The role of incapacity benefit reassessment in helping claimants into employment - Work and Pensions Committee Contents

2  The Government's policy objectives for the IB reassessment

Government aims

15.  Professor Harrington's report highlights that ESA was launched under the previous Government in 2008 "as both an assessment for benefit entitlement and as the first, positive step back towards work for most people".[14] The report also cites the substantial evidence of the "centrality of work to people's lives" and asserts that "previous assessments and benefit regimes lacked a focus on the positive effects of work and the interactions between recovery and work".[15]

16.  The current Government's objectives for the IB reassessment are clear. The Minister for Employment told us that the aim is "identifying people who have the potential to return to work, and helping them to do so".[16]

17.  The Minister explained the background to the Government's approach. In preparing its Green Paper on Welfare Reform in opposition, his party had identified a "huge gap" in terms of the 2.5 million people claiming incapacity benefits "that were just being left there. There was no real process of challenge to say 'Is there something better you can do with your life if we provide you with the right help and support to get back into work'."[17] The Government believes that many of these people "could and indeed do want to work, but the current system does not give them that opportunity [...] People have been left on their own with no support or sense of when and how they might get back to work."[18] The Minister also acknowledged that:

The majority of those who could return to work are people who are a long way away from the workplace, who have become detached from the world of work through that length of time on benefits, who probably no longer have the self-confidence to get back into the workplace, and who often think they do not have the ability to work.[19]

He emphasised that the reassessment is not a savings measure, "although if we succeed it will save money".[20]

18.  We support the Government's objectives of helping people with disabilities and long-term health conditions to move back into work, whilst continuing to provide adequate support for people who have limited capability for work or are unable to work. However, the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated and nor should the level of anxiety which currently surrounds the process. A suspicion persists that the only objective of the Government is to save money. The Government must be proactive in explaining its aims and spreading the positive messages about the benefits of work and the support which is available to find work, and in engaging employers. It is vital that the Government's objectives are firmly supported by the reassessment process, and by the WCA in particular, but at the moment we are not completely convinced that it does this. Our report focuses on the changes we would like to see to help ensure that this happens in practice.

Claimant perceptions

19.  Unfortunately, the Government's positive messages are not necessarily getting through to claimants or the wider public. DWP's own research into claimants' views of the IB reassessment trials in Aberdeen and Burnley found that "some customers expressed a desire for more explanation of the overall rationale for reassessment [...] few customers saw reassessment as a means to help people access the support they needed to move back into work". The research paper goes on to say that "it was commonly believed that reassessment formed part of the Government's spending reductions" and "customers tended to believe that the sole purpose of the exercise was to reduce benefit expenditure". Only exceptionally did customers report having seen the reassessment portrayed in a positive light in the media.[21]

20.  One witness, who works in a GP practice, suggested that, to address this misunderstanding, an additional sentence should be included in the letter informing claimants that they were not eligible for ESA to explain that:

[...] although some people have medical problems the Government wants to help as many as possible back into work suitable for them. Many people I see are angry at being assessed as having no problem, particularly when they have been getting IB and have had no change in circumstances. They don't understand it.[22]

21.  Professor Paul Gregg, who worked with the previous Government on designing employment support, believed that: "A lot of the messages that are coming out—and I think the Government is guilty of this—are creating a culture where the disabled community feels the primary function is about driving them off the benefits on to lower value, less-supportive type benefits".[23]

22.  Another witness argued that there was a contradiction in the Government's position:

On the one hand, they claim that ESA has been introduced because they know that those of us with health conditions and disabilities want to work; on the other hand, we are treated as malingerers or children who can't be trusted to engage in work-related activities without coercion, threats and financial sanctions. If the Government truly believed that most of us are responsible adults who are keen to work, they wouldn't impose on us such a punitive regime and such a draconian eligibility test.[24]

Having followed our oral evidence sessions, she wrote again to say that, despite what had been said in our exchanges, many claimants did know what the purpose of the WCA and the reassessment process was but:

[...] we are worried because we know that there aren't enough jobs for able-bodied people, let alone for those with special employment needs. It is all very well to keep repeating the mantra that with the right support and encouragement people can move into work. Yes, in theory and in an ideal world. The reality is, however, that they are more likely to end up languishing on the dole or fall out of the system entirely.[25]

23.  As well as not necessarily understanding or sharing the Government's objectives, claimants are also anxious about the process. The DWP research reported that:

A number of claimants were anxious about the prospect of being assessed and concerned the assessment might not fairly assess their capabilities. Often believing that they had been "targeted", these customers tended to be pessimistic about their chances of being awarded ESA and fearful about the prospect of working.[26]

24.  Many of the individuals who submitted evidence spoke of their anxiety about the process. One woman stated that she had "heard several stories about people being treated unfairly, the reports being false and not representative of the claimant's needs or disabilities".[27] Another wrote: "As more and more news comes out about the functioning of the WCA, the two types of ESA, and people being sanctioned and losing benefits entirely I am becoming even more worried, and the worry is worsening my health."[28]

25.  Claimants also sometimes felt that being found fit for work in the WCA equated to being told that they did not have a health condition. Professor O'Donnell of Atos Healthcare agreed that this was an issue:

One thing that would make a difference would be if we could find a way of explaining to people that failure to be awarded ESA is not the same as being classed as a malingerer, someone who does not have a disability or someone who is not ill. I think we need to get that across very clearly.[29]

This accords with the DWP research on the IB reassessment trials which found that people who received no points in the WCA "were particularly critical of the process because they felt that the notification letter was stating that they did not have any form of impairment or medical condition".[30]

26.  Dr Bill Gunnyeon, the DWP Chief Medical Adviser, acknowledged that "one of the challenges we have with perceptions is that people think that, if they are considered fit for work, that means the assessment has concluded there is nothing wrong with them: that is a problem". He believed that it was a question of changing people's perceptions about the WCA so that they saw its purpose as being to try to "identify where somebody sits on this continuum, from being in work and fit for work to being a long way from work because of a health condition". He also pointed out that "about 25% of people in work suffer from a long-term health condition. Of working age people as a whole with a long-term health condition, about 60% are in work."[31]

Improving communication of the Government's objectives

27.  Given that the IB reassessment is being implemented over three years, it is important for DWP to ensure that it informs claimants about the reassessment at the point when it is most helpful for them and is likely to reassure them rather than increasing their anxiety. We discussed with witnesses what the most effective timing for informing people about the process might be. Jane Harris of Rethink pointed out that there were two communications processes going on: specific information for claimants and the general information in the media. She said that "some people do feel that they are getting a lot of communication but that they are never being given a date for an assessment [...] That seems to be causing quite a lot of anxiety".[32] The DWP research on the reassessment trials found that "general awareness of reassessment prior to receiving the notification letter was reasonably high", although claimants' understanding of why it was happening and what it would involve "tended to be quite basic".[33] It should be borne in mind that some IB claimants will also be recipients of Disability Living Allowance, which is to be replaced by the Personal Independence Payment, for which a separate eligibility assessment will be necessary.

28.  It is also important that claimants understand the objectives of the reassessment process from the outset. However, because Employment and Support Allowance has two purposes, to provide help to those who might be able to move into work and to provide an income replacement benefit for those who are unlikely ever to work again, the messages claimants receive can be confusing.

29.  The initial letter which Jobcentre Plus sends to incapacity benefit claimants to inform them that they are to be reassessed says "We need to assess you for Employment and Support Allowance. This is a new benefit that helps people with an illness or disability move into work and provides people with the support they need."[34] The leaflet which Jobcentre Plus (JCP) has issued on reassessment states that "moving people on to Employment and Support Allowance and Jobseeker's Allowance will mean they get the right help and support to find work".[35] Both of these imply that the purpose is to move everyone into work. It is not clear whether the "support" offered is in the form of help to get into work or the income replacement benefit which is paid to people who are not in work. In fact the word "support" means both and this may be why the impression has been given that the purpose of the WCA is to remove people's benefit. It is also confusing in this context that the group not required to seek work is called the "Support Group".

30.  It may be that, as people become more familiar with the new benefit, this confusion may lessen and that evidence that the process works in practice may also contribute to ensuring that the positive messages are effectively communicated. The Minister believed that, as claimants went through the reassessment process and began to move into work, role models would be created and this would help to get the positive message across that the process was about supporting people who could work to find jobs.[36]

31.  The Government needs to develop its communications strategy for the IB reassessment in a way which ensures clarity and minimises anxiety. Providing claimants with the right level of information at the time that is appropriate for each individual forms an important part of this, bearing in mind that the reassessment process as a whole will last three years. It also requires the Government to be clearer about what the word "support" means in the context of Employment and Support Allowance. Currently it is used to describe employment support on the one hand and financial support through benefits for those who cannot work on the other. These two different meanings in the context of one benefit can be very confusing.

"Passing" or "failing" the WCA

32.  One of the obstacles to ensuring that the positive messages get through to claimants is the use of language in the process. One of the particular concerns we have about the public response to the IB reassessment and the WCA is that claimants see themselves as "passing" the test if they are found to be unfit for work and they qualify for ESA, but as "failing" the test if they are assessed as being able to work. This ties in with the point made above, that if claimants "fail" the test and are found fit for work, they interpret this as meaning that DWP does not believe that they have a health condition or illness.

33.  The difficulty of using the right language to describe the outcome of the WCA was borne out in oral evidence when Dr Gunnyeon of DWP referred to a claimant being "unsuccessful" in the WCA, meaning that they had been found fit for work. He acknowledged this inconsistency, saying "I think I have just demonstrated exactly why it is so difficult".[37]

34.  The message which the Government sends to claimants involved in the reassessment process should be clear and simple: if the assessment process correctly finds someone fit for work, that is a successful and desirable outcome. However, we believe that the Government also needs to take greater steps to reassure claimants. It needs to explain that being found "fit for work" does not equate to denial or disbelief about the existence of an illness or health condition: rather the condition is acknowledged but its impact has been assessed as not being so serious as to prevent the person from returning to work at some point in the future.

35.  We believe that the language currently used to describe the outcome of the WCA is a barrier to the Government's objectives for the reassessment being properly communicated. The idea that a claimant has "failed" the assessment if they are found fully capable of work risks negating the positive messages which the Government is trying to convey. It needs to be addressed across the board and to include all communications between claimants and DWP staff, especially Jobcentre Plus staff who tell claimants the outcome of the process, and Atos Healthcare employees who may explain the process to claimants. We also believe that the communications need to explain clearly and at every stage of the process that, where someone is found not fit for work, they will be eligible to receive ESA at the support rate.

Media coverage

36.  Another cause of concern for claimants was that media coverage of the IB reassessment had resulted in a very negative public perception of them. Some believed that the Government might be contributing to this negative portrayal. One witness believed that "When a daily tabloid trumpets that '75% of all claimants on disability benefit are scroungers' it is surely only endorsing successive Governments' public spin. Clearly Atos has deemed me a 'scrounger'."[38] Another told us: "We are not 'work-shy scroungers' as depicted so unpleasantly these days in the media—as a trustee of a local organisation of disabled people I know my concerns are felt by many others."[39] A mother of a claimant told us that:

Many of the articles that are being printed in the papers are fairly negative and are painting people on benefits as being scroungers and people who want something for nothing. My son has become very distressed by the news articles which have added to his extreme stress and anxiety.[40]

37.  Nor is it just the tabloid press which presents a negative view of long-term incapacity benefit claimants. The Times published an article in April with the headline "Too fat, too drunk, or just too lazy to work—but not to claim their benefit". The article said that official figures indicated that "more than 80,000 people are too fat or too dependent on alcohol or drugs to work" and that many of these people had been on incapacity benefits "for more than ten years".[41]

38.  Part of the problem is the way in which releases of official statistics about the reassessment process are covered in the media. DWP released initial findings from the Aberdeen and Burnley trials of the IB reassessment in February 2011. The DWP press release set out that 29.6% had been found fit for work; 31.3% had been placed in the Support Group; and 39% had been placed in the WRAG, explaining that "this means with the right help and support they can start the journey back to work".[42] This was headlined on the BBC website as "Incapacity benefit review suggests majority could work".[43] The Daily Express used the headline "70% of Britons on incapacity benefits found to be fit for work". The article itself did break this number down but said "Early results showed that 29.6% of claimants were found to be fit enough to get a job and support themselves rather than sponge off the taxpayer." [44] A number of other newspapers were required by the Press Complaints Commission to publish corrections for suggesting that 70% of claimants had been found fit to work.[45]

39.  The Minister stressed that the Government had played no part in feeding media stories which referred to benefit claimants being "work-shy" or "scroungers". There was a statutory requirement on the Department periodically to release official statistics. When publishing these figures, the Government had "one single consistent narrative, which is that there are people there with the potential to get back into work, and through the Work Programme there will be specialist help for them to do so. That is a message I stand by four square."[46] The Government could not "control the editorial approach of the tabloids" and he was often "bemused" by the stories which ran, but he had had "a number of conversations with people in the media about the need for care in this area".[47]

40.  Sections of the media routinely use pejorative language, such as "work-shy" or "scrounger", when referring to incapacity benefit claimants. We strongly deprecate this and believe that it is irresponsible and inaccurate. The duty on the state to provide adequate support through the benefits system for people who are unable to work because of a serious health condition or illness is a fundamental principle of British society. Portraying the reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants as some sort of scheme to "weed out benefit cheats" shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the Government's objectives.

41.  Whilst fully accepting that the Government, and this Committee, have no role in determining the nature and content of media coverage, we believe that more care is needed in the way the Government engages with the media and in particular the way in which it releases and provides its commentary on official statistics on the IB reassessment. In the end, the media will choose its own angle, but the Government should take great care with the language it itself uses and take all possible steps to ensure that context is provided when information about IB claimants found fit for work is released, so that unhelpful and inaccurate stories can be shown to have no basis.

Role of representative organisations

42.  Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which represent benefit claimants and people with disabilities play an important role in communicating Government policy to the public and in voicing the concerns of people affected by proposed changes. We welcome the contribution such organisations make, but some of the messages they give are not always easily reconciled. A number of NGOs made clear that they supported the principles behind the IB reassessment. Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) told us: "It is important to note that CAS—and many groups that support people who live with disabilities across Scotland—support the principle that those who have a capability for work should be helped into suitable and sustainable employment."[48] A joint submission from organisations working with people with mental health problems stated:

Our organisations understand the motivation for moving claimants off existing incapacity benefits (IB), which is seen as a "passive" benefit, onto Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which is seen as a more "active benefit" [...] We welcome efforts to help people with mental health problems back to work, where appropriate and if done in a supportive and understanding manner.[49]

However, the overwhelming message from representative organisations was that this was a flawed process. The joint submission cited above went on to state "we are concerned that the process will not be fair; will cause substantial distress; and will lead to many people receiving inadequate support and being subject to inappropriate and potentially harmful requirements".[50]

43.  We put this apparent contradiction to two of the representative organisations, Citizens Advice and Rethink, when we took oral evidence from them. Jane Harris of Rethink told us that "in principle we support a lot of the ideas behind the Employment and Support Allowance, and certainly we think there are a lot of people with mental illness who may be able to work with the right support, who probably are not able to work at the moment". However, "there are some really fundamental barriers to work that are not being addressed, the chief one being the stigma and discrimination that thousands of people with mental illness face when trying to find a job". She welcomed the "very positive step forward" which the Equality Act represented in this respect but believed that "it has not solved that fundamental problem". She drew a distinction between the short-term and long-term prospects of a claimant with a mental health problem being found fit for work:

[....] long term, with the right support, we think there are lots of people who could work. [...] The problem is there is a difference in thinking that somebody might need a couple of years in the Work-Related Activity Group, certain amounts of support and then they might be able to go back to work [...] There is a difference between that and concluding that, on the basis of a test, that across the sector people do not really think is particularly valid, somebody can therefore work tomorrow.[51]

Sue Royston of Citizens Advice took a similar view:

We welcomed the Employment and Support Allowance. A lot of disabled people want to get back into work, and we welcomed the help and support it would give. We are not very happy about the way it is working. We feel the test is too crude a test, and there are also problems with the way the assessment is actually carried out in practice.[52]

44.  We put it to the Minister that organisations which represent people on benefits shared some of the responsibility for the negative attitude to the IB reassessment and for fuelling anxiety amongst claimants about the process. The Minister believed that these organisations were "in a slightly difficult position". Some had been involved in the development of the WCA and in the various reviews, because it was important to have the benefit of their expertise. But at the same time the Minister recognised that "there is a lot of uncertainty out there, a lot of concern out there, and to some extent they have to voice that".[53] However, he also pointed out that "one of the ironies" was that some of the organisations which had been critical of the reassessment were on the list of Work Programme sub-contractors who would be responsible for helping people coming off benefits to find jobs.[54]

45.  We agree with the Minister's view that organisations which represent benefit claimants may sometimes face a conflict in being both advocates for the people they represent and key players in helping to design and implement the reassessment process. We believe that these organisations could contribute enormously to allaying the concerns about reassessment by giving equal weight to publicising the opportunities an effective assessment process could offer, and the back-to-work support available from Government, as they do to fulfilling their important role in raising legitimate concerns. We also consider that this would help reassure potential employers and thereby reduce the risk of stigma and discrimination.

14   Harrington Review, Chapter 2, para 19 Back

15   Harrington Review, Chapter 2, para 14 and 18 Back

16   Q 247 Back

17   Q 247 Back

18   Ev 67, paras 8-9 Back

19   Q 250 Back

20   Q 247 Back

21   DWP, Trial incapacity benefits reassessment: customer and staff views and experiences, Research Report No. 741, June 2011, pp10, 12 (DWP Research Report 741). Back

22   Ev w4 [Patricia Oakley] Back

23   Q 6 Back

24   Ev w47 [Elina Rigler] Back

25   Ev w115 [Elina Rigler] Back

26   DWP Research Report 741, p 15 Back

27   Ev w74 [Catherine Burns] Back

28   Ev w41 [Julia Cameron] Back

29   Q 143  Back

30   DWP Research Report 741, p 34 Back

31   Q 272 Back

32   Qq 3-4 Back

33   DWP Research Report 741, p 9 Back

34   DWP, Jobcentre Plus sample letter to claimants, IBM2591, January 2011. Back

35   DWP, Jobcentre Plus information leaflet, Reassessment of incapacity benefitsBack

36   Q 251 Back

37   Qq 313-316 Back

38   Ev w1 [John Heeps] Back

39   Ev w41 [Julia Cameron] Back

40   Ev w12 [Carole Rutherford] Back

41   The Times, 21 April 2011 Back

42   "Grayling: initial reassessments of those on IB in Aberdeen and Burnley show large numbers of claimants with the potential to return to work", DWP press release, 10 February 2011. Back

43   BBC News online, 14 February 2011 Back

44   Daily Express, 11 February 2011 Back

45   See Press Complaints Commission website at and the Full Fact website at Back

46   Q 254 Back

47   Q 256 Back

48   Ev w28 Back

49   Ev 91, para 1.1 Back

50   Ibid. Back

51   Qq 2, 5 Back

52   Q 2 Back

53   Q 252 Back

54   Q 254 Back

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Prepared 26 July 2011