In 2008, the Labour Government introduced ESA, which replaced Incapacity Benefit for new claimants. ESA is a complicated benefit in some ways: it has a contributory element for people who have paid National Insurance and a means-tested, or income-based, element for other people unable to claim JSA or Income Support. In addition, it has different ‘tiers’ of support.

After a ‘medical assessment’, (and currently a Works Capability Assessment), claimants are given a decision about their ‘fitness-to-work’ and are awarded one of the following benefit entitlements:

1.ESA ‘Support’ Group (SG), which means that the claimant has ‘limited capability for work-related activity’.

2.ESA ‘Work Related Activity’ Group (WRAG), which means that the claimant must attend regular Work Focussed Interviews (WFI) and agree an action plan to return to work.

3.Job Seekers Allowance, which means the claimant is deemed able to work and must meet all the criteria to receive benefit, including actively seeking paid work. (Crown Copyright,2011 p.4)

The aim of moving people from Incapacity Benefit to ESA is to reduce the number of claimants and to ‘encourage’ people back into work. Since April 2011, the Government has been actively moving people from Incapacity Benefit onto ESA, although they piloted the transference in Aberdeen and Burnley from 11th October 2010 with 1,700 claimants. According to the website www.benefitsandwork.co.uk this pilot had some flaws as it used the WCA rather than the new Personal Capability Assessment (PCA) detailed below. In addition the computer systems were different from the ones expected to be used for the wholesale migration. The Government estimated that 23% of claimants would be forced onto JSA. (Donnison et al.,2010)

However, there is a lot of controversy surrounding the assessment of certifying people as ‘fit-to-work’ and moving them into WRAG or onto JSA. This involves the use of an outside agency, called Atos Healthcare, conducting medical examinations on claimants to prove their fitness for work. These include face-to-face and paper assessments. (DWP,2010 pp.3, 4)  Furthermore a radical change in viewpoint concerning a person’s fitness to work will also be implemented.

In the past, Incapacity Benefit claimants had to carry out a WCA to determine their level of incapacity. This test looked at what the claimant could not do in the workplace. Certain claimants were exempt from the assessment altogether, e.g. people in receipt of the High Rate Care component of Disability Living Allowance, which was estimated at May 2010 to be 39% of claimants. (Ibid.)

Under the new regulations, all claimants must undertake a PCA, where the emphasis is on looking at what the claimant is able to do. This could appear to be a positive emphasis, as it allows someone to recognise the skills they still possess and the aim is to encourage them to find work within their capability.

But the situation has not been so clear cut. The test does not take into account the nature of the claimant’s illness. Someone with a mental health problem may hate crowds or noise; someone with fibromyalgia may become more ill with increased levels of stress. In the case of people with illnesses like Lupus, Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome their symptoms can flare up and down many times in the same day. Who would employ a person that may need to leave work early and be bed-bound for the next three days? Who would employ someone who may forget instructions the moment they were given? Who would employ someone so drowsy from the high doses of painkillers they are taking? In a climate where there are thousands more jobseekers than jobs, what employer would choose the unreliable employee over the reliable one?

The Government has stated that it wishes to cut 20% of the budget from sickness benefits and move some claimants into work-related benefits; yet statistics show that there is only a 0.5%-0.6% fraud rate in DLA (Crown Copyright,2011 p.35). In essence up to 19.5% of genuinely ill people will have their ill-health related benefits stripped and will be forced to apply for work that they simply cannot undertake, with the penalties that are applied for non-compliance of the conditions of receiving JSA.

The agency that undertakes the medicals have been known to lie on the forms to stop benefit payments. The internet is full of forums where victims of this and professional welfare advisers alike have complained about this issue. Many people are told they are ‘fit for work’ when they are clearly not and many medicals have been overturned by tribunals at a later stage. (Gentleman,2011)  On some forums claimants have stated that they are stockpiling tablets to commit suicide if they are deemed ‘fit to work’. On other forums, people have spoken about how degrading and unfair the assessments have been. There is a lot of talk of suicide. (BBC,2009) These do not seem like idle threats, but cries of despair from a vulnerable group in society who certainly do not feel protected by the new legislations.

I would argue that the medical assessments are unfit for their theoretical purpose: to ensure that those who are unable to be able to carry out functional employment due to illness or disability are entitled to extra help and financial support by the State.

Functional employment refers to the ability of a sick or disabled person to enter into paid employment adapted to meet their personal needs on a regular basis, including the ability to carry out the duties required of them to meet the conditions for such paid employment. For people with stress-induced or stress-enhanced illnesses, such as Fibromyalgia, Lupus and some Mental Illnesses, functional employment should not induce or exacerbate the symptoms of their illness. I would furthermore argue that the medical assessments are fit for their ideological purpose: to reduce the numbers of genuine claimants who would ordinarily meet the criteria for being unfit to work in order to reduce the budget deficit and to meet the targets set by the coalition Government for Welfare Reform as detailed above.

Changes to the benefits awarded to the long-term sick and disabled are some of the most controversial aspects of the Welfare Reform Bill. In addition to the change from IB to ESA discussed above is the change from DLA to Personal Independence Payment (PIP). This latter change is one that will cause a lot of impact on the people who need help the most.

Central estimates put the rate of fraud on DLA at 0.5% of all claimants; yet the Government has targets to reduce the number of claimants by 20-23%. (Crown Copyright,2011 p.35)  This raises the concern that up to 22.5% of genuine claimants with genuine needs will lose their entitlement to benefit. DLA currently passports a lot of other benefits, including access to the Blue Badge scheme, extra payments in means-tested benefits and tax credits. As DLA is needs- tested rather than means-tested, even a millionaire can claim the money if the need is there.

Controversially, the first cut will be Mobility payments for people in care homes that are funded by the Local Authority (LA). The issue concerns duplicate payments for the same services. The belief is that the LA provides help with transport. However, critics argue that residents contribute towards transport costs through their mobility payments and that without these extra payments residents will lose the ability to go out for social reasons. The LA currently provides transport for essential reasons only, e.g. going to hospital. (Ibid. pp37-44) 

PIP will differ from DLA in several ways:

  • Daily Living Component: based on ability to carry out key activities in daily life with two tiers, instead of the three levels of Care in DLA.

  • Mobility component: based on ability to get around will be removed for people living in LA-funded care homes.

  • Six month qualifying period instead of three.

  • No automatic entitlement for people with particular condition (except terminally ill)

  • Regular checks on individual’s needs

  • Takes into account aids and adaptations

  • Face-to-face assessments by ‘independent healthcare professional’

  • Penalty for failing to notify changes to health and ability

  • Can be forced to seek help with health needs as eligibility for benefit.

    Disabled people have argued that the inclusion of aids and adaptations in assessment of ability, and reducing benefit entitlement accordingly, will disadvantage them, as they often use their DLA to maintain the aids or pay for additional energy costs in charging up batteries and using electrical equipment. Cutting their funding could render the aids useless or allow them to fall into disrepair. Now disability charities are threatening to take the Government to court for a judicial review. (Moynihan,2011)  Furthermore, due to the problems already identified with Atos Healthcare and their methods of undertaking assessments for ESA, many people on DLA are concerned that they may lose their benefit altogether after being ‘reassessed’.

    Housing benefit changes will also impact on disabled people, especially where they live in adapted social housing with extra bedrooms and classed as under-occupied. The cost of rehousing and readapting properties for people in accommodation deemed under-occupied has been argued to have a negative effect on the deficit. (Birch,2011)  

Other changes proposed in the WRB11 include forcing lone parents onto JSA as soon as their youngest child is five. This will come into effect in January 2012 and the aim is to encourage lone parents to return to work once their youngest child is in school. (Crown Copyright,2011 p.10)  

I am concerned that this measure will create unnecessary stress on these parents, who will need to find work that is flexible enough to cater for the children's school hours and the possibility of taking time off for sick children or INSET days. This concern is backed by the charity Gingerbread, who voiced similar concerns during the consultation period. (Ibid.) I believe that JSA requirements to actively seek full-time work will also negatively impact on lone parents without additional family support.

Landlords will be less likely to accept Local Housing Allowance (LHA) recipients once the payment is linked to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rather than the Retail Price Index (RPI), as the LHA increases may not match the market rent. The CPI does not take into account housing costs. This will negatively affect vulnerable people living in private rented accommodation who may fall into rent arrears. (Crown Copyright,2011, pp.17, 25-27) 

I believe that it is unfair to use a fiscal tool that explicitly excludes housing costs to determine the rate of increase of those same housing costs. I believe that the people who experience the most difficulty in finding and keeping full-time employment will be the most disadvantaged by these measures, and the proposal is certainly not protecting them.

Social tenants will be affected by the reduction in Housing Benefit for under-occupied properties. Although it seems reasonable to ask people to move into smaller accommodation if necessary to free up the social tenancy market, there are not enough properties available to move these people into. (Birch,2011) As a result many tenants may fall into arrears and face eviction from their properties. This creates a tautological situation whereby the Housing Associations need money to build more properties for people to afford to live in, but with rent arrears and a lack of stability in the social market financial companies may refuse to lend sufficient money to build those houses. (Crown Copyright,2011 p.24) 

Furthermore, the move to cap the amount of benefits one household can receive at £500 (Ibid. p 18)  will cause even more difficulty for vulnerable groups, as they may not be able to afford to top-up their rent. Estimates suggest that 40,000 people could be made homeless by the new proposals (Boffey et al.,2011), and will affect families who may have to move away from their communities to find affordable housing. This could have a direct knock-on effect on employment as these decanted families may have to move far away from their jobs in order to find suitable affordable accommodation, and may have to leave extended family behind who could help them with childcare and other support that would allow the family to work. (Ibid. pp23-24) Again, I believe that lone parents will suffer the most from these changes.

 

    Author

    I have just finished a Certificate in Higher Education in Social Policy and the Care Sector. 

    My final module was a 7000 word thesis on welfare reform and the upcoming changes proposed by the Coalition Government. This blog contains that Project.

    Please note: the material is copyrighted and must not be reproduced in full or in part without permission; except for academic purposes where it must be cited as follows:

    Gourlay, Kirstein, 2011, UK Welfare Reform in the 21st century: The Consequences for the Vulnerable in Society, Birkbeck University:London

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