Retreat on ‘draconian’ testing for disability benefit
Ministers are to change the way disabled people are assessed for benefits amid uproar over a “draconian” testing regime that aims to cut the welfare bill and get more people into work.
The Department for Work and Pensions is to review the work capability assessment test – a key part of its welfare-to-work programme – after being warned that it was deeply flawed and would lead to many disabled people, and those with genuine health problems, being unfairly penalised.
The government wants to slash the number of people on incapacity benefit – to be replaced by a new benefit, the employment and support allowance (ESA) – by one million from its current total of 2.7 million.
Over the next three years, it intends to test all those on incapacity benefit to find out if they are genuinely unable to work, and then place them on ESA, where payments differ according to levels of disability or illness.
Those who fail the test altogether and are judged fit to seek work will be placed on jobseekers’ allowance, which will mean considerably lower income. Once all 2.7 million have been tested, incapacity benefit will cease to exist.
Over recent months, however, ministers have been bombarded with complaints from disability groups and others about the new tests, which are already being used to assess new claimants for employment and support allowance.
Work capability assessment places claimants into different categories depending on needs and abilities. A higher payment of up to £108.55 a week will be made to severely disabled people who are not expected to work and a lower one of £89.90 goes to those who need tailored support to find work. Other, non-disabled people are expected to find work without support and receive JSA of £65 a week.
Disability groups, which had supported the reforms in the belief that they would tackle “disability poverty”, say the assessment does not reflect how an impairment impacts on someone’s everyday life or ability to work.
Neil Coyle, director of policy at Disability Alliance, said the tests were too rigid. “They do not measure ability to perform work functions (eg, typing, packing or sweeping) but are based on someone describing their average day and simple tasks like picking up a coin from the floor (to test movement, for instance),” said Coyle.
Evidence from the first tests for ESA showed that many people who needed help were being wrongly judged as fit to seek work. As a result, they were being placed on jobseekers’ allowance and denied access to programmes to help them find suitable employment, such as Pathways to Work, specifically set up to help those on incapacity benefit.
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, said: “The government’s draconian approach of forcing people off incapacity benefit when they clearly can’t work is having tragic consequences and robbing people of help when they are in most need. The government needs to urgently review the employment and support allowance capability test.”
Figures for new claimants for ESA showed that, of the 193,800 people who made a claim between October 2008 and February 2009, 36% were found to be fit for work and therefore not eligible for the higher benefit.
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “The work capability assessment looks at what people can do, rather than what they can’t, to give them the support they need to get back to work and avoid ending up on long-term sickness benefits. For those who cannot work, they will receive additional support and help.
“This is a relatively new process, but we were very grateful to have organisations such as Disability Alliance involved in the consultation process and the development of the programme from the very start.
“We will be reviewing it to see where improvements and changes need to be made to ensure that it is working as it should be.”
In October, Jonathan Shaw, minister for the disabled, said about 15% of those tested would be “disallowed employment and support allowance”.