Welfare Reform and Work Bill: what happened and what’s next?

For the last seven months we have been working to influence the Welfare Reform and Work Bill since it was announced in the Queen’s Speech.

This week, the process of debating the Bill in both Houses of Parliament finished, and it will shortly receive Royal Assent. What will the finished Bill mean for disabled people and their families?

The Bill aims to achieve the Government’s manifesto commitment of ‘full employment‘.

As part of their plans to do so, the Government committed to halving the disability employment gap, following on from a Scope campaign.

Scope focused on ensuring that measures within this Bill supported more disabled people to find, stay and progress in work.

As the Bill went through Parliament, two key areas of focus were:

  • Calling on the Government to include a requirement in the Bill to report annually on the progress it makes towards halving the disability employment gap.
  • Opposing the reduction in financial support the Bill proposed for disabled people in the Employment and Support Work Related Activity Group (ESA WRAG).

Halving the employment gap

The Bill requires the Government to report annually to Parliament on the progress it is making towards full employment. We argued that the Government should also have to report each year on the progress it makes towards halving the disability employment gap, and this should be specifically included in the Bill.

In the House of Commons MPs tabled amendments (a proposed change), setting out this requirement and what the report should include. Once the Bill reached the House of Lords, Baroness Jane Campbell also tabled an amendment that was supported by Peers from across the House.

While the amendment was not accepted, Government Minister Lord Freud, made a ‘no ifs, no buts’ commitment that the annual report on full employment would contain a report on halving the disability employment gap.

Although we would have liked to see this commitment in legislation, this is an important commitment. Now we would like to hear more detail from the Government on what this report will contain, and we are meeting Ministers to discuss this further.

A reduction in ESA WRAG

The Bill proposed a £30 week reduction in support to new claimants of ESA WRAG from April 2017. The Government’s own impact assessment found this would be around half a million people.

We are really concerned about this change and think that will push disabled people further away from work.

Alongside other charities we supported three independent cross bench Peers to carry out a review into the impact this change would have. It found that the proposed cut to ESA WRAG would make it much harder for people in this group to find work.

When the Bill was in the House of Lords, we supported amendments by Lord Low, one of the Peers who led the Review, to remove this section from the Bill. The amendment was passed by the Lords and the Government defeated.

Changes to the Bill have to be passed by both Houses in a period called ‘Ping Pong’, with MPs having the final say. MPs voted to overturn the Lords changes but MPs from all parties spoke out in opposition to the change.

The House of Lords then passed a further amendment which would require the Government to carry out an impact assessment before these changes were introduced. Despite opposition from charities and many MPs this was also defeated by  the House of Commons. Lord Low described this as a ‘black day for disabled people’ .

We are disappointed that this will soon be law and that from April next year new ESA WRAG claimants will receive the same level of financial support as people on JSA. Cutting financial support is not an answer to halving the disability employment gap.

A vital opportunity to reform the system

Throughout the debate MPs, Peers and Government Ministers spoke about the upcoming White Paper on disability, health and employment which the Government has said will reform support for disabled people to further reduce the disability employment gap.

This is a crucial moment and it we hope that it might include reform of the Work Capability Assessment and set out new details on specialist employment support to address the structural barriers to work disabled people face.

This is a vital opportunity to reform the system to make it work for disabled people which must not be missed.

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