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Fulfilling Potential? ESA and the fate of the Work-Related Activity Group

We want Support, not Sanctions

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The report into Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) that I’ve spent much of the last year producing has been released today. It reveals one more piece of the jigsaw of attacks on the dignity and livelihoods of disabled people under this Government (the scrapping of Disability Living Allowance, the closure of the Independent Living Fund, the notorious Work Capability Assessment and the equally infamous ‘Bedroom Tax’ being others).

I have looked at the experience of sick and disabled people like myself, subjected to an aspect of ESA policy that promised to empower us, lift us out of poverty and include us in society. That is, the creation of the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG), which sends us on back-to-work schemes as a condition of receiving sickness benefit (or ESA). Just 5% of us in the WRAG on the main scheme – the Work Programme - have moved into work since 2011.

I wrote this report to give sick and disabled people on ESA a voice. No one has looked hard into the reasons for this policy failure, or revealed its often catastrophic impact on our lives.

I also did it, I’ll admit, out of self-interest. That paid work is a world away for me, doesn’t mean I don’t want to broaden my horizons and learn new things. This project enabled me to tailor my own work experience. My long term health condition means I can work just a few hours a week, often lying down, with totally irregular hours due to frequent and unpredictable swings in my capability. That means it’s taken me four months to write what a well person would write in three weeks. I was very lucky that the Centre for Welfare Reform and Mind supported me to achieve this piece of work on those terms.  

In 2011 I was put in the Work Related Activity Group on ESA because I’m not ‘Fit for Work’. But while my health problems clearly prevent me from holding down regular employment, even part-time, I interpreted the idea of “work-related activity” with optimism. After all, with a fair bit of ingenuity I’ve found a way of being a disabled single mum. The list of mummying tasks I can’t do is too long to mention. But I outsource, I compensate, I cajole and persuade, I depend heavily on family and friends, and most of all, I give 100% of my guts and passion to the job. As a result, there is no question in my children’s minds that I’m their mum. If I could achieve that with parenting, I thought perhaps I could do the same with work. 

So when I was placed in the WRAG I put my faith in the DWP. I thought they must have a plan for people like me. I wasn’t prepared for the experience of being cast as worthless and feckless, or for the full force of this assault on my self-esteem and wellbeing. For while, as a researcher and campaigner I was driven and determined, as a Work Programme service user I apparently needed prodding and reprimanding to stir me from my languor and aversion to work.

At my first back-to-work “support” meeting at the Jobcentre my adviser accused me of lying about my illness and cheating the welfare system on the basis of allegations that she made up as she went along. Atos and the DWP are not known for their leniency in awarding ESA. I had to provide very strong evidence of the impact of my health condition to qualify. So it was a shock to realise I was still branded a suspect cheat. Reduced to tears, I pleaded with her to understand her how much I wanted to work and how I’ve tried every treatment possible to get better with no success. She said I just had to try harder to recover or my benefits would be stopped. 

Then I was referred to the Work Programme. It was totally inflexible and impersonal, with appointments seemingly geared to instilling punctuality and removing any sense of control over your time. For someone who can only get through the parenting day with military-style planning and careful pacing that kind of regime, accompanied by the threat of losing your benefits, is stressful beyond words. When I was too sick to attend I was labelled a failure; when I was too exhausted to stand in a queue to sign in on time I was left in a breathless heap in the hallway risking sanctions for being late. 

I developed a terror of the system, and began to have symptoms of panic whenever I had to deal with it. 

The worse came when they started summoning me onto workshops that were too far from public transport for me to reach, even on a good day, and too long for me to sit through. Despite asking repeatedly in writing for adjustments to help me take part I got no answer, just 5 referrals for sanctions. For each investigation you have just seven days to get your defence to the DWP explaining why you "failed" to obey orders, and. pray your defence won’t get “lost” in the post. The whole thing has been nightmarish. When did we, as a society, agree to punish people for being ill or disabled?

Now I’m made to do pretend job applications for roles that I’m too unwell to do because the DWP has predicted that I will recover and return to work in 12 months. This is heart-breaking. Nothing has ever been offered to develop my skills, or to engage with employers who might be able to use them within my limitations. 

My survey showed me that my experience was widespread. The real reason for the policy failure for the WRAG is that the system presumes that our character, morals and attitudes are holding us back from work, not our disability. We found that people’s health conditions or impairment were simply whitewashed. Once they entered the WRAG no reference to the report that found them not Fit for Work was made. It is little wonder that fewer than one in ten respondents were referred to specialist services from organisations with expertise in supporting disabled people into work.

Disability, access and inclusion are not even on the agenda. 

At the end of my tick-box survey people could add anything they wanted about their experience. A flood of testimonies came in that my questions, conscious of avoiding bias, hadn’t quite captured. Almost all of the 250 or so submissions spoke of feeling bullied, intimidated, demeaned, terrified of being sanctioned unjustly and, not uncommonly, suicidal because of the way they've been treated. The best depiction for me of the WRAG system is, to quote Pablo Neruda, “organised misery”.

Common Sense Questions

Why didn’t I tell the Work Programme people that I was doing work experience, so they could see I wasn’t idle?
Quite simply, because I’ve heard too many stories of people who mention doing voluntary work only to lose their ESA entitlement because it is used as evidence that they’re Fit for Work. Even looking after a pet, or having a cup of tea with a friend are evidence that we’re shirking when we could be working according to the Work Capability Assessment. Like so many of us on ESA, I live my life in hiding.

You are clearly capable of doing some work. Why couldn’t you carry on doing the same thing and get paid?
I would love to have a mini-job that I could do largely from home, under 16 hours per week and with completely flexible hours. But even if I found that holy grail of jobs, the DWP would only let me do it under the Permitted Work rules (work for less than 16 hours per week that doesn’t disqualify you from receiving benefits) for one year. After that I would have to stop. This is because being in the WRAG means I’m supposed to recover and make the transition to full time work. I’m not allowed to remain unwell. I have had my health condition and made the best of my life for 25 years. It hurts to say it, but I’m not going to recover.

So why don’t you try to get in the Support Group?
In this group of ESA I would be allowed to do Permitted Work indefinitely and would be free of the Work Programme. Initially, I thought the WRAG was the right place for me as I didn’t want to write myself off as completely unable to work. Now it has become clear that it's a prison. It traps my mind in fear and feelings of worthlessness and it prevents me from trying to move towards a Permitted Work situation which is the only realistic long-term solution for me.

So I would appeal today to get into the Support Group, only I can’t because I’m stuck in the Reassessment Phase of ESA. I have been waiting six months for my reassessment and until the DWP processes it I have no decision to appeal against.

Kafka couldn't have done better than the DWP.

If this resonates with your experience, tell your MP We Want Support, not Sanctions


  1. Catherine, well done for writing such a revealing account of your experience. I am so sorry you are having to go through this and I hope that expressing it helps in some way. I have had similar experiences with DWP causing panic attacks and further ill health. I was so shocked to realise that ESA claimants are treated in the same way as JSA claimants despite their health limitations. The whole system needs a complete overhaul a basis of genuine support for ESA claimants, and I hope that great articles like yours will help influence that. (ex-member of SL ME group) Good luck and all the best

  2. Catherine, thanks for doing this.

    Both myself and my husband are also suffering. We have not been referred to the work programme yet but I am sure it will happen soon!

    We are both visually impaired and have other health issues. We are at the jobcentre regularly and have to prove tbat we are doing some work related activity. My husbands advisor is making his life a misery, she sends him on courses and has now asked him to look at universal jobmatch even though at this stage he is not ready to look for a job!

    There seems to be no support given at all. They are only interested in getting you off benefits by any means possible!

  3. Hi Catherine. Thank you for doing what all that you are doing. I myself have had long term health problems and have been carrying out some back ground research into the present tests and reforms. I would like to ask if you if I could send you some information somehow and would there be and email I could use to do this. Thank you William

    1. Hi William, thanks for getting in touch. If you follow me on twitter @octoberpoppy then I can send you a direct message,


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