Disabled people are far more likely to be successful in a claim for the much-criticised employment and support allowance (ESA) than the benefit it is replacing, incapacity benefit (IB), Disability News Service (DNS) can reveal.
The figures came in a response from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to a request under the Freedom of Information Act from DNS.
Three leading disabled campaigners have so far expressed surprise at the figures, which appear to cast an unexpected new light on the out-of-work financial support provided to sick and disabled people.
Criticisms of ESA and particularly the harshness and inflexibility of the test used to decide eligibility – the work capability assessment (WCA) – have been a high-profile target of campaigners since the benefit was introduced for new claimants in October 2008.
But ministers in both the Labour and Conservative governments have repeatedly claimed that introducing ESA would tackle “fraud”, while the WCA would test “what you can do and not what you can’t do”.
In April 2008, six months before ESA’s introduction, Labour’s work and pensions secretary James Purnell told the Liverpool Echo: “People who scrounge from the system take money away from legitimate [IB] claimants. Clearly we want to stop that.”
David Freud – now Conservative welfare reform minister but previously a Labour adviser –told the Daily Telegraph in February 2008 that he believed fewer than a third of those receiving IB were legitimate claimants.
And in November 2007, Purnell’s predecessor, Peter Hain, vowed to “rip up sicknote Britain”.
But the figures obtained by DNS suggest that – rather than “clamping down” on supposed fraudulent claimants – the introduction of ESA has instead made it easier for sick and disabled people to secure the out-of-work financial support they need.
Campaigning organisations have always insisted that the WCA is inflexible, and fails to reflect disabled people’s daily lives, while they say the tests are often riddled with errors.
Despite the new figures, they are still likely to insist that the WCA causes unnecessary suffering to many disabled people and should be scrapped.
The figures obtained by DNS show that about 33 per cent of applicants for old-style IB were successful in their claims in the three years leading up to the introduction of its replacement, ESA, in late 2008 (there are no figures available from before 2006).
But the most recent government figures show that as many as 73 per cent of ESA claimants who complete an initial WCA are now being awarded the benefit, with the numbers apparently climbing every year.
Although the two sets of figures are likely to be not completely comparable – the IB figures probably include claimants who dropped their claim before they were assessed because their health improved – the differences are so striking that they almost certainly show ESA is far easier to claim than IB.
The steady increase in ESA success rates could be due to improvements introduced by Professor Malcolm Harrington, who carried out the first three reviews of the WCA on behalf of the government.
Even at its lowest, in early 2009, just after the introduction of ESA – still under the Labour government that brought in the new benefit and before any of the Harrington recommendations were implemented – the proportion of successful claimants was still 35 per cent.
It then climbed to 42 per cent in mid-2010 (July-September), 49 per cent in mid-2011, and 56 per cent in mid-2012, with these numbers even higher once the results of appeals were included.
Even at its lowest point (35 per cent), the proportion of successful claims was higher than for IB in 2006-07 (32.6 per cent awarded the benefit), 2007-08 (32.1 per cent) and 2008-09 (33.3 per cent).
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, said she was surprised by the new figures.
But she added: “I never thought that IB was that easy to get. I thought it was quite difficult. Maybe we all got sucked into the government’s rhetoric.
“We always said that was wrong and that these were people with serious health problems [and high support needs].
“But the government were talking to the Daily Mail-reading audience to make it seem as if they were dealing with the ‘scroungers’.
“The result was that it scared the hell out of perfectly genuine claimants.”
One disabled campaigner, who asked not to be named, said: “It would appear that since the Harrington recommendations, it really is easier to get ESA than it was to get IB.
“I can’t see any other way to interpret these figures, even accounting for people still in the system.
“But I also find it very hard to understand why twice as many people would be successful now compared to under IB.
“The IB test was regarded as very tough, but as far as I know there weren’t any major campaigns saying that IB was far too stringent.”
But she added: “I remain convinced the WCA has caused too much unnecessary suffering and should be replaced at the earliest opportunity.”
Another disabled campaigner asked not to be named because he said the figures “require further scrutiny and investigation” before public comment.
He said that it would be “interesting” to see the DWP’s explanation for the figures.
He also insisted that the WCA must still be scrapped and that tens of thousands of disabled people were being denied the ESA they were entitled to and “as a consequence are facing workfare and sanctions and the prospect of having to use food banks”.
A third disabled campaigner said she was “totally flummoxed” by the new figures.
Kate Green, Labour’s shadow minister for disabled people, said she was “very interested” in the figures and “curious” about why it appeared to be harder to claim IB than ESA.
She agreed that one explanation could be that ESA was “less stringent” than IB, and added: “It would be a real surprise. It is not what we were told.
“It wasn’t supposed to be easier or harder. It was supposed to be a more accurate assessment of someone’s capacity for work. Perhaps that is what it is turning out to be.
“I think the public will be very surprised, because the rhetoric they have heard is that this is a much more stringent test and the government is toughening up on benefits and a lot of people were getting benefits who shouldn’t have been.
“They would be surprised to learn that more people are being found not fit for work.
“My question to the minister is why is this happening and if he doesn’t know, will he find out?”
A DWP spokesman said in a statement: “Employment and support allowance was introduced to make sure money goes to those who need it most, not to make it harder to claim.”
But he refused to comment further on the figures obtained by DNS.
5 September 2014