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

Written evidence submitted by Elina Rigler


I have lived with a chronic illness for almost 20 years and am currently receiving Incapacity Benefit. Having participated in programmes such as Pathways to Work on a voluntary basis, I possess first-hand experience of the barriers to work faced by those with limiting long-term illness.

I do not believe that the system is working properly in its current form, and I am concerned that the migration of IB claimants onto ESA has begun before all the necessary changes to the Work Capability Assessment have been implemented.

My more general concern is that the IB reform is based on questionable assumptions about illness and employment, and is therefore likely to fail, causing a good deal of suffering to claimants. Specifically, the system does not take account of the real-world impact of chronic illness on an individual's ability to work or chances of finding work.


Like hundreds of thousands of other IB claimants, I am extremely apprehensive about the impending ESA reassessment. I suffer from the kind of chronic, fluctuating illness that is insufficiently captured by the WCA descriptors, and my worry is that I will be assessed by a poorly trained HCP with little understanding of my health condition.

The Government is aware that there are serious problems with the WCA; for instance, the Harrington review acknowledged that the WCA doesn't adequately measure the full impact of chronic, fluctuating conditions on the individual's capability for work. Professor Harrington has now set up a working group to review the WCA in relation to conditions such as ME/CFS, MS, arthritis and Parkinson's disease.1

The trouble is that the DWP is pressing ahead with the migration from IB to ESA while ignoring many of the well-known problems with the WCA and only gradually implementing Harrington's recommendations for improvements. Worse still, a new version of the test has just come into force that is even less capable than the old one of measuring the real impact of chronic illness and will make it even harder for claimants to qualify for ESA.

It is unfair and irresponsible to start reassessing IB claimants using a test that everyone knows is seriously flawed. This is likely to lead to even more appeals and cause more hardship and anxiety to claimants. Moreover, those who are reassessed first, before all the recommendations have been acted on, will be placed at a distinct disadvantage.


The IB reform is presented as a progressive measure empowering sick and disabled people to work. The problem is that the reform is not grounded in reality, but is based on the following highly dubious assumptions:

—  The impact of complex medical conditions can be assessed by a tick-box questionnaire;

—  the ability to carry out simple tasks indicates the ability to hold down a job in the real world;

—  almost all illnesses are transient or can be easily managed;

—  a stick-and-carrot approach is needed to get sick and disabled people off benefits;

—  employers are willing to take on those with special employment needs, including long-term IB claimants, and

—  sick and disabled people are able to compete with millions of able-bodied unemployed people at a time of rising unemployment.

I believe that many of the serious problems with the ESA/WCA stem from this lack of realism and that the system will continue to malfunction until the Government starts addressing these more fundamental issues.

3.1  Improving the Work Capability Assessment and the decision-making process

Improving the WCA requires much more than tinkering with the descriptors. Atos assessors and DWP decision makers should not rely too much on the crude and rigid point-scoring system, but need to take into account all medical evidence. They should also use their common sense when assessing someone's work capability; specifically, they should ask the question: does this person have any realistic prospect of finding and sustaining work, given the nature of their impairment?

The DWP is keen to emphasise that the WCA aims to identify accurately what people can do, rather than write people off due to their impairment.2 These are noble sentiments and we should indeed focus on people's abilities, and not on their disabilities. But there is a difference between what should be happening in an ideal world and what actually is happening. Unfortunately, we live in the kind of world where people with certain types of impairments are not employable in the mainstream job market; in particular, employers are generally not willing or able to accommodate the needs of those suffering from chronic, fluctuating illnesses.

Employers take it for granted that you are able to carry out "activities of daily living", and they are not interested in your "good" days. What they want to know is whether you are able to sustain, regularly and reliably, the kind of high level of mental and physical activity required for even part-time work. This is what the test should assess, and not your ability to walk short distances, raise your arms or press a button.

Too many sick and disabled people will continue to be wrongly declared fit for work until the assessment process starts taking into account how an individual's illness or disability affects their capability for work in the real world.

3.2  The outcome of the migration process

3.2.1  For those moved to Jobseeker's Allowance

The Government has frequently claimed that the new system is stopping people being "trapped on benefits". However, there is no evidence that those failing the WCA are moving into work; in fact, they are more likely to be languishing on JSA or to have dropped out of the system altogether.

Indeed, according to the report published by the Institute for Employment Studies, only 13% of those placed in the fit for work group had found jobs by the time they were interviewed at least six months later, and nearly 60% were neither working nor looking for work (probably because they were unfit for work).3

It is particularly cruel to push long-term IB claimants onto JSA and expect them to compete with millions of healthy people in an increasingly cut-throat job market. It is a well-known fact that employers are not willing to take on sick and disabled people; for instance, a recent study suggests that only 8% of employers would consider employing former IB recipients.4

Those forced onto JSA will lose up to 30% of their income. Although they have been deemed fit for work, most have significant health problems. They may find it hard to comply with the tough JSA regime and risk being sanctioned and losing even more benefit. Moreover, claimants who are not entitled to means-tested benefits can lose 100% of their independent income after six months.

It is not clear to me why being "abandoned" on IB is regarded as a bad thing, but it is acceptable to abandon sick and disabled claimants on JSA at a significantly reduced income, or to simply abandon them, without any benefits.

3.2.2  For those placed in the Work Related Activity Group

Despite their severe health problems, claimants in the WRAG are forced to undertake work-related activities under threat of financial sanctions. It is a good idea to offer sick and disabled people a chance to discuss work opportunities with a personal advisor, but threatening them with sanctions is not only cruel, but also counterproductive. It is likely to cause them stress and anxiety, thereby aggravating their condition and delaying their recovery.

It should be remembered that many people in this group are suffering from long-term or life-long conditions. The ESA regime seems to be predicated on the assumption that even those with chronic or degenerative conditions, who may have been ill for decades, will miraculously recover within a short period of time and be able to find work.

Because of this kind of magical thinking, even those in the Support Group are liable to be subjected to frequent and unnecessary reassessments. Some chronically ill claimants are wrongly found fit for work and have to undergo the lengthy and stressful appeals process. They may eventually win their appeal, but then, only a few months later, may be called in for another assessment and forced to go through whole process again.

Time-limiting contributory ESA to one year means that many people will lose 100% of their benefits and will in effect be punished for being chronically ill and unable to work, or unable to find appropriate work. This is mainly a cost-cutting measure, but is also justified by the totally unrealistic assumption that most claimants will be ready to return to work within a year and by the dubious idea that throwing seriously ill people off benefits will "incentivise" them to work.

3.3  ESA is punitive

There is an inherent contradiction in the Government's stance. 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. If they really wanted to support us into paid employment, rather than simply move us off benefits, they would listen to our views and take note of our experiences.

Sick and disabled people do want to work and they don't generally object to welfare-to-work programmes. But such programmes need to offer non-coercive support and a safe place for those with health problems to explore the possibility of doing some paid work. Above all, claimants should not be penalised financially if they are too ill to work or, through no fault of their own, cannot find suitable employment.

3.4  Supply vs. demand side of labour

Contrary to the DWP rhetoric, it is not the current benefit system that is stopping people like me from working, but the nature of our impairment and the lack of suitable employment opportunities. The new benefit regime is unlikely to improve our situation; in fact, I fear that under ESA most of us will be significantly worse off financially, under permanent pressure, hence in poorer health and even further away from work than before.

Like tens of thousands of other chronically ill people, I have skills and qualifications, I am highly motivated, and don't need financial incentives to work. Unfortunately, my illness severely restricts the kind of work I can do: because of the variability of my condition, I am unable to work regular hours and do not, therefore, fit into the mainstream job market. I might be able to do some very part-time work if I were allowed to choose when, where and how to work. Having taken part in the Pathways to Work and other back-to-work programmes as a volunteer, I know that jobs offering such a high degree of flexibility are virtually impossible to come by. My personal advisors had no idea how to help me: they could offer me job-searching tips, but they couldn't wave a magic wand and create jobs tailored to my needs.

Indeed, social scientists and disability activists have been warning all along that the IB reform is unlikely to succeed as it focuses almost exclusively on individuals' work-readiness and fails to take into account the myriad social and environmental barriers to work that sick and disabled people face even in boom years.

But Government policies continue to ignore the fact that neither sticks nor carrots can get people like me into work if there are no jobs we can apply for and if employers cannot be persuaded to hire those with special employment needs. Of course, it is much easier to deal with an individual's (supposed) deficiencies than to tackle socio-structural barriers, make radical changes to working practices, or influence employers' attitudes, but social policy should be based on reality and not on wishful thinking.

I find it worrying that the Government is planning to move hundreds of thousands of people off disability benefits, despite being fully aware that previous welfare-to-work programmes have only been able to help a small minority of claimants find work.5 They don't seem to care that most former IB claimants are likely to either become long-term unemployed or drop out of the system, falling into the chasm between welfare and work.


No one would object to ESA if it were capable of achieving its stated aims. There is, however, no evidence that the system is supporting people into work or lifting them out of poverty. It is much more likely to push them further into poverty, causing them a good deal of stress and affecting their mental and physical health.6


1  ESA: Changes to the WCA descriptors, Tony Britton, ME Association, February 2011.

2  Government's response to Professor Malcolm Harrington's independent review of the Work Capability Assessment, November 2010.

3  ESA: Findings from a face to face survey of customers, Barnes, H, Sissons P, Stevens H. Research Report 707, DWP, November 2010.

4  Employers "ill-prepared" for Incapacity benefit, Joe Williams, HR Magazine, December 2010.

5  Support to incapacity benefit claimants through Pathways to Work, Public Accounts Committee - First Report, September 2010.

6  Benefiting Disabled People, Disability Benefits Consortium, March 2011.

April 2011

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Prepared 26 July 2011