How the government misled us over Employment and Support Allowance

How the government misled us over Employment and Support Allowance

In 2008, the then Labour government introduced a new out of work sickness benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), to replace the old Incapacity Benefit (IB).

The new system of application and assessments was much tougher, and politicians originally hoped that up to a million people could be moved from the benefit.

However, by 2010, it was clear there were significant flaws in the process. People with mental health and fluctuating conditions were not being fairly treated and successful appeals against “fit for work” decisions soared to 40 per cent.

Professor Harrington was asked to review the new benefit and make recommendations for improving it. As the election took place in 2010, crucially, only new claimants were being assessed. ESA was yet to be rolled out to the more complicated, and often longer term, Incapacity Benefit claimants, though trials were underway in Burnley and Aberdeen.

Most people claim out of work sickness benefits for short periods – perhaps to get through a sports injury, accident or one off surgery – and stop their claims within two years. However, this will always leave a few people with serious, life limiting conditions who will need to claim the benefit for longer periods. Over the years, those claims build up, increasing the proportion who need long term support.

When the Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition government came to power in May 2010, they immediately announced that they would go ahead and start to reassess those already claiming Incapacity Benefit.

I could never understand this decision. Why would you take a failing benefit and roll it out to almost two million of the most vulnerable claimants? Not only that, but at first, just 25,000 people per month were being assessed – but the government constantly increased and increased the numbers until today, nearly 130,000 assessments are carried out every month.

Why? Why would you rush this group through failing assessments, ever faster, when backlogs kept on increasing, tribunals were overturning some 40 per cent of decisions that went to appeal and even legally, courts were starting to judge that the test discriminates against certain groups?

Unless of course you don’t want the tests to be fair. If your aim is to remove a million people from the benefit, perhaps it suits you to make sure that as many of those existing claimants don’t face a fair test?

Since 2010, the government have repeatedly delayed improvements to ESA. Out of 25 recommendations made by Professor Harrington in his Year One Review, almost two thirds have not been fully and successfully implemented.

An “evidence based review” using new descriptors designed by mental health charities and those charities representing people with fluctuating conditions was initially rejected, then taken on. But although results were due in June 2013, still tests use the old descriptors to decide who qualifies for support.

(Coincidentally, the evidence based review was finally released yesterday, 12 December 2013, as I was writing this article. I will comment on this separately.)

The government repeatedly claimed that Professor Harrington had supported the national rollout of incapacity benefit claimants.

“Professor Harrington went away and made his recommendations to us, which we accepted in full and have implemented. He told me, “I believe the system is in sufficient shape for you to proceed with incapacity benefit reassessment.” We set ourselves a goal to put his recommendations in place, improve the quality of the process and address many of the issues to which Honourable Members have referred today by the end of last May, when the assessments in the incapacity benefit reassessment were to start alongside the existing process of assessing ESA new claimants. We did that, and we started." [1 February 2012: Column 289WH, Hansard, Chris Grayling - then Minister of State for Employment]

However, Harrington was clearly an intelligent man who had made thoughtful and intelligent suggestions for improving the assessments. I could never understand why he agreed to put the most vulnerable claimants through a failing test. So I decided to ask him.

It took me a while to track down his email address, but after pulling lots of strings, I was able to ask him outright.

This was Professor Harrington’s reply: “To your question: I NEVER – repeat – NEVER agreed to the IB migration. I would have preferred that it be delayed but by the time I said that, the political die had been cast. I then said that I would review progress of that during my reviews. The decision was political. I could not influence it. IS THAT CRYSTAL CLEAR? Malcolm.”

I would say that was fairly clear, wouldn’t you?

Yet Ian Duncan-Smith and others took the decision to push nearly two million people through a failing test as quickly as they could. Why? Was it so that they could remove as many people as possible from the benefit whether they needed it or not? Surely any failures to improve the test as recommended by Harrington, charities and campaigners couldn’t have been deliberate? Delaying improvements until the IB cohort had been rushed through, the cohort this government and others are convinced are simply “scroungers” and “skivers”?

Instead, as we now see, delays have increased, successful appeals have risen, lives have been lost to the sheer inaccuracy and flawed design of the assessments and the human suffering is now clear for all to see.

To have taken the decision through incompetence is bad enough, but if it was taken deliberately and cynically, I can only hope the responsible ministers will be held to account. Over 200,000 incorrect decisions have since been overturned in law and appeals are taking up to a year to be heard in some areas.

When David Cameron came to power he said: "The test of a good society is how do you protect the poorest, the most vulnerable, the elderly, the frail.

"That's important in good times, it's even more important in difficult times. People need to know that if they have me as their Prime Minister and they have a Conservative government, it will be that sort of Prime Minister.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith said: “I say to those watching today and who are genuinely sick, disabled or are retired. You have nothing to fear.

"This government and this party don’t regard caring for the needy as a burden. It is a proud duty to provide financial security to the most vulnerable members of our society and this will not change. This is our contract with the most vulnerable.”

I look forward to them explaining what made them change their minds.

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© Sue Marsh contributed to the new Briefing on Employment and Support Allowance (Amendment) Regulations 2012 (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/ESAbriefing) as project leader. She was one the the authors of the original Spartacus report, 'Responsible Reform' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/responsiblereformDLA), which exposed the lack of support and proper verification behind the replacement of Disability Living Allowance (DLA). She has lived with severe Crohn's Disease for nearly three decades, and campaigns to raise awareness of hidden disabilities and long term illness. She spoke on welfare reform at the 2012 Greenbelt Festival, as part of a Children's Society / Ekklesia panel, and has continued to research, lobby, advocate, broadcast and write on these vital issues. Her 'Diary of a Benefit Scrounger' blog, from which this post is adapted, can be found here: http://diaryofabenefitscrounger.blogspot.com/ Sue also writes for the Guardian's Comment-is-Free website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/marsh-sue Her Ekklesia blog is here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/suemarsh

* See also: People's review of the Work Capability Allowance (WCA): further evidence - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19621

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