“Very disturbing” new government figures show a steep fall in the proportion of disabled people being found eligible for out-of-work disability benefits.
Disabled campaigners fear the figures show the government is cutting spending on disability benefits “below the radar”, after being forced to abandon its attempts to reduce expenditure on personal independence payment (PIP) in April.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) statistics, released this week, show the proportion of disabled people applying for employment and support allowance (ESA) who were placed in the support group – for those with the highest barriers to work – plunged by 42 per cent in just three months.
For assessments completed during November 2015, 57 per cent of claimants were placed in the support group; but by February 2016 that had dropped by 24 percentage points to just 33 per cent.
During the same period, the proportion of applicants found “fit for work” – and therefore ineligible for ESA – rose from 35 to 49 per cent, while those placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) increased from 8 to 17 per cent.
Fresh cuts to disability benefits spending will see a loss of nearly £30 a week for new ESA claimants placed in the WRAG from April 2017.
Disabled researcher and campaigner Catherine Hale, who wrote a well-received review in 2014 on the failure of the ESA system to increase the number of disabled people in paid work, said the new figures showed “a very worrying trend” which “suggests that the policy of cutting spending on disability benefits is continuing below the radar”.
She said the “sharp drop” in support group awards, combined with the planned WRAG cuts, “will see big reductions in ESA spending, especially from 2017”.
Hale said: “It seems that the government realised that it had exhausted public support for impoverishing disabled people when it lost the moral high ground in the PIP fiasco.
“But it seems to be continuing its austerity agenda via the back door, through unofficial targets.”
She added: “If the back to work programmes for the WRAG really were about removing barriers to the labour market and increasing employment prospects, disabled people wouldn’t fear it.
“Instead, evidence shows, the outlook for disabled people in the WRAG is extremely poor employment prospects, unjust sanctions, a culture of stigma and bullying, and from April 2017, severe financial hardship.”
Debbie Jolly, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said: “At DPAC we are getting lots of emails where people have gone from the support group to zero points [after being re-assessed], often when their conditions have worsened.
“The first people know of this can be an ‘invitation’ to attend a work-focused interview.
“The outcome of the assessment comes a day or two later in a cruel and heartless pattern, a pattern that seems to happen too often to be coincidence.
“As ever, we hear that the assessment report bears little reality to answers given at assessment.”
She said DWP was guilty of “complete brutality that is pushing people towards greater anxiety, pain and despair”, and suggested that it was “a formula [for] government to move more people into the WRAG in order to position people for £30 per week cuts”.
She added: “There needs to be an immediate and urgent inquiry on what is happening and why.”
Ken Butler, welfare rights adviser with Disability Rights UK, said: “The dramatic fall in the number of disabled people being placed in the support group is very disturbing.
“There has been no recent statutory change to the work capability assessment descriptor scheme.
“In addition, there has been no healthcare professional or decision-maker guidance publically issued by the DWP that would account for the fall in support group numbers.”
Butler is among campaigners and experts who believe the figures can be partly explained by a DWP decision to make it harder for an ESA applicant to qualify for the support group by arguing that any other decision would risk causing them “substantial harm”.
He said: “I suspect that the reduction is related to more restrictive assessment of whether someone meets the provisions of ESA regulation 35 (substantial risk to physical or mental health if found not to have a have a limited capability for work-related activity).
“Earlier this year the DWP was reported to be considering abolishing regulation 35.
“My concern is instead that it may effectively be trying to do the same thing by issuing ‘secret’ guidance to Maximus [which carries out WCAs on behalf of DWP] that restricts support group recommendations.”
The number of claimants placed in the ESA support group because of regulation 35 has seen a fall from 9,500, for claims that started in April 2015, to just 3,000 for claims that began in December 2015.
John McArdle, co-founder of the grassroots campaign network Black Triangle, which has played a significant role in raising awareness of the existence of regulation 35, said the figures showed the WCA system was “more lethal now than at any point since its introduction” in 2008.
He said the only way to address the problem was to persuade police that two former DWP ministers – former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and former employment minister Chris Grayling – should face a criminal investigation.
He and many other disabled activists – backed by Disability News Service – believe Duncan Smith and Grayling should be investigated for the Scottish offence of wilful neglect of duty by a public official, for their failure to address safety concerns with the WCA process, following a coroner’s written warning in 2010 that its flaws risked causing further deaths.
McArdle said: “The misery being inflicted on disabled people right now is immeasurable and it has to stop now before the body count skyrockets.”
Anita Bellows, a DPAC researcher, said the figures showed DWP had tightened the criteria around “substantial harm”, which makes it “almost impossible for a claimant to be placed into the support group” under regulation 35.
She said: “DWP shows as usual a complete disregard for the health and well-being of claimants and is only interested in reducing the claimant numbers and in savings, which have yet to materialise.”
Asked whether DWP was concerned by the support group figures, a DWP spokeswoman said: “The decision on whether someone is well enough to work is taken following a thorough independent assessment, and after consideration of all the supporting evidence from the claimant’s GP or medical specialist.
“A claimant who disagrees with the outcome of their assessment can ask for the decision to be reviewed.”
She added: “We expected the proportion of claimants placed in the support group to fall as the backlog of new claims reduced, due to fewer claims leaving the benefit before reaching their WCA.
“The proportion being placed in the support group may have fallen in the latest quarter but remains above levels seen in 2013.”
Asked if DWP had issued any new guidance to Maximus that might explain the drop, she said: “The department regularly reviews the guidance provided to healthcare professionals.
“The online version of the WCA Handbook is periodically reviewed and updated to incorporate all recent updates.”
Asked if the overall fall was connected with the drop in the number of claimants placed in the support group because of regulation 35, she said: “The guidance makes clear that if there is a substantial risk to a claimant’s mental health by being placed in the WRAG, they should be placed in the support group.
“Alongside the change in overall outcomes, there has been a fall in the proportion of assignments to the support group using the risk criteria — from 50 per cent of claims started in July-September 2015, to 41 per cent of assignments to the support group for claims started in October-December 2015.”