Employment Support Allowance – the elephant in the room


This statement contains a message that no disability campaigner wants to hear – let alone campaign on. At first sight it appears negative and discouraging. However we believe that the best way to overcome a barrier is to name it and address it. And if it isn’t named, it leaves the government an open goal to take away safe, secure benefits.



With thanks to Grace Collins

With thanks to Grace Collins

CarerWatch and Pat’s Petition are concerned that Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) uses PUSH economics to take away safe benefits as a means of forcing disabled people in to work. But many disabled people can’t compete in the open job market and ESA is pushing them up against a brick wall. They have nowhere to go. The failure of the Work Programme is the result.

This is because many sick and disabled people have residual impairment, even after all adaptations are made, and are not as competitive in the open labour market as anyone else. Jobs are acquired through open competition: it is like asking disabled athletes to compete in the mainstream Olympics.

This is a very hard thing for disability campaigners to admit. We want to encourage people and talk up their strengths, not their weaknesses.  To admit that some disabled people are less competitive in the open labour market sounds like defeat. But the Social Model is about overcoming barriers. So far the focus has been on individuals overcoming their own individual barriers. But the competitive job market presents a structural barrier that also needs to be named and then addressed.

Of course there are many disabled people who, with adjustments and adaptations, can overcome their individual barriers to work and are just as competitive as everyone else. Talk about being less competitive is the last thing they want to hear.   But for many others this just isn’t the case. They are less competitive. And the relentless can do approach taken by ESA pushes them up against a brick wall.  ESA denies the can’t do. These people do not want to be written off as being unable to work (Support Group) but they can’t compete in the open labour market (Work related Activity Group (WRAG)). So there is no ESA group for people who have difficulty competing and they have nowhere to go. And these people have lost the security of safe benefits.

Let’s face up to and overcome the structural barrier in the job market. Because someone is less competitive it doesn’t mean they can’t work and contribute and there are still lots of options that might help them. Quotas, subsidies, campaigns, lots of opportunities for permitted and voluntary work. The government could intervene in the job market to make it a level playing field. Perhaps this needs a name – Supported Work. And being pushed down to work for less money below your level of competence is not a level playing field.


Meanwhile stop the unfair PUSH economics that is pushing less competitive disabled people up against a brick wall. They need the return of a safe secure benefit while they negotiate this impossible situation.   ESA is not fit for purpose. It has two groups. The Support Group provides long term safe support for disabled people who are not expected to be able to work. All other disabled people are put in the WRAG and classed as being ‘on their way back to work’ and they are expected to compete in the open job market. Some can compete but there is no group for the many who can’t.

A new structure is needed that recognises the reality of disability and the job market and provides safe, secure support for all disabled people.

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4 Responses to “Employment Support Allowance – the elephant in the room”

  1. Tom (iow) Says:

    I agree in part, but I would submit that the aims of the work-related activity group of ESA are actually more confused than this. The medical assessment part of it is heavily focused on “can’t do” – to the extent that to qualify for ESA at all it’s now necessary to pretty much be incapable of any work at all. This was not supposed to be the original aim but has come about through a range of legislative amendments combined with even more restrictive misinterpretations of the criteria by the assessors. Ministers have sometimes talked about the criteria this way, and have suggested some of the amendments are to ‘recognise’ that people ‘could work’ in various situations despite enormous barriers. It is implicit for this purpose that ‘could work’ = no ESA.

    But the ministers are nevertheless still *also* talking about the work-related activity group as though it’s a sort of lighter JSA, which was perhaps the original intention. They are talking about getting these claimants into work, but if that could be done, under the current criteria as applied the claimants in that group would not be on ESA at all. Because of this very confused approach to what role the WRA group is supposed to have, we’re left with an almighty mess with people shunted around between JSA, ESA, and no benefit. And on top of that, there will probably be ESA sanctions in the mix soon, once workfare that people logically can’t be capable of doing is rolled out.

  2. frances Says:

    Thanks for this. I agree – you are right. Look for papers by Steve Griffiths – possibly at Compass – he understands this very well.

    ESA was one of the first welfare reforms and was set up in an early welfare reform bill. ESA was defined as a benefit for people ‘who could not be required to work’. This remains the definition. The sanctions were in the original bill but the WRAG was envisaged as a rehabilitation group or a gentle activity group.

    When the crash came and welfare reform moved up a gear the time limits were added and the management of the WRAG became far more coercive. These days the WRAG is a place where ‘people are on their way back to work’. This was all superimposed on the far more benign definition and is incompatible.

    We are trying to shift the emphasis from the WCA to the nature of the regime in the WRAG. If the WRAG comes under the microscope – then these problems will get examined.


  3. pat butler Says:

    I am in the WRAG group despite being told that I am not well enough to work, I am now in limbo, my entitlement to benefit has ceased and I have a blank CV since retiring through ill health as a nurse in 1994. . No-one will employ me. I am 57 in a few weeks and should be retiring at 60 but now face the double whammy of 10 years of stress and worry on top of pain and depression. My generation
    left school at 16 and went straight to work sadly my working career was shortened I assure you I would still be a nurse if I could. What is going on in this once caring country when the sick and disabled are the first targets for drastic cuts?

  4. The Elephant Trap in the Room Part 2 | Making rights make sense Says:

    […] Terrible eh?   Here’s what Carers Watch and Pats Petition wrote this year, under the heading ‘We need to talk about the elephant in the room’: […]

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