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Halving the disability employment gap according to Matthew Oakley

Thoughts on conditionality and sanctions 

Matthew Oakley has produced a bold report with imaginative policy recommendations for increasing the numbers of disabled people in employment.

There is much to welcome in it, and much that sets it apart from the parallel reports emerging ahead of the forthcoming White Paper by the thinktank Reform. Unlike their prejudicial assumptions about disabled people's inherent lack of work ethic, Oakley's proposals suggest he has listened to disabled people and understood some of our very real barriers to work.

But Oakley's report contains some serious flaws. Despite asserting that his proposals are not aimed at cutting welfare costs, a central feature of his reforms would leave open, indeed pave the way for, the prospect of further cuts to disabled people's incomes, (as if the ESA cuts and reductions to PIP in the same week were not enough).

More on that next time. In this post I’ll discuss the implications in his report for the issue of conditionality and sanctions which have made ESA so toxic.

The message that emerges is very encouraging:

 1    There is a recognition of failure of ESA, based on rushed reform without proper consultation or testing, and in particular failure of conditionality and sanctions regime for ESA WRAG as a tool for moving sick and disabled people into work. The paper recommends extensive consultation and testing of any new scheme.

2.    Under Oakley’s proposed model, conditions on benefit receipt for those who are “work limited” by health or impairment are minimal. Just one initial meeting with an employment support adviser is mandatory, to discuss employment prospects, ambitions and the availability of support. After that point, engagement with employment support is on a voluntary basis and is rewarded by a “steps to work wage”. That is right and good.

But  problem is that there is no mechanism for sorting who is “work limited” by health or impairment, and who isn't, in order to protect them from the conditionality regime of Universal Credit, which is more aggressive than ever under the Claimant Contract. This is because Oakley wants to do away with the WCA, the Fit for Work test, altogether, and replace it with another assessment combining ESA premiums and PIP. The new assessment would be based on extra costs associated with disability and support needs, not ability to work. 

So if there is no assessment of limited capability to work, how does a Work Coach in Universal Credit know whether to impose the minimal conditionality of Oakley’s scheme, or the punitive Claimant Contract enforcing 35 hours a week of work or work related activity?

The flaw in Oakley’s thesis is conflating people who self-report as having “work limitation” in the Labour Force Survey, and people assessed as having Limited Capability for Work in the WCA. 

Someone with limited knowledge of the fiendish WCA might assume the two groups would be more or less convergent, but they are not. Most people who report “work limitation” due to health in the LFS but are in employment would most likely be found Fit for Work in a WCA, by virtue of the fact they are in work.

Under Oakley’s plan, it seems, the DWP would accept claimants’ self-assessment of health related “work limitation" as the basis for entry into his conditionality-lite employment support scheme rather than the punitive Claimant Commitment. 

This is about as likely as hell freezing over. The DWP doesn’t even trust doctors to report patients’ capacity for work, cue the hated WCA with its pretensions of objectivity. The idea of them trusting claimants’ own assessment is fanciful at best.

Some of the ideas in this report are very constructive, but they are premised on a relationship of trust and respect by the DWP towards disabled people which is very far from the reality.


  1. I agree: there are many good things in the report, e.g. the recommendations to set realistic targets and to consult and test extensively.

    However, like you, I was wondering that, if the WCA is scrapped, how would DWP allocate claimants to the work-limited group?

    What also worries me is the proposed merging of the SG element and PIP. The new Extra Costs benefit should recognise not only the extra cost of living with disability, but also the extra cost of having to rely on benefits for a longer period than those without a work-limiting condition. My fear is that some claimants with a chronic work-limiting condition might not qualify for either the Steps to Work Wage or the Extra Costs benefit, and would have to live on a subsistence-level benefit for years on end.


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