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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How much of a threat is Ukip to Labour?

Paul Nuttall's party is set to beat Labour into second in the Sleaford by-election. But MPs fear far worse is to come.

A week ago, in the Richmond Park by-election, Remainers took their revenge. The Liberal Democrats overturned Zac Goldsmith's elephantine 23,015 majority by turning the contest into a referendum on Brexit (the constituency voted for Remain by 72-28). Today, in the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election, Ukip aim to do the same - but from the reverse position. The seat, where the party finished third in 2015, was 61.5 per cent for Leave.

There is no prospect of a Ukip victory. The Conservatives currently hold a majority of 24,115 and Theresa May's "hard Brexit" stance (which prompted the resignation of the seat's MP Stephen Phillips) has attracted anti-EU voters. But Ukip, which was just 974 votes behind Labour in 2015, will likely finish second. New leader Paul Nuttall's ambition to "replace" the opposition demands no less. Just as the Tories' support for a hard Brexit insulates them from a Ukip challenge, so Labour's support for a softer version (including free movement) makes it vulnerable. The Liverpudlian Nuttall aims to win seats off the party by exploiting the divide between the party and its working class voters. Labour MPs deride Ukip's populist pretensions (noting that Nuttall once supported NHS privatisation). But they once similarly mocked the SNP as "tartan Tories".

Mindful of this, Labour MPs are taking the threat seriously. Even those with majorities traditionally weighed, rather than counted, worry Ukip could sweep them away ("there's no safe seat outside of London," one said). As I write in my column this week, Labour MPs fear Brexit could realign British politics along Remain-Leave lines. The Lib Dems will be the champions of the former, with Ukip the champions of the latter. The Tories, a Labour MP says, will stand above the fray with "the only viable prime minister". Meanwhile, the SNP will remain hegemonic in pro-Remain Scotland. "We face a tougher electoral map than at any time in our history," Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow Treasury minister, told me. Many expect Labour to finish fourth in Sleaford as Remainers defect to the Lib Dems.

To some, however, the potential for Ukip gains appears limited. The party finished second to Labour in just 44 seats in 2015. It was less than 10 points behind in only one of these and less than 20 points behind in just 14 others. But having seen their Scottish colleagues eviscerated, Labour MPs are loath to describe any swing as "impossible". Ukip could indirectly cost the party seats by attracting defectors in Tory-Labour marginals (witness Ed Balls's fate in 2015). Labour's poll ratings averaged just 29.5 per cent last month. But MPs fear this is merely "the tip of the iceberg". At this point in previous parliaments, the party's support has only ever fallen.

In response, Labour MPs are taking drastic action. "People will follow the Lib Dem playbook, treat the party as a franchise and run ultra-local campaign," says one. Leaflets will be free of references to Corbyn and national policy. “You’ve got to cut the mother ship adrift and row yourself to safety. It's every man for himself now."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.