The government is to push ahead with “nightmare” cost-cutting plans to tighten the work capability assessment, which will save the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) nearly £1.3 billion a year by 2028.
Confirmation of the changes to the assessment were made as part of the autumn statement, as chancellor Jeremy Hunt (pictured) said it was “wrong economically and wrong morally” to provide support for so many disabled people without forcing them to look for work.
He claimed the tightening of the assessment reflected “greater flexibility and availability of home working after the pandemic”.
The changes were confirmed less than a month after the end of a public consultation, although they should only take place if the Conservatives win the next general election.
In the aftermath of the budget, disabled people’s organisations and allies wrote to work and pensions secretary Mel Stride to express their “deep concern” over the work capability assessment (WCA) changes.
In their letter (PDF), they say the “overwhelming consensus” among those attending consultation events held by DWP was that the proposals would be “highly damaging”.
And they add: “Given the weight of opposition to these proposals that was evident during the consultation period, it is unfortunately hard to avoid the conclusion that in part its outcome was already determined.”
The letter was signed by Disability Rights UK and Inclusion London, and coordinated by the anti-poverty charity Z2K, with organisations including Child Poverty Action Group and the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers also supporting it.
There was also confirmation yesterday of plans announced last week that will mean some claimants – although not those with a disability-related allowance – who refuse to comply with conditions imposed on them by work coaches could have their universal credit claim closed entirely and lose their entitlement to additional benefits such as free prescriptions.
These measures could affect some disabled people found unfairly fit for work, including those appealing against that finding.
Evenbreak, the disabled-run online job board for disabled people, was highly critical of the government’s approach.
Jane Hatton, Evenbreak’s chief executive, said the reforms were based on “completely false assumptions”, most importantly that “disabled people who don’t work are lazy, and need to be forced into work by the use of harsher and harsher punishments”.
She said: “The government says that work improves people’s wellbeing, but not if you have a severe mental health condition or severe pain or fatigue.
“In some cases, work can make you significantly worse.
“The other assumption is that there are jobs that disabled people could do working from home.
“For many, just like non-disabled people, working from home may not be an option, but even if it is, those opportunities are becoming fewer and fewer.
“Instead of demonising unemployed disabled people as ‘benefit scroungers’, this government – any government – needs to look at the real barriers that prevent disabled people from working, many of which they have manifested themselves.”
Justin Donne, chair of the autistic-led charity Autistic Nottingham, said: “The only ‘moral wrong’ is the government’s callous attitude to people who are long-term unemployed, including the autistic people our charity supports.
“What’s concerning about the chancellor’s announcement is that it ignores the fact that few employers offer that kind of work-from-home flexibility and adequate pay, to make such plans realistic.
“We do not live in a dream world where these jobs exist, thus creating a nightmare for autistic people on benefits who are long-term unemployed due to a lack of accessible work.”
The autumn statement also confirmed that working-age benefits would be uprated next spring by 6.7 per cent (September’s inflation rate), with the state pension rising by 8.5 per cent*.
And Hunt confirmed last week’s announcement of an expansion of employment support through the new Back to Work Plan, much of it aimed at those with mental health conditions.
Alongside the chancellor’s statement, DWP published its response to the consultation on its proposed changes to the WCA.
The response came only three weeks after the consultation ended.
Documents released as part of the autumn statement say the number of people found to have limited capability for work and work-related activity (LCWRA) through universal credit – who therefore do not have any work-related conditions imposed on them by DWP – has increased by 0.7 million to about 2.4 million since May 2019.
The document confirms that many of the WCA proposals will go ahead from 2025 at the earliest.
Although ministers no longer plan to scrap the criteria that protects those seen as being at “substantial risk” of harm if found able to carry out work-related activity, they still aim to amend this safety net so that it only applies in “exceptional circumstances”, protecting those with “the most severe mental or physical health conditions”.
They will also go ahead with changes to the WCA’s “getting about” and “mobilising” activities, removing the mobilising descriptor for eligibility for LCWRA and reducing the points scored for the “getting about” descriptor for limited capability for work eligibility.
But they will not go ahead with proposed changes to the WCA descriptors for continence or social engagement.
The changes will apply to new claims for employment and support allowance (ESA), and to UC claimants who report a health condition and need a WCA, but DWP says they will “not affect existing claimants whose circumstances remain the same”.
The changes will save DWP an estimated £125 million in 2025-26, £500 million in 2026-27, £900 million in 2027-28, and £1.265 billion in 2028-29.
And, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility (PDF), this will mean 371,000 disabled people will lose their entitlement to extra support – and start being subject to conditionality and sanctions – as they are moved out of the LCWRA group (or the ESA support group) by 2028-29.
The WCA reforms will increase employment by just 10,000 by 2028-29, the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates.
DWP received more than 1,300 written responses to the WCA consultation, and it claims they have all been “reviewed and carefully considered”.
The DWP document admits that the responses “express concern” about the proposals, including the impact of disabled people losing out on the LCWRA additions – worth £390 a month at current rates – and “fears of being brought into a benefit regime with conditionality and the possibility of benefit sanctions”.
It also says there will be a new “offer” from 2025 which will mean that those already assessed as having LCWRA will be able to try work but will not face another WCA if that job does not work out.
But although they promise this means that almost all people currently assessed as having LCWRA “will never face a WCA reassessment again”, the government has already announced plans to scrap the WCA in the years after the next election, with the much-criticised personal independence payment assessment system to be used instead to decide eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.
*Some disability benefits are devolved in Scotland, so the Scottish government will decide on how they are uprated, while all DWP benefits are devolved in Northern Ireland
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