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The Secretary of State's new clothes: Steve Bell's verdict on the Work Programme, as published in the Guardian on November 27.

The Secretary of State’s new clothes: Steve Bell’s verdict on the Work Programme, as published in the Guardian on November 27.

I took Mrs Mike up to the Job Centre on Friday, for an interview with her advisor on the work-related activity group of Employment and Support Allowance.

Linda (Mrs Mike) has been in the WRAG since her work capability assessment in August. I won’t go into the details of that particular interview because those of you who have experienced it will know that, even in the best of circumstances, it can be harrowing for a disabled person.

This interview was a far cry from that; it helped a lot that Linda knew her advisor – they worked together on a previous job.

We went through Linda’s circumstances and the list of her disabilities, and it was explained that, at the end of her year on the WRA group, she will be assessed again (we’re not looking forward to that!) to decide whether she may be found fit for work or has to go back for another year in the WRAG. This was news to me; my impression was always that you had the year, then you got booted out onto Jobseekers’ Allowance.

It was explained that she could choose to work with her advisor or with work placement provider companies, to find employment for her that is suitable with regard to her disabilities; work placements will not be valid if they do not accommodate an individual’s sickness or disability (this is a fact – I looked it up on the government’s own documentation and they do have a duty to ensure the activity is “appropriate to the participants health condition or disability”).

Mandating – forcing a disabled person to participate in the work programme by making it a condition under which they continue to receive benefit – would only happen if a claimant failed to participate in the work-related activity scheme on any level. It’s what happens when people refuse to have anything to do with it, Linda was told.

I noted that this still means Linda has to take part in some form of activity, but here’s the thing: Mrs Mike does actually want a job. She wants to be a contributing member of society and she wants to be able to pay her way. She is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a scrounger.

what she does not want is to be forced into an exploitative situation where she is made to do work that is unsuitable for her, with no concern about whether it will worsen her condition. She spent months, after her illness began, trying to soldier on at her former job and getting worse every day. She won’t go through that again.

Imagine, then, my surprise on getting home to read an article in The Guardian, stating that, from tomorrow (Monday), the government will “allow private back-to-work companies and jobcentre case managers to force [Linda] and more than 300,000 sick and disabled welfare claimants into unpaid work experience for an unspecified length of time.

“Also from that day – the UN’s international day of persons with disabilities – if those in WRAG who have illnesses ranging from cancer to paralysis to mental health issues do not comply with such instructions, they can be stripped of up to 70 per cent of their benefits and forced to live on £28.15 a week.”

The paper showed that the scheme was already in disrepute. According to the rules (and, again, I’ve read them) providers must ensure that a work placement is of “community benefit”, but the article stated “since February the DWP has stopped answering freedom of information requests about where people are being sent to work – even when instructed to do so by the information commissioner – because it fears the [Mandatory Work Activity] scheme will collapse under the weight of public protest if details are released.

“The DWP has admitted that … private, profit-seeking companies can participate in the scheme.”

the paper added that, according to the latest figures, between 1 June 2011 and 31 May 2012 there were 11,130 conditionality sanctions applied to ESA WRAG claimants. The average length of such sanction is seven weeks.

Linda and I already know that neither the work programme nor the mandatory work activity scheme (Workfare) have any effect on increasing people’s chances of getting into a job. They are ways of funnelling taxpayers’ money to the bosses of the ‘work programme provider’ companies. “Why take part, then?” you might ask. The answer is threefold: Firstly, to show willing; second, to avoid sanctions; third, to get direct experience of how it works in practice.

All this, of course, takes place in an environment where organisations like the British Heart Foundation are pulling out of the programme. According to the newspaper, “the charity said it was offered cash incentives by private companies running the programme if it took on jobseekers. The BHF refused such payments, as it would have meant the charity being paid while its volunteers – in desperate need of a job – worked for no pay in return.

“The DWP said it was not troubled by this practice: ‘We pay providers to find us placements; it’s up to them what arrangement they make with organisations who will take someone on.'”

This is interesting, considering Iain Duncan Smith is adamant that no payment is made other than by results.

On the BBC he said: “Unlike previous work programmes that the last government did where they paid up to half the money just for taking the person on, we don’t do any of that. what we say is, the company concerned has to get them into work but just not into work; also into a job that is eventually, say, six months – that’s when we pay them.”

He also said that the six-month period of work that participants need to build up (presumably before these companies get paid) can be split between placements. We’ve never heard that before, and it seems a rough-and-ready reinterpretation of the rules, as most employment currently lasts no more than four months before people end up back on Jobseekers’ Allowance.

Employment minister Mark Hoban told the Guardian: ‘”People on sickness benefits who do all they can to improve their chances of moving back into a job have nothing to worry about.

‘”They will get their benefits and we will do all we can to help. But in the small number of cases where people refuse to stick to their part of the bargain, it’s only right there are consequences.”‘

What bargain? He seems to misunderstand the meaning of the word. A bargain is an agreement in which each party has obligations to the other.

What sanctions are imposed on the DWP if it fails to provide the service – as stated – to claimants? None, that I can see.

Be assured I will keep you posted on future developments.

PS For everyone about to embark on this new adventure in disability benefits, I think it is important that you read this website – Securing your rights on Welfare to Work(fare). It provides important information on protecting your rights, which may be eroded if you sign certain documents presented to you as part of this programme.