Labour has accused the Government of breaking its promise to soften the impact of controversial disability benefits cuts.
Shadow disabilities minister Marsha De Cordova said cuts to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) were only justified through “an effective work and health programme”.
Her comments came as Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke outlined further details about the flagship strategy, which has pledged to help get a million more disabled people into work over the next decade.
A disabled entrance door button
Theresa May said the strategy shows the Government is “determined to break down the barriers to employment facing disabled people”.
Ms De Cordova, responding to a statement from Mr Gauke in the Commons, said: “You will remember when the Government cut £1,500 a year from disabled people through slashing the Employment and Support Allowance.
“This was justified through an effective work and health programme. Today’s statement is clear evidence that they have broken this promise.”
The Government’s 10-year plan builds on a green paper published last year which pledged to halve the so-called disability employment gap – the difference between the employment rates of disabled and non-disabled people – which last year stood at 32 percentage points.
Mr Gauke told the Commons it aimed to offer a “more personalised and tailored approach to employment support”.
He said the Government would look at the support it offers to those in the ESA support group, who are judged unable to work.
He also said the Government would “continue to improve the assessment process” for ESA, working with other groups to “take forward reform of the work capability assessment”.
Mr Gauke added: “We recognise there will be some people, some disabled people and people with health conditions, where they are not going to be able to work and we need to continue to support those people, and it’s worth noting we spend record amounts in terms of spending on benefits for disabled people.
“But there are also very many people who want to work and we are determined to do everything we can to support them, whether that is using our capabilities in the welfare system, the health system, working with employers, because we want to put work at the centre of this.
“Work matters. It should be at the heart of what we are doing in delivering a welfare system.”
Mr Gauke said the Government would launch a consultation on reforms to statutory sick pay, in response to the Stevenson/Farmer Review of mental health and employers, as well as introducing a voluntary approach for large employers to report on mental health and disability in the workforce.
The Government has said it will expand fit note certification, which details how a condition affects someone’s ability to work, so staff and their employers can consider ways to help them return to their job.
The scheme will be extended beyond GPs to a wider group of healthcare professionals, including physiotherapists, psychiatrists and senior nurses.
The Government will also introduce an enhanced training programme for Jobcentre work coaches to help them work with benefit claimants with mental health issues, which is being developed with a national charity.
Other changes include “significant enhancements” to the Access to Work scheme, including increasing capacity of mental health services.
Mr Gauke said he was ending contracts to deliver occupational health assessments through the fit for work programme, after a lower than anticipated take-up.
Ms De Cordova said the Government had dropped its pledge to halve the disability employment gap by 2020, and that only £130 million a year was set aside for the health and work programme, compared with billions spend on its predecessor.
“No doubt due to this Government’s relaxed approach, the announcement today offers very little in the way of commitments,” she said.
“It is sadly an attempt to kick the issue back into the long grass, with vague statements on pilots, a commitment from Government to carry on doing what it’s currently doing, and some minuscule sums of investment in training.”
Some 600,000 more disabled people are now in work compared with four years ago.
The SNP’s deputy leader in Westminster Kirsty Blackman urged the Government to scrap the work capability assessment.
“We believe that the UK Government as a priority needs to reverse the cuts it’s made to these benefits and we need to scrap the freeze on benefits because they are harming people,” she said.
“Some 68% of those challenging their work capability assessment results are successful in that challenging. The system is discredited and broken.”
Mr Gauke said there was no consensus on how the tests should be reformed, adding: “We acknowledge that there are improvements that should be made, we have indeed made improvements.”
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