Judged fit to work? You could lose your benefits if you appeal

The government could cut off incapacity payments if people challenge the ruling that they are fit to

Under new proposals, hundreds of thousands of people on incapacity benefits could be cut off from support if they challenge the ruling that they are fit to work.

In April, the government began a reassessment of the 1.6m people claiming sickness benefit, as part of a plan to reduce the annual £7bn incapacity bill.

The new Work Capability Assessment (WCA) has stricter criteria and finds many more people able to work. However, serious concerns have been raised about the reliability of the tests, run by French company Atos. Charities such as Mind, the MS Society, and Parkinson's UK have all raised concerns about a rigidity of questioning that does not take into account the range of problems that might prevent people from working.

As I reported in August last year, in Burnley, one of the areas where the WCA was piloted before being rolled out nationwide, a third of those declared fit for work appealed, and 40 per cent of them won.

This is a very high proportion, and indicates serious flaws with the WCA. Indeed, last year, the BBC reported on instances of people with serious illnesses such as Parkinson's being declared fit to work because of the inflexibility of the criteria.

Currently, those judged fit to work keep receiving their benefit while their appeal is being heard. However, under these new plans, claimants would lose these payments. If they are successful, they will be reimbursed in full. According to the Times (£), this is because ministers are concerned that continued payments are acting as an "incentive to appeal".

Judges have said in private that they could face 500,000 cases a year, with some taking more than nine months to resolve. The tribunal service has already had to double its staff. Ministers hope that this move could put some people off appealing and reduce this burden.

This action is seriously inhumane, and could mean that people with serious diseases or mental illness are left without any source of income for up to nine months while they challenge an unfair ruling.

The fact that so many people win on appeal shows that the WCA is simply not working. Malcolm Harrington, appointed to improve the work test, has warned that the standard of assessments is still inconsistent. Unfairly ruling people fit to work, only so they can win it back on appeal, is both cruel to the individual and costly for the government -- it is already costing £50m a year.

A far more sensible course of action would be to work hard on improving the WCA to broaden the criteria of the test and improve its accuracy, so it allows for the messy reality of human sickness while also ensuring that those fit to work cannot unfairly claim. Pressurising people to forgo their legal right to appeal cannot be the right course of action and essentially punishes them for the failings of the system.

 

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Northern Ireland is another Brexit circle Theresa May must square

The Prime Minister's promise to avoid border controls could collide with the imperative of limiting EU immigration. 

For much of the EU referendum, Theresa May shrewdly adopted the low profile of a "reluctant Remainer". One of her few memorable interventions was over Northern Ireland. During a visit to the province (which voted Remain by 56-44), the then home secretary said that it was "inconceivable" that new border controls would not be imposed in the event of Brexit. "If we were out of the European Union with tariffs on exporting goods into the EU, there’d have to be something to recognise that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland," May warned. "And if you pulled out of the EU and came out of free movement, then how could you have a situation where there was an open border with a country that was in the EU and had access to free movement?"

Yet as prime minister, May has visited Northern Ireland today with a diametrically opposed message. She will support the Irish government's stance that there should be no "hard border" between Northern Ireland and the Republic and that passport-free travel should continue. 

There is an awareness among the EU of the disruptive effect that new controls would have on the peace process. "It's a special situation and it has to be found a special place in the negotiations," François Hollande said during a recent meeting with Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny. But how special, like so much else, depends on the deal the UK strikes with the rest of the EU. If Britain imposes limited controls on free movement (such as an "emergency brake") and, at the very least, maintains visa-free travel, it will easier to maintain present arrangements with Northern Ireland. But should May bow to pressure from Conservative MPs and others to fully end free movement, it will be harder to justify an open Irish border.

As in the case of Scotland, the imperative of preserving the UK collides with the imperative of unifying the Tories. "Brexit means Brexit," May has repeatedly stated. But beyond leaving the EU, there is no agreement on what this means. For both Scotland and Northern Ireland, the best Brexit would be a "soft" version that preserves as much of the status quo as possible (through Single Market membership). But Tory MPs and many Leave supporters voted for a harder variety. Reconciling these poles will be the defining task of May's premiership. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.