Campaigners have reacted with a mixture of anger and bemusement to government figures that appear to show disabled people are more likely to be successful when claiming employment and support allowance (ESA) than the benefit it is replacing.
The figures were published last week by Disability News Service (DNS), which obtained them from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) following a request under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act*.
The decision by DNS to run the story has sparked anger from many of the disabled activists and their allies who have devoted much of the last five years to attacking ESA and the test used to decide eligibility, the work capability assessment (WCA).
ESA, and particularly the harshness and inflexibility of the WCA and its application by government contractor Atos, have been high-profile targets of campaigners since the benefit was introduced for new claimants in October 2008.
But the figures obtained by DNS suggest that – rather than “clamping down” on supposed fraudulent claimants, as ministers from both the coalition and the previous Labour government have claimed – the introduction of ESA may eventually have made it more likely that sick and disabled people will secure out-of-work support.
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.
But new DWP figures published this week suggest 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.
The latest figures show that for claims begun in the last quarter of 2013, and adjusted for any appeals that have so far been heard, 58 per cent of those with a completed WCA have been placed in the support group, for those claimants not expected to carry out any work-related activity.
This success rate may drop slightly over time as there are huge backlogs in the system and only a small percentage of recent claims have been dealt with, but they may also rise as further appeals are heard.
Figures from earlier months show a lower success rate for new claimants – with nearly all claims assessed – but one that is still strikingly higher than the old IB rates.
Although the two sets of figures – for IB and ESA – are not directly comparable, the differences are so striking that they suggest ESA is now easier to claim than IB.
One theory is that a steady increase in ESA success rates could be due to improvements suggested by Professor Malcolm Harrington, who carried out the first three reviews of the WCA on behalf of the government.
But DNS has been contacted by a string of campaigners who are furious at the suggestion that claiming ESA is any “easier” than IB, and deny there has been any improvement at all in the ESA system since its introduction under Labour in 2008.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) has made it clear that it believes the DNS story “misinterpreted” the IB figures and took them “too much at face value rather than being more thoroughly analysed”.
Rick Burgess, co-founder of the new campaigning organisation New Approach, which is dedicated to scrapping the WCA and developing a replacement, said: “All I would like to say is no-one who has claimed IB and ESA as I have would for a millisecond find the WCA/ESA easier than the IB process. It simply beggars belief.”
He said the WCA system was “unquestionably a disability denial system that is akin to being slowly tortured by bureaucracy”.
He added: “I know, claiming ESA almost killed me, twice! IB did not.”
Several campaigners pointed out that one of the reasons for the IB figures could have been that many of those who applied were later found to be ineligible only because they had not paid enough national insurance contributions, and could claim other disability-related benefits instead.
One of those campaigners was Nicola Lane, who herself was placed in the ESA support group after a WCA, but only after appealing a decision to place her in the work-related activity group.
She said: “There are probably lots of other factors in there but I think this is the main reason the figures look so wrong.”
Pat Onions, founder of Pat’s Petition, welcomed discussion of the FoI figures but said she believed ESA and IB could not be compared directly because they were not “equivalent”.
She said this showed the need for an assessment of the cumulative impact of the government’s welfare reforms, including all of the changes to ESA, by independent statisticians.
Some leading campaigners have been left not angry but bemused by the FoI figures and the DNS story.
Dr Sarah Campbell, principal co-author of the Spartacus report, said: “The apparent increasingly high success rate for ESA seems implausible given past government rhetoric and disabled people’s experiences. It is even more astonishing when compared to that of IB.
“However, I will not dispute official unspun statistics just because the results are unexpected and the underlying reasons aren’t understood.
“Instead I think much more research and analysis urgently needs doing so that we can see what is going on.
“This is even more imperative given the sensitive nature of the issue and the serious impact it has had on so many disabled people’s lives.”
And campaigner and blogger Sue Marsh, another key member of the Spartacus online network, said: “When ESA was first introduced, just 10 per cent of claimants with completed assessments qualified for long-term support and 25 per cent for work-related support [for claims begun in January 2009]. This was clearly unreasonable and unfair.
“Today, those figures are 58 per cent and 15 per cent [for claims begun in November 2013].
“It is testimony to the determination and resilience of campaigners that today, WCAs appear to return fairer, safer outcomes for those in need of support.”
Lawyer and benefits expert Nick Dilworth, a co-founder of New Approach, wrote in an article on behalf of New Approach and backed by DPAC, Pat’s Petition, Black Triangle, the WOW campaign, and other campaigning groups, that any claim that ESA was easier to claim than IB was “strongly refuted”.
He wrote: “It is unsafe to draw any conclusion that it is any easier for a claimant to make a claim for ESA than it was for [the] previous range of incapacity benefits. It is not possible to make a valid comparison on the basis of comparing numbers/success.
“A full explanation as to how claimants made their claims and how they were assessed is required before an accurate comparison can be made.
“There is simply not enough information currently available to conclude that the Harrington reviews have led to any identifiable improvement.”
So far, DWP has been unable or unwilling to provide much clarity on why the gap between the IB and ESA success rates is so large.
But a DWP spokeswoman said: “The WCA has been designed to be as fair and accurate as possible – with a face to face assessment and regular reviews – to make sure people get the right level of support for their circumstances.
“Welfare reform is not about making benefits easier or more difficult to claim – it’s about making sure support is targeted at those who need it most.”
She added: “As IB was contribution-based while ESA has both contributory and income-related elements, a comparison between the two would be misleading.”
*This FoI response is available from DNS for anyone who would like to examine it
11 September 2014