The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has given a guarded welcome to new figures that show a sharp fall in the proportion of disabled people who are turned down for out-of-work disability benefits.
A second DWP report released on the same day this week shows the number of successful appeals against being found “fit for work” has also fallen sharply.
The statistics suggest that the much-criticised work capability assessment – which assesses eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA) – and possibly also the way the test is being applied by the much-criticised Atos Healthcare, are gradually becoming fairer to disabled people.
A DWP spokesman said there had not been any “direct analysis” of the reasons for the “small increase” in the number of people claiming ESA, but he said there had been “significant improvements” to the WCA, which has become “fairer and more accurate”.
He added: “If it is more fair and accurate and people are moving onto the right groups then of course we would welcome that.”
Despite his comments, the figures are likely to prove embarrassing to Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative work and pensions secretary.
Just a day after they were published, Duncan Smith gave a high-profile speech on social security reform, in which he talked about his efforts to prevent people “languishing on welfare”.
He claimed the social security system had become “distorted” under the previous Labour government and was too often an “entrapment – as it has been for a million people left on incapacity benefits for a decade or more”.
He spoke – in a speech described by Disability Rights UK as “more of the same old, same old” – of “a twilight world where life is dependent on what is given to you, rather than what you are able to create”, and pointed to the “falling numbers claiming the main out-of-work benefits”.
But the new figures show that – at least for disabled people – the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits is actually rising.
“Early estimates” included in the first DWP report suggest that by August 2013 there were 2,430,000 people claiming ESA and old-style incapacity benefit.
But by November 2013 this had risen to 2,465,000, an increase of 35,000 in three months.
It is not clear whether this figure will continue to increase, or if it is just a blip in the long-term downward trend, as the government tries to reduce the number of claimants to below two million.
The second DWP report shows the proportion of claimants who are found fit for work after a WCA continuing to fall, from a high of 65 per cent for those whose claims began in 2009 to 39 per cent for those whose claims started in the first quarter of 2013, itself a drop of four percentage points on the last quarter of 2012.
The figures show that, for claims that began in the first quarter of 2013, 39 per cent were placed in the support group, 23 per cent in the work-related activity group, while 39 per cent were found fit for work.
And they also show that the proportion of successful appeals against being found fit for work has now plunged from 41 per cent, for claims begun in early 2009, to just 23 per cent, for claims begun in the third quarter of 2012.
The report suggests that the changes could be due to improvements made to the WCA by the government in the wake of the independent reviews carried out by Professor Malcolm Harrington.
23 January 2014