Rushed reforms and claims of huge welfare savings threaten the goal of helping disabled people into work
Paul Gregg, The Guardian Tuesday 6th July 2010
Reforming benefits for the sick and disabled is a difficult operation that obviously needs to be undertaken with care, given that this affects the most vulnerable in our society.
The previous British government established the employment support allowance (ESA), which simplified the system by replacing two separate benefits. More significantly it offered a personalised and non-coercive support and engagement process (designed by me) to help people return to work, instead of a system that forgot about the disabled for years at a time once they passed the incapacity assessment. These are positive steps forward.
However, ESA also has a new assessment to determine people's eligibility and this work capability assessment (WCA) is causing increasing concern. Such assessments are very tricky to get right and sensibly the government set out to trial it for around 18 months before the planned application to the 2.5m existing claimants of incapacity benefits, due to start this autumn.
The new test has seen far fewer people being deemed eligible than was expected. Among new claimants, just over a third of claims undergoing the WCA assessment were passed. This was about 20% fewer than expected. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of anecdotal cases were coming to the fore suggesting serious problems with the test. Citizens Advice has highlighted serious concerns with the test and its implementation, and estimates that among those undergoing the process around one person in five is seeking help from them.
Similarly large numbers of those being found fit for work under the WCA test are appealing and reports suggest that in some 70% of represented cases the appeal succeeds, as well as 40% of cases where the claimants represent themselves.
Signs that the government is aware of problems are shown by two significant changes to the assessment introduced in the last three months, concerning dealing with those with acute mental health problems and those about to receive chemotherapy. Furthermore, Michael Harrington is to undertake a review so that the process is transparent and people are treated fairly.
It goes without saying that the disabled community is both outraged and scared, and the government is not doing itself any favours. The statements made by George Osborne, about getting people off incapacity benefits and on to lower-value unemployment benefits, clearly lead disabled people to conclude that the aim is to save money rather than get people into the right place for appropriate help and support.
The deeper concern here is that all this will undermine ESA itself, as it will make it almost impossible to get people on ESA to take work, because they will fear that they will never be able to get back if things go wrong. Also, a large number of people with significant health problems will be moved on to jobseeker's allowance (JSA), which is designed for those who are job-ready and offers no help with condition management and no engagement and support from advisers for at least six months. In contrast, those people on ESA receive tailored, individual support programmes from day one.
This will clog up the JSA system and delay appropriate support to these groups, delaying rather than enhancing a return to work. Somewhat unbelievably, the government is not tracking those who fail the WCA test to see what happens to them; are they claiming JSA, getting work or disappearing from the benefit system entirely?
This isn't a party-political issue. The process and concerns it raises straddle the old and new government. Rather there is a deep issue here of making sure the process is working before it is unleashed on the 2.5m claimants of incapacity benefits. The recent changes to the WCA process and the newly announced review need to be assessed in the field to check that they have improved matters, and the assessments of MS and Parkinson's disease under the test also need to be checked. This means delaying the reassessment of existing claimants under the new ESA regime. Not only this, but the tracking of WCA failures needs to be undertaken to gain insight into what is happening to them.
Finally, the potential to fast track those with health problems but not deemed eligible for ESA, in order for them to gain access to earlier support under JSA, needs to be considered. The worry here is not that people are going to lose £25 a week in benefits inappropriately, or that unnecessary stress will be placed on ill people as they fight to keep the support they deserve, but that the haste and claims of huge welfare savings will undermine rather than enhance the goal of helping disabled people into work.
In the longer term, closing the gap in benefit rates between ESA and JSA would help remove much of the mutual suspicion of "gaming", either by government to get people off ESA or by claimants to get on to it.