“Heartless” government reforms that will eventually scrap the “fitness for work” assessment “defy logic” and pose significant risks to sick and disabled people who cannot work, say activists who have fought for years to highlight the test’s fatal flaws.
The decision to scrap the work capability assessment (WCA), which has been blamed for countless deaths and years of harm caused to claimants since its introduction in 2008, was the centrepiece of a new disability benefits white paper published yesterday afternoon (Wednesday).
The decision will mean disabled people who were previously assessed as not needing to carry out any work-related activity will in the future have to rely on the judgement of jobcentre work coaches to “determine what, if any, work-related activities an individual can participate in”.
This raises the prospect of claimants with significant impairments or long-term health conditions facing strict conditions imposed by their work coach, including potential benefit sanctions if they are unable to meet them.
The white paper confirms that its new approach “will mean both voluntary and mandatory work-related requirements may be set for health and disability benefit claimants, where this is appropriate, with requirements added at a pace that is appropriate for the individual”.
The long-awaited white paper, Transforming Support, was published nearly four years after the government first announced it intended to reform support for disabled people who rely on the social security system.
If and when the WCA is eventually scrapped, eligibility for the extra element of support paid to those currently assessed as having limited capability for work-related activity – either under universal credit (UC) or through the support group of employment and support allowance – will instead be awarded to anyone who receives both UC and personal independence payment (PIP).
Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures reported by DNS this week (see separate story) show that 632,000 people are receiving out-of-work disability benefits that only those with the highest support needs are eligible for, but not receiving PIP or disability living allowance, which PIP is gradually replacing for working-age claimants.
The reforms mean the government plans to fulfil its long-promised plans to – in effect – merge the WCA with the PIP assessment, which has also been associated with years of harm, flawed and dishonest assessments and claimant deaths.
Ministers stressed that PIP and universal credit would not merge and that PIP would remain a benefit people receive “whether they are in or out of work” and would “not be means-tested”.
Scrapping the WCA would need to be included in new legislation, which the government says is not likely until after the next election.
Even then, it would likely only be rolled out to all new claimants by 2029 at the earliest, with the process of moving existing recipients onto the new system probably not starting until 2029, or even later.
In a phrase used repeatedly by ministers as far back as 2007, work and pensions secretary Mel Stride and disability minister Tom Pursglove said their reforms would focus “on what people can do rather than on what they cannot”.
But Ellen Clifford, disabled activist and author of the award-winning The War On Disabled People, was among many who raised serious safety concerns about their plans.
She told Disability News Service last night: “After over a decade of fighting against the WCA, disabled campaigners should be celebrating the news.
“But we’re not – we are terrified of what is next.
“Scrapping [it] is not being done to stop the grave harms inflicted through the WCA.
“If that was a concern, the WCA wouldn’t have got past the awful suicide of Stephen Carré in 2010.”
She said the measures were instead being introduced because of the failure of the WCA to reduce the number of disabled people who are not in work, and the government’s concerns about the high number of people who are not working or seeking work.
Clifford said the “deeply flawed strategy” would “inevitably result in enormous pressures in communities already pushed to their limits” after more than a decade of austerity, social security reform and personal tragedies.
She said the Conservatives wanted “a social security system so punitive there is no safety net enabling anyone long term out of work for any reason to have anything near a semblance of a bearable life.
“That way, people will keep pushing themselves to stay in the most body-, soul- and mind- destroying jobs.
“Meanwhile, disabled people will be facing new nightmares with all their income dependent upon a single assessment known for wrongful decisions and at the mercy of a conditionality and sanctions regime that is known to discriminate against disabled people.”
Activist and researcher Caroline Richardson, a member of the Spartacus Network of disabled campaigners, said the government’s move was an attempt to silence critics of the WCA.
She said: “However, disabled people are often in work, and sick people are not, so this effectively cuts the financial support to sick people who cannot access [PIP].
“So, working disabled people can access a sickness benefit, and sick people cannot.
“It defies logic to leave people who are sick without support and subject to the whims of work coaches under universal credit.”
Paula Peters, a member of the national steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said the reforms would mean disabled people “previously protected by the support group will be facing the grim prospect of conditionality and the constant bombardment of tasks and demands set by work coaches.
“As a result, benefit sanctions will rocket under universal credit.
“This is a callous, heartless, punitive move by the Conservative government which has shown once again it doesn’t give a damn about disabled people.
“This will cause untold stress, distress and harm.”
DPAC co-founder Linda Burnip added: “Basically, I’d say having unqualified job coaches decide if you’re not fit for work is even worse than having an ex-physio or occupational therapist making that decision [through the existing WCA system].”
Ken Butler, welfare rights and policy officer for Disability Rights UK, said the proposals would “completely remove the protection of no work conditionality, with instead a system geared to driving disabled claimants into seeking and applying for jobs.
“This conditionality would be enforced by a benefit sanctions regime.”
He added: “Those disabled people who can work need support to do so, backed up by the provision of reasonable adjustments by employers.
“However, those disabled people who can’t work or can only work limited hours need protection from sanctions.”
Although the WCA would not be scrapped for several years – and even then, only if the Conservatives win the next general election – concerns about the welfare of sick and disabled claimants over the next few years were heightened by other measures announced in yesterday’s budget.
Budget documents pledge to strengthen the DWP sanctions regime and ensure “that Work Coaches have the tools and training to implement sanctions as effectively as possible”.
The documents also show the government plans to spend an extra £90 million in 2023-24 on “additional work coach time for incapacity benefits claimants”, with £145 million in 2024-25 and £240 million in 2025-26.
Picture: (From left to right) Ellen Clifford, Paula Peters and Mel Stride
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