The number of disability benefits claimants found “fit for work” by the government has fallen sharply over the last two years, according to new figures.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) statistics show the monthly proportion of people found ineligible for employment and support allowance (ESA) dropped from as high as 68 per cent in 2009 to 55 per cent by February this year.
The figures provide further evidence of the unfairness of the work capability assessment (WCA) that was introduced in 2008 by the Labour government to test eligibility for ESA, the replacement for incapacity benefit.
But disabled campaigners believe the WCA is still inflexible, unfair and inaccurate, despite a series of changes aimed at improving the test.
The new figures relate to all new claimants who have completed an assessment, and show that the proportion placed in the “support group” – for those not expected to carry out any work-related activity – increased from about nine or 10 per cent through most of 2009 and 2010 to as high as 14 per cent in April this year and 16 per cent in May 2011.
The monthly figures for claimants placed in the work-related activity group have also risen, from 22 per cent to as high as 33 per cent in February 2011.
Figures for total completed claims since the WCA was first used in October 2008 show that – once appeals are included – only just over half of new ESA claimants have been found fit for work.
The new figures also show that the number of successful appeals against being found fit for work is falling, from about 40 per cent (for claims started in 2009) to about 32 per cent (for those started in August 2010).
Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, welcomed the increase in the number of disabled people able to access the support group without having to appeal.
He said the figures suggested that many more disabled people already denied access to the support group, as well as those unfairly found fit for work, would consider appealing against those decisions.
He said: “Given that the support group figures were lower than expected from the original [government] estimates, that would seem an appropriate expectation.”
A DWP spokeswoman said: “If people do want to appeal, they can appeal.”
She added: “We have made changes to the medical test and we are starting to see those changes come through. We are determined to get that test right.”
She said that some of the improvements introduced by the government after Professor Malcolm Harrington’s review of the WCA were “now being seen in the figures” and that the “test is getting better and putting more people into the support group”.
Chris Grayling, the Conservative employment minister, said the “increase in the number of severely disabled people being given long-term unconditional support” showed the government’s reforms to the WCA were “starting to work”.
But he said it was “clear that the majority of new claimants to sickness benefits are in fact able to return to work”.
27 October 2011