So, politicians designed an incapacity benefits system in which virtually nobody qualifies for help. How can that be justified?
The 6th report into the role of incapacity benefit reassessment in helping claimants into employment has just been released. It concludes that work capability assessments (WCAs), which are used to determine whether or not a sick or disabled person qualifies for employment support allowance (ESA), are flawed and failing.
The work and pensions committee report also notes that 40% of decisions go to appeal, with up to 70% of those being overturned at tribunal. It concludes that the descriptors designed by government are too limited, only focusing on what a claimant can do, not on what they can’t. It acknowledges that those with mental health conditions, long-term variable conditions and learning difficulties are not currently well assessed. It highlights that a large number of the assessment centres are not accessible to those with disabilities. It notes that those dropping their claim or being found “fit for work” are not followed up or tracked in any way to determine whether they are simply bouncing from Jobseeker’s Allowance to work programmes to poverty or whether in fact, they are finding work.
It acknowledges concerns that the use of terms such as “scroungers” and “skivers” surrounding the delivery of ESA has led to fear, anxiety and depression. It points out that the decision to time limit contributory ESA to one year is not based on any evidence that claimants will have recovered sufficiently to work but is simply a cost-cutting measure. It is concerned that not enough people qualify for long-term support and that some are being coerced into finding work that they are not capable of doing.
Descending into farce, the report debates whether it would be better if the WCAs took into account “real-life context”, that is your ability to do actual jobs in the real world rather than your ability to, say, pick up a pen once during an assessment. However, employment minister Chris Grayling responded that he was “absolutely unreservedly and implacably opposed” to a real-world test.
The report goes into great detail on the work programme that will face claimants going into the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG), and how it’s vital that decisions must be accurate so the right support can be offered. As the migration from incapacity benefit to ESA is so new, it avoids the issue of whether this is happening. What we can say, however, is that new claims for ESA have been running since 2008. Previous work programmes have been an unmitigated disaster, typically with just 8-15% successful recipients. If the whole premise of ESA is that 1.5 million people are able to work despite their health conditions or disability “with the right support”, then surely we need to be very sure that this support works? Apparently not. The report also criticises a lack of engagement with business and employers who are still unlikely or unwilling to take on sick and disabled staff.
So, to recap, politicians designed a system where the descriptors used to qualify for long-term support are so limited that almost nobody does so. They use centres that are inaccessible to the very disabled people they have to accommodate, and use a tick box computer system that takes no account of the symptoms, pain or longevity of an illness or disability. The assessment need take no consideration of the “real world” of work, and even if you are found to have “limited capability for work” after one year, that won’t matter either and you will still lose all support. Assessments are so badly designed that up to 40% of decisions go to appeal, while those who fall out of the system are not tracked to find out what becomes of them. Finally, even if you are able to navigate all of those flaws, you will be placed into a Work Related Activity Group that has almost no likelihood of finding you a job. Meanwhile, the media waste no opportunity to tell the country that you are merely a “scrounger” and a “skiver”.
Despite all of this, the programme is being rolled out across the country to 2.5 million of the most vulnerable people we always assumed we had a duty to protect. This is before the pilot studies in Aberdeen and Burnley were even completed, before Professor Malcolm Harrington’s report on long-term variable conditions and before all of his previous recommendations have been implemented fully.
It might just be worth remembering that 10 million people in the UK have a long-term illness or disability. Just 2.5 million claim ESA and 60% of the rest are already in work. The system is already effectively “self-filtering” and the 25% who need to claim state support are likely to be the most severely affected or those in the greatest financial need.
ESA aims to ensure that virtually all of them work. Can anyone honestly believe that is possible?