Dan Parton cutMany people with learning disabilities, especially at the milder end of the spectrum, have lived in fear of benefit changes for several years already. Now that Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith is seemingly training his sights on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), that fear will only increase.

Duncan Smith has said the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), which determines a person’s eligibility for ESA, is flawed and should be more personalised so that if someone can do work - even if it is just for a few hours a week – they are supported to do so.

Of course, this isn’t policy and, at the moment, is just one of the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) kite-flying exercises to see what the public response is to the idea, so nothing is set in stone. But it does reveal the DWP’s direction of travel on this.

It could also be another way of cutting the benefits bill – much as the migration from Disability Living Allowance to Personal Independence Payment is a way of cutting the number of people who receive the benefit.

The idea of getting people on ESA into work and focusing on what they can do rather than what they can’t is, in principle, a good one. But it should not come with a threat of payments being cut if work isn’t taken up. That will only create more anxiety and could impact on people’s mental health.

Support is the key element here. Many people claiming ESA – whether due to mental ill health or a learning or physical disability – will need some form of support to be able to enter employment. Currently, support for people with learning disabilities to get into and, crucially, retain a job is patchy across the country.

Employment for people with learning disabilities remains at between 7-11%, depending on whose figures you believe. But it is a figure that has remained stubbornly low for years. Often, it is because the employers won’t give someone with learning disabilities a chance in the first place, or the person is not given enough support to be able to make a success of the role.

Of course, the assessment has to be got right too. The WCA has been criticised ever since it was introduced in 2008, and a tribunal earlier this year said it puts people with mental health problems, learning disabilities and autism at a “substantial disadvantage”. Getting it right for everyone would seem to be a substantial piece of work.

If Duncan Smith is going to go ahead with reforms to ESA and place more of an emphasis on getting people into a job, then the assessment and support infrastructure has to be put in place first and extensively tested. Without it, then it will simply mean more people end up have their benefits cut through no fault of their own. This would create more problems as those who claim benefits often struggle to make ends meet as it is and further cuts could send them into a crisis – costing them, and the public purse, more in the long run.