Job coaches with no academic qualifications could be making life-changing – and potentially life-ending – decisions on whether a disabled person must carry out work-related activity, if the government goes ahead with its plans to scrap the “fitness for work” test.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has told Disability News Service (DNS) that there are no minimum academic qualifications to undertake the role of a work coach in a jobcentre.
It is these work coaches who will take on the role of deciding if disabled claimants of universal credit are able to carry out tasks such as attending training courses or work-related interviews.
DWP announced plans to scrap the work capability assessment (WCA) in its Transforming Support white paper in March.
Its plans, which will only go ahead if the Conservatives win the next election, will see eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits – through a new universal credit “health element” – decided by the personal independence payment (PIP) assessment.
This means that decisions on whether a sick or disabled person must attend job-focused interviews or other work-related activity will in future be decided by a jobcentre work coach.
DWP decisions around deciding fitness for work and work-related activity through the WCA have been linked to countless deaths over the last 15 years, but there are now fears that the government’s plans could lead to even more deaths.
The white paper says: “We want to introduce a more tailored approach, to allow work coaches to build a relationship with an individual and determine what, if any, work-related activities an individual can participate in.”
Tom Pursglove, the minister for disabled people, has told Labour’s shadow disability minister Vicky Foxcroft that work coaches would “have tailored conversations with claimants to determine what they can do and what, if any, work-related activities they can participate in”.
He added: “We will work with our work coaches to develop these proposals and ensure they have the right training and support needed to fulfil this change in their role.”
But DWP has now told DNS – in response to a freedom of information request – that there “are no current minimum academic qualifications required to undertake a Work Coach role in a Jobcentre”.
Instead, DWP uses its own “Work Coach specific Situational Judgement Test as the first selection tool in Work Coach recruitment”.
When the forerunner of the WCA – the “all work test” – was introduced in 1995 under Conservative social security secretary Peter Lilley, all assessments had to be carried out by a doctor.
By the time the WCA was introduced 13 years later, ministers had decided that paramedics, nurses and physiotherapists had enough healthcare expertise to carry out assessments and recommend if a claimant could carry out work-related activity.
Now those decisions – if ministers’ controversial proposals become law – could be made by work coaches who do not even have a single GCSE.
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “I see no way the minister for disabled people, or any other member of the government, could possibly justify these abominable actions, allowing completely medically unqualified job centre staff to decide who is and isn’t disabled and what work-related activities they have to undertake.
“It’s nothing short of a recipe for utter and total disaster, and no doubt subsequent soaring death rates, raining down on disabled claimants.
“The mere thought that this might happen fills me with dread of the consequences.”
It was, she said, “the latest in a long line of inappropriate and dangerous decisions by the DWP”.
Svetlana Kotova, director of campaigns and justice for Inclusion London, said: “This is another reason why reforms in the white paper are misconceived and will likely cause a lot of harm to disabled people.
“Unqualified job coaches will be making all of the decisions about what work-related activity and what conditionality to apply to disabled people.
“We know that there is plenty of evidence that conditionality does not work, but when decisions are made by people who do not understand the impact of impairment and do not understand the impact of the barriers a person is facing, it is clear the system is not designed to support, it is designed to penalise.
“This is why we are calling on the government to completely rethink its reform plans and create a benefits system that supports disabled people’s right to an adequate standard of living.”
Fran Springfield, co-chair of Chronic Illness Inclusion, said DWP was “riddled with institutional disbelief” and the new policy was “likely to have a highly detrimental effect on both our mental and physical health”.
She said: “As disabled people, we know our own bodies and how they can/can’t function.
“Having unqualified ‘job coaches’ making decisions about our health and fitness for work opens up an opportunity for more abuse, gaslighting and harassment of disabled people.”
Asked if the minister for disabled people could justify the government’s proposal to allow unqualified work coaches to decide on disabled people’s ability to carry out work-related activity, a DWP spokesperson said: “Work coaches have tailored conversations with claimants about what they can do in terms of work and work-related activity and set personalised requirements for claimants.
“We will ensure work coaches are equipped to deal with changes outlined in the health and disability white paper in terms of providing extra support, guidance and training.”
This article first appeared in DPAC
Image: Guy Smallman