The report, "The role of incapacity benefit assessment in helping claimants into employment", supports the Government's objectives for the IB reassessment, which are to help people with disabilities and long-term health conditions to move back into employment, while continuing to provide adequate support for people who have limited capability for work or are unable to work. However, the report finds that the Government's positive messages about the IB reassessment are not getting through to the public.
Current incapacity benefit claimants are being reassessed to decide whether they are able to work. If they are found fit for work, they are given help to find a job through the Government's new welfare-to-work scheme, the Work Programme. If they are not fit for work, they are moved on to the new benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) which has replaced incapacity benefit. The Chair of the Committee, Dame Anne Begg MP said:
"The Government’s aim of helping benefit claimants back into work is laudable, but the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated and nor should the level of anxiety which surrounds the process. People are suspicious that the Government’s only objective is to save money."
The report argues that that the Government should be more proactive in explaining its aims for the process and in emphasising the range of support which will be available to claimants. The Chair said:
"The Government needs to improve its communication strategy. The name of the new benefit "Employment and Support Allowance" is confusing because the word "support" has two different meanings — it is used to describe employment support for those who can work on the one hand and financial support through benefits for those who cannot work on the other. The Government needs to make it clear that both types of support are equally important and that either employment support or financial support will be available to claimants, depending on the outcome of the reassessment process."
The inquiry looked in detail at the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), the test which is used to assess whether an incapacity benefit claimant is capable of work, or work-related activity. WCAs are carried out by Atos Healthcare as part of a contract with the Department for Work and Pensions. The Chair said:
"There have been failings in the service Atos Healthcare has provided, which has often fallen short of what claimants can rightly expect. This has contributed significantly to the mistrust which many claimants feel about the whole process. We accept that considerable efforts have been made on the part of both Atos Healthcare and DWP to improve the quality of assessments, but the Department needs to do more to ensure that Atos treats claimants properly and that it produces accurate assessments."
It is widely accepted that the WCA was flawed, in the form in which it was introduced in 2008 for new ESA claimants. This led to a high proportion of inaccurate assessments, resulting in poor decisions by Jobcentre Plus about a claimant’s capability for work. Many of these decisions were then overturned at appeal. The report acknowledges that many welcome improvements have been made to the reassessment process as a result of the review by Professor Malcolm Harrington and the trial of the process carried out in Aberdeen and Burnley, before it was introduced nationally. The Chair said:
"The decision-making process is showing signs of improvement, with more decisions on work capability being "got right the first time". The new measures introduced in the trial areas are resource-intensive, but it is important that the necessary funding is made available for their implementation nationwide, despite the pressures on DWP budgets. Better decision-making will save the Government money in the medium and long term, through fewer appeals and greater efficiency in the process. However, there is no room for complacency and further changes to the reassessment process are needed. We look forward to the findings of Professor Harrington's second review of the WCA."
The committee criticises some sections of the media for the way they have reported the reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants, particularly the use of terms such as "work shy" and "scrounger". It says that portraying the reassessment as some sort of scheme to "weed out benefit cheats" shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the Government's objectives. To help improve public understanding of the process, the Government itself needs to take greater care in the language it uses when it engages with the media and in particular when it releases and comments on official statistics on the IB reassessment, to ensure that context is provided and that unhelpful and inaccurate press stories can be shown to have no basis.
The report says that it is vital that the reassessment process accurately assesses what work claimants might be capable of and the help that they might need in the workplace. It emphasises that information about a claimant's work capability must be properly linked into the Work Programme, so that the support from employment providers matches a claimant's needs. The way the assessment is designed at the moment does not yet ensure that this is the case.
The other main conclusions and recommendations in the report are:
The message which the Government sends to claimants involved in the reassessment process should be clear and simple: if the assessment process correctly finds someone fit for work, that is a successful and desirable outcome. Government communications also need to explain clearly and at every stage of the process that, where someone is found not fit for work, they will be eligible to receive ESA at the support rate.
The language currently used to describe the outcome of the WCA is a barrier to the Government’s objectives for the reassessment being properly communicated. The idea that a claimant has "failed2 the assessment if they are found fully capable of work risks negating the positive messages which the Government is trying to convey. It needs to be addressed across the board and to include all communications between claimants and DWP staff, especially Jobcentre Plus staff who tell claimants the outcome of the process, and Atos Healthcare employees who may explain the process to claimants.
It is unacceptable that some vulnerable claimants have had their benefits stopped for "failure to attend" an assessment, when the non-attendance has arisen from overbooking or administrative error by Atos Healthcare, mistakes made by Jobcentre Plus, or because the claimant was too ill to attend. Processes for recording non-attendance need to be reviewed and changed where necessary.
Welfare Reform Bill
Provisions in the Welfare Reform Bill, currently going through Parliament, would limit contributory ESA (the form of ESA based on National Insurance contributions) to 12 months. The committee recommends that the Government conduct research on whether allowing former IB recipients to claim contributory ESA for more than 12 months would provide a more realistic timeframe for them to enter employment, taking account of the two years of employment support available through the Work Programme.
The success of the IB reassessment is dependent on its effectiveness in helping people with disabilities and long-term health conditions into employment. In order to understand whether the assessment process is achieving this, the Government needs to track the outcomes for the different groups of claimants effectively, including by health condition, to establish how each group fares in terms of gaining sustained employment.
The Government will only achieve its objective of getting benefit claimants back into work if employers are willing to employ people who might have been on incapacity benefit and out of work for some time, and who might still have substantial health issues. The Government has a role to play in helping to change employer attitudes to former benefit claimants and it must pay as much attention to this side of the "back to work" equation as it does to getting the claimant "work ready".