Counting the cost of the WCA

By Bernadette Meaden
July 11, 2014

People campaigning for the abolition of the Work Capability Assessment have often quoted figures from the Department for Work and Pensions which state that between January 2011 and November 2011, 10,600 sick and disabled people died within six weeks of their benefit claim ending.

This has understandably been interpreted by many to mean that 10,600 people died after being declared fit for work via a Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and having their benefits stopped.

On Wednesday, Tom Chivers wrote a blog for the Telegraph saying ‘this is not true’ and explained ‘I've spoken to the DWP, and while that figure is correct, the "within six weeks" bit, bizarrely, does not mean "within the following six weeks": it means "within six weeks either side".’

So: many people may have died six weeks before their claim ended. Their claim may have ended because they died. We have no way of knowing, but it is surely reasonable to assume that some who died had their deaths hastened by being involved in the notoriously stressful assessment process, or the mere prospect of being caught up in it.

Imagine you have a serious medical condition or disability. You cannot work and rely on your benefit to survive. Now imagine that the government announces the biggest shake up of the system in sixty years, and talks about large numbers of people like you ‘languishing’ on benefits who should be in work. You are in no doubt that if you cannot prove the seriousness of your condition, to a private company with a growing reputation for getting decisions wrong, you will have your benefits removed. How would this affect your health?

When the Work Capability Assessment was introduced by the previous government it applied only to new claimants for Employment and Support Allowance. When the Coalition took office the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Chris Grayling, decided, against expert advice, to extend it to all sick and disabled claimants, many of whom had been on Incapacity Benefit for years.

In his blog Mr. Chivers quotes the DWP as saying, ‘It would be expected that the mortality rate amongst those on incapacity benefits recipients would be higher than that in the general population as some people receive incapacity benefits due to life-threatening conditions or terminal illness.’

So, these are the people who, against expert advice, the Secretary of State was pushing through an assessment process which his own adviser had described as ‘mechanistic and inhumane’. People like Linda Wootton,
who died nine days after being declared fit for work. Her husband said,

"I sat there and listened to my wife drown in her own body fluids. It took half an hour for her to die – and that’s a woman who’s ‘fit for work’. The last months of her life were a misery because she worried about her benefits, feeling useless, like a scrounger."

In the statistical breakdown of the10,600 dead, the DWP categorises 2,200 as ‘Assessment not complete’, so they presumably died in that system, or waiting to be caught up in it. And 1,300 who died were in the Work Related Activity Group, which means the DWP had told them they were expected to recover and return to work, and were obliged to undertake work related activity or lose their benefits. It is well documented that almost half of people with degenerative conditions like Parkinson’s disease have been placed in this group.

Mr. Chivers has performed a public service by getting some clarification from the DWP on this contentious figure. He says he was motivated by the fear that the claim was in danger of becoming ‘received wisdom’ but concedes that any misinterpretation has been largely due to the DWP’s own failure to communicate clearly and, ‘they've got no one to blame for the misunderstanding but themselves.’

That being the case, it would be very unfair if his blog was used by anybody to suggest that disabled people had exaggerated the harmful impact of welfare reform. Many now feel permanently under suspicion and live in fear of being made penniless. The effect this has on people who are physically or mentally ill is difficult to convey to someone who is fit and healthy.

It is also unfortunate that, whilst Mr. Chivers blog could potentially be used to undermine campaigners, the Telegraph has been more than happy to publish false government claims which have been hugely damaging to the welfare of sick and disabled people.

On 30th March 2013 the Telegraph published a piece headlined
‘Nearly 900,000 people who were on incapacity benefit dropped their claim to the payments rather than undergo a tough medical test, latest government figures show.’ This claim was widely publicised and quickly became ‘received wisdom’. I have seen it stated as fact in television debates by several people, including Matthew Parris. This considerably reduced public empathy towards disabled people.

The truth, which received almost no publicity whatsoever, was that the total number of people who dropped their claims before going for an assessment was 19,700. The damage was done, and it became an accepted fact that almost a million sick or disabled people had been fakes who were milking the benefits system.

Perhaps we should all take a step back and consider the significance of the figures we are debating. If ‘only’ a few thousand people have died in poverty and distress after having their support removed, would that be acceptable? The system is undeniably a disaster for sick and disabled people, removing peace of mind and any sense of security. It is a national disgrace and the WCA should be abolished, as the British Medical Association demanded in 2012.

Of course it is important for campaigners to use accurate figures, but the greatest responsibility for accuracy lies with the DWP, which has a very poor track record in this area. It is hardly surprising that confusion or misunderstandings arise when a government department falls so far short of the expected standard.

Above all though, when trading statistics, we must never lose sight of the people those statistics represent. So, Mr Chivers has clarified some statistics: but that is cold comfort to all those who now fear that they will end their lives in misery like Linda Wootton, ‘feeling useless, like a scrounger’.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Keywords:welfare | wca | disability
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