The New Reforms To Employment & Support Allowance Are Reckless And Dangerous

by richardhutton

Just as they have been so frequently during the previous five years, the government’s new wave of reforms to incapacity support were outlined in an article published by the Daily Mail; as the government propose to “shake-up” the “‘fundamentally flawed’ system” of Work Capability Assessments, in a “bid to get 2 million on sick benefits back to work”.

It’s true that there are severe flaws in this system, which do cause many well-documented problems for claimants; but these are not what the government intends to remedy. On the contrary, what becomes clear from the article is that the government are seeking to remove protections from people who have been incapacitated by mental health problems. The case put forward to justify these reforms by Iain Duncan Smith, and the Daily Mail itself, is misleading and inaccurate. Let’s look at their claims, one by one.

Firstly, the Mail bemoans a “sick pay culture” which supposedly “costs Britain billions of pounds a year”. The reforms in question do not relate to ‘sick pay’. Statutory Sick Pay is categorically different from Employment and Support Allowance. Sick Pay is paid to people by their employers, when they are too ill to work. Employment and Support Allowance is provided directly by the government to people who are left incapacitated by illness or disability.

The Daily Mail’s article then mischaracterizes the nature and outcomes of Work Capability Assessments; contending that “currently the 2.3 million claimants on ESA are either assessed as being fit to work or signed off altogether”. Iain Duncan Smith is quoting making the same claim

“Mr Duncan Smith said the test is too ‘binary’, adding: ‘It is a system that decides that you are either capable of work or you are not.’Two absolutes equating to one perverse incentive – a person has to be incapable of all work or available for all work”.

This is simply not true – and is flatly disproven by the very reform Duncan Smith is set to apply. People who have undergone a Work Capability Assessment are either categorised as Fit For Work, or eligible for Employment and Support Allowance. However, this subsequently breaks-down into two separate sub-categories. As the Department for Work and Pensions’ own webpage explains:

“Following your Work Capability Assessment you’ll be placed in either the work-related activity group or support group if you’re entitled to ESA”.

People placed in the Work-Related Activity Group or the Support Group are recognised as being incapable of retaining employment, due to their health problems. The key difference is that people required to undertake work-related activity are expected to recover at some point in the future.

There is a persistent confusion about the purpose of Work-Related Activity; which Iain Duncan Smith is encouraging.  Given that the government’s policy concerns a reform to the Work Related Activity Group, he himself clearly know that the outcomes of Work Capability Assessments are not binary. In fact, what Smith is outlining amounts to a policy which will treat people as if they are simultaneously incapable of working, and capable of it; which is devoid of reason.

It is also yet another policy purporting to fix a problem which does not exist. The Mail/Smith (it’s not entirely clear whose words these are) notes that following this latest reform, people will “be tested for what they are able to do – not what they cannot”. This is already what Work Capability Assessments are presupposed to do. The very phraseology employed is a direct echo of the sentiment underscoring the introduction of Employment and Support Allowance, via the Welfare Reform Act of 2007:

“The Work Capability Assessment will look at people’s physical and mental ability, such as learning disabilities and other similar conditions. It will assess what an individual can do – rather than can’t do”.

One pretext for these reforms is therefore invalid; but so is another: namely the supposed need to reduce government spending on this support, because of its expense. The Mail suggests that this reform will reduce “the £14.2billion sickness benefits bill”. This is a misuse of statistics. The changes in question relate solely to expenditure on people assigned to the Work Related Activity Group; which costs approximately £2 – 3 billion per annum [1]. However, even the basic accountancy on this policy fails to support the rationale behind it.

The government’s own Impact Assessment makes plain that the financial bearing of the reform will be minimal for the government, but severe for recipients. While the document notes that “Reduction of the Work-Related Activity Group and Limited Capability for Work component to £0” is estimated to generate “savings to the Government” which will “reach £640m by 2020/21”, this is somewhat discursive. The amount of estimated cuts to expenditure on incapacity support for people in the Work Related Activity Group – which is what the euphemism ‘savings’ actually relates to – are outlined as follows:

2017/18 – £55 m
2018/19 – £225 m
2019/20 – £445 m
2020/21 – £640 m

This is how much support is going to be withdrawn from people who are too ill to work. So, it’s not particularly surprising to see the Impact Assessment noting that the new legislation underscoring this policy “proposes to remove a number of the legal duties and measures set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010”. The policy will disproportionately affect people who are already living on low incomes – or to put it another way, this is a reform which will increase poverty among people who are already poor. The Impact Assessment itself denotes this outcome: “as a result those in the lower half of the income distribution are the more likely to see a notional change in income compared to those in the higher half of the income distribution”.

The third rationale for the policy is the most egregious of all, however – namely that the ESA benefit itself prevents somebody from acquiring employment. Duncan Smith is quoted, opining that:

“‘The sickness benefit culture in this country is in dire need of reform,’ he said. ‘Getting people into work is more than just earning a salary and certainly more than balancing the public purse. For culturally and socially, work is the spine that runs through a stable society. I want those who remain trapped and isolated on welfare to move from dependence to independence.’

This is nonsense. It is also hidebound – it was the same rhetoric Smith himself employed in 2010, in order to justify the very policies which have led up to the present day: the ones which supposedly need reforming.

However, aside from the very obvious fact that the people in question have undergone the government’s own assessment, and been adjudged incapable of working, it is untrue to imply that anyone in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance is ‘trapped’ by the benefit, rather than by their health difficulties. Recipients of Employment and Support Allowance can work up to 16 hours per week, and still continue to claim the benefit. Duncan Smith’s rhetoric is an inversion of reality. He continues:

‘In the world beyond ESA, things are rarely that simplistic. Someone may be able to do some work for some hours, days or weeks, but not what they were doing previously.’

This is the whole point of being allowed to work a limited number of hours per week, while in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance, of course – that many disabled people have fluctuating conditions. Making the benefit more flexible than it already is would be a worthwhile reform – which unarguably would be of value to claimants. That is not what the government has in mind, however. If anything, quite the contrary; as the stated intent is to make the conditions of receipt more onerous and overbearing.

After alluding to the introduction of a ‘new test’, which appears to be a reference to nothing more than a continuation of Work Capability Assessments, the Daily Mail contends that people:

“will then be found work for around ten hours a week, or whatever is possible, to get them back into the workplace…those who repeatedly refuse could have their support cut”.

This can only relate to mandatory work placements, and sanctions. Both already apply to people in the Work Related Activity Group. People within this can be made to undertake mandatory work placements indefinitely; under a policy introduced in 2012. Moreover, not only have sanctions always applied to people in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance, but participants have been sanctioned in high number under Duncan Smith’s tenure. The most recent data on this was published in November 2015. Between the inception of Employment and Support Allowance in October 2008, up until June 2015, a total of 134,596 recipients had been sanctioned; at an unprecedented rate of thousands per month since June 2012.

What’s being outlined by Duncan Smith is therefore not a reform – but a pretense at solving problems which do not exist; and what follows is a quite remarkable series of falsehoods to justify this. The Mail and Duncan Smith between them misrepresent what the Work Related Activity Group is for; declaring that it applies to “those who are judged to be capable of work with the right support”. This is not what the category stipulates. What is required of people placed in it is, again, outlined by the government’s own webpage: people “must go to regular interviews with an adviser who can help with things like job goals and improving your skills”.

Worse still is the generalisation made about the participants within it – namely that “almost half of ESA claimants have a mental or behavioural disorder as their primary condition, often ‘depression or anxiety'”. Perhaps needless to say, if almost half do, then the majority do not. This is aside from how inaccurate it is to imply that depression and anxiety can’t somehow be severe problems in their own right – let alone when they are not the only health problem somebody suffers from.

In reality, as of February 2015, there were 4,800 people with progressive muscular-skeletal problems in the Work-Related Activity Group; and these are the people with degenerative conditions who haven’t been wrongly declared Fit For Work following their Work Capability Assessment – as many thousands of people have been.

Even finding employment would not be enough to spare people from this regimen, however; as the Mail continues:

“Once claimants have found employment, they will remain under the care of a job centre until they are doing sufficient hours to leave the Universal Credit benefits regime”.

In addition to this, “firms will also be encouraged to do more to prevent staff taking long-term sick leave”. So ultimately, people who are too ill to work will be pressurised into seeking it despite their health problems; and even if they do gain it, they will still be put under pressure to seek more hours, or a better paid position. If their illness persists, their employers will be pressed into not letting them take a leave of absence.

This policy revolves around strong-arming people into seeking or entering work, when they are too ill to do so safely; and ultimately pressurising them off benefits altogether. Precedents for the harm these reforms are liable to cause is abundant. There have been a significant number of deaths and suicides among people whose incapacity support was taken away, following their Work Capability Assessments – which have at times proven almost risibly flawed; even seeing people being declared Fit For Work while undergoing brain surgery, for instance. In 2012, the Department For Work and Pensions itself reported that “1,300 people died after being put into the Work Related Activity Group. 2,200 people died before their assessment was completed”. A significant number of people are already being wrongly declared Fit For Work, when there are valid grounds for concluding that Work Capability Assessments are flawed. Given the high number of people who have died of their illnesses within weeks of being declared fit and healthy, there is overwhelming cause for serious concern.

An example of how people will be affected was brought to light only recently, in the case of Luke Loy, as reported in the Guardian. He was an unemployed man with schizophrenia, who had been declared Fit For Work following a Work Capability Assessment. He was subsequently made to claim Job Seeker’s Allowance, and had been sanctioned, leaving him destitute. He died shortly afterwards, in circumstances which remain unclear. Similar to this was the case of Lee Robinson in 2013; who had likewise seen his claim for Employment and Support Allowance end. He had also been referred to the Job Centre, and committed suicide after his council tax and housing benefits had been stopped. This is the same route which many more people will be required to take, with similar risks to their health and well-being.

Myths surrounding the benefit system have long been encouraged by major media outlets, and exploited by government ministers, in order to justify policies which are evidently very dangerous. There is undeniable evidence that the people at the centre of these reforms are susceptible to being severely harmed, as a result of changes to incapacity benefits. What’s particularly galling is the fact that these policies are completely needless.







[1] See the Excel document entitled ‘ESA expenditure by reported medical condition and phase of claim, 2010/11 to 2014/15. Available from the webpage: