent of the state.
“We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.”
We can’t help wondering what “help” actually means to Conservatives, because there is every indication that they don’t use the word in a conventional sense. Usually when Tories use the word “help” or “support”, it indicates some sort of penalty or punishment: a reference to the extended draconian benefit conditionality and sanctions regime
Elliot Dunster, group head of policy, research and public affairs at disability charity Scope, has said that the fall in specialist assistance was concerning:
“Disability employment advisors make a huge difference in supporting disabled people into work – providing expert, personalised advice and guidance.
“We’re very concerned to see this drop in the number of job centres that have fulltime specialist advisors for disabled people. Disabled people are pushing hard to find work, but continue to face huge barriers, ranging from inaccessible workplaces to employer attitudes.
“Disability employment advisors help tackle these barriers. The Government has set out a welcome ambition to halve the disability employment gap. To do this disabled people must have access to specialist, tailored employment support.”
Dan Scorer, head of policy at Mencap, has warned that the replacement generalist advisors would “simply not have the training” required:
“People with a learning disability find the demands placed upon them difficult while claiming Job Seekers Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance.
“Some find them impossible and we are worried that there is not the right support in Jobcentres to help them. Families tell us that a lack of learning disability training and cuts to DEAs is leading to many people with a learning disability being unfairly sanctioned and receiving insufficient support to appeal decisions, or the right support to find employment.
“Even if the reduction in DEAs in some part of the country is due to the rolling out of Universal Credit and part of a strategic move to generic advisors, we are concerned that these advisors will simply not have the training to fully support claimants with a learning disability.
“The problems with the administration of benefits and changes in the benefits system, combined with future cuts to benefits and social care, is causing fear and anxiety among the 1.4 million people with a learning disability and their families in the UK who are scared they could be isolated in their local communities.”
Mind have already warned that the transition away from specialist help under Universal Credit would make the benefits system more difficult for people with mental health issues. Policy manager, Tom Pollard told the Independent:
“We’re pretty sceptical of the ability of those jobcentre advisors to be able to understand the barriers that people with mental health issues face.”
Labour MP Debbie Abrahams recently challenged Priti Patel, the employment minister, during work and pensions questions in the Commons recently to raise concerns about the negative impacts of social security sanctions on the mental health of claimants.
During the session the Patel had claimed: “Our staff are trained to support claimants with mental health conditions and there is no evidence to suggest that such claimants are being sanctioned more than anybody else.”
Mrs Abrahams, Shadow minister for Disabled People, responded: “The minister may have inadvertently slipped up there. There is clear evidence from last year that 58 per cent, more than half, of people with mental health conditions on the employment and support allowance work-related activity group were sanctioned.”
A recent Freedom of Information request showed that between April, 2014, and March this year there were almost 20,000 benefit sanctions received by people who were out of work because of their mental health.
However, in this same period only 6,340 of the group were successfully supported into employment during the same period by the Work Programme.
Tom Pollard said: “Figures obtained by us show that people with mental health problems are more likely to have their benefits stopped than those with other conditions.
“Last year, the Department of Work and Pensions issued more sanctions to people with mental health problems being supported by Employment and Support Allowance than they did to those with other health conditions.
“Stopping somebody’s benefits, or threatening to stop them, is completely the wrong approach to help people with mental health problems find work — it’s actually counterproductive.
“In continually refusing to listen to calls for a review of the use of sanctions, the Government is not only undermining its ambition of helping a million more disabled people into work, but is also failing its duty of care for the health and wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of people with mental health problems.”
The Department of Work and Pension’s own research shows that the threat of sanctions does ensure that people who need support from social security comply with benefit rules, but that doesn’t actually help them to find work. It also tends to undermine confidence, and many jobcentre advisors have expressed concern that people with mental illness are more likely to be sanctioned simply because they would have greater difficulty meeting the strict conditionality criteria and because of the greater pressure to sanction “non-compliance” from government. (page 54)
But we deeply suspect that sanctions are precisely what the government are referencing when they use the phrase “helping people into work.”
This post was written for Welfare Weekly, which is a socially responsible and ethical news provider, specialising in social welfare related news and opinion.