MPs have accused the government of “pandering to the Daily Mail” over the issue of incapacity benefit reform, after it published a misleading press release about the results of its “fitness for work” tests.
Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith was asked to explain the way his department had presented the latest figures on the work capability assessment (WCA), which tests eligibility for the new employment and support allowance (ESA).
Members of the Commons work and pensions committee claimed Duncan Smith’s department presented the statistics in a way that emphasised the number of people found “fit for work”, even though the figures actually showed increasing numbers of disabled people being found eligible for support and not fit for work.
The press release said that 38 per cent of claimants were being found fit for work, but then described this as a “majority”.
The Labour MP Sheila Gilmore said the press release, published on 25 October, “appeared to be yet again an attempt to convey a particular image of claimants that most were fit for work”.
She said the press release had selected a set of figures which “creates the impression of the fewest people being successful in getting the benefit and the notion that there’s an awful lot of people who are making some kind of spurious claim”, when the DWP could easily have highlighted different figures that provided a more accurate picture.
The Liberal Democrat committee member Stephen Lloyd accused the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of “going backwards and pandering to the Daily Mail”.
He said: “I find it unbelievably frustrating when a DWP press release calls 38 per cent a majority. I don’t want to play that game.”
Duncan Smith became the latest coalition minister to protest that he was unable to “control” how media organisations presented DWP figures.
But he added: “I personally thought all the figures are available and people can see how this thing is working quite straightforwardly, but if the committee feels we need to do more on this then we will do more on this.”
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who chairs the committee, also drew Duncan Smith’s attention to last month’s report by the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council (AJTC), which includes a case study on the implementation of ESA.
The report says the ESA’s introduction by the previous government “breached all of the AJTC’s principles for good administrative justice”.
It examines figures for 2009-10, before the coalition came to power, when one in seven decisions to find a claimant fit for work was found to be wrong on appeal.
Even where claimants scored zero points on the assessment (with at least 15 needed to claim ESA), 34 per cent of appeals were successful, while on average it took more than seven months to overturn an incorrect decision on appeal.
The report adds: “Looking behind the facts and figures, there is copious evidence that ESA claimants did not understand the purpose of the WCA, that nobody took time to explain it, and that it was carried out ‘mechanistically, impersonally and with a lack of empathy’.
“Similarly, there is copious evidence that claimants have been expected to attend assessment centres without appropriate facilities for disabled people. Given the purpose of ESA as a benefit, the apparent failure of design and planning is incomprehensible.”
The AJTC said it welcomed reports that people taking part in trials in Aberdeen and Burnley – which tested the reassessment of claimants of old-style incapacity benefit – had “experienced a better service”, but suggested that the current national rollout of the trials would need more resources if this improvement was to be maintained.
Dame Anne told Duncan Smith: “I’ve never seen such a damning report than the one the AJTC has put out about ESA. It is something that the claimants feel very strongly and it is something people write to us about and get the feeling that perhaps the government is a bit complacent.”
10 November 2011