The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has announced that a new consultation will appear on Monday about the workings of Employment and Support Allowance. His complaint seems to be that too many people are being allocated into the ‘support’ group, where they are not expected to undertake work related activity. The defence of that position is that work is good for people with disabilities and we should be encouraging people with disabilities to engage with the labour market.
This misses the point of ESA completely. ESA is not a disability benefit; it’s a long-term sickness benefit. Sickness benefits are there to excuse people from the labour market. These are the terms of the statute, the Welfare Reform Act 2007. Section 1(3) explains that the benefit is for people who have limited capability for work, and continues in 1(4):
(4) For the purposes of this Part, a person has limited capability for work if—
(a) his capability for work is limited by his physical or mental condition, and
(b) the limitation is such that it is not reasonable to require him to work.
This has to be emphasised, because successive governments seem not to understand the laws they have passed. Employment and Support Allowance is awarded when it is not reasonable to require people to work. Offering people support to help them overcome barriers may be reasonable, but expecting them to work is not. Requiring people to undertake work related activity – and sanctioning them when they do not – undermines the purpose of the benefit.
Whether people are too ill to work is a different question from whether they have a disability. People are not necessarily disabled because they have serious circulatory problems, or digestive problems, or respiratory problems, or acute mental illness – few people with those conditions would think of themselves as ‘disabled’ – but we may well reasonably consider that while they are sick, they should be excused from any requirement to work, and that has been part of the benefits system for more than a century. Offering benefit without the pressure to work is not writing people off – it is leaving them with some choice, some support, and some dignity. Pushing them out to work while they are ill undermines all of that.