Disabled and on the Work Programme: "Cold calling companies for 8 to 16 hours a week"

"Life is already extremely limited for me, but with the pressure of the Work Programme, I've just felt a lot more hopeless – about either getting a job or just feeling happy and well again."

Ross has bowel disease and depression. He’s 33 and living at home with his parents. He can’t afford the rent or bills and, eighteen months since being put onto the Work Programme – the Government’s welfare-to-work scheme – is still unemployed.

“My mental health’s suffered due to the treatment I've received and my physical problems are still with me,” he tells me.“No job vacancies were ever given to me.”

Ross is one of tens of thousands of people with disabilities and long-term sickness who have been forced onto the Work Programme but who have not found a job – many on employment and support allowance (ESA), and who, like Ross, had been told their out-of-work disability benefit would be cut or removed if they did not take part.

The Work Programme has been a failure even for the unemployed who do not have health conditions. Last week it emerged that some of the biggest firms involved have been penalised for poor performance: almost eight out of 10 unemployed people on the programme for two years had failed to get a long-term job.

The picture is even bleaker for the disabled and long-term sick. According to new data, more than 93% of disabled people put onto the Work Programme are not finding long-term work. Just 6.8% of those referred to the scheme in the latest three months have found employment.

Despite this, the Conservative Party conference launched with George Osborne’s pledge to practice “tough love” on the people who, having gone through the Work Programme, are still unemployed. Yesterday, it emerged the disabled and long-term sick would not be exempt from being penalised for the scheme’s failure. Leaked documents show Iain Duncan Smith is seeking ways to give jobcentre staff more powers to make people on ESA undergo further tasks to prove they are “trying as hard as possible to get back into work.” This includes forcing people with serious health conditions that have been judged as ‘time-limited’, to take up any offer of work. Department of Work and Pensions staff would be given the power to strip the disabled or sick of their benefits if they refused.

Ross was mandatorily enrolled on the Work Programme in January 2012, after his two-year-limited ESA had timed out. He was given the option of trying Work Choice, the scheme said to be designed specifically for people with disabilities and long-term conditions.  

“It was simply getting me to cold call companies for 8 to 16 hours a week,” he says of the reality. “An occasional meeting with the Work Choice advisers would allow me to hand over a list of the employers called, when, what happened and who I talked to.” It was the extent of the ‘support’ he received.

A DWP report released earlier this summer acknowledged that the Government had significantly underestimated the extra barriers to work many people like Ross, forced onto the programme, face. It suggested that, despite private Work Programme contractors being offered higher payments for finding jobs for harder to place clients, such as those with a disability, instead of giving them more attention, they have given them less.

“When I was on the Work Programme, I received no help,” Ross confirms. “I had occasional appointments which were only ever about getting me to do search for vacancies on their computers and fill in forms. My interactions with them in the five months before I left consisted of about two face to face appointments with an adviser and several jobsearch appointments where I was put in front of a computer and told to look for vacancies.” 

Ross tells me that from his induction onwards he was treated as if he was a JSA claimant and, as such, was given no acknowledgement that his illnesses meant he needed additional help.

“All the information they gave [including sanctions] was for JSA claimants,” he says. “The rules for those on ESA are different and they didn't give that information out at all. In fact they seemed to be confused as to the difference between the two groups.”

“No-one ever tried to understand the way my health impacted on my ability to find and retain work,” he says. “From the start it was clear I was simply being squeezed into a generic system that took no account of my needs and offered no real advice or support.” 

This lack of understanding was not only of detriment to his ability to find work but his ability to hold onto his benefits. As the DWP report disclosed back in the summer, the Work Programme’s model of ‘conditionality’ and ‘sanctioning’ – where a person has their benefits withdrawn for increasing periods of time – is particularly cruel to people who are disabled or ill. They are often unable to avoid being sanctioned because they cannot physically or mentally comply with the conditions they have to meet.

Ross asked at one of his adviser interviews what would happen if his disability prevented him from attending an appointment, either the day or so before or on the morning of one.

“They were very evasive and simply said it would be a problem,” he says. “They expected me to come in regardless or simply be sanctioned. I don't know how I could manage that if I were sat on the toilet or in bed with agonising gut pain or moving bowels. It left me very distressed.”

Such elements of the Work Programmetook its toll on Ross’s mental health, not only creating problems but also exacerbating existing ones.

“It's made me a lot more anxious,” he says.

In his old job working in the Scottish Government, Ross dealt comfortably with the public but says he now feels tension when having to speak to people, either on the phone, in person, or even writing a letter.

“[The experience has] tired me enormously and made me less trusting, less able to talk to people without a fear of what they will say and what they will do,” he says. “My depression got worse as I simply withdrew more. Life is already extremely limited for me, but with the pressure of the Work Programme, I've just felt a lot more hopeless – about either getting a job or just feeling happy and well again. I'm still on medication for my depression and had hoped to be weaning myself off them by now. But there's no chance while the Work Programme keeps making things worse for me.”

“Pressuring people into working, under the threat of losing their benefits, often serves to exacerbate their mental health problems, pushing them even further from the job market,” Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind tells me. “Currently there’s still too little specialised support available and too much focus on sanctions and conditionality. People with mental health problems face significant barriers to finding and staying in work, such as stigma from employers, and often dealing with an invisible and fluctuating condition. The Government should be ensuring they provide tailored support to help people find appropriate employment.”

According to a new YouGov poll by right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, the public is rather in favour of workfare schemes instead – and has little interest in exempting people on grounds of disability or mental health. 75% said people who were ‘mentally disabled’ (judged fit) should be made to work unpaid for their benefits. 78% said the same about people with physical disabilities. 

It was a useful foundation to Osborne and Duncan Smith’s new measures, with Osborne, buoyed by apparent public and party support, pledging yesterday to force the long-term unemployed to take on unpaid work, accept a full-time unemployment programme, or attend the jobcentre every day.

It’s for people like Ross to deal with the practicalities, like affording to get to the jobcentre daily in the first place. For him, the Work Programme brought increased financial problems.

“Even though the Work Programme reimbursed me for the travel expenses of going into their offices, it was sometimes difficult to find the bus fare in the first place,” he says. “Once they ran out of petty cash and I had to wait until my next appointment to get the money back. That was nothing to them but really difficult for me.”

“I worry deeply about how I can pay for interviews and even how I can afford to pay my way when I do get a job,” he tells me. “The Work Programme offers no financial help with that, but what am I supposed to do until my first pay cheque comes in? None of those issues were acknowledged by the Work Programme and they made no effort to help with them.”

Ross has watched this week as the contractor that failed him, Ingeus, has been declared as one of the Work Programme’s better performing firms – and given more contracts as a reward. It doesn’t create much hope for the scheme’s future.

A year and a half on, Ross is back where he started. Though with increased anxiety and even less clear assistance in place.

“Last year, I was told that my status on the Work Programme had been switched from mandatory to voluntary due to my recent Work Capability Assessment [the test to see if I was fit for work]. They later claimed that was not the case,” he tells me. “I'm probably due to be mandated back to the Work Programme some time soon as I was given another period off it before Job Centre Plus would refer me back. The JCP, DWP and WP have lacked clarity over every issue I've asked them about.”

“I'm still on benefits receiving no help whatsoever,” Ross adds.

This week, the Government has confirmed their idea of help: when the forced Work Programme fails, try some forced unpaid work.

Jobseekers queue at their local Jobcentre Plus. Image: Getty

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.