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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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