Fixing the gateway to out-of-work incapacity benefits

4 February 2016

In December, Reform published Employment and Support Allowance: the case for changehighlighting the urgent need for reform of the incapacity-related benefits system. Reform‘s new report,
Working welfare: a radically new approach to sickness and disability benefits, out today, provides a blueprint for that reform. A key component of this is a new ‘gateway’ through which claimants access out-of-work benefits.

At present, the majority of people claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) have to undertake a Work Capability Assessment (WCA). This points-based assessment seeks to do two things: determine a person’s eligibility for the out-of-work benefit and their capacity to work. Conflating these purposes inadvertently encourages claimants to focus on demonstrating how sick they are in order to succeed in claiming the benefit, rather than engaging in a positive conversation about what work they might be able to do with support. This is not in the interest of the claimant – evidence clearly shows that work is good for people’s health and wellbeing – or wider society.

The binary nature of the WCA is equally unhelpful. Claimants are either judged to be fully fit to work, or not fit to work at all (at least for the time being). Yet this crude division fails to capture the vast spectrum of personal circumstances people with a health condition can have. As a result, the WCA conveys the damaging message that disability and employment are mutually exclusive. This can have a detrimental impact on a person’s self-perceived work readiness. The assessment would be far more productive if it identified, for example, that a claimant could work a small number of hours, or carry out certain jobs. As it stands, almost three quarters of claimants who have had their WCA are placed in the support group, with no requirement to engage with, and little access to, employment support services. Sadly, evidence also shows that the longer someone is out of work, the more detached from the labour market they become – it is unsurprising that less than one per cent of people leave ESA each month.

Reform‘s new report sets out an alternative model. It proposes a new gateway for all out-of-work claimants, in which eligibility for a single rate benefit would already have been decided prior to a health assessment to determine an individual’s capacity for work. This would facilitate a more positive and open discussion about what work the claimant can do, avoiding the ‘pass/fail’ focus of the WCA. Combined with increased investment in employment support services, reforming the gateway could improve employment outcomes for disabled people – a key Government objective.

More than half of ESA claimants say they want to work. Reforming a benefits system which clearly works against this therefore must be a priority. Central to this is replacing the current broken gateway with a model that does not present financial and psychological barriers to moving towards work. Reform‘s latest report presents a model to do just that.

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Ian

07 February, 2016

I totally agree with your point regarding the WCA is very binary in terms of deeming a claimant unable to work or able to work. It doesn’t say whether the claimant is able to work for a few hours, for example. Also, increased investment in employment services is urgently needed and more tailored to the individual. Since the Budget announcement, although the WRAG benefit will be cut, the majority of savings from this change has gone into deficit reduction, and only fraction will be ploughed into employment support. However, you need to be extremely careful with the use of your phrase “ More than half of ESA claimants say they want to work” on its own, this line has been reported many times from a number of Reform authors, and George Osborne made a similar statement in the July Budget 2015 (see below) I believe you took this from “A survey of disabled working age benefit claimants July 2013”. But this is far from saying these people are saying they are “actually able to work” ie "able to work" and "wanting to work" are two different issues, and the former question is more significant. 73% of WRAG claimants state that they disagree or strongly disagree when asked the question “ Are you able to work?”. This is in contrast to only 13% of JSA claimants, yet the 73% of WRAG claimants will have to survive on the same level of benefit as a JSA claimant. July Budget 2015, George Osborne “The number of JSA claimants has fallen by 700,000 since 2010, whilst the number of incapacity benefits claimants has fallen by just 90,000. This is despite 61% of claimants in the ESA WRAG benefit saying they want to work.”