The government’s highly-politicised programme to reassess every disabled person claiming old-style incapacity benefit (IB) has missed its deadline for completion, Disability News Service (DNS) can reveal.
The coalition launched the reassessment programme early in 2011 and insisted that it would be completed within three years, by the end of March 2014.
But many of the 1.5 million disabled people who were to be reassessed are still waiting to be tested by the government’s contractors Atos Healthcare for their eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA), which is replacing IB.
The national “migration” programme of people still claiming IB had been due to start in April 2011 but actually began several weeks earlier than planned. At its peak, more than 10,000 disabled people every week were being tested by Atos.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was only able to give figures from last June, which showed that about three-quarters of IB claimants who were due to be reassessed had “been through the process”.
Later figures were not available, but DWP admitted that it had missed its deadline of the end of March. It claimed that the decision to allow Atos to quit before the end of its contract next year had had a “knock-on effect on our intention to complete the process of IB reassessment by April 2014”.
In February, DNS reported how Atos staff were openly blaming a shortage of doctors willing to work for the company for causing lengthy delays in assessing disabled people for their “fitness for work”.
And last week, DWP announced that it had agreed to let Atos pull out early from the contract to carry out work capability assessments (WCAs) on both new ESA claimants and existing IB claimants.
A DWP spokesman said: “This has had a knock-on effect on our intention to complete the process of IB reassessment by April 2014, and we continue to work hard to reassess the remaining claimants who remain on IB.”
But he was unable to say how many IB claimants were still waiting to be reassessed, or how long the reassessment process would last.
The delayed reassessment migration is the latest embarrassment for work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and his sweeping programme of welfare reforms.
The Work Programme, the new universal credit system, the replacement of working-age disability allowance by personal independence payment, and the imposition of the “bedroom tax” – among other programmes – have been plagued by delays, technical problems, and accusations that they discriminate against disabled people.
Coalition ministers have repeatedly insisted that the IB reassessment programme was necessary in order to help disabled people who have been “abandoned” on out-of-work benefits back into the job market.
Since the reassessment programme started, ministers have repeatedly tried to emphasise how many former IB claimants have been found “fit for work”, but have been far less keen to talk about the small proportion who have then found jobs through the Work Programme or the specialist Work Choice scheme.
Disabled activists have also pointed to links between the WCA and the way Atos carries out the assessments, and relapses, episodes of self-harm, and even suicides and other premature deaths among those being reassessed.
In December, the court of appeal – in a case driven by IB claimants worried about the reassessment programme – ruled that the WCA discriminates against people with mental health conditions, learning difficulties and autism.
Meanwhile, the latest figures for new ESA claimants show that, for claims begun in April to June last year, 69 per cent of those assessed were initially found eligible for ESA and just 31 per cent found fit for work, with 51 per cent placed in the support group for those with the highest support needs.
The numbers eligible for ESA are likely to rise even higher once the results of appeals feed through into the figures.
When the WCA was at its harshest, in the winter of 2008 – soon after its introduction – only 10 per cent of claimants were being placed in the support group after their WCA, with as many as 65 per cent found fit for work.
The DWP spokesman said: “We have regular independent reviews into the WCA so we can ensure disabled people receive the level of support that they need.
“The rise in the number of people in the support group reflects that ESA is being directed to those who need it most.
“People who disagree with the decision on their claim are entitled to ask for the decision to be reviewed as a mandatory reconsideration. If they are still not satisfied they have the option of taking it to a tribunal.”
The website Benefits and Work pointed to other figures in the report which it said showed the ESA system was “on the verge of complete collapse”.
The figures show that, for claims made between April and June 2013, 33 per cent of claimants were still waiting for their assessment or a decision on their eligibility.
This has risen from 27 per cent in the January 2014 figures (claims started from January to March 2013), and 21 per cent in the October 2013 release (for claims started between October and December 2012).
In the April 2012 release, just 16 per cent of claims were still ongoing (claims started from June to August 2011).
3 April 2014