Some people with learning disabilities not in employment will see a cut to their out-of-work benefit in the future. The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in his budget statement on 8 July that the ‘work-related activity component’ currently payable as part of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) will be removed from April 2017.
The Chancellor also stated that existing ESA claimants will be unaffected. However, while they may not be affected for now, the reforms include a provision to also remove the equivalent ‘limited capability for work element’ from Universal Credit. And as all claimants of income-related ESA will at some point be migrated to Universal Credit many existing claimants are eventually likely to be affected by this cut (Note: contributory ESA will remain separate from Universal Credit).
People with ‘limited capability for work’
The change means that people with disabilities who have ‘limited capability for work’ will receive the same level of benefit as unemployed jobseekers who are fully fit for work. The loss of the component equates under the 2015/16 rates to £29.05 per week. That may not sound like a huge amount of money, but as the basic rate of ESA is just £73.10 per week – the same as Jobseeker’s Allowance – it amounts to a 30% reduction to the benefit.
Claimants who get the work-related activity component are treated as having limited capability for work. While they do not have to take a job, they do have to take part in work-related activity, which can include attending interviews with a job centre personal adviser or taking part in ‘work programme’ activities to help the claimant move closer to the jobs market. People who fail to participate can be subject to sanctions.
People with more severe illnesses or disabilities assessed, or treated, as having limited capability for work-related activity are placed in the support group. They are paid the support component, worth £36.20 per week. This is not conditional as the recipient does not have to get involved in work-related activity.
The Chancellor has said he believes that getting rid of the work-related activity component will remove an alleged disincentive for people with disabilities to make efforts to move closer to the jobs market. However, Ben Baumberg, Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Kent, who has a research interest in disability and the benefits system, believes that removing the component may have the opposite effect.
Ben Baumberg thinks the change will make claimants not want to try making any attempts to move back to work as this may increase the risk of their entitlement to ESA being called into question. They are likely to already be worried about having enough money to live on so may try to get into the support group to stabilise their position as a benefit claimant, on a higher rate of ESA. He also believes that data shows that decision-makers at Jobcentre Plus have been placing more people in the support group in recent years, partly because healthcare professionals who carry out the medical assessments have increasingly been citing the mental and/or physical health risks to the claimant (see below) if they were placed in the work-related activity group. So they, as well as GPs and hospital consultants, may be more likely to support their patients if there is a health risk to placing them in the work-related activity group, with a net result of more – not less – claimants being placed in the support group.
Advantages of being in the support group
There are some other advantages to being in the support group other than the additional, higher-rate component, and the absence of compulsion to engage with job centre staff. Entitlement to contributory ESA is time limited to one year for those in the work-related activity group, but claimants who remain in the support group can claim it indefinitely. And people in the support group who qualify for income-related ESA are automatically entitled to extra money in their benefit called the ‘enhanced disability premium’. That is worth £15.75 per week, or £22.60 for couples.
Support group qualifying criteria
To get into the support group the claimant has to have limited capability for work-related activity. There is a list of activities and descriptors relating to physical, and mental, cognitive and intellectual functions. If the claimant satisfies just one of these they will be placed in the support group. Or they can also be treated automatically as having limited capability for work-related activity in certain circumstances. This includes where the claimant is suffering from some specific disease or bodily or mental disablement, and consequently there would be a substantial risk to the mental or physical health of any person if they were found not to have a limited capability for work-related activity. For full details visit: disabilityrightsuk.org/work-capability-assessment
If your client is not in the support group, but meets one or more of the qualifying criteria to get into it, they may be able to ask the Jobcentre Plus decision-maker to move them into the support group. Bear in mind that they will have to justify the move, eg a deterioration in their illness or disability, and may need to supply medical evidence. But also, any review by the decision-maker potentially could result in a worse outcome for the claimant, for example being found fit for work.
Risks to health of claimant found not to have limited capability for work-related activity: cpag.org.uk/content/making-exception
Ben Baumberg: rethinkingincapacity.
Charlie Callanan is a welfare rights adviser with over 16 years experience in the charitable and statutory sectors.