Fit for purpose? The confusion at the heart of Incapacity Benefit Reform

The individual failings of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) have been widely discussed.  The mechanistic points-based system based on abstract questions does not capture the day-to-day realities of having a disability and certainly not the highly variable nature of some mental illnesses; the oblique manner in which questions are asked, so as to catch the claimant out; the fact that Atos—the IT company that runs the tests—is not fined for cases overturned on appeal and thus is encouraged, in the words of Anne Begg, “to get assessments done but not necessarily get them right”—and so the list goes on.

Underpinning all these design flaws, though, lies a much deeper misunderstanding about the challenges people on Incapacity Benefit (IB) face in returning to the workplace. However successful the DWP Select Committee and the Harrington Review are in ironing out these individual problems, we will continue to fail those needing the most help in returning to work unless policymakers begin to understand the difference between work capacity and work readiness, something which ministers—both Coalition and Labour—have conflated for two decades.

The WCA is what it says—it assesses whether someone has a functional incapacity to the extent that it is unreasonable for the government to expect them to work. The WCA makes no assessment about whether the claimant is ready to enter work, but ministers—by designing a system that sends so many people who have been out of the labour market for a long time straight onto Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) —act like it does just this.

The difference between work capacity and work readiness is a crucial one and part of the reason why so many of the IB claimants moved onto JSA have had so much difficulty adapting to a system that takes no account of the fact that their needs may be much greater than the average jobseeker. Someone who is assessed as being no longer medically unfit for work may have a whole host of other barriers like an outdated skill-set, poor social skills, a lack of relevant work experience and poor confidence and self esteem, problems which start to develop just months after someone stops working and become more serious as the months turn into the years and decades that some people have spent on IB.  They also face discrimination from employers wary of employing someone with a disability or health condition and of the lengthy gaps in the applicant’s work history that many former IB claimants will have.  As the yesterday’s report highlighted, the government is doing very little to deal with these attitudes, but they should be central to a consideration of whether it is a reasonable to expect an IB claimant to look for work.  If the claimant does not yet have the appropriate skills and work experience and if employers are unwilling to take them on, then it is cruel and counter-productive to subject them to a rigidly work-focused regime like JSA until they have chance to improve their skills, gain experience and until there are employers ready to take them on.

It is far from clear, however, that the current system is able to help claimants to do this. Part of this problem stems from a long-running weakness of our social security system – the tendency to use the type of benefit claimed as a proxy for the services that the claimant requires.  Even if the original health condition that was the basis of the claim has abated (assuming the tests are accurate), this does not mean that they don’t have need for the intensive, specialised services that are offered to people considered to be the most distant from the labour market, and it is far from clear that the new Work Programme system is able to provide these types of services.  Yesterday’s report highlighted the fact that the WCA does not give Work Programme providers sufficient information on which to base decisions about what services to offer and because many former IB claimants are re-classed in the JSA category – which attracts as much as two thirds less funding–the funds to provide them may not be there.  Claimants who, genuinely wanting to prepare themselves for work, have requested places on training programmes only to be refused by providers who either cannot afford it or see it as a ‘bad investment’ given that the employment rate of former IB claimants is so low.

There should really be very few referrals right from IB to JSA, except in the case of benefit fraud, error in the original medical test or a health condition that has not had a serious impact on the claimant’s employability. In most other cases, the claimant will have been out of the labour market sufficiently long enough so that these require intensive, specialised interventions that are more difficult to access once the claimant is no longer registered as having a serious health-related problem.

The frustrating thing about all this is that the right arrangements are in place, but the Coalition’s obsession with reducing the benefits bill at any cost means that they are not used. Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is along the right lines – it contains a number of different sub-classifications depending on the level of work readiness, has appropriate treatments attached to each and imposes work-search obligations only gradually, when the claimant is ready – but very few people who go through the WCA assessment are referred to it, with the vast majority either withdrawing their claim or being referred to JSA.

The rush to reduce the IB bill is perhaps the best example of the false economies that arise when the need to reduce the deficit takes precedence over all other concerns.  Turfing off such large numbers of people from IB to JSA might reduce the cost of welfare by a small amount, but it will also mean that tens of thousands of claimants who want to work won’t get access to the services that they need so that they are ready and able to work when the recovery comes.  If we want people who have spent a long time on benefits to work, we need to invest in their skills and training and by crudely (and wrongly) reclassifying so many claimants in this way, this is made much more difficult.

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