Press release: Work and Pensions Committee member writes to statistics watchdog over benefits figures

Edinburgh East MP and Work and Pensions Select Committee member Sheila Gilmore MP has today written to the UK Statistics Authority following a letter from Tory Work and Pensions Minister Esther McVey in which she admits that the number of sick and disabled people wrongly declared ‘Fit for Work’ by a Government benefits test could be far higher than previously thought.

The benefit in question is Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which replaced Incapacity Benefit in 2008. The assessment process often involves a face-to-face assessment, and data on the number of people awarded and refused the benefit is published every three months.

Sheila Gilmore raised concerns about these figures in September, and in her reply Esther McVey admitted they are ‘not clear’ and promised to ‘ensure greater clarity in future’.

In practice the number of people being awarded the benefit initially has been artificially inflated by taking into account the results of informal appeals against refusals. This process is known as ‘reconsideration’, and involves people who have been found ‘fit for work’ asking DWP civil servants to look at their cases again. If the decision remains the same then claimants can lodge a formal appeal with HM Courts and Tribunal Service, and separate statistics have previously been published on the number of people on ESA following this further stage.

Sheila Gilmore said:

I regularly meet sick and disabled people who are unable to work but who have been declared able to do so following a flawed ESA assessment.

Up to now we thought that the assessment was getting about one in ten fit for work decisions wrong – far too many in most people’s eyes – but now we know the Government have been fiddling the figures, the reality could be much much worse.

Up until now Ministers led us to believe they were publishing figures that showed the number of people awarded benefit immediately after assessment and before ANY appeals. It now turns out that informal appeals to officials – as opposed to formal ones to judges – were being taken into account.

This has clearly masked the true extent of the failings in the ESA assessment process.

I have now raised this issue with the UK Statistics Authority. Hopefully this will encourage Ministers to fix the test to reduce the number of incorrect decisions, and stop them fixing the figures to downplay the problem.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

  • Sheila Gilmore’s letter to the Department for Work and Pensions dated 27 September 2013 can be found here.
  • The reply from Esther McVey dated 2 November 2013 can be found here. The key section reads: ‘From your correspondence, it is evidence that this is not clear in the publication. We welcome feedback on how we can improve our statistical publications, and we will ensure greater clarity in future publications.Data on all ESA decisions that are revised following reconsideration, which would be required in order to update the tables in the publications, is not available at an individual level.’
  • Sheila Gilmore’s letter to the UK Statistics Authority dated 20 December 2013 can be found here.
  • Sheila Gilmore is a member of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee. You can view the committee’s website here.
  • For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.
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Press Release: Work and Pensions Committee member welcomes disability benefit review but calls on Government to do more

Edinburgh East MP and Work and Pensions Select Committee member Sheila Gilmore today welcomed the publication of an independent review of the test for the main sickness and disability benefit, but called on the Government to do more to address its failings.

The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is used to determine whether people can get Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). Since this replaced the old-fashioned Incapacity Benefit in 2008, many claimants have been incorrectly assessed as fit for work and refused the benefit.

The legislation that enacted ESA required the Government to conduct five annual independent reviews of the WCA, and the fourth review – written by Dr Paul Litchfield – was published earlier today.

Sheila Gilmore said:

While I believe that if people can work then they should work, I also believe that where people simply cannot work due to illness or disability, they should receive an adequate level of support. Unfortunately in too many instances, this is not happening just now.

Since the introduction of the Work Capability Assessment, 4 in 10 people found fit for work have appealed their decision – costing the taxpayer £50 million per year – and four in ten of those appeals have been successful.

I welcome the publication of Paul Litchfield’s review, but I believe the Government must go further to fix the flaws in the Work Capability Assessment.

For a start they should improve the training of assessors, drop targets that require a certain proportion of applicants to be found fit for work, and ensure medical evidence from doctors is taken into account.

Notes to Editors:

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Press release: Statistics watchdog slams Government’s chaotic publication of benefits statistics

Edinburgh East MP and Work and Pensions Select Committee member Sheila Gilmore has today released a letter from Sir Andrew Dilnot, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, in which he says the Department for Work and Pensions failed to fully explain problems with key benefit statistics and could have drawn attention to these sooner.

The benefit in question is Employment and Support Allowance, which replaced Incapacity Benefit in 2008. Up to now data on the number of successful appeals against Fit for Work decisions was published every three months, but this information was missing from DWP’s October bulletin. In a response to a subsequent parliamentary question, Ministers admitted that this data wouldn’t be available until January. This prompted Sheila Gilmore to write to the UK Statistics Authority, and she received a reply on Tuesday.

Sheila Gilmore said:

Since the introduction of ESA, one in ten people found fit for work have successfully appealed their decision. We know this because the Government used to publish quarterly statistics, and this is crucial in making the case for reform.

However in October these figures weren’t released. This suggests that rather than trying to fix the test to reduce the number of incorrect decisions, Ministers’ priority is to fix the figures to downplay the extent of the problem.

As a result I wrote to the UK Statistics Authority and they’ve confirmed that DWP failed to fully explain the problems they were experiencing and could have drawn attention to these sooner.

David Cameron used to say that sunlight was the best disinfectant. The Prime Minister should live up to his words and ensure Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith publishes these statistics on time from now on.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

  • Since the introduction of Employment and Support Allowance, statistics on the number of people successfully appealing Fit for Work decisions has been published quarterly by the Department for Work and Pensions.
  • However these statistics were absent from the release in October 2013. The relevant tables were blank but for the statement ‘An update of these statistics is currently unavailable. Please see the July 2013 release for the latest statistics on outcomes of appeals’. The release can be downloaded from here.
  • Sheila Gilmore tabled a parliamentary question and received an answer on 1 November 2013. Please find this here.
  • Sheila Gilmore’s letter to the UK Statistics Authority can be found here.
  • Sheila Gilmore received a reply from the UK Statistics Authority on Tuesday 3 December. The key phrase reads ‘In this case it appears that DWP could have drawn public attention to the issue sooner, and did not fully explain the reasons for the delay.’
  • The letter can be accessed in full here.
  • Sheila Gilmore is a member of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee. You can view the committee’s website here.
  • For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.
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Press release: Work and Pensions Committee member welcomes court ruling on disability benefit

  • Applicants for sickness and disability benefit won judicial review against test in May
  • Court of Appeal upholds this judgement today
  • MP calls on Government to proactively seek out evidence with which to assess people with mental illness

Edinburgh East MP and Work and Pensions Select Committee member Sheila Gilmore today welcomed a court ruling that the test for the main sickness and disability benefit is unfair towards people with mental illness.

The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is used to determine whether people can get Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which replaced the old-fashioned Incapacity Benefit in 2008.

Under the WCA, applicants are responsible for submitting medical evidence in advance of their assessment. This is very difficult for people with severe mental illness and, as a result, they are often wrongly judged as being fit for work.

Two applicants for ESA took a case to judicial review with support from the charities Mind, the National Autistic Society and Rethink Mental Illness. In May three judges ruled that the Government were in breach of the Equality Act 2010. The Government subsequently appealed, and the Court of Appeal today ruled against Ministers.

Sheila Gilmore said:

I warmly welcome today’s judgement and congratulate the applicants and their supporters in Mind, the National Autistic Society and Rethink Mental Illness.

While I believe that if people can work then they should work, I also believe that where people simply cannot work due to illness or disability, they should receive an adequate level of support. Unfortunately in too many instances, this is not happening just now.

Since the introduction of the Work Capability Assessment, 4 in 10 people found fit for work have appealed their decision – costing the taxpayer £50 million per year – and four in ten of those appeals have been successful.

That’s why I’ve been calling on the Government to fix the flaws in the Work Capability Assessment.

Today’s decision is a start – DWP should now proactively seek out evidence with which to assess people with mental illness.

But Ministers should go further. They should roll out the audio recording of all assessments to improve their quality. They should implement an assessment framework that better accounts for mental health and fluctuating conditions. And they should stop the practice of calling people back for reassessment as soon as they win their appeal.

Notes to Editors:

  • For information on today’s court case see Mind’s website.
  • To find out more about Sheila’s work on ESA see here.
  • Sheila Gilmore is a member of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee. You can view the committee’s website here.
  • For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.
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The real cost of homelessness in Edinburgh

On Saturday I wrote about Edinburgh’s housing shortage in the Evening News. I’ve reproduced an extended version of this piece below.

Last week figures were published showing that formal applications to be considered as ‘homeless’ have continued to fall. It is widely agreed that this is down to better prevention measures and housing options advice at the first point of contact. Given the comparatively plentiful supply, many people end up in the private rented sector, although this means expensive rents. Following the breakdown in her marriage, my constituent moved into a private let and is still there 8 years later, with the rent taking a large slice of her wages.

598tenements

Last week’s figures also show a rise in the number of people who have made homeless applications and who are now living in temporary accommodation – in Edinburgh numbers are up from 595 in March 2007 to 849 in June 2013. Many are spending long periods in this situation, like the mum whose private let came to an end in June and who is still being housed across the city from her children’s school, meaning she has to get them up at 6am each weekday to get them in on time.

Since 2012 anyone accepted as ‘homeless’ is entitled to an offer of a home, and a place in temporary accommodation if needed. In Edinburgh they are awarded ‘Silver Priority’. In June 540 people were recorded as being in council or housing association temporary accommodation, and 309 others were in B&Bs. However as at the end of September there were over 2,000 homeless applicants all holding Silver Priority, up from 1887 in March 2013. Those not in temporary accommodation will be staying with friends or family. Most weeks there are between 60 and 100 homes of all sizes available to let in the council and housing association sector. While some of the 2000 or so are getting housed each week, it is not surprising that the flow into the silver group is exceeding the flow out.

Some will move off the homeless priority list not because they get an offer of a permanent low rent council or housing association home, but because they decide to opt for a private let instead, or accept the offer of a ‘Private Sector Leasing ‘ scheme flat. PSL is a scheme where the council takes a long lease on a private flat in order to house homeless applicants in ‘long term temporary’ housing. Some people remain in this housing for years. There are over 1,800 such flats in the city. The total rental package is often higher than a straightforward private let, but tenants don’t have to find a deposit, and provided they don’t breach their tenancy, have a greater chance of staying beyond a 6 month or 1 year lease period.

These 1,800 households don’t appear in the ‘temporary accommodation’ figures but are in much the same situation in reality.

So the real extent of need for a council or housing association let is much greater than the published statistics suggest.

This matters not just to those directly affected, but to all of us. Virtually all of those in temporary accommodation are on Housing Benefit, as are 98% of those in Private Sector Leasing. This second group often feel stuck in their situation because the rent is so high that ‘making work pay’ becomes difficult. One constituent got back to work but found he was paying £375 towards his PSL rent, with Housing Benefit paying as much again. A council or housing association rent in total would have been around £320 a month. The total cost of Housing Benefit payments for Private Sector Leasing tenants alone throughout the city is about £17m per year. If all these tenants were instead in council or housing association homes, even assuming the same proportions remain entitled to Housing Benefit, the annual cost would be halved.

The private rented sector masks the degree of housing need in the city among those with low incomes, working and not working, but at a considerable cost to the taxpayer. Yet only 436 council and HA homes were completed in the city in 2012/13 and there were only 276 starts, implying even fewer new homes available this year.

The Scottish Government boasts of having the ‘best homelessness legislation in Europe’ but this is a pyrrhic victory if the homes are simply not there, or only there at a very high cost to us all.

Investing in a major affordable house building programme, as Labour proposes, is the only sustainable answer, with the additional advantage of creating jobs in local economies.

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