Why have the tabloids gone quiet about incapacity test results?
Today the Department for Work and Pensions published the latest statistics on the results of the Work Capability Assessment – the eligibility test for Employment and Support Allowance (which is replacing the old Incapacity Benefit). The newspapers today are full of stories about social security after the government’s defeat in the Lords, but I can’t find any mention of these figures.
Which is strange – these figures come out every three months and previously the tabloids have had a field day with them.
Their take on these figures was encapsulated in a Daily Mail headline last July:
The shirking classes: Just 1 in 14 incapacity claimants is unfit to work
As I’ve pointed out before, these stories have ignored the fact that many claimants appeal their tests – and win. They’ve also assumed that people who withdraw their claims are afraid of being caught out in fraud, when this may merely mean that a claimant has missed an appointment or simply recovered. In today’s report, the DWP remind us that previous research they commissioned found that:
An important reason why ESA claims in this sample were withdrawn or closed before they were fully assessed was because the person recovered and either returned to work, or claimed a benefit more appropriate to their situation.
The proportion found fit for work has been falling for some time. This chart is based on completed initial assessments of claims started in the relevant month and of course, there are quite a few claims where the assessment hasn’t been completed – a category that includes claims closed before the assessment and claims that were still in progress. If we look at the figures based on the date the assessments were completed we can avoid this complication and the trends are even more noticeable:
Employment and Support Allowance is paid at two rates – there’s a higher rate for people in the Support Group (generally, people with more severe impairments) and a lower rate for people in the Work Related Activity Group. If we look at completed assessments and confine ourselves to people found to be entitled to ESA, the change over time in the proportion of people assessed as in the Support Group is even more remarkable:It seems very likely that the Harrington Review reforms have had a significant impact on WCA results. The government appointed Michael Harrington to look at the WCA after disability organisations protested at the terrible mistakes being made. (In itself, this was an indication that the tabloid stories were getting the WCA results wrong.) The rate at which decisions were overturned on appeal fell from two fifths in 2009 to a third at the end of 2010. This rather supports the notion that changes in initial decision making and the first set of Harrington reforms have resulted in fewer successful appeals, though the DWP reasonably point out that the most recent figures are for November 2010 and “later figures are likely to change as more appeal cases are heard by the Tribunal Service.”
If it does turn out to be the case that the Harrington reviews have produced these changes, then the government must consider what to do about the people who failed the WCA before these changes. As Declan Gaffney has pointed out,
The implication is that thousands of ESA claimants have been wrongly denied unconditional support since October 2008 due to faulty assumptions about the number of claimants with serious work-limiting conditions on the part of DWP ministers and officials, embedded in the assessment process and the contract with Atos healthcare.
So the story behind today’s figures is that many people who claim ESA get better before their WCA, the proportion of people who are assessed as entitled to ESA is growing and, of those entitled to the benefit, the proportion put in the Support Group has been growing too. This may well be because of improvements introduced to remedy serious weaknesses and, if that is right, thousands of people may have been wrongly denied benefit or awarded it at a wrong level (if not contrary to the legislation then certainly contrary to notions of fairness).
I suppose that answers my initial query about why these figures are no longer so popular with the tabloids. (And it’s always possible that this month there were no helpful private briefings about upcoming statistics that might be good for a headline ….)