The new coalition government has released the first details about its timetable for “reassessing” hundreds of thousands of disabled people who claim “old-style” incapacity benefit (IB).
There were fears that the government would start to reassess large numbers of people on IB this October, despite repeated concerns about the inflexibility and unfairness of the work capability assessment (WCA), the strict new test designed to assess disabled people’s work readiness.
But Lord Freud, the new Conservative welfare reform minister, told the House of Lords this week that the government planned to begin with only a “small trial” from October 2010 to allow it to “test and learn from the process”.
Responding to a question from the disabled Liberal Democrat peer Baroness [Celia] Thomas, Lord Freud said the “national reassessment programme” of people on IB would run from spring 2011 to March 2014.
About two million people still claim IB, rather than its replacement, employment and support allowance (ESA), which was introduced for new claimants in October 2008.
By spring 2011, there are still likely to be at least 1.5 million people left on IB, which could mean up to 10,000 long-term IB claimants being reassessed every week.
Lord Freud said: “We know this is a big undertaking and are working on plans to make the change happen as smoothly as possible for all customers.”
He also confirmed that the government would evaluate how the ESA was working “in order to ensure that it meets its objective of helping people back to work”.
But it is not yet clear whether the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will have the results from this independent review of the WCA before the trial begins in October.
Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, the disability poverty charity, said the government appeared to have changed its mind and opted for a slower-paced reassessment programme.
He welcomed Freud’s statement because he said there needed to be improvements to the WCA before a national rollout.
He said: “Organisations like DA supported reform but are worried about how it has worked in practice.”
He said an independent review would help ensure the WCA was “fit for purpose”.
A DWP spokeswoman said coalition ministers were committed to an “independent statutory review” of the WCA every year for five years.
But she said there were no dates confirmed yet for when the first review would take place.
9 June 2010