The Fit for Work

Claimants reapplying for ESA
As I said in the introduction to this section of my website, I believe that 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 believe that this is in large part due to those declared Fit for Work simply reapplying for ESA and being awarded benefit the second time round. This in turn is a result of the poor quality of support to find and hold down a job. I highlighted this in a debate in parliament on 3 April 2014 and have written about this here.

Again it’s worth looking back at what the Secretary of State said upon taking office. On 11 2010 he said:

People who are found fit for work will move directly on to our new Work Programme. They will receive an integrated package of support. It will provide personalised help based on individual needs. Using the best of the private and voluntary sectors, that will help get people into work as quickly as possible.

Although Ministers didn’t set minimum performance levels for former Incapacity Benefit claimants, we can use others as a means of comparison. For example by year three – which we are in now – the Government expected 30% of new JSA claimants over 25 and 15% of new ESA claimants to be in work.

Between the launch of the Work Programme in June 2011 and December 2013, only 2,500 of the 24,620 ex-Incapacity Benefit Claimants declared Fit for Work and on the Work Programme had found a job – just 10%. Similarly, only 760 of the 44,620 ex-Incapacity Benefit claimants who were awarded ESA and referred were in work – just 1.7%.

These failings are demonstrated in the case of my constituent Brian Green. Mr Green has suffered from depression for some time, but his condition became particularly acute in 2010. He wasn’t an existing Incapacity Benefit claimant, so had to apply for Employment and Support Allowance. While he was initially placed in the WRAG, he was subsequently called back for a reassessment after six months, declared Fit for Work, and had to wait months for an appeal hearing, where he was placed back into the WRAG. This pattern has repeated itself over the last three years.

Since 2011 he has been on the Work Programme with A4E. These are his words:

A4e wasn’t helpful at all in helping me find employment. Throughout the two years all I did was regularly search for jobs using their PCs.

Also I was put in a group to be shown how to set up my CV, which given I have ample experience of being employed and had already had help from Careers Scotland, seemed a waste of time.

After all the jobs I applied for, very few sent acknowledgements, and I was never even called to interview.

Mr Green’s case rather neatly demonstrates how important it is to reform the WCA and improve employment support for people with disabilities, and these issues were highlighted in the Work and Pensions Select Committee July 2014 report on ESA. Suggestions included reinstating the Work Focused Health Related Assessment (WFHRA), which was initially introduced alongside the WCA but suspended by the current Government, or ensuring JSA conditionality is sufficiently tailored for people who might require specific help to work (such as a support worker of flexible hours).

Claimants not appealing due to ‘weariness’
I also maintain concerns that other people who are declared fit for work simply cannot bring themselves to face the constant cycle of appealing and reapplying for benefit. I initially set out my concerns in this article for Progress in September 2012. I also raised this with the then disabilities minister Esther McVey when she replied to my debate on appeals on 5 December 2012. Her response was not particularly reassuring.

Esther McVey: The number of working-age people on ESA and incapacity benefits as of February 2012 was 2.56 million, which is the lowest level since the introduction of IB in 1995. Early estimates to September 2012 suggest that overall the numbers on these benefits are further decreasing and for the first time the data have gone below 2.5 million.

Sheila Gilmore: Is the Minister aware of the research that the DWP carried out for some of the early applicants for ESA, which showed that after a year of being found fit for work, 43% were neither on an out-of-work benefit nor in employment? This fall in the number of people on benefit may be the result of their simply getting nothing and disappearing out of the system. Is she concerned by that?

Esther McVey: Of course, that would concern me; it would be of concern to anyone. Everybody will be followed up and duly represented and given sufficient support. However, we would have to look into those numbers. Those who are on benefit get the support they need, in contrast to previous approaches through which they were abandoned to a lifetime on benefits. Those who have been found fit for work now claim JSA, an active benefit with a proven track record of getting people into work, as the falling unemployment figures have shown.

The judge in charge of all ESA appeals raised similar concerns when he gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee in May 2014. He said:

HH Judge Robert Martin: It is crucial there should be some research into claimant behaviour. It may be that, if someone asks for mandatory reconsideration, they get a much more reasoned explanation than for the original decision. They make think, “Fair enough,” and drop out at that stage because that is a rational thing to do. We simply do not know whether people are dropping out at that stage because of weariness or because they are now persuaded or they have now been to an advice centre, which has explained that they cannot really challenge that decision.

I thought another very interesting part was when he talked about disabled people potentially just giving up on ESA, not because they weren’t entitled, but because the process is too difficult:

Although it would be an indictment of the system itself, its not inconceivable that, for some people with health conditions or disabilities, accepting an incorrect Fit for Work might actually be the rational thing to do – if they already have a bit of money or their partner has an income, the stress and strain of applying might simply aggravate their condition and thus outweigh the advantage gained by receiving ESA (which would probably be of the contributory variety and thus payable only for a year).

But on the other hand there may well be people who don’t have any other income but who still choose to drop out – possibly due to a mental health condition – and end up relying on foodbanks or pay day loans. I intend to push the Government to undertake the sort of research that Judge Martin refers to further on in his evidence:

Q99 Chair: The weariness you have just mentioned might be a perfectly reasonable response from individuals who just find the process—
HH Judge Robert Martin: At the moment, we simply do not know, and we will never know unless we start interviewing claimants and discovering the reasons for their behaviour.

I’m also concerned that an increasingly large number of people are being found Fit for Work but then being refused Jobseekers Allowance because they are unavailable for work. In many cases these people will likely then reapply for ESA. In this written question from 3 July 2013 I asked whether the Government collect statistics on this – they don’t – and in a debate in April 2014 I argued that this could explain why the total number of people on ESA and other equivalent benefits isn’t dropping by anywhere near the extent that one might have predicted (as I mention in the introduction to this section).