In the early 1990s, the last Conservative government was desperate to massage the rapidly rising unemployment statistics. It facilitated an increase of more than 450,000 in the number of people claiming incapacity benefits and then abandoned them there.
That was completely unacceptable – for the economy, for the public purse, but most of all for the individuals who were given no help to get back into work. It is wrong to dismiss the future employment chances of all people who are currently too sick to work. We need to concentrate on what people can do and contribute. It is also important to separate out the vast majority whose ill health or disability prevents them from working at a particular time, from the small minority who decide not to work, but use incapability as a cover.
It was why the Labour government introduced a range of measures to address the issue - like the New Deal for Disabled People and Pathways to Work, as well as a Work Capability Assessment. That extra support led to a reduction of 350,000 individuals claiming inactive benefits.
However, the incoming coalition government, seeking to justify its welfare cuts’ policies, has decided to ‘blame the victims’. It introduced tightened criteria for the work capability assessment and has then mismanaged the implementation.
Nearly 18 months ago, the government’s own independent advisor made clear recommendations on necessary changes to the assessment criteria for mental health conditions. He followed those up, last November, with necessary changes for assessing individuals with fluctuating conditions. Despite promising to implement changes by May this year, the government has still failed to act.
Unsurprisingly, currently, 38% of appeals against the original assessments are successful. The waiting-time for appeals has doubled to normally 6 months and cost an additional £45m.
Just as bad, the Secretary of State Ian Duncan Smith originally claimed that 28% per cent of referrals to the Work Programme would be from people claiming employment support allowance. However, to date, just nine per cent have actually been in this category.
Nearly every organization and charity involved in working in the field is now up in arms. Some charitable providers of the Work Programme have already withdrawn, and others are being pushed towards bankruptcy.
By any assessment criteria, the government is failing badly.