GMLC’s Welfare Benefits Supervisor Dan Manville reacts to the April 2023 budget announced yesterday, looking at proposed welfare reforms and what it might mean for benefits claimants, including those who have disabilities.
You wait for a welfare reform package for ages then three come along at once. Governments of both flavours have not had a good history of delivering welfare reform. The kids from 2002 supposed to transfer to Gordon Brown’s Child Tax Credit grew up before they could be transferred; we were hearing reports of people in receipt of benefit under the Incapacity for Work regime as late as 2020 despite a target of 2014 to move them all across; the transfer to Personal Independence Payments (PIP) for working age Disability Living Allowance (DLA) claimants was supposed to be complete by 2017, but 250,000 claimants are still waiting according to recent statistics. Last but not least, everyone should have been on Universal Credit by 2017, but the compulsory migration won’t even touch childless ESA claimants until 2028.
In yesterday’s budget, we see the announcement of yet another large-scale reform: the abolition of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). At least this time the government is planning to use a process of natural wastage rather than mass migration. In other words, it will only affect new claimants to Universal Credit and the existing claimants will remain in the old regime until they get better or retire.
The WCA is the process used to decide whether people are too sick to work. Abolishing that leaves workers without any protection from the rigours of the Universal Credit job-seeking regime, and without any additional financial benefit arising from whether a person is “disabled” rather than just “sick”. That’s problematic for a number of reasons, but before I explore those, let’s ask a question:
Je ne regrette rien?
Is this an admission that the whole “mass assessment” culture was a bad idea? The WCA was introduced in 2008 on a wave of rhetoric about “something for nothing”, Benefits Street on Channel 5 and a nod to “Fred’s on the sick, he’s always down the pub, there’s nowt wrong with him” culture. The core policy intention was to try and get all the people who’d been parked on Incapacity Benefit by Thatcher’s government (to massage the unemployment figures) back into the labour market – a job John Major had failed to achieve with the introduction of the Incapacity Benefit regime and the All Work Test.
When the WCA was brought in, everyone’s capability for work was supposed to be assessed within 3 months of their claiming sickness benefit (Employment and Support Allowance at that time). Those who aren’t too ill – people with limited capability for work – must retrain or risk getting sanctioned if they don’t do what the Jobcentre tells them to do. Those too ill for even that, with Limited Capability for Work Related Activity (LCWRA), need not retrain and could not be sanctioned.
In the early days it went quite well, but once the coalition got in, the Minister of State for Employment Chris Grayling decided to speed up the transfer from the old incapacity for work regime, and the wheels fell off. Assessing 1.5 million claimants was a steeper hill than anticipated. The assessment contractor ATOS walked away after it came to light they weren’t following the requirement to approach vulnerable claimants’ (people with learning difficulties and those at risk of hurting themselves) GPs before calling them in for a face to face assessment (people died, unsurprisingly). Suddenly a huge backlog started to develop. New contractors were appointed, yet it took more than three years to get the backlogs down. Then the pandemic struck and… more backlogs! They couldn’t assess new claimants or reassess existing ones in most circumstances. The system has been dogged by delay and misfeasance since the coalition took over.
The WCA aside, 210,000 people were underpaid to the tune of £613,000 during the transfer to ESA. They paid for that by stopping assessing people over 60. (They told us they were being nice to old people when they announced that; anything but!) In addition to that, the appeals system nearly collapsed – perhaps literally, given the Tribunals Service were piling them all up on shelves and eventually ran out of space.
With reform in mind, the government have been trialling a new ‘Health Transformation Program’, conducting PIP assessments and WCAs at the same time and venue. Your author has always suspected this was an attempt to bring both assessments, currently managed by IT contractors, under the Government Digital Service, as well as saving some money on individual contractors. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority described the program as “unachievable” in 2019 but still they tarried on.
Good riddance to bad rubbish then?
Well, possibly not.
This week’s Disability White Paper links payment of additional benefit for “sickness” to entitlement to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) entitlement, the main disability benefit for working age people. PIP requires that a person is likely to be out of action for at least a year (the metric of “disability” over “sickness”) before they’ll qualify, whereas the WCA was designed to make a decision within 3 months of someone stopping work. When it does work properly, the WCA can ask “will they be better by next year” and have the machinery to assess that. Now, that will go.
Plus, a lot of people currently with LCWRA don’t qualify for PIP. The IFS reported after yesterday’s White Paper that the government was on course to save £350,000,000 a month in unpaid benefits when it is implemented. Quelle surprise, disabled people are hardest hit by budget savings once more.
Also there is a lot of rhetoric about more rigorous sanctions. The WCA was designed to leave about 17% of people (with LCWRA) protected from being sanctioned. Thanks to government ineptitude and developments in the courts, it was actually more than 60% when the last statistics were published. Will that protection from sanction for the most disabled continue? Government rhetoric leaves us worried it won’t.
Thankfully, government contracting for the Health and Work Programme (HWP), the programme to get people back to work, cannot mandate disabled people to participate. Hopefully memories still sting from the times it was pointed out that the HWP’s predecessor, the Work Programme, was operating in breach of the Equality Act (which likely informed the decision to exclude disabled people from the HWP). However, Jobcentre Plus offer their own scheme of activities to that cohort. Sanctions, or rather whether claimants will be forced to do inappropriate activities leading to them being sanctioned, will be at the discretion of a claimant’s Work Coach. Work Coaches are some of the lowest paid civil servants, and despite the aforementioned criticism in the courts, those Work Coaches still can’t see Jobcentre Plus’s WCA medical assessment. They also can’t see PIP assessments, which are conducted by a different DWP directorate.
Only a few days ago, the Information Commissioner’s Office ordered the DWP to release research into the effectiveness of the sanctions regime. We hope prompt disclosure by the DWP might reveal their motivation to use sanctions cautiously and in extreme cases, rather than simply as another money saving measure – though we aren’t holding our breath.
What are the risks?
The risks might be substantial. In the WCA there are “exceptional circumstances” provisions: despite a person not meeting the measure of whether they have limited capability for work, or LCWRA, a person can be treated as having that status where it might be a “substantial risk to the health of themselves or any other person” were they not found to have LCWRA. These provisions are particularly important to people who experience fluctuating conditions, especially mental health conditions. The White Paper explicitly discusses other exceptions to the assessment, such as pregnancy risk and people being treated for cancer, but it is silent on those “substantial risk” provisions. Will these exceptions still apply, or will people with fluctuating conditions be left high and dry? This will be a campaigning focus for GMLC going forward.
A final note: childcare costs
We can’t help but celebrate the decision to pay the Childcare Costs Element (CCE) of UC upfront. There are numerous reports of parents not being able to take up work due to their not being able to front their children’s breakfast and afterschool clubs upfront.
However we have seen cases, and are aware of many more, where the byzantine administration of the CCE has led to parents leaving employment due to delays in payment of the CCE. Invoices being requested three or four times before a payment is made is not uncommon in our experience. The CCE, in our perception, is an afterthought in UC; that needs to change.
Image: Disability rights protest outside an inaccessible office in Norfolk. Photo credit: Roger Blackwell, Flickr, 2016.