Memorandum submitted by Durham County
We are a local authority Welfare Rights Service
employing 20 WROs who provide a specialist welfare benefits service
for the people of County Durham. In addition to targeted campaigns,
advice provision and representation, we also provide dedicated
support services to various arms of our Authority within Social
Care and Health and assist with corporate strategy as required.
A measure of the scale of our service is that we provided representation
at one third of all appeals heard by the Appeals Service, Newcastle
Regional Office in 2004. We would like to offer the following
comments to assist the Committee's enquiry.
1. It is difficult to see how the proposed
system of two benefits with an additional test (the employability
and support assessment) would be either simpler to administer
or easier for claimants to understand. Whilst knowledge of the
detail would enable a better assessment, intrinsically the proposals
appear to be a retrograde step.
2. Arguably any measures that restrict the
support provided by Social Security payments within any context
will improve work incentives. However this only makes sense if
it's assumed that either that either improving work incentives
is an omnipresent goal or that current incentives are too low.
The former is clearly an absurdity as incentives could be best
improved by the removal of Social Security provision altogether.
With regard to the latter it is our view that the current Incapacity
Benefit levels provide sufficient incentive for claimants who
are able to work to do so. We consider it highly unlikely that
individuals would choose to live on £76.45 (long term annual
rate) when they could earn £220 for a weeks work (40 hours
@ current minimum wage). Although we accept that there is small
number of people in receipt of Incapacity Benefit who may be capable
of some form of work the current stringent regime of PCA recalls
is more than able to deal with this issue. In any event most people
who fall within this category are not there by choice but by necessity
as a result of factors such as a lack of available jobs, poor
3. The statistics show that the highest
concentrations of Incapacity Benefit claimants are in areas characterised
by high unemployment and social deprivation. These are the areas
that have lost "traditional" industries such as coal
mining, steel making, shipbuilding and other heavy industries.
We believe that it is folly to ignore the fact that those industries
have been responsible for a prevalence of industrial accidents
and diseases which goes a long way to explaining why so many are
incapable of work. It is also counterintuitive to argue that claimants
in such areas are for some reason less willing to work when they
have demonstrated their ability to work long hours in the most
harsh and demanding conditions for generations.
4. Our previous comments on incentives refer
to the negative incentives that may form part of the reforms.
However, we welcome positive incentives to help sick and disabled
people find work. This would include education, retraining and
the help of personal advisors. The caveat is that these measures
must be optional for claimants and non-participation must not
be penalized. Indeed it is only by giving sick and disabled people
real choice in this area that the success or otherwise of such
initiatives can be accurately measured.
5. Deciding whether a person a person is
incapable of work or not inevitably involves exercising a degree
of discretion. Clearly this can be within the context of an informed
judgement but we think that it is probably impossible to replicate
the type of scientific accuracy available within the material,
as opposed to the human, world. We believe that the current means
of making the distinction are more than adequate to ensure that
Incapacity Benefit decisions do not result in significant amounts
of public money being paid to people who are capable of work.
6. We do not consider that the reforms will
impact positively on either levels of fraud or error. We believe
that current levels of fraud are minimal and reforms which make
the benefit more difficult to access may even be counterproductive
in achieving openness and honesty in claimants' compliance with
the new regime. Furthermore it is again difficult to see how introducing
further complexity to disability adjudication will reduce error
in decision making, particularly given the substantial staffing
cuts faced by the Department for Work and Pensions.
7. In many areas local labour markets will
not be able to provide the jobs needed. Indeed this is evidenced
by the high degree of correlation between local levels of unemployment
and the number claiming Incapacity Benefit. In those areas removing
entitlement to Incapacity Benefit is more likely to increase the
number of Jobseekers Allowance claimants rather than increase
the number of people in employment. Paradoxically this would have
the effect of reducing local demand and so act as a driver to
8. The evidence does not suggest that Incapacity
Benefit is, by any standards, a "runaway" benefit. The
bulk of the expansion of numbers occurred prior to the election
of this government in 1997 with only a 100,000 increase since
then. The Department for Work and Pensions Five Year Strategy
itself states that new claims are reduced by "around a third"
(pg 41 DWPFive Year Strategy) and that the latest data
indicates a small fall. Neither does the statistic that "once
a person has been on the benefit for 12 months, the average duration
of their claim will be eight years" (pg 41 DWPFive
Years Strategy) necessarily mean that claimants are becoming disabled
Although there can be little doubt that the
longer without work the harder it is to re-enter employment this
statistic is more likely to reflect the fact that those ill for
12 months are likely to have a longstanding condition which will
take a considerable time to resolve.
9. We do not have sufficient information
at present to comment on the success or otherwise on the pathways
to work pilot schemes but would hope to provide a meaningful analysis
once the green paper is published.
3 October 2005