The Government began reassessing the 2.2 million people that were in receipt of Incapacity Benefit for ESA in October 2010, with a scheduled completion date of March 2014.
Professor Harrington didn’t approve the IB reassessment
On 1 February 2012 the Minister then responsible for ESA,Chris Grayling, said that the then independent reviewer of the WCA, Professor Harrington, had said to him ‘I believe the system is in sufficient shape for you to proceed with incapacity benefit reassessment.’ On 16 December 2013 the Guardian carried a quote from Professor Harrington saying that he ‘never – repeat never – agreed to the IB migration’. I asked Professor Harrington about this when he gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee in May 2014:
Q187 Sheila Gilmore: This is perhaps a historical point now, but it keeps coming up in debate and you might care to clarify. It is the issue of whether the migration of IB claimants should have gone ahead in the way it did. I think the then Minister had said that you supported it going ahead when it did, and The Guardian then reported you as having said that you had not. This keeps coming up.
Professor Harrington: Yes, can I clarify this, once and for all? In my first year—before the first report, that is—I said to Chris Grayling that, left to my own devices, I would prefer it if they postponed the IB migration until I had got at least one review in, so they could just deal with the new claimants and would not be confused by another group of people coming in—a completely different group of people, as you well know. He did not say no; it was just obvious that it was a political done deal and they were going to go ahead and do the IB migration whatever.
I think that the confusion has come up because, two years later, I visited one of the pilot areas for IB migration, Aberdeen, and I thought the decision makers up there were doing a good job. When I went back and had one of my regular meetings with Chris Grayling, he said, “I understand you’ve been to Aberdeen,” and I said, “Yes, and it appears that the decision makers can handle it.” That must be the interpretation behind “Harrington said it’s all right.” I would not have done it then, but they had done it, and certainly in Aberdeen, one of the pilots, it seemed to work okay and not to cause that much trouble. It has caused a lot of trouble elsewhere. I think that is where the confusion lay. I do not think anyone could say that the Minister lied to Parliament or anything like that.
The IB reassessment hasn’t really helped people
Upon the commencement of the pilots the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith told the Evening Standard:
There are around two million people receiving incapacity benefits, parked out of sight of any support system and at a cost of almost £135 billion over the past decade. We estimate we will find around 23 per cent of people fit for work immediately.
During the Second Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill in March 2011 he said:
We are picking up an incapacity benefit system in which they left people parked, never seen by anybody for years and years.
And by November 2012 he ramped up the rhetoric on Question Time to such an extent that he claimed he would get all 2.5 million people who had previously been parked on Incapacity Benefit into work.
And between the start of the migration and March 2013, 234,600 out of the 1.015 million Incapacity Benefit claimants reassessed were declared Fit for Work – exactly 23 per cent (albeit with at least 12 months of the process still to go).
Together with the reassessment process, one would expect an equally tough test for new claims for ESA and the reduced time limit on receipt of contributory ESA to lead to a significant reduction in the total number of claimants.
Yet the total number of working-age claimants on ESA and its various predecessors has fallen by only 150,000 over the full three years of the migration from 2010/11 to 2013/14 – from 2.597 million to 2.447 million.
Bizarrely this 150,000 is 84,600 less than the 234,600 claimants assessed as Fit for Work through the Incapacity Benefit reassessment process.
So for all the distress caused to claimants and the cost of assessments and appeals borne by taxpayers, the Government’s attempts to reduce the numbers on Incapacity Benefits have fallen well short. I highlighted this in a debate in parliament on 3 April 2014 and set out my thoughts as to reasons for this failure elsewhere on my website and for the New Statesman on 20 June 2014. I then highlighted this again in debates on the performance of the Department for Work and Pensions on 30 June 2014 and Jobcentre Plus on 10 July 2014.
People weren’t ‘languishing’ on IB
On several occasions DWP Ministers have described people as having been ‘languishing’ on Incapacity Benefit. However the Work and Pensions Select Committee July 2014 report suggested that this wasn’t the case. They noted that:
Figures for the latest quarter show that, rather than “languishing” inappropriately on IB, 89% of IB claimants who were reassessed were entitled to ESA, with the vast majority being placed in the Support Group.
The IB reassessment is behind schedule
It is also now clear that the planned completion date for the migration – the end of March 2014 – has been missed. As I said above, the total number of Incapacity Benefit claimants due to be assessed was around 2.2 million in 2011, and by March 2013 – two thirds of the way through the process – less than half of this number had been assessed. In addition the Government’s projections suggest they will still be paying Incapacity Benefit to at least 26,000 claimants during the current financial year.
Following evidence from the Ministry of Justice suggests that the migration has been slowed down and has been paused (see Q27 and possibly Q52), the Work and Pensions Select Committee announced in it’s July 2014 report on ESA that the IB migration had been slowed down to around 5,000 referals a month. In a previous report from 2011 the committee warned that the DWP’s target of carrying out 11,000 assessments per month was over-ambitious, and it would appear these concerns were justified.