Disability benefits and controversial means testing

The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is the test designed and used by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to determine the entitlement of disabled welfare claimants. These assessments were directed by private company Atos Healthcare. The test is controversial and has been criticised for the high proportion of those tested being found ‘fit for work’ despite having marginal to severe disabilities.

The Welfare Reform Act 2007 replaced Incapacity Benefit with Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and the PCA with the WCA under the Labour government. The aim was to make the medical tests more rigorous and to stop abuses of the system. However, the WCA program did not pick up pace until 2010 when the Coalition government expanded its role to reassess the 2.5 million people that the DWP had already judged to be entitled to Incapacity Benefit. The government also made changes to the framework of the test to make ESA harder to obtain. The DWP claims 980,400 people – 32% of new applicants for Employment and Support Allowance – were judged capable of work between 2008 and March 2013. Minister of State for Disabled People, Mike Penning, said: “it is only fair that we look at whether people can do some kind of work with the right support – rather than just writing them off on long-term sickness benefits”.

The Labour party have since criticised the Coalition’s reforms to the disability benefit test. In August 2013 Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne stated “They rolled it out before it was ready…The result is an almighty mess that is profoundly hurting some of the most vulnerable people in Britain”. Atos regularly came under fire over the assessments and public opinion viewed Atos with such high disdain that in March 2013 Atos announced they were withdrawing their contract in March 2015 and Mike Penning said Atos would not receive “a single penny of compensation”. There has been much media scrutiny over cases where the disabled lost their previous benefits. One tragic case was that of disabled Mark Wood, who starved to death four months after his benefits were cut. He had Asperger syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder, in addition to cognitive behavioural problems, including a phobia of certain foods. Following an Atos assessment Mark lost his housing benefit and employment support, leaving him just £40 a week disability allowance – not even enough to cover his rent or utility bills. Mark’s sister blamed Atos stating “Anyone who knew Mark’s complex problems would see he couldn’t work.” She added: “I’d like David Cameron and his Government to be aware of the personal cost of their policies and how they are affecting real people”. This is just one of many cases of disabled people being found fit and having their benefits withdrawn, leaving them with almost nothing to live off. Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms have been criticised as ‘heartless’ and ‘overly simplified’ by the shadow welfare minister.

Lily Teevan

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