ESA WRAG Mythbuster

The Chancellor’s plans to cut the rate of benefits to people in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) of ESA by £30 a week is based on widespread myths and misinformation about people in this group.

The assumption behind the plans is that people placed in the WRAG are nearly fit for work. The Work Capability Assessment is supposed to sort people who cannot be expected to work and are therefore placed in the Support Group where their benefits are unconditional, from those who have temporary or relatively minor health conditions or impairments and are therefore placed in the WRAG where their benefits are conditional upon preparing for a return to work.

It’s time to dispel this myth and tell the truth about people in the WRAG. The discredited Work Capability Assessment is neither a rational nor a fair way of distinguishing those who could work from those who can’t.

Here are 3 profiles of hypothetical claimants illustrating how their health or impairment would be assessed in a Work Capability Assessment.

Do these people have the choice to go out and get a job?

Mike, 40, suffered a stroke two years ago while at working as an engineer which left him with brain injury and epilepsy that his specialist says are unlikely to improve further. Under the Work Capability Assessment he scores points for loss of consciousness due to seizure 2 -3 times a month (6 points); inability to initiate or complete personal action for the majority of time (9 points) and occasionally uncontrollable episodes of aggressive behaviour (9 points).
Mike scores 24 points but doesn’t quality for the Support Group of ESA, where financial support is unconditional. If Mike were assessed from April 2017 he would receive just £73 per week to live on, the amount set as basic subsistence for 6 weeks, to prevent him from languishing and incentivise him to recover from his brain injury and return to work.

Alan, 29 has autism and lives with his parents. Alan enjoys his supported voluntary work in a community farm but he has never been in paid work. Alan has a reduced awareness of hazard which puts him at significant risk of injury to himself or others requiring frequent supervision (9 points). He can’t cope with minor planned changes to his daily routine (9 points). He can’t get around, even to a familiar place without another person to accompany him (9 points) and he experiences significant distress from social contact with an unfamiliar person (9 points)
Alan scores 36 points but doesn’t qualify for unconditional financial support on ESA. In the WRAG Alan has to attend compulsory workshops as a condition of receiving benefits and is threatened with benefit sanctions even though he finds attending workshops with strangers too distressing to cope with.

Sheila was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis eight years ago. She carried on working as a sales rep until her symptoms became too severe as the disease progressed. Sheila can’t walk more than 100m due to muscle weakness and balance problems (9 points), (she can’t self-propel a wheelchair because of upper body weakness). She has difficulty controlling her bladder meaning she often needs a change of clothing (6 points). Her co-ordination difficulties mean she can no longer use a keyboard effectively (9 points). Sheila experiences cognitive dysfunction and depression, which has worsened since had to give up work, and as a result she frequently can’t initiate and complete at least 2 personal actions (6 points).
Sheila scores 30 points but doesn’t qualify for the Support Group. She is given a contributory ESA WRAG award of 12 months, after which her benefit is stopped because her partner is in work. The 2012 Welfare Reform Act dictates that 12 months should be long enough for people with health conditions like Sheila’s to recover and return to work.

Mike, Alan and Sheila are not real people, but illustrations of how the WCA measures illness, disability and fitness for “work related activity” in a way that has no bearing on either medical reality, or the real world of work. Without financial support to overcome the significant obstacles they face, and without employers prepared to tailor their job conditions considerably, real people like Mike Alan and Sheila don’t have realistic job prospects, now or in the future.

Adapted from 
By Catherine Hale, Caroline Richardson and Stef Benstead. With contributions from Jane Young and Sam Barnett-Cormack.