From the TUC

Employment and Support Allowance – what isn’t in today’s stories

26 Jan 2011, by in Society & Welfare

Well, the Express certainly knows what to make of today’s statistics on the Work Capability Assessment (the test for Employment and Support Allowance).

75% on Sick are Skiving – benefit cheats are taking us to the cleaners

Its a rather strange front page for a newspaper, in that the statistics don’t show anything particularly new: the first table in the DWP report shows that the latest figures, for May 2010, are pretty similar to those for previous months, back to 2008, when the new Employment and Support Allowance was introduced.

Leaving that aside, the DWP figures don’t show that 75 per cent are skiving.  What they do show is that, of claims since 2008, the breakdown at initial assessment was:

  • 22 per cent were awarded benefit;
  • 39 per cent were found fit for work;
  • 36 per cent had claims that were closed before their assessment was complete;
  • 3 per cent were still being assessed.

What does it mean to have your case closed before the assessment is complete? The Express interprets it as meaning that you were skiving and got cold feet at the last minute. To be fair, the DWP Press Release on the statistics encourages this interpretation with its opening sentence:

The vast majority of people who apply for Employment and Support Allowance are either being found fit for work after undergoing a Work Capability Assessment or stop their claim before they complete their medical assessment.

This is yet another bit of DWP jiggery-pokery. There are plenty of other reasons why people’s claim could be closed; as Claudia Wood at Demos pointed out the last time this kerfuffle hit the press:

For the majority, it means they missed an assessment appointment, or didn’t complete a form correctly. Ironically perhaps because they were too ill. They usually have to start the assessment process again.

The DWP classifies claims in 21 health condition groups. Over half the 366,600 claims where the case was closed early were for people in just 3 of them:

  • 96,400 early closed cases are people with “mental and behavioural disorders”.
  • 38,200 are people with “diseases of the muskuloskeletal system and connective tissue”.
  • 68,900 are people with “injury, poisoning and certain other consequences of external causes”.

Its hard to generalise about such broadly defined groups and especially about mental health conditions, but all three seem likely to include significant numbers of people who recover fully or partially and are ready for work again before their case is assessed.

People with mental health conditions are actually less likely than claimants generally to withdraw a case, but they account for such a large proportion of all claims they make up about a quarter of the early closed cases. As someone who has had reactive depression a couple of times, I can well imagine there being many people in this group who are genuinely incapacitated for quite a while but are ready for work again before their case is assessed.

And even the 39 per cent found fit for work figure isn’t quite what it seems. Firstly, as the DWP statistics show (if you read beyond the Summary), 33 per cent of Fit for Work decisions are appealed and 40 per cent of these appeals are successful. So 39 per cent “fit for work” should actually be 34 per cent. (This slightly overstates the “fit for work” proportion, as it takes no account of the backlog of appeals.)

Secondly, and more importantly, the 34 per cent found fit for work aren’t “skiving”. We had an old test, replaced by a new test, specifically designed to reduce the numbers who qualify for benefit. Surprise surprise, there are thousands of people who passed (or would have passed) the old test who don’t pass the new test.

By itself, that tells us nothing about whether these people are genuinely incapable of paid work or not. We need to know whether the new test is better at answering this question – and even if it is it won’t tell us whether people who fail it are “skiving”. This implies deliberate deception, but it is equally possible that people who fail an accurate test of capacity for work mistakenly but honestly believe that they qualify fairly.

But there are good reasons for being skeptical about the WCA. For one thing, there is the fact that one in eight “fit to work” decisions is appealed with the verdict in favour of the appellant. And then there’s the growing concern among disability organisations that people they know are being unfairly denied benefits. As the Disability Alliance puts it:

We believe that the current Work Capability Assessment (WCA) does not adequately reflect the impact of impairments on disabled people’s day to day living resulting in:

  • disabled people receiving inadequate benefits;
  • disabled people being unable to access appropriate support to find work;
  • considerable costs to Government through a high rate of (successful) appeals demonstrating the ineffectiveness of the WCA.

Last year the Government commissioned Malcolm Harrington to review the Work Capability Assessment. He certainly didn’t find that the WCA was beyond repair, far from it. But he did find that “there is strong evidence that the system can be impersonal and mechanistic”, that Jobcentre Plus advisers “often do not have or do not appropriately consider additional evidence submitted to support a claim for Employment and Support Allowance” and that “some of the descriptors used in the assessment may not adequately measure or reflect the full impact of such conditions on the individual’s capability for work.” 

So, today’s figures aren’t news, they don’t tell us anything about whether or not people are “skiving” and if they did, the proportion would be 34 per cent, not 75%.

Not bad, even for the Express.

3 Responses to Employment and Support Allowance – what isn’t in today’s stories

  1. stevibaldi
    Jan 26th 2011, 2:34 pm

    I was signed off ESA onto JSA thereby losing £33 per week, however my GP & my Consultant have told me I am not fit for employment, but what do they know, after many years of eduction and university degrees, they obviously dont know as much as the CLERK that “medically” examined me, I thought it was a criminal offence to pretend to be a doctor!!

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    Jan 26th 2011, 2:45 pm

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