One of the main issues I’ve focused on since my election has been Employment and Support Allowance.
How ESA should work
Labour introduced ESA as a replacement for Incapacity Benefit in 2008 for the right reasons. In the 80s the Tories sidelined many people onto Incapacity Benefit without any pretence that they might ever be able to return to work. In part this was an attempt to manipulate the unemployment figures of the day. These were often men who had lost their jobs following the decline of the heavy industries and mass manufacturing. While it would be unreasonable to expect many of these people to go back to the mines or the steel plants, the key insights of ESA were that:
- being ill or disabled shouldn’t preclude people from doing any work;
- it is often better for people’s mental and physical health if they are working rather than staying at home;
- and while some people with a particular condition won’t be able to work, others with the same condition will.
Obviously there is also a financial benefit for both the state and the individual when people are in work and not on benefits. However I’ve been struck by the number of constituents that have contacted me who are genuinely unable to work but who have been declared fit to do so having undergone the Work Capability Assessment – a process which generally involves a face to face assessment carried out for the Department of Work and Pensions by private contractor Atos Healthcare.
Between the introduction of the assessment in October 2008 and February 2012, 1.36 million new claimants were assessed and 794,000 were declared fit for work. Of those 311,900 appealed their decision and 116,400 were successful and were awarded ESA. In percentage terms:
- 39% of Fit For Work decisions were appealed
- 15% of Fit For Work decisions were successfully appealed
- 37% of Fit For Work appeals were successful
- 9% of all decisions were successfully appealed
Although the proportion of decisions overturned has started to fall, the overall number still remains extremely high (for up to date figures see here).
These figures were raised at DWP Select Committee on 21 November 2012 by the Minister responsible for this area Mark Hoban. My colleague Anne Begg gave a telling response:
Mr Hoban: Thank you for that helpful clarification, but if you look at the 687,000 fit for work decisions that have been made, only 15% have been overturned. So if you look at the whole pool of decisions made by the Department where people have been judged to be fit for work, only 15% were overturned. So I think we need to get some perspective.
Chair: I have to say that, when I was a teacher, if I had 15% of my marking overturned I would have thought I was a failure as a teacher.
Migration from Incapacity Benefit
This problem has been exacerbated by the Government’s decision to start reassessing the 2.6 million people currently in receipt of Incapacity Benefit for ESA in October 2010. Figures published on the DWP website suggest that in the first year of national reassessment (March 2011 – February 2012) 34% of claimants were found fit for work. As this answer from 15 January 2013 indicates, the migration data doesn’t yet separate out initial decisions and decisions after appeals. However this parliamentary question from 12 December 2012 tells us that on average 34% of Fit for Work decisions were overturned every month between February 2011 and June 2012. Section 2.3 of the main document on the DWP website says full figures will be published in the future.
The combination of new assessments and Incapacity Benefit reassessments has led to a huge volume of appeals and lengthening backlogs. A written answer from 15 May 2012 revealed that over 6,000 Scots are waiting over a year for their claim to be resolved, and a further PQ from 21 June suggests this figure is 63,940 for the UK as a whole. Ministry of Justice figures show that in October 2011 there were 78,600 outstanding ESA cases. In addition they show that 176,600 ESA appeals were heard in 2010-11, and given that the average cost of each case is £280, this gives a total cost of £50 million – enough to give nearly 10,000 people ESA at the Support Group rate for a year (this figure was not contested by the Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly on 3 July, and a written PQ from 9 July suggests DWP bore £12 million of this cost in 2010-11 and £15 million in 2011-12). It’s worth noting that the bureaucratic burden on GPs to support applicants and the additional stress related illnesses is likely to increase costs in the NHS.
Impact on Advice Agencies
It’s also important to acknowledge the huge strain this places on our advice services. Citizen’s Advice Scotland’s annual report notes that in 2010/11 bureaux staff and volunteers helped clients with 19,536 new ESA issues – an increase of around a third on the previous year. Advisers also provided representation at 1,550 ESA tribunals, which took over 1,100 working days of adviser time. Ministers need to be aware that any drop in funding for the CAB could have serious consequences for ESA claimants.
The legislation that introduced ESA also requires the Government to commission independent reviews of the WCA during its first five years of operation. In 2010 Ministers appointed occupational health specialist Professor Malcolm Harrington and, as a result of his first three reports, some improvements have been made. However much more work needs to be done, and this was demonstrated when Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, resigned from a Government Committee supporting Professor Harrington’s review.
In this set of pages I will bring together all my parliamentary work on this issue and set out how the Government could improve to the WCA process so that people are correctly assessed and figures for appeals and waiting times can start to come down. My areas of concern are:
- Application form
- Audio recordings
- Atos targets
- Atos staff
- Atos contract
- Mental Health Champions
- Decision Makers
- Paper assessments
- Explaining decisions
- Time for appeals
- Appeals and reassessments
- Appeals and feedback
- DWP Staffing
- The WRAG
- The Support Group
- The Fit for Work