The work and pensions secretary, Damian Green, is expected to announce at the Conservative conference that those people with severe, lifelong conditions will no longer face six-monthly reassessments.
Employment and support allowance (a misleading title for sickness and disability support for those people whose doctors say are too unwell to work) will now continue automatically for people who have lifelong, severe health conditions, with no prospect of improvement, according to Green.
However, the retesting of chronically ill or disabled people for another key disability benefit – personal independence payments – is to remain, and thousands with unchanging or degenerative conditions are preparing to be put through that pointless assessment again.
I can’t help wondering how “chronic” and “degenerative” will be defined and how exemption from reassessment will be decided. It’s unclear which medical conditions will be considered grounds for a reprieve from further WCAs, but apparently the criteria will be drawn up by “health professionals“. There were no details provided about who these “health professionals” will be. Many people have no faith whatsoever in the medical judgments of the assessors themselves – especially when they have previously been known to ask woefully ignorant questions like “how long are you likely to have Parkinson’s disease?”
It may be the case that those claiming Employment and Support Allowance, placed in the support group will be exempt from the reassessments. However, as Samuel Miller, a human rights specialist and campaigner for disabled people, points out:
“The Department for Work and Pensions says that it is scraping retesting for people with severe, lifelong conditions at the same time that there has been a sharp drop in Support Group awards and a sharp increase in people placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG). Charities report that 45% of people who put in a claim for Employment Support Allowance (ESA), and had Parkinson’s, Cystic Fibrosis, Multiple Sclerosis, or Rheumatoid Arthritis, were placed in the WRAG.“
Disability rights campaigners are concerned that the figures show the government is cutting spending on disability benefits “below the radar”, after being forced to abandon its attempts to reduce expenditure on personal independence payment (PIP) in April.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) statistics, released last month, show the proportion of disabled people applying for ESA who were placed in the support group – for those assessed with “the highest barriers to work” – plunged by 42 per cent in just three months. There are concerns that the Work Capability Assessment has been made even more harsh by stealth.
For assessments completed during November 2015, 57 per cent of claimants were placed in the support group; but by February 2016 that had dropped by 24 percentage points to just 33 per cent.
Far too little far too late
This small change will not undo the suffering of sick and disabled people who have already been caught in the revolving door of the assessment and reassessment process. It’s not uncommon for people fighting a wrong “fit for work” decision to wait for many months before they win at tribunal, only to find that within three months of their successful appeal, they have another appointment for reassessment.
You would think that if someone has just won an appeal, common sense would prevail – that someone at the DWP would acknowledge that it’s highly unlikely these people have suddenly got better in such a short space of time. The strain of being put through this callous revolving door process has an adverse impact on people with chronic conditions, exacerbating their symptoms. It is profoundly stressful and anxiety-provoking.
This political token gesture will not undo the profound physical and psychological damage that the WCA has caused some of our most vulnerable citizens. And for many who did not feel vulnerable – those who felt they coped pretty well with their illness ordinarily – the constant strain of having to prove themselves ill and the loss of lifeline income whilst they await mandatory review and appeal, has led to increased vulnerability.
It’s also tragic and painful that it’s far too late to help the people who have died as a consequence of being told they are fit for work when they are not, and being forced to fight for lifeline social security to meet their basic needs.
I am happy to see the announced decision to stop reassessing chronically sick people every six months, because it’s unlikely they will get better. (The clue was always in the word “chronic,” curiously enough). If that brings about a reduction in the widespread suffering caused by the callous cost-cutting WCA , it’s a small step towards much needed positive change. This move would have been more credible as a signal of good intentions had Green also intended to announce the reversal of the cuts planned for those in the work related activity group, claiming ESA.
That a UK government feels it’s acceptable to financially penalise and punish a previously protected social group – comprised of people judged as too ill to work by doctors – shows how far our society has regressed in terms of equality and human rights. And democracy.
Labour have already pledged to abolish the Work Capability Assessment
Call me a cynic, but didn’t the Labour party pledge to completely scrap the Work Capability Assessment at their conference? Debbie Abrahams, shadow work and pensions secretary, spoke of strong ethical and empirically evidenced reasons for doing so.
She says: “As ever with this government though, the devil is in the detail. While the end to repeated assessments will be a relief to those that have been affected, this announcement falls far short of the fundamental shift to a more holistic, person-centred approach we so desperately need.
“Too many sick and disabled people will remain subject to this harmful, ineffective assessment. We will continue to push the Tories for a better deal for disabled people.”
After years of people suffering and evidenced feedback from victims of their policies, campaigners and academic researchers, the government decide NOW that chronic actually means “chronic”?
Duncan Smith, whose resignation from the role of work and pensions secretary was seen as an attack on the then leadership of David Cameron and George Osborne, told the Today programme he “completely agreed with the changes.”
“We worked to change this process, it was one we inherited and it just functioned badly on this area,” he said.
That isn’t true.
Some historical context
The Work Capability Assessment was piloted under the last Labour government, but Duncan Smith passed it into law after disregarding the concerns that the Labour party had raised following their review, regarding the assessment process being insensitive to fluctuating conditions and mental health status. In fact Duncan Smith modified the assessment process, making it even less sensitive. In early 2011, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government initiated the planned expansion of the programme to reassess 1.5 million people whom previous governments had judged to be entitled to Incapacity Benefit.
At the same time the DWP introduced long-planned revisions to the test’s eligibility criteria, which became more stringent overall: most notably, the 03/11 version awarded no points when a claimant who had difficulty walking could overcome the disability by using a wheelchair, if reasonably practicable. When Atos were recontracted in 2010, targets to remove the higher rate benefits from seven out of eight claimants were built into the new contract. Dr Steven Bick reported that “experts” testing Incapacity Benefit claimants were told they should rate only about one in eight as so disabled they will never work. The “quota” was enforced by French firm Atos, paid £100 million a year for the testing, and was revealed by undercover GP Bick on Channel 4’s Dispatches.
In February 2011, Professor Paul Gregg, an economist and one of the original architects of ESA, warned that the WCA was “badly malfunctioning” and urged further pilot studies before the more stringent 03/11 version was used as the default assessment. Nevertheless, the mammoth Incapacity Benefit reassessment programme got under way in the spring of 2011, using the new version of the test.
In January 2016, the National Audit Office (NAO) published its evaluation of the DWP’s health and disability assessment contracts. It said the cost of each WCA had risen from £115 under Atos to £190 under Maximus.
The report went on to say that Maximus was facing “significant challenges with staff failing to complete training requirements” and revealed that in July 2015 – less than six months into the new contract – the DWP had been obliged to draw up a “performance improvement plan” with Maximus because “volume targets were not being met”.
Perhaps the real reasons for stopping the six-monthly assessments are entirely financial – merely cost-cutting measures. As well as the heavy cost of each assessment to the public purse, there is also the considerable cost of many tribunals, because of the many “wrong decisions”.
Green told the Press Association: “We are building a country that works for everyone – not just the privileged few. A key part of that is making sure that all those who are able to work are given the support and the opportunity to do so. But it also means ensuring that we give full and proper support to those who can’t.”
(You can laugh now. I’m just wondering when an assessment for tax-dodging millionaires who were awarded at least £107,000 each per year in the form of a “tax break” will happen. This was at the same time the first round of welfare cuts were announced. It would be refreshing to see the minority of privileged citizens shouldering some of the burden of austerity and “paying down the the deficit” for a change. It would be fair to expect those who have gained the most from society to put something back, after all.)
He went on to say: “That includes sweeping away any unnecessary stress and bureaucracy – particularly for the most vulnerable in society.
“If someone has a disease which can only get worse then it doesn’t make sense to ask them to turn up for repeated appointments. If their condition is not going to improve, it is not right to ask them to be tested time after time. So we will stop it.”
I find it incredible that it’s taken six years for this “revelation” to hit home. Overwhelming empirical evidence that the assessment process is harming sick and disabled people has been presented to the government on many occasions, only to prompt what is, after all, a very small and inadequate policy change.
Green has almost always voted for a reduction in spending on welfare benefits, generally voted against raising welfare benefits at least in line with prices, almost always voted against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability, and almost always voted for reducing housing benefit for social tenants deemed to have excess bedrooms (the “Bedroom Tax”), which has disproportionately affected sick and disabled people and their carers.
Earlier this year, a report for the Social Market Foundation thinktank recommended that the government entirely scrap the work capability assessment. The report also said the government should introduce a properly funded system – making use of trial projects and extensive consultation with benefit claimants – which would identify those disabled people closest to being able to get a job, while those too ill or disabled to work should have a “level of benefit provided … sufficient to allow them to live comfortably and engage fully in society.”
It also recommended that the government abandon the failing benefit sanction system for people with chronic illness or a disability – instead putting an emphasis on support meetings and financial incentives through a “steps to work wage” on top of their unemployment benefit.
Remarkably, the report was written by Matthew Oakley – a former Treasury adviser who until 2013 was head of economics at the right-of-centre Policy Exchange thinktank. He was also on Iain Duncan Smith’s own social security advisory committee.
What Green has offered falls far short of Oakley’s recommendations.
Let’s not accept politically opportunistic sops and scraps of small comfort.
Sick and disabled people deserve so much better than this. The Work Capability Assessment is not only consistently empirically demonstrated as being unfit for purpose, arbitrary and cruel, but it is also one of the most shocking political betrayals of those most in need that has ever been allowed to go unchecked.
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