The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has sparked new concerns after releasing “bizarre” figures that suggest ministers plan to cut the number of people eligible for out-of-work disability benefits by a third in 2017-18.
The statistics were provided by employment minister Priti Patel in a written response to a question from Labour MP Barry Sheerman.
Sheerman had asked for the department’s forecasts for the number of employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants it expected to find “unfit to work” in the next five years.
Patel told him that the number of new ESA claimants DWP expects to classify as unfit to work would be 350,000 this year, 450,000 in 2016-17, but then 300,000 for each of the following three years.
Since ESA was launched by the Labour government in the autumn of 2008, the highest number of claimants to be found not fit for work in a single month is 31,000, in November 2014, although that figure will be higher once successful appeals are taken into account.
This suggests the government thinks the number of claimants who will be found eligible for ESA will continue to rise through 2016 and into 2017, before plunging by one-third in 2017-18.
One possible explanation for the predicted sharp fall in 2017-18 is that DWP believes its plan to scrap the extra financial support given to people in the ESA work-related activity group (WRAG) – which at current rates would see weekly payments fall from about £102 a week to £73 – will persuade tens of thousands of disabled people not to bother applying for ESA.
Another possible explanation is that ministers plan to tighten ESA eligibility between now and 2017.
Disabled experts who have campaigned for years to persuade ministers to scrap the controversial ESA system – and its eligibility test, the work capability assessment (WCA) – were left concerned and bemused by the figures.
Rick Burgess (pictured), co-founder of New Approach, which campaigns to replace the WCA, said the projections were “the latest in a long line of ‘predictions’ made by the DWP under IDS [work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith]that have been repeatedly proven to be wrong”.
He said: “This projection of ESA to drop in 2017-18 is another of his ‘guesses’ or ‘bets’ that his abusive and dishonest testing regime can force hundreds of thousands of people to become magically non-disabled and to find work.
“For activists and the advice sector it likely means he expects the 30 per cent WRAG cut to deter claims and the DWP testing and sanctions regime to become even more unfair to ensure people are refused placement in the support group or the means and peace of mind to appeal.”
Stef Benstead, the lead researcher for the Spartacus network on last year’s report into the failures of the system of sickness and disability support, said: “The numbers look bizarre. I cannot think of a good reason for such large changes in ESA outcomes.
“Either the [DWP] respondent has made a mistake, or the government has plans it hasn’t told us about for future changes to ESA.
“The government should tell disabled people how it came up with these figures, as without a reasonable explanation these figures are alarming.”
Maximus, the much-criticised US company now carrying out the assessments on behalf of the government, declined to return calls about the statistics.
DWP refused to comment.