Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith appears set to scrap the “fitness for work” test championed by successive Labour, coalition and Conservative governments, but there are fears that its replacement could prove even more damaging to disabled people.
Duncan Smith (pictured) – in comments not included in a written version of a speech reported by mainstream media – said that employment minister Priti Patel would lead a review of the out-of-work benefit, employment and support allowance (ESA).
And he also appeared to promise that the work capability assessment (WCA), the much-criticised eligibility test for ESA, would be scrapped.
He was speaking just three days before his department finally published complex new figures on the number of people who died after being found “fit for work” following a WCA.
Tory, Labour and coalition governments have repeatedly given their support to the ESA system, since it was launched under Labour in 2008.
But Duncan Smith said, in the speech delivered this week to the thinktank Reform, that there was a “fundamental flaw” at the heart of ESA.
He said: “It is a system that decides that you are either capable of work or you are not capable of work.
“Two absolutes equating to one perverse incentive – a person has to be incapable of all work or available for all work.”
He added: “Someone may be able to do some work for some hours, days or weeks, but not what they were doing previously, when they first became ill.”
Duncan Smith said that ESA – and particularly the WCA – was at odds with the government’s new simplified working-age benefit system, universal credit.
He said: “The more personalised approach under universal credit… sits alongside a work capability assessment which sets the wrong incentives.”
He said a new system should be “better geared towards helping people prepare for work they may be capable of, rather than parking them forever beyond work”, and should be “focussed on what a claimant can do and the support that they need to be able to do it – and not just on what they can’t do”.
Duncan Smith’s comments appear to signal a major retreat from his party’s support for ESA and WCA over the last five years.
And they come less than two months after George Osborne announced, in his summer budget, that from April 2017 he was scrapping the extra financial support for new ESA claimants placed in the work-related activity group, a loss of about £1,500 a year per person, as part of measures that would cut £13 billion-a-year from the social security budget by 2020-21.
If Duncan Smith’s comments do mean an end to the WCA, it would mark a victory for disabled activists who have campaigned for five years for the assessment to be scrapped, despite repeated government insistence that it was fit for purpose.
Over the course of five independent reviews aimed at improving the WCA, Tory ministers have insisted that the WCA must stay.
In the government’s response to the second independent review of the WCA, in 2011, employment minister Chris Grayling said they would “make further improvements to the work capability assessment to ensure it continues to be fit for purpose”.
In his response to the third independent review of the WCA, in 2012, employment minister Mark Hoban said the goal was “continuous improvement”, and added: “We agree that the WCA ‘remains a valid concept for assessing… eligibility’ and that there is no evidence to suggest that the system is fundamentally unsound.”
Early in 2014, Mike Penning, then the minister for disabled people, responded to the fourth WCA review by welcoming the conclusion of the independent reviewer, Dr Paul Litchfield, that the WCA did not need to be scrapped.
Penning said: “In line with the government’s view, he has instead reflected that we need to make further changes but that these reflect our strategy of continuous improvement rather than radical overhaul.”
And just three months before May’s general election, responding to the fifth and final review, Mark Harper, Penning’s successor, insisted that the WCA was “integral to the government’s commitment to ensuring that as many people as are able to do so engage in employment and that those who cannot work receive the appropriate support”.
But now, in this week’s speech, Duncan Smith appears to have concluded that his government was wrong all along to support the ESA and WCA system.
He told the Reform event: “I want to place people at the heart of a system, and make the system work around them, rather than the other way round, as has been the case.
“It was this back-to-front approach which we had inherited, a system that people crashed into, and struggled to figure out too often.”
Disabled campaigner and researcher Catherine Hale, who wrote a well-received review on the failure of the ESA system to increase the number of disabled people in paid work, said: “I’ve always welcomed the idea of an assessment geared to what kind of work a person could do and what support they would need to do it, as Labour was promising before the election.
“But it would have to be based on the real world of employment, not the fantasy world of the current WCA, involving moving empty cardboard boxes and picking up pound coins from the floor.
“However, I’ll eat my hat if this government, after all its policies and rhetoric of blame and punishment towards disabled people, actually intends to perform a U-turn and empower us instead.”
Michelle Maher, of the WOWpetition – which calls on the government to assess the overall impact of its cuts to support and social care on disabled people – said she believed Duncan Smith’s speech signified a plan to cut the number of people receiving out-of-work disability benefits.
She said: “I firmly believe they thought the WCA would reduce numbers and that people were fraudulently claiming or making a ‘lifestyle’ choice.”
But when ministers realised this was not the case, she said, they decided to scrap the WCA and replace it with something “innocuous but deadly”, with more sanctions and even more “frightening and stressful” for ESA claimants.
Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “What Iain Duncan Smith has said is interesting, but the mind boggles about what he is going to replace it with. He is a slimy snake and I wouldn’t trust him.”
Nick Dilworth, co-founder of the New Approach campaign group and welfare benefits specialist for the website ilegal, said the speech had left many people “bewildered”.
He agreed that Duncan Smith appeared to have announced plans to scrap the WCA, but said he had provided no clue as to what he would replace it with.
He said: “I would warmly welcome reform if it was in the right direction.”
But he added: “I think it would be an absolute crying shame for that opportunity to be lost by Iain Duncan Smith spinning forth a load of rhetoric to get people onside and then doing the absolute reverse. That is what I think he will do.”
Dilworth said he believed that Duncan Smith would make it harder for disabled people to enter the support group of ESA – or the equivalent under universal credit – and said: “When he talks about reform, I am all for that, but I just don’t trust him.”
John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said: “IDS’s latest pronouncements are a signal that a fresh attack on the fundamental human rights of sick and/or disabled people is in the preparatory stages.
“You can’t help disabled people by impoverishing them through brutal austerity cuts as your guiding policy.
“IDS has realised that his disastrous social security cuts have failed to ‘make savings’, even on their own terms, so now he is fumbling around seeking new ways to justify further assaults on our welfare state.
“He’s a proven liar and is both dangerous and breathtakingly incompetent to boot.
“If the UK was still a civilised society – in a week when the DWP has been forced to reveal just how many thousands of sick and/or disabled people have died in abject penury after unjustly being found fit for work – IDS would have been summarily dismissed.
“Dying in poverty and neglect is now just a fact of life in what remains of our social security system, thanks to this man. It is intolerable.”
Disabled activist Caroline Richardson, from the Spartacus online campaigning network, said: “The evolution of universal credit has shown it to be now a system of sanctions, where a person has to continually increase their hours/wages under threat of not just losing the ‘amount a person needs to live on’ but also their housing and other benefits.
“Abolition of ESA reduces the ‘indicator flag’ that clearly differentiates people. I fear that assessments will increase in frequency, and be linked to the number of hours the assessor believes a person could work.
“Anyone with any capacity at all would be effectively on jobseeker’s allowance, even if their claimant commitment obligation for hours to be worked is very low.”