Government plans to start using its controversial work capability assessment (WCA) to test all those still receiving incapacity benefit (IB) could “blight” the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people, say critics.
Work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper confirmed that the government would start testing the 1.5 million people still receiving IB from October, building up to more than 10,000 tests a week, with IB phased out by April 2014.
Since October 2008, new applicants for out-of-work disability benefits have had to undergo the new test – repeatedly criticised as too strict and inflexible by campaigners – in order to qualify for employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for IB.
This week’s announcement came as the government revealed minor changes to the WCA, following the long-awaited publication of an internal review.
The assessment should now be easier to understand and more sensitive to fluctuating conditions such as ms and mental illness, while some people, such as those awaiting chemotherapy or with severe mental health conditions, will be exempt from the test.
The Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) welcomed the exemptions but said the review does not reflect the problems the WCA is causing many disabled people, and the test remained “inflexible”, failed to recognise the impact of some impairments and “prevents people accessing tailored support to get work”.
A DBC spokesman added: “The Disability Benefits Consortium was asked to contribute to the review but is frustrated that concerns over the stringency of the assessment have largely gone unaddressed and opportunities for improvement have been missed.”
Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, a consortium member, said the review’s findings were “unacceptable” and failed to recognise the high levels of workplace discrimination that make it even harder for many disabled people to find jobs.
He added: “What is most worrying is that this pretence that [the WCA] is effective is going to blight potentially hundreds of thousands of people’s lives when you see migration from IB.”
Cooper also announced a series of other measures around welfare reform and disabled people.
There will be extra support for those who have been on IB for many years and are pronounced fit for work after taking the WCA, with compulsory jobs or work placements for those who don’t find work after two years on jobseeker’s allowance.
There will also be a guaranteed place on Work Choice – the specialist disability employment programme that will replace Workstep from October – for those on ESA who do not find a job after two years.
Those receiving ESA and considered able to take part in work-related activity will receive personalised support alongside a strict regime of requirements they will have to meet to continue receiving the benefit, with most expected to move off ESA within two years.
>From April 2011, a new employment support programme for disabled people will replace Pathways to Work – which the government said was “not flexible or cost effective enough”.
And changes to the access to work programme will see larger employers pay a higher contribution towards workplace adjustments, subsidising the costs of smaller employers.
Cooper said: “This is a ‘something for something’ approach which gives people more help alongside a responsibility to take it up so that no one who is fit for work is left to a life on benefits.”
The DWP said it expected that its reforms to IB and ESA would produce over £1.5 billion savings over the next five years.
1 April 2010