The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has finally published figures that show how many universal credit claimants are being found “fit for work” through the work capability assessment process.
They show that DWP is consistently finding more disabled people claiming universal credit fit for work – or at least to be suitable for what DWP calls work-related activity – than it is for those claiming employment and support allowance (ESA).
But because the two groups of claimants are likely to have different support needs, it is impossible to draw any firm conclusions from the figures.
Former DWP ministers such as Therese Coffey and Chloe Smith have repeatedly argued that it would be too expensive to produce official statistics showing how many disabled claimants of universal credit have been put through the work capability assessment (WCA), what level of benefit they received following their assessment, and how many were being found fit for work.
Smith told MPs on the work and pensions committee in July that it was too expensive and too much effort to produce the statistics about key parts of an assessment system linked to hundreds, and probably thousands, of deaths over the last decade.
Sarah Newton, the minister for disabled people at the time, promised nearly four years ago that DWP would soon be publishing official WCA universal credit statistics.
But those statistics were never published.
The Office for Statistics Regulation told DWP earlier this year – following a complaint from Disability News Service – that its failure to publish universal credit WCA statistics left “a gap in the information available” and that there was a “wealth of evidence around the need for transparency around Universal Credit WCA statistics”.
It now appears that – shortly before she was sacked from the post of work and pensions secretary by Rishi Sunak this week – Smith had a change of heart.
In response to a written parliamentary question from Sir Stephen Timms, the Labour chair of the Commons work and pensions committee, the new minister for disabled people, Claire Coutinho, released some limited figures.
Those figures, which were released earlier this month, were first spotted by the Benefits and Work advice website.
They show that, for every month from July 2021 to March 2022 – apart from November 2021 – the proportion of claimants going through the work capability assessment who were found fit for work, or were placed in the group of those expected to carry out work-related activity, was higher for those seeking support through universal credit (UC) than for those receiving employment and support allowance (ESA)*.
In the latest month in which figures were available, March 2022, 21 per cent of those on ESA who were put through the WCA were found fit for work, with another 13.4 per cent placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG).
But in the same month, 23.9 per cent of UC claimants were found fit for work and another 16.8 per cent were found to have limited capability for work (the UC equivalent of WRAG).
The figures do not prove there is a harsher assessment regime under UC, as it could be that the population of ESA claimants going through the WCA have higher support needs on average.
But they still raise fresh questions – supported by anecdotal evidence – over whether ministers are using the new UC system to restrict spending and increase pressure on claimants to move towards work.
A DWP spokesperson declined to say if the department would now be publishing regular official statistics on UC and WCAs.
But the department said the figures released to Sir Stephen were produced using departmental management information, which is a less extensive and costly process than producing official statistics.
*ESA was introduced as the new out-of-work sickness and disability benefit in 2008, and ESA claimants are now gradually being moved onto universal credit
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