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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.