Last week, the excellent John Pring published an article that seemed to show that the new Employment and Support Allowance (ESA or "sickness benefit") was twice as easy to claim as the benefit it replaced (Incapacity Benefit or IB)
Under IB, just 32% of claims resulted in an award of benefit, yet latest figures show that 73% of clams result in an award of ESA.
Firstly, clearly ESA is not easier to claim than IB. firstly, the criteria are much stricter than the old IB criteria. Also, if it were easier to claim, the overall number of claims would have risen steadily since its introduction. When the benefit was introduced, around 2.5 million people claimed IB. Today, around 2.5 million receive support. So for all the pain and misery of the new Work Capability Assessments (WCAs) nothing at all has changed.
So what is happening? I've read several theories, but I don't think they've explained such an apparently dramatic rise.
We do know that Atos, the French IT company responsible for carrying out the assessments on behalf of the DWP have been struggling with increasing backlogs since the start. They have been forced to increase the number of assessments they do every month. At first, it was just 25,000 per month, at it's highest, Atos were doing around 130,000 per month. As the rate they were expected to assess people increased, backlogs increased with them until today, a whopping 700,000 are stuck in the "assessment phase". Once Atos walked away from the WCA contract (possibly last September, but only confirmed publicly this May) the assessment rate has dropped dramatically increasing backlogs still further.
The only way you can be found fit for work is through a face to face assessment. Only a fully trained doctor can decide a claimant qualifies on paper alone. This means that the evidence on a claimants form and the corresponding evidence from their own Drs makes the decision so clear cut that a decision can be made without the need for a face to face assessment. (WCA) Perhaps someone with cerebral palsy who cannot mobilise, feed or speak independently or someone with terminal cancer Of around a thousand Atos HCPs (Health Care Professionals) very few are actually fully trained doctors. Most are nurses, physiotherapists or other healthcare professionals.
Thanks to HCPs who have been prepared to whistle-blow to me in private, I've known for over a year that Atos were attempting to clear backlogs by getting the trained Drs to do as many paper-assessments as they could. They were asked to work weekends and overtime and all Drs were pretty much flat out doing as many as they possibly could. A doctor can then decide that the claimant qualifies for either the long term Support Group or that they will be able to work again at some point in the future, hence qualifying for the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) Remember, however obvious it may seem on paper that a claimant will not qualify, they cannot be found "fit for work" without a face to face assessment (WCA)
So for a long time, most decisions made have been those clear cut enough to qualify for ESA on paper evidence alone. Most of the "fit for work" decisions are stuck almost indefinitely in limbo.
If my theory is right and we ever get another provider willing to take on the poisoned chalice of ESA, (Which is looking increasingly unlikely by the day as time drags on) we will see a dramatic fall in the overall % of successful claims. However long that lasts, that won't be a clear indication of how many people get ESA compared to IB either. For a long time, there will be a disproportionate number of "Fit for Work" decisions as all the clear cut qualifying awards have already been weeded out. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the current 73% success rate plummet to as low as 15-30%
So the real questions are when will the DWP find a new contractor and what are they doing about clearing the backlogs? Around 30,000 people will be compensated for unacceptable delays of up to a few months to their passport applications, when will the DWP compensate the 700,000 people facing unacceptable delays of up to a year to their very subsistence?