The current government is using a new, tougher test for benefits eligibility. It has moved the goalposts and created a less generous definition of ‘fit to work’
Every quarter, the DWP releases a series of statistics showing the latest numbers of people going through the new Work Capability Assessment for Employment Support Allowance. And every quarter, the press run the same stories about benefit scroungers, fiddlers, and so on. As many people with knowledge of the sector know, these headlines are based on what can only be described as an inventive use of the statistics – usually by combining the 39 per cent deemed fit for work (which has remained the same for the past two quarters), with the further 17 per cent who have been identified as being able to work at some point in the future, assuming their condition improves, plus the 36 per cent whose claim was stopped before completion.
The reasons some claims stop like this are varied, but include, ironically, that some people miss assessment appointments due to poor health – and the claim is stopped and they have to start again. Admittedly, some realise half way through the application they aren’t eligible for ESA. But these people have not been fiddling the state. The DWP figures that cause quarterly tabloid ‘outrage’ are in fact for new applicants to ESA – not current claimants. Not a single one of these people have fraudulently claimed more than they were entitled to. What they were actually doing – both the 39 per cent who failed the test and the 36 per cent who stopped half way – was applying for a benefit they thought they might be entitled to due to being unemployed and in poor health.
The unscrupulous use of statistics – to artificially inflate the size of the actual incapacity benefit fraud problem (which is in fact 0.5%, or 9,500 people, much lower than many other benefits) and thereby create public support for a radical tightening of benefits eligibility – is well documented. Even the Work and Pensions Select Committee expressed their disapproval of a cynical media strategy by Chris Grayling.
But a more interesting aspect of this debate is how many of us – including the more informed sections of the media and public – seem to think being found ‘fit to work’ is an objective and verifiable status. Being fit to work is in fact so subjective as to be almost meaningless, based as it is on what the government (and society) of the day thinks is acceptable. Different countries have vastly different interpretations.
Hundreds of years ago, it was necessary and expected that people worked with significant physical impairments and in the last throes of terminal illness. These people were all deemed ‘fit to work’. But then society moved on, and we thought it was unacceptable that very ill people should work, and gave them support so they didn’t have to. We have been arguing over how ill someone needs to be before they are given that support every since.
The current government is using a new, tougher test for benefits eligibility. They have, in short, moved the goalposts and created a less generous definition of ‘fit to work’. Many people who have been on sickness benefits for years will now be judged as fit to work according to this new definition. They have not been claiming fraudulently for the entire time – they have simply fallen foul of an ideological shift in government.
So when we hear that hundreds of thousands of people are claiming benefits but are actually fit to work, this isn’t telling us anything about the level of fraud – of people wilfully misclaiming – in the system. It just tells us about government opinion. What we should be reporting is that 40 per cent of failed claims for ESA go to appeal, and around 70 per cent of those are subsequently judged eligible for support.
If such a high proportion of decisions are deemed incorrect on further independent scrutiny, surely the shambolic assessment process, and the additional administrative costs of that, should be the real cause of ‘outrage’?
Claudia Wood is head of public services and welfare at Demos