Thursday, 17 March 2011

Unearthed : The CHAOS of the government's sickness benefit reform.

As you might know by now, this week, I have been focussing on government plans to reform sickness benefits.

Perceived wisdom amongst lobbyists and campaign groups is that this government aim to force 1.5 million of the 2.2 million currently receiving Incapacity Benefits (IB and ESA, employment Support Allowance) off benefits and into work.

This will be done in two ways :

1) All people currently entitled to Incapacity Benefits will be reassessed under the much tougher new Work Capability Test assessments conducted by the private form ATOS.

2) Those found able to do some work will have their entitlement limited to 1 year if they have a working partner or savings of over £16,000.

As I've been researching this subject, it has become clear that the government have no coherent message at all and "estimates" and attitudes to this reform have changed with the wind.

In opposition and well into this parliament, Conservative ministers were claiming that 1.5 million of those on sickness benefits would be found capable of work. As late as June 2010, IDS claimed that this would be the case. 

"Mr Duncan Smith said: “I intend to move 1.5 million off incapacity benefit by 2014."

Yesterday however, someone sent me this astonishing article from the Telegraph In which Chris Grayling, the Employment Minister contradicts everything his department has always maintained.

First he says that medical assessments will be about “saving lives not saving money”. Currently, hundreds of thousands of people are being found "Fit for Work" who are not. The report into ESA, the Harrington report, found that assessments were 

“impersonal and mechanistic”, with many people feeling they were treated unfairly.
In some cases this could "lead to psychological distress with effects on physical and mental health" among claimants.

Mr Grayling then refuses categorically to repeat Mr Duncan-Smith's assertion that 1.5 million will be taken off Incapacity Benefit, instead claiming 

 “We have no idea how many people will be found fit for work, and not. It is all about saving lives not saving money.
“I do not have a single financial target attached to this process. We have made some guesstimates about what might happen but we genuinely don’t know.
“I stand here today, I have no idea and there is no number sitting in an inside drawer of my desk that tells me how many of these people who have been on incapacity benefit for a long period of time.”
The Telegraph article even claims that 
" well-placed Government sources stressed last night that the “working assumption” was that one in four claimants will be judged fit for work".
This is vastly less than the 65% or two thirds currently being found "Fit for work" during pilot programmes in Aberdeen and Burnley. What's more, the time limiting of ESA has not yet come into effect, meaning that hundreds of thousands more will lose all of their benefits over the coming years. 
Even more astonishingly, Mr Grayling claimed that he would not  "use the language of shirkers and scroungers. I genuinely don't believe that's the biggest problem we face".
This from a minister who's press releases have been so misleading, that they led to headlines like these from the Daily Mail and Express 
"400,000 'were trying it on' to get sickness benefits: 94% of incapacity claimants CAN work"
The Mail have repeatedly been reported to the Press Complaints Commission over these inaccurate headlines and Mr Grayling has also been reported to the Cabinet Office for repeatedly breaching the ministerial code on issuing press releases that are clearly politicized. 
For a while yesterday, I thought there had been a momentous change of tone from the DWP, but the article was written in November, in response to the Harrington Report and it's conclusions that Work Capability Assessments were not working.
Even Maria Miller, the minister for disabilities clearly has no idea at all how these changes will affect sick and disabled people.  
Initially, she claimed that time limiting ESA to one year would affect almost nobody. As Neil Coyle wrote for Left Foot Forward, 
This remained the government’s response as late as November 2010 when the Minister for Disabled People, Maria Miller, was asked at a national conference how time-limiting would provide £2 billion in reduced welfare expenditure if no-one lost out.

The £2 billion cut comes from disabled people losing support as Maria Miller later revealed in Parliament. DWP estimated in December 2010 that 280,000 disabled people will lose all out of work support - but the Welfare Reform Bill impact assessment reveals the figure is closer to 400,000.

Since the CSR, George Osborne has not made a single speech or given any interviews on Welfare Reform. (Actually, just for a matter of interest he has barely been heard of at all. If you Google "Osborne speech" or interview, you will find almost nothing since last October.) There are no articles at all that I can find confirming whether what Mr Grayling says is true or not. I can find no statements at all from ministers, the DWP or the chancellor re-iterating that 1.5 million people would be taken off of Incapacity Benefits, yet early results from the IB to ESA pilot schemes indicate that this is roughly the number who will lose out. 

So who is telling the truth? Are Osborne and Duncan-Smith correct with their hard-line assurances that 1.5 Million will lose sickness benefits or is Mr Grayling closer to the mark with his "1 in 4"?? 

Or maybe, just maybe, was Mr Grayling burying a damning report into sickness benefits with kind words? Words he knew were untrue using figures that could never be achieved unless huge concessions were made to make the assessment system fairer?

Concessions haven't been made. The assessments are as unfair as they always were, but by accepting the Harrington report in full, did Mr Grayling just rely on platitudes to bury some very bad news indeed for the government? And is there a secret target of 65% or so sitting in Mr Grayling's desk after all?


  1. Maria Miller was yesterday confronted at Portcullis House on DLA during the National Autistic Society's lobby meeting. She arrived for the last fifteen minutes and left dot on five o'clock, although we were being kicked out of the room because the next booking needed to come in.

    I got to ask her one question as she was leaving, check out my latest blog post. It was bizarre.

  2. Cameron is Dangerous – Poll!]but aren't they all ?
    personally i think there is something not right in the head with the government front bench