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Reforms of incapacity benefit are seen as attack on the disabled, repo


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BMJ 2011; 343:d4786 doi: 10.1136/bmj.d4786 (Published 26 July 2011)Cite this as: BMJ 2011; 343:d4786

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    Reforms of incapacity benefit are seen as attack on the disabled, report says
    • Nigel Hawkes+Author Affiliations

      • The government’s reforms of incapacity benefit are widely seen as an attack on the disabled and a means of saving money rather than an attempt to help people back into work, a commons committee has concluded.

        It blames the media for describing recipients as “workshy” or “scroungers” but also warns the government to take care with the language it uses so as not to lend support to the belief. It accepts that the government’s aim is the praiseworthy one of helping people back into employment, but says this has not been properly communicated, leading to fear and anxiety among vulnerable people.

        Claimants who are assessed and found fully capable of work are told they have “failed” the assessment, the report by the Work and Pensions Committee says, reinforcing the message that the tests are designed to detect fraudsters. In fact, failing the assessment is a successful and desirable outcome because it finds that a claimant is fit for work. The government needs to explain that the finding does not equate to denial or disbelief about the existence of an illness or health condition.

        Chris Grayling, the employment minister, was given a hard time by several members of the committee when he gave evidence in June, Labour’s Glenda Jackson claiming the policy had been sold as “attacking the workshy.” But the report finds that any such impression is the result of poor communication rather than deliberate intent. Mr Grayling told the committee he was “bemused” by some of the tabloid stories.

        There are 2.6 million people on incapacity benefits and its successor, employment and support allowance (ESA), costing a total of £13bn (€14.7bn; $21bn) a year. The last government introduced a scheme for testing all new applicants, the work capability assessment (WCA), contracted to Atos Healthcare until 2015. Since the current government took office, changes have been made to the scheme and an independent review carried out. Mr Grayling told the committee that as originally implemented, WCA had been “a flawed process” but that the new version was better.

        The report accepts that the process is showing signs of improvement, but that further changes might be needed. Atos routinely overbooks appointments by 20%, on the basis that 30% of those called for assessment do not turn up.

        The committee believes that non-attendance is lower than that and calls on Atos to review its procedures. Atos should also try harder to get the assessment right first time, to reduce the cost of appeals, many successful, that now runs at £50m a year.

        The role of WCA is poorly defined, the committee says. Is it an eligibility test for benefits or a diagnostic test to assess a person’s ability to work? “It is not yet clear it is quite achieving either of these effectively.”

        The government also began in April to reassess those who were on incapacity benefit before ESA was introduced, and remain on it, with a view to moving them on to either ESA or job seeker’s allowance. Many claimants are confused and worried by the process, the committee says. The name of the benefit, employment and support allowance, is confusing because support can mean support in getting a job, or financial support for those ruled unfit for work.

        To establish whether the reassessments are getting recipients of incapacity benefit back into work, the government needs to track the outcomes. This has not been done in the trials carried out in Aberdeen and Burnley, which the committee calls “regrettable,” but it is not too late to start.

        Notes

        Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d4786

        Footnotes

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