Employment and Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments - Work and Pensions Committee Contents

8  Redesigning the ESA and WCA process

The case for a fundamental redesign of ESA

138. As we have stated, although we hope that the shorter-term improvements we have recommended will be adopted, we are convinced that a more fundamental approach to improving ESA is necessary. ESA is trying to do two very different things. Because the main purpose is to help claimants "achieve their full potential through work", much of the design is about identifying those who could work. As a result, not enough thought has been put into helping those whose condition is worsening but is not yet sufficiently advanced to warrant them being placed in the Support Group. However, as our assessment of employment outcomes in the previous chapter makes clear, ESA is not yet achieving its work objectives either. Therefore there is a need for a redesign of ESA.


139. One of the key reasons for this ineffectiveness in achieving ESA's employment objectives seems to us to be that, although the ESA claims process is complex, the outcomes it offers are too simplistic. As currently designed, the three outcome groups fail to reflect the widely varying needs of millions of people affected by the broadest spectrum of health conditions and disabilities, for whom the functional impacts on their capacity to work will depend on their individual circumstances.

Support Group

140. The Support Group appears to be the outcome group which is most closely meeting its objectives. Claimants in this group are not required to undertake work-search or work-related activity, reflecting the seriousness and longevity of their condition or disability (although they are able to do this voluntarily if they wish).

Fit for work claimants

141. The "fit for work" outcome group includes people who have recovered from a temporary health condition, or who have adapted to a disability, and who will move easily into work with the right support. However, it also includes people who face much greater barriers to finding work. As we have noted above, the expert panel involved in the EBR found that a high proportion of the sample group of claimants found "fit for work" using the existing WCA were identified as needing significant support to enable them to work. Although this support may be available to some, the "fit for work" classification needs to be regarded as conditional on this support being available to claimants with this level of need.

Work-related Activity Group (WRAG)

142. The WRAG is by far the most problematic of the three ESA outcome groups. As currently designed, the WRAG is the default for any claimant who cannot be identified as fit for work, but is not so ill or disabled that they cannot be subject to any work-related conditionality. This means that the spectrum of claimants in the WRAG is very broad—varying from those who are expected to recover from a health condition in three months, to those with progressive conditions which are expected only to worsen.


143. Even without the need to address the employment outcome weaknesses in the ESA/WCA process, the benefit would have required reassessment in the next few years in any case, to take account of the introduction of Universal Credit (UC), which will bring together tax credits and existing working-age benefits, including ESA, into a single unified payment. Contributory ESA will remain outside UC but income-related ESA will be merged into it. The timetable for implementing UC has slowed considerably but new claims to UC are expected to be being made nationwide by 2016 and the bulk of existing claimants are expected to be migrated to UC during 2016-17 (although DWP has made clear that it expects about 700,000 ESA claimants in the Support Group to remain outside UC beyond the 2017 date for its full implementation, because of the sensitivities around migrating this particularly vulnerable group).[206]

144. We agree that an assessment of work capability of some sort is necessary for an out-of-work benefit paid on the basis of ill health and disability, and that eligibility should be based on functionality and not diagnosis. We also agree that this assessment should seek to distinguish between claimants who are unlikely to be able to return to work in the long-term, and those who, with the right support, could return to employment. Nor do we under-estimate the scale of the task involved in determining eligibility for an incapacity for work benefit, which is claimed by millions of people, with a vast range of conditions and disabilities, which may change over time and which affect individuals in different ways.

145. However, the current ESA system is not working as well as it should, particularly in terms of achieving the intended employment objectives for claimants. The ESA outcome groups are too simplistic: the WRAG has become a "catch-all" group for those claimants who do not meet the narrow criteria for being placed in the Support Group, but who are not fit for work. The conditionality attached to the WRAG, and the focus on moving into work in a relatively short period of time, means that this group, as it currently operates, is not appropriate for many of these claimants. Nor does the current WCA provide an accurate assessment of a claimant's individual health-related employment barriers, or their distance from the labour market.

146. We recommend that the Government undertakes a fundamental redesign of the structure of ESA outcomes. This should focus on identifying changes to the assessment process, to ensure that the health barriers to employment that an individual faces are properly identified. For claimants in the WRAG, proper account needs to be taken of where they are on the spectrum of readiness for work. Work-related conditionality should be matched to the identified employment barriers. The support made available to help the individual move closer to work should be tailored more closely to their individual circumstances. It may be possible to use the different prognosis periods for when a claimant is expected to be fit for work as the basis for varying the conditionality and accompanying support. The redesign process will require a considerable amount of research, and will take time, but sufficient resources should be devoted to it to ensure that a new design is in place before the new multi-provider contract is tendered in 2018. The redesign will also need to take account of the implications for ESA of the introduction of Universal Credit.

147. The descriptors used in the WCA, and the way they are applied in the current points-based assessment, are not producing accurate outcomes of functional capacity in the workplace in many cases. The Evidence Based Review was a useful process, but more needs to be done to evaluate the effectiveness of the descriptors and to make them more responsive, particularly for claimants with progressive and fluctuating conditions, and those with mental, cognitive and behavioural difficulties. We recommend that the redesign of the ESA process includes a fundamental reassessment of the effectiveness of the design and application of the descriptors used in the Work Capability Assessment.

206   See Work and Pensions Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2013-14, Universal Credit implementation: monitoring DWP's performance in 2012-13, HC 1209, paras 23 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2014
Prepared 23 July 2014