The benefits system and ‘fitness to work’


by Rumbold
15th February, 2011 at 1:26 pm    

The benefits system can be pretty confusing. There are currently around thirty benefits/tax credits, ranging from Incapacity Benefit to Carer’s Allowance. Benefit entitlements to things such as Working Tax Credit change every year; others are income-related, others dependent on children. The complexity of the system means that there are frequent misunderstandings about what is involved, especially with regards the newish sickness benefit, ESA. What system there should be for those on sickness benefits is a much wider debate, and not the focus of the piece; rather, it is to do with how the system works (or doesn’t).

ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) was a benefit introduced under the last Labour government, which replaced Incapacity Benefit and Income Support (on grounds of incapacity) for all new claimants. The DWP is now retesting existing Incapacity Benefit and Income Support (on grounds of incapacity) recipients, in order to move them onto ESA. The ESA testing regime (the ‘Work Capability Assessment’) has been pretty controversial. It is administered by a private company, Atos Origin, which is paid in part on how many people it fails and so declares completely fit for work. It frequently ignores medical evidence, and claimants complain about inadequate testing and unsympathetic doctors. Those who have undertaken the assessment are placed into one of three categories: they are found fully fit to work (and moved onto jobseekers’ allowance), or placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG), or the Support group.

The recent reassessment of Incapacity Benefit and Income Support (on grounds of incapacity) has led, according to newspaper reports, to two thirds of these claimants being found fit to work. Mr. Excell takes issue with this, saying that only 29.6% were removed from the benefit (so found fully fit to work), whilst 39% were placed in the WRAG. Given that a percentage of those removed from the benefit appealed successfully against this (at a tribunal), and were put in the WRAG Mr. Excell believes that the figure of benefit claimants fit for work could be as low as 25%.

Doubtless Mr. Excell and I share a withering contempt for Atos’ medical assessments, which have seem people with quite severe issues (especially mental health ones), losing their ESA. But, going on the figures he quotes, there are rather more than 25% ready for work. Mr Excell argues:

But the people in the work-related activity group aren’t fit to work, if they were they would have been found fit to work. Instead, they’ve been put in a group of people who are going to be helped to get back to work, but who don’t have to apply or look for jobs (which is what the benefits system requires of out-of-work non-disabled people).

Anyone placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) is in fact considered fit to work, and is expected to look for jobs and make applications (failure to attend appointments or look for work can led to people’s benefits being sanctioned, or suspended). Why they have been placed in the WRAG group rather than removed from the benefit is the recognition that they still have a specific medical condition (for example, someone with a bad leg can still work), and that they might not always be able to do full time work (16+ hours and earning over £95). This is why people on ESA can do something called ‘permitted work’ which means they can work part time and still claim all their benefits. If they are considered not fit for work, then they will be put in the Support group.

There are a lot of things wrong with the benefits system, especially the medical assessments and the perception that people on sickness benefits are wasters. A number of people on sickness benefits have serious conditions; some will have been born that way, others may have developed the condition at work (frequently ESA claimants are people who have worked for decades and been injured at work).

So how many people in these tests are fit to do some sort of work? If you add the WRAG and removed claimants together, then the number matches the newspaper headlines: 65%. However, some people in the WRA group really are not fit for work, and should be in the Support group. On this basis, at a guess, it would be between 45-55% of people on the old-style sickness benefits who are capable of some sort of work. Not as impressive a headline, but much more realistic given the complexities involved.


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  1. Niels Christensen — on 15th February, 2011 at 3:46 pm  

    Rumbold, now I don’t know the inner history of the british benefits system
    which sure looks confusing. But from my experience with the danish way,
    the development can be characterized by developing new support systems, when politicians ‘realize’ that the existing laws isn’t fair for a specific situation, they ad a new feature without thinking of the whole.
    The result is a ‘machine’ which sometimes creates clients, and where the clients are capable of using the system, yes sometimes they know the systems better than the social workers.
    The consequence is when you try to start from scratch, there is always a group who is crying foul play.

  2. Rumbold — on 15th February, 2011 at 7:57 pm  

    Niels Christensen:

    I agree that some of the systems complexity is to do with tinkering, and that there are some people who are just in it to milk the system (an unavoidable consequence of any system probably). The sheer complexity of it though makes it difficult to tell. I wrote previously on someone theoretically who might be accused on benefit fraud:

    http://www.pickledpolitics.com/archives/10506

    There are also plenty of genuine complaints about the system. The WCA is a joke, and was bound to be the moment you incentive a company to get people off a benefit when they are supposed to be impartial testers.

  3. Kismet Hardy — on 16th February, 2011 at 8:18 pm  

    Well at least those outed as fit to go back to work will be able to take some pleasure in the news that unemployment figures now stand at 2.5 million…

  4. Richard Exell — on 17th February, 2011 at 3:38 pm  

    Dear Rumbold,

    I think you’ll find that people in the ESA Work Related Activity Group aren’t required to be available for actively seek work.

    This was set out in the 2008 “Raising Expectations and Increasing Support” White Paper – http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/fullversion.pdf (para 4.5)

    Indeed, if you visit the Directgov page on ESA, the first thing it tells you is:
    “Employment and Support Allowance is a benefit for people who cannot work because of illness or disability”
    http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/DisabledPeople/FinancialSupport/esa/index.htm

    This policy is being maintained by the new government. See today’s Welfare Reform Bill explanatory notes – http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmbills/154/en/11154en.htm – para. 278:

    “No ESA claimant will be required to look for or be available for work so the new sections do not include a work search or work availability requirement.”

    JSA already allows people who are expected to be available for work but have a health condition or impairment to limit their jobsearch to jobs compatable with their condition or impairment. People in the ESA WRAG are expected to be moving towards employment, but newspapers that lump them in with those who fail the WCA are making a serious mistake.

    But actually I under-stated my case: most disability organisations would argue that many of those who are refused ESA should be in the WRAG and many of those in the WRAG should be in the Support Group, so the percentage “fit for work” is even lower.

    A friend suggested a nice analogy to me: in a supermarket, you can buy orange juice, orange drink and orange-flavoured drink – only orange juice is 100% ‘pure’, so you can’t add together orange juice and orange drink and say that everything in the combined total is 100% pure!

  5. Rumbold — on 17th February, 2011 at 10:00 pm  

    Richard:

    Thank you for your detailed response. People in the WRAG are expected to look for work, if deemed appropriate, and they can potentially have their benefits sanctioned if they fail to do so. What marks it out from JSA is that they are not always obliged to look for work all the time, if their JCP advisor/Pathways adviser deems it unrealistic at the time. As the link you provide shows:

    If you are placed in the Work Related Activity Group, you will be expected to take part in work focused interviews with your personal adviser. You will get support to help you prepare for suitable work.

    So the view is that a WRAG member can work, but may need additional help to do so. Hence the invention of things such as permitted work (which is an excellent idea), and other assistance to get into work.

    most disability organisations would argue that many of those who are refused ESA should be in the WRAG and many of those in the WRAG should be in the Support Group, so the percentage “fit for work” is even lower.

    As I said in my piece, there I some in the WRAG who should be in the Support group. I agree too that some who fail the WCA should in fact be passing it. I am glad to see that we shall the same low opinion of ATOS’ WCA.

  6. Matt Loves Working Out — on 18th February, 2011 at 3:52 pm  

    Keep it up! I genuinely was interested by this article, I do love a bit of politics.

  7. joe90 — on 18th February, 2011 at 11:38 pm  

    post #3

    2.5 million unemployed, services about to be cut to the bone and cameron said we in this together.

    I like the double standards they implement they come down with a hammer on the poorest in society and threaten to cut their benefit if people refuse a job fair enough. So what hammer did they use to come down on the bankers who caused this mess? a slap on the wrist and been told not to do it again hmmmmm.

  8. KismetHardy — on 19th February, 2011 at 8:48 am  

    You need money to buy hammers. And banks don’t hand out loans to buy sickles

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