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.