Ministers are considering making drastic cuts to the sickness benefit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), internal documents reveal.
Internal documents seen by the BBC reveal how ministers have ‘considered’ making draconian cuts to ESA payments for those claimants in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG).
It is believed that the move would reflect how sick and disabled people in the WRAG are required to take steps toward future employment, even though they are currently thought of as ‘unfit for work’.
Sick and disabled people in the WRAG of ESA currently receive £28,75 a week more than JSA claimants, but papers seen by the BBC suggest that ministers have at least considered cutting this to just 50p more. The higher amount recognises additional costs incurred by sick and disabled people on a daily basis.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said the proposals were not government policy. However, this doesn’t mean that such a policy would not be implemented in the future, or find its way into the Tories general election manifesto.
The documents also reveal how the the government has been forced to bring in an extra 100 fitness-for-work assessors to clear a backlog of more than 60,000 ESA claims. The extra assessors will be hired through the employment support and training agency Pertemps.
DWP is expected to announce the successor to Atos in the next few months, who pulled out of a contract to assess unemployed people for ESA in the wake of criticism about the accuracy of its assessments. Speculation is mounting that the U.S firm Maximus will be picked as the preferred bidder for a contract worth £500 million over three and a half years.
(UPDATE: Maximus awarded WCA contract)
ESA is claimed by around two million people and provides crucial financial support for those who, through no fault of their own, are too sick or disabled to be able to work.
Dame Anne Begg, chair of the commons work and pensions committee, said she would support reforms to ESA but not any reduction in the value of the benefit. She added:
“That’s not reform, that is just saving money. I hope that is not something the government is going to come forward with.”
Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), said:
“The proportion of people in absolute poverty in families living with disability has gone up each year since 2009 and now stands at a shocking 22%. ”
Any cut in support would make it very much harder for families already reeling from austerity blows and would surely fail any credible family test.”