THE POLITICS FILE: Benefits reforms – for better or for worse?
FOR many years if you could not work because of illness or disability you could receive support from the government in the form of incapacity benefit.
But in 2010 the government began moving all claimants from incapacity benefit to employment support allowance (ESA), assessing every recipient to see if they are capable of work.
If they are deemed to be, the claimant would be put on job seekers’ allowance instead.
But the process, known as a work capability assessment (WCA), has been criticised as unfair, with people with a range of medical conditions being deemed fit for work.
But the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) says the old system wrote off too many people without looking at their abilities.
Craig Lane, operations manager at Newport Citizens’ Advice Bureau (CAB), said his bureau was funded to handle around 500 benefits cases a year. More than half were ESA appeals, and he said the bureau was winning more than half of those it was dealing with.
The service has seen cases with a range of physical and mental health issues including spine conditions, back problems and mental illness.
The assessments can be cursory, Mr Lane said: “They are not sufficiently detailed.”
The WCA, which was first introduced in 2008 for the then-new employment support allowance, is based on activities and not on the medical condition. Examples of what is tested include how far a claimant can walk and activities such as sitting, standing and even bending.
“The tribunal system is struggling to cope with the volume of appeals and that has a significant cost to the public purse,” said Mr Lane.
He said the CAB has seen people win appeals, then be re-assessed and taken off their benefit again: “It’s a complete waste of resources and it causes distress to the claimant.”
Tony Harris, 52, from Cwmcarn, has been registered blind from the age of 16 and was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis last year. He has won an appeal against his WCA, which deemed him fit for work.
He started claiming incapacity benefit in 2000, when he took medical retirement from a job he held for 21 years at Nortel, in Cwmcarn.
Since retiring he retrained as a masseur, but his arthritis meant he was unable to do the job.
His assessment meant his benefit was cut from £199 a fortnight to £67 a week.
Mr Harris said the experience was stressful: “The unnecessary stress knowing you could lose your benefits – not only that, but lose your home.”
He said he didn’t know of anyone he knew in the visually impaired community who claimed incapacity benefit who had passed the WCA: “They have all had to go to appeal.
“They are saving money by hitting vulnerable people,” he added.
Jessica Morden, MP for Newport East, said the process was both expensive for the government, faced with the cost of an appeal, and painful for those involved.
She said there had been cases of people with Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis who’d been refused benefits.
“We’ve always got to review the welfare system. People think it’s fair that if they can work that they do work, but it’s got to be done fairly,”
A DWP spokesman said the WCA was an important part of the government’s reforms to incapacity benefits.
“The old system simply wrote too many people off without looking at what they were able to do,” he said.
He added that it was expected there would be more appeals.
System all set to be simplified
CHANGES to incapacity benefit are among a large number of alterations to benefits instigated by the UK government.
The largest is the move to universal credit – a new single payment due to be launched in 2013 that aims to help claimants and their families become more independent and simplify the benefits system.
It will replace jobseekers’ allowance, employment and support allowance, income support, child tax credits, working tax credits and housing benefit.
Recipients of disability living allowance are also due to be moved to a new benefit, dubbed the personal independence payment, from April 2013. Prime Minister David Cameron has suggested scrapping housing benefit for the under-25s, 1,340 of whom were claming the benefit in Newport in March.
From next April council tax benefit will also end and will be replaced with a devolved system of council tax support, which could result in some people paying a proportion of the tax for the first time.