Disability charities have given a cautious welcome to a government announcement that more claimants are receiving maximum, unconditional disability benefit payments, the apparent result of ongoing improvements to the testing system. The percentage of new claimants receiving unconditional Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) payments has doubled since May 2010, the quarterly statistical release from the Department for Work and Pensions showed.
The new minister for employment, Mark Hoban, attributed the increase to recent improvements to the work capability assessment (WCA), the test designed to determine who should receive benefits and who should be classified as fit for work.
“We are determined to carry on improving the assessment so those who are too unwell to work get the financial support they need, while those who can work get the help they need to get a job,” he said. “With annual independent reviews and by working with medical experts and charities, we have substantially improved the WCA process, which is resulting in a fairer system.”
Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, who earlier this year resigned from a panel advising the government on the policy because of his concerns about the system, said the test remained “deeply flawed” and called for further improvements.
“We are pleased to see that fewer people are being inappropriately declared fit for work, and that more people will have unconditional access to the ESA benefit they so desperately need. However, we still have a long way to go. The work capability assessment used to determine eligibility for ESA is deeply flawed and does properly not recognise the impact of mental health problems on ability to work,” he said.
“The system is based on assumptions that claimants need to be forced back to work, rather than supported on their own terms; and that those not well enough to go back to work are somehow perceived as scroungers. These attitudes only serve to further damage individuals’ mental health and increase the time until they may be ready to return to work.”
Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the disability charity Scope, said: “Some people genuinely can’t work. This doesn’t mean they are scroungers. It’s good that the government appears to be acknowledging this. But there remains an alarming dossier of evidence that the work capability assessment is a deeply flawed test.”
The quarterly statistical release showed that 54% of new claimants assessed were found to be able to work, while 46% were eligible for the benefit. Those eligible for payments fall into two categories – 26% were put into the support group, classified as too ill or disabled to work. In May 2010, just 10%-11% of claimants were put into this group.
Twenty percent of claimants were put into the work-related activity group, which means they are currently assessed as too ill or disabled to work, but will be expected to have regular Jobcentre meetings to start preparing them for an eventual return to work.