Derry & Strabane Council is considering whether to back a new pilot initiative offering early intervention to Incapacity Benefit claimants as it emerged there are up to 3,000 fresh claims in the region each year.
A total of £300,000 has been secured to road test the ‘Want To Work?’ project over the next nine months.
If the local council agrees to give it the green light it will be the first in the north to roll it out.
‘Want To Work?’ involves contacting people within days of them going off on the sick and applying for ESA.
Applicants will be asked if they voluntarily wanted to take part in the scheme, with the ultimate aim of getting them back to their work or moving them into other work.
The details of the proposed pilot were relayed to Derry City & Strabane District’s Business and Culture Committee during its monthly meeting on Tuesday.
Operation’s Director with the Social Security Agency Brian Doherty and Department for Social Development Head of Policy Sharon Russell delivered a presentation before the committee, which was sitting at the Strabane Council offices.
Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is a benefit for people who are unable to work due to illness or disability.
Mr Doherty said that the ESA had replaced Incapacity Benefit and was one of the key social security benefits within the north, with 120,000 people on it.
He said that this fact was “a bit of a tragedy in many ways”, because those people were ill and unable to work because of disability.
He said that the current situation was that there were now more people on ESA than had ever been on Incapacity.
Ms Russell said key themes of the ‘Want To Work?’ bid included improving engagement and support for people applying for ESA, with the offer of support made much earlier than is currently the case.
“It is for those who chose it. There is nothing in what I am proposing here that requires people to do anything,” she stressed.
Ms Russell said that those who fall out of work often did so due to mental health and well being issues such as depression, and said that if these been picked up earlier it might have enabled them to continue in work or move on to other work.
The new strategy, she said, involved changing attitudes of all those involved in offering access to support and challenging traditional thinking and methods of delivery, with the creation of a multi-agency, whole of government and community support hub, for those who want to stay in work or move into work.
Under the current system, the committee was told, it can take over three months before an individual is contacted about coming to an appointment to discuss work options for them, with the consequences of not doing so spelt out in bold lettering.
“We traditionally do things ‘on to’ people. I thought this should be more relational,” Ms Russell said.
She added that Derry-Strabane Council had “very high rates of economic inactivity” at 31%, adding that of the 2,700 to 3,000 ESA claims a year, over 90% were successful, with Limavady also deemed exceptionally high.
She said Derry-Strabane had been chosen for the pilot because “the evidence brings us here”, and said that the local authority was the only one on Northern Ireland with its own Direct Delivery Employability Team, along with strong relationships with partner organisations.
She said that there were issues such as making work pay more than benefits and ensuring there were jobs for people, which were central to the success of ‘Want To Work?’
SDLP Councillor Shauna Cusack questioned whether this actually involved phoning someone up and asking if they wanted to work and if there were ways they could be helped.
Ms Russell replied that this was the case and that it would be up to people if they wanted to take up the offer or not.
Colr Cusack further asked what the advantages were of this scheme as opposed to others already in existence, and said the most frustrating aspect of ESA was the amount of time it took to get it processed. often leaving people in financial stress.
Ms Russell replied that there was debate at present over the effectiveness of waiting 13 weeks to offer support to people on ESA, and said that intervening much sooner could potentially have much better outcomes.
Sinn Fein Councillor Mickey Cooper said that his party had major difficulties with the ESA process, and questioned if there was match funding and inbuilt mechanisms to deal with the largely rural geography of the new council area.
Fellow Sinn Fein Councillor Brian McMahon queried whether the project would cater for complex cases like a young person on ESA who had come through some sort of trauma or “fallen through the stools”, while DUP Councillor Rhonda Hamilton questioned whether there were some employers who would not be willing to get involved.
Mr Doherty said that with 120,000 people on ESA “we can’t do nothing”, and said that it was important to “make sure people don’t see a life on benefits as a life they have chosen”.
“We have to make sure we get those who want to work into work as best we can,” he added.
Chair of the committee, Sinn Fein Councillor Patricia Logue said the council would relate its decision in due course.