Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Photo: Getty
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The Tories are set to breach their own welfare spending cap – here’s why

Despite all the distress and financial hardship caused by a malfunctioning assessment process, spending on the government’s main sickness and disability benefit is set to rise.

The BBC are reporting that spending on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – the benefit for those who are unable to work as a result of a health condition or disability – is rising to the extent that the work and pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith could breach his own self-imposed welfare spending cap.

ESA was a response to the sharp rise in the numbers claiming its predecessor – Incapacity Benefit – under Thatcher and Major in the 1980s and 1990s. Unfortunately controversy has dogged it since its introduction in 2008. The test to determine entitlement – the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) – has produced thousands of incorrect decisions, with at least 15 per cent of those declared “fit for work” having this overturned on appeal.

Although the Tories knew about these issues when they came to power, they actually increased the number of assessments – moving beyond just looking at new claimants (as Labour had done) to the reassessment of the 2.2 million existing Incapacity Benefit claimants.

And yet the internal memo seen by the BBC today predicts that the cost of ESA will rise by nearly £13bn between the current financial year and 2018-19.

This could reflect a trend that I first identified in a House of Commons debate in April. I noted that although the total number of ESA/Incapacity Benefit claimants was set to fall by 150,000 between 2011 and this year, figures that isolate the impact of the Incapacity Benefit reassessment reveal that between the start of the process and March last year, 235,000 claimants had been reassessed as “fit for work”.

So over a shorter time period, 235,000 people were kicked off benefits, and yet the overall reduction in claimants was only 150,000. Clearly something was and is awry. What?

The leaked document suggests that the severity of ESA claimants’ illnesses and disabilities had been underestimated and noted that a new contract for the face-to-face part of WCAs could cost three times as much as the £100m per year currently paid to the much-criticised French IT firm Atos.

However I would argue that another key factor is the failure of the government’s Work Programme, where contractors are paid to support people into jobs. Figures from March 2014 show that between June 2011 and December 2013, only 2,500 of the 24,620 former Incapacity Benefit claimants declared fit for work and on the Work Programme had found a job. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those left behind will simply reapply for ESA for a second time round.

This demonstrates that despite the excessive severity of the test and all the distress and financial hardship this has caused claimants, the government’s attempt to reduce the numbers on benefits and control spending will have fallen well short.

If Labour win power in 2015 we have committed to overhauls of both the test and the support given to people to find work – both of which, as today’s reports demonstrate, are clearly needed.

Sheila Gilmore is MP for Edinburgh East and a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee. She keeps a record of her work and research on ESA on her website.

Sheila Gilmore is Labour MP for Edinburgh East

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.