Welfare reform: what needs to happen next

By staff writers
January 17, 2012

Writing in The Guardian, Declan Gaffney, former policy advisor to the previous Mayor of London and to the previous government, has written in a personal capacity about what is at stake in the continuing struggle over disabled rights and the Welfare Reform Bill.

His article is worth quoting at length. Gaffney says:

"The big issue will not be whether the government suffers further defeats but whether the bill can be amended – with or without government agreement – so as to reduce the justified anxiety that government's proposals for DLA have caused.

"The government lost last week for one simple reason: it failed to convince crossbench peers that its proposals were reasonable. On the key vote on time-limiting contributory ESA, only one crossbencher voted with the government. The government's credibility was also the victim of an extraordinary own goal scored by Lord Freud, who moved an amendment after most of the crossbenchers had left the chamber, overturning one of the changes they had voted for earlier. Resort to this kind of procedural tactic only reinforces the sense that the government's case for reform is very weak.

"With the changes to DLA, the government's credibility problem is if anything more severe, with last week's Responsible Reform report (aka the Spartacus report) by disabled activists documenting a reform process marked by shoddy evidence and the suppression of overwhelmingly negative consultation responses. (Declaration of interest: I provided some of the statistics used in this report.)

"In last week's debate, there was a clear focus for peer's concerns in specific clauses of the bill that had been well-canvassed for months before the debate. Things will be different on Tuesday because the main source of concern with DLA does not feature in the legislation. This is the government's stated objective of reducing caseload and expenditure by a breathtaking 20 per cent against projected levels: there is no clause in the bill setting out this objective.

"Nonetheless government can hardly complain if disabled people see this as the primary motivation for the legislation. This is what the Treasury has said:

This measure will introduce an objective medical assessment and revised eligibility criteria for both new and existing working age claims for Disability Living Allowance to be rolled out from 2013/14. The assessment will follow a similar process to the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) used for claims to Employment and Support Allowance … Drawing on the evidence of the impact of WCA the central assumption of this policy is that it will result in a 20 per cent reduction in caseload and expenditure once fully rolled out.

"So let's be clear: it is not unreasonable for disabled people to be extremely anxious about these changes. Reductions on this scale will not be achieved by weeding out inappropriate claims or excessive awards: on any reasonable estimate the numbers are on a quite different scale. Nor is this a matter of stemming an out-of-control growth in the working age caseload, as government has sought to claim. On the contrary, as we showed in the Spartacus report, the DLA caseload for most conditions has been stable since the turn of this century. (The exceptions are learning difficulties, and mental health.)

"The fact that this reduction in caseload is premised on the experience of the discredited WCA for ESA only compounds the sense that the government was out of its depth when it set this objective. One of the more sensible things the government has done since the election was to commission an independent review of the operation of WCA from Sir Malcolm Harrington, whose work supported many of the criticisms of the assessment that disability organisations had been making since its introduction.

"Since the implementation of Harrington's recommendations, the outcomes from WCA assessments have changed dramatically, with the numbers of new claims being awarded unconditional support on the grounds that they are not expected to work again on average 36 per cent higher than a year earlier.

"Likewise the numbers being found "fit for work" and denied ESA have fallen. The implication is that thousands of clients were incorrectly turned down for both conditional and unconditional support prior to Harrington's review, and this is supported by the 39 per cent of WCA decisions overturned at appeal. The DWP now has to find an extra £1billion (about 10 per cent) for ESA by 2014/15 to compensate for its over-optimistic projections. Behind this policy failure lie undisciplined expectations of major reductions in benefit caseloads, premised on nothing more than an assumption that they were unjustifiably high.

"We have been here before and the thinking behind the target reductions in DLA caseloads threatens a replay of one of DWP's more spectacular policy failures of recent years. So how can the bill be amended to reduce the risk of history repeating itself?

"One option, already being proposed by some charities, is to make full implementation of the changes conditional on government doing what – as the Spartacus report showed – it has failed to do to date: providing credible evidence that it understands the implications of the changes it wants to make. This could take the form of an independent review of the changes to assessment before they are implemented – either for existing clients as Mind is demanding or, preferably I would argue, for all clients. Such a review would need to look at all aspects of how the new system will operate and how it is likely to affect entitlements, taking account of disabling condition and severity.

"An open and transparent evaluation of assessment criteria and processes by independent experts would be essential to build confidence in the new system: likewise, given what seems to have happened with the WCA, the contracting arrangements with providers of assessments would need to be examined to ensure that no biases are introduced into the assessment process. The implementation of the relevant clauses of the bill would then be deferred until the review was reported to and debated by parliament.

"For government, the route to securing the support of crossbenchers lies in restoring the confidence of disabled people in a reform process that has been amateurish and high-handed. If peers were to call for a review of the assessment process before full implementation, it would make sense for the government to agree this. The key issue for disabled people – who are the ones who will again bear the cost of ill thought-out reforms – is not whether the government suffers another defeat in the Lords but whether the right safeguards are in place for the new system," concludes Gaffney.

See also:

* Asking the Lords to make welfare reform fair and safe - Sue Marsh: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16087

* Charities ask government to pause and rethink on welfare reform: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16088

* The full report, 'Responsible Reform', published here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/responsiblereformDLA

* The #spartacusreport authors' response to Lord Freud's dismissal here: http://tinyurl.com/7mh77f9

* More on Spartacus from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/spartcusreport

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.