Government to scrap employment programme for disabled people

two people talking to illustrate the growing number of disabled people in self-employmentA £100 million program designed to help disabled people find work in England and Wales has been quietly cancelled, raising concerns as the government pursues plans to reduce disability benefits. The Work and Health Programme (WHP), launched in 2017, will cease operation this autumn. This news comes amidst Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s proposed benefit cuts for 420,000 sick and disabled individuals, aiming to push them into employment. Charities warn these cuts could leave many in poverty.

Sunak’s plan also includes transferring the authority to issue sick notes from medical professionals to non-medical “work and health advisors,” raising concerns about decisions being based on quotas rather than medical needs.

Disability charities condemned the plans as an “attack on disabled people.” The government argues for a “moral mission” to get people back to work, but critics point out the scrapped WHP program directly addressed this goal.

The WHP had helped 300,000 people by November 2023, with over 30% remaining employed after two years. Elizabeth Taylor, representing WHP providers, expressed concern about the “big gap” this cancellation creates, as new programs will not reach as many people, and some areas will have no support for a year.

A new scheme, Universal Support, aims to assist 25,000 disabled individuals into work by 2025, but its nationwide rollout is delayed until summer. Experts warn this leaves a worrying gap in support services.

Stephen Timms, chair of a work and pensions committee, acknowledged WHP’s limitations but emphasized its success in helping many find work. He questioned the reasoning behind its cancellation, particularly considering the stated need for such programs.

The benefit cuts coincide with a separate initiative to remove sick note issuing power from GPs. New “work and health advisors” with no medical background will take on these responsibilities. The government provided no details on the number of advisors needed, raising concerns about potential wait times. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) maintains the WHP cancellation is part of a broader plan to support disabled people in work. However, critics believe the cuts and lack of a clear replacement program contradict this claim.

Natasha Kearslake, director of HR consultancy Organic P&O Solutions, said: “Scrapping the Work and Health Programme while announcing plans to force more disabled people into work through benefit cuts is a clear sign that this government is cutting thousands of people adrift. Axing a major scheme that helped 300,000 disabled people into work over six years leaves a gaping hole in vital assistance for vulnerable workers.

“Slashing support without providing any replacement undermines efforts towards improving disability inclusion in the workforce. Instead of penalising disabled people with the threat of lost benefits, a more productive strategy could include subsidised workplace assistance programmes, or incentivising inclusive hiring practices. Forcing people into unsuitable jobs through benefit cuts is not workforce inclusion. It increases disability discrimination and results in unmotivated employees and lower retention. The government needs to think again and work on a holistic system that prepares disabled candidates for work, while incentivising employers to tap into this underutilised talent pool.”