Disabled people: guilty till proved innocent
The government plans to suspend benefit for people who appeal against a decision to disallow Employment and Support Allowance (the main income replacement benefit for disabled people of working age). The New Statesman’s Samira Shackle reports that the government has noticed that 37% of those found fit for work appeal, and of those who appeal, 39% win a judgement in their favour.
The old Incapacity Benefit is being replaced by ESA, and every existing claimant is having to go through the Work Capability Assessment, the tougher test that was originally brought in by the last government. Literally hundreds of thousands of people are going to win appeals against not being awarded the new benefit. Now, you or I might conclude from this that (1) there’s something wrong with the new test and (2) given that such a high proportion of the people who failed the test are actually entitled to the benefit, it’s probably best to err on the side of generosity in deciding how to treat them while they appeal.
The government, it seems, sees things differently. They think the fact that you currently get a lower rate of ESA while you’re trying to get the benefit you’re entitled to is an “incentive to appeal.” And they have homed in on an opportunity to cut costs – if they discourage people from using the tribunals service, they’ll save some of the escalating costs of appeals.
Hence the plans to suspend ESA while people appeal.
Where do I start? Well, here’s a few points:
- I know I’m being old-fashioned, but isn’t this just vicious? Allowing people back payment if they win doesn’t make up for the fact that vulnerable people could find themselves going for weeks without any income. For years, governments have insisted that they want more and more work conditionality attached to disability benefits because of the evidence that “work is good for you” – well name me a physical or mental health condition or impairment that will be helped by this.
- Where is the evidence of the significant abuse of the appeals system that would justify “disincentivising” appeals? There isn’t any and this proposal gives every impression of having been cooked up to stop successful appeals.
- Appellants will be left with no alternative but to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance – but you have to be available for work to claim JSA, which may be difficult to show if, at the same time, you’re also claiming to be incapable of work.
- And even if the JSA rules allow for this, some people may feel that claiming to be capable and incapable of work at the same time amounts to lying. I find it unsettling when the welfare system leaves people with no realistic alternative to immoral behaviour – and I thought that Christian Conservatives like Iain Duncan Smith did too.
One final point: this might not be quite the done deal the government expects. The regulations to implement this change will have to go to the Social Security Advisory Committee. I’m a former member of the Committee, and I’d expect them to insist on a formal consultation and production of a report that will be up for debate in the Commons. If the responses to a consultation on this are as fiery as I’d expect, the government may find that debate very trying.
Hat tip: Declan Gaffney