2 The Government's policy objectives
for the IB reassessment |
15. Professor Harrington's report highlights
that ESA was launched under the previous Government in 2008 "as
both an assessment for benefit entitlement and as the first, positive
step back towards work for most people".
The report also cites the substantial evidence of the "centrality
of work to people's lives" and asserts that "previous
assessments and benefit regimes lacked a focus on the positive
effects of work and the interactions between recovery and work".
16. The current Government's objectives for the
IB reassessment are clear. The Minister for Employment told us
that the aim is "identifying people who have the potential
to return to work, and helping them to do so".
17. The Minister explained the background to
the Government's approach. In preparing its Green Paper on Welfare
Reform in opposition, his party had identified a "huge gap"
in terms of the 2.5 million people claiming incapacity benefits
"that were just being left there. There was no real process
of challenge to say 'Is there something better you can do with
your life if we provide you with the right help and support to
get back into work'."
The Government believes that many of these people "could
and indeed do want to work, but the current system does not give
them that opportunity [...] People have been left on their own
with no support or sense of when and how they might get back to
work." The Minister
also acknowledged that:
The majority of those who could return to work are
people who are a long way away from the workplace, who have become
detached from the world of work through that length of time on
benefits, who probably no longer have the self-confidence to get
back into the workplace, and who often think they do not have
the ability to work.
He emphasised that the reassessment is not a savings
measure, "although if we succeed it will save money".
18. We support the Government's
objectives of helping people with disabilities and long-term health
conditions to move back into work, whilst continuing to provide
adequate support for people who have limited capability for work
or are unable to work. However, the scale of the challenge
should not be underestimated and nor should the level of anxiety
which currently surrounds the process. A suspicion persists that
the only objective of the Government is to save money. The Government
must be proactive in explaining its aims and spreading the positive
messages about the benefits of work and the support which is available
to find work, and in engaging employers. It is vital that the
Government's objectives are firmly supported by the reassessment
process, and by the WCA in particular, but at the moment we are
not completely convinced that it does this. Our report focuses
on the changes we would like to see to help ensure that this happens
19. Unfortunately, the Government's positive
messages are not necessarily getting through to claimants or the
wider public. DWP's own research into claimants' views of the
IB reassessment trials in Aberdeen and Burnley found that "some
customers expressed a desire for more explanation of the overall
rationale for reassessment [...] few customers saw reassessment
as a means to help people access the support they needed to move
back into work". The research paper goes on to say that "it
was commonly believed that reassessment formed part of the Government's
spending reductions" and "customers tended to believe
that the sole purpose of the exercise was to reduce benefit expenditure".
Only exceptionally did customers report having seen the reassessment
portrayed in a positive light in the media.
20. One witness, who works in a GP practice,
suggested that, to address this misunderstanding, an additional
sentence should be included in the letter informing claimants
that they were not eligible for ESA to explain that:
[...] although some people have medical problems
the Government wants to help as many as possible back into work
suitable for them. Many people I see are angry at being assessed
as having no problem, particularly when they have been getting
IB and have had no change in circumstances. They don't understand
21. Professor Paul Gregg, who worked with the
previous Government on designing employment support, believed
that: "A lot of the messages that are coming outand
I think the Government is guilty of thisare creating a
culture where the disabled community feels the primary function
is about driving them off the benefits on to lower value, less-supportive
22. Another witness argued that there was a contradiction
in the Government's position:
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.
Having followed our oral evidence sessions, she wrote
again to say that, despite what had been said in our exchanges,
many claimants did know what the purpose of the WCA and the reassessment
process was but:
[...] we are worried because we know that there aren't
enough jobs for able-bodied people, let alone for those with special
employment needs. It is all very well to keep repeating the mantra
that with the right support and encouragement people can move
into work. Yes, in theory and in an ideal world. The reality is,
however, that they are more likely to end up languishing on the
dole or fall out of the system entirely.
23. As well as not necessarily understanding
or sharing the Government's objectives, claimants are also anxious
about the process. The DWP research reported that:
A number of claimants were anxious about the prospect
of being assessed and concerned the assessment might not fairly
assess their capabilities. Often believing that they had been
"targeted", these customers tended to be pessimistic
about their chances of being awarded ESA and fearful about the
prospect of working.
24. Many of the individuals who submitted evidence
spoke of their anxiety about the process. One woman stated that
she had "heard several stories about people being treated
unfairly, the reports being false and not representative of the
claimant's needs or disabilities".
Another wrote: "As more and more news comes out about
the functioning of the WCA, the two types of ESA, and people being
sanctioned and losing benefits entirely I am becoming even more
worried, and the worry is worsening my health."
25. Claimants also sometimes felt that being
found fit for work in the WCA equated to being told that they
did not have a health condition. Professor O'Donnell of Atos Healthcare
agreed that this was an issue:
One thing that would make a difference would be if
we could find a way of explaining to people that failure to be
awarded ESA is not the same as being classed as a malingerer,
someone who does not have a disability or someone who is not ill.
I think we need to get that across very clearly.
This accords with the DWP research on the IB reassessment
trials which found that people who received no points in the WCA
"were particularly critical of the process because they felt
that the notification letter was stating that they did not have
any form of impairment or medical condition".
26. Dr Bill Gunnyeon, the DWP Chief Medical Adviser,
acknowledged that "one of the challenges we have with perceptions
is that people think that, if they are considered fit for work,
that means the assessment has concluded there is nothing wrong
with them: that is a problem". He believed that it was a
question of changing people's perceptions about the WCA so that
they saw its purpose as being to try to "identify where somebody
sits on this continuum, from being in work and fit for work to
being a long way from work because of a health condition".
He also pointed out that "about 25% of people in work suffer
from a long-term health condition. Of working age people as a
whole with a long-term health condition, about 60% are in work."
Improving communication of the
27. Given that the IB reassessment is being implemented
over three years, it is important for DWP to ensure that it informs
claimants about the reassessment at the point when it is most
helpful for them and is likely to reassure them rather than increasing
their anxiety. We discussed with witnesses what the most effective
timing for informing people about the process might be. Jane Harris
of Rethink pointed out that there were two communications processes
going on: specific information for claimants and the general information
in the media. She said that "some people do feel that they
are getting a lot of communication but that they are never being
given a date for an assessment [...] That seems to be causing
quite a lot of anxiety".
The DWP research on the reassessment trials found that "general
awareness of reassessment prior to receiving the notification
letter was reasonably high", although claimants' understanding
of why it was happening and what it would involve "tended
to be quite basic".
It should be borne in mind that some IB claimants will also be
recipients of Disability Living Allowance, which is to be replaced
by the Personal Independence Payment, for which a separate eligibility
assessment will be necessary.
28. It is also important that claimants understand
the objectives of the reassessment process from the outset. However,
because Employment and Support Allowance has two purposes, to
provide help to those who might be able to move into work and
to provide an income replacement benefit for those who are unlikely
ever to work again, the messages claimants receive can be confusing.
29. The initial letter which Jobcentre Plus sends
to incapacity benefit claimants to inform them that they are to
be reassessed says "We need to assess you for Employment
and Support Allowance. This is a new benefit that helps people
with an illness or disability move into work and provides people
with the support they need."
The leaflet which Jobcentre Plus (JCP) has issued on reassessment
states that "moving people on to Employment and Support Allowance
and Jobseeker's Allowance will mean they get the right help and
support to find work".
Both of these imply that the purpose is to move everyone into
work. It is not clear whether the "support" offered
is in the form of help to get into work or the income replacement
benefit which is paid to people who are not in work. In fact
the word "support" means both and this may be why the
impression has been given that the purpose of the WCA is to remove
people's benefit. It is also confusing in this context that the
group not required to seek work is called the "Support Group".
30. It may be that, as people become more familiar
with the new benefit, this confusion may lessen and that evidence
that the process works in practice may also contribute to ensuring
that the positive messages are effectively communicated. The Minister
believed that, as claimants went through the reassessment process
and began to move into work, role models would be created and
this would help to get the positive message across that the process
was about supporting people who could work to find jobs.
31. The Government needs to
develop its communications strategy for the IB reassessment in
a way which ensures clarity and minimises anxiety. Providing claimants
with the right level of information at the time that is appropriate
for each individual forms an important part of this, bearing in
mind that the reassessment process as a whole will last three
years. It also requires the Government to be clearer about what
the word "support" means in the context of Employment
and Support Allowance. Currently it is used to describe employment
support on the one hand and financial support through benefits
for those who cannot work on the other. These two different meanings
in the context of one benefit can be very confusing.
"Passing" or "failing" the
32. One of the obstacles to ensuring that the
positive messages get through to claimants is the use of language
in the process. One of the particular concerns we have about the
public response to the IB reassessment and the WCA is that claimants
see themselves as "passing" the test if they are found
to be unfit for work and they qualify for ESA, but as "failing"
the test if they are assessed as being able to work. This ties
in with the point made above, that if claimants "fail"
the test and are found fit for work, they interpret this as meaning
that DWP does not believe that they have a health condition or
33. The difficulty of using the right language
to describe the outcome of the WCA was borne out in oral evidence
when Dr Gunnyeon of DWP referred to a claimant being "unsuccessful"
in the WCA, meaning that they had been found fit for work. He
acknowledged this inconsistency, saying "I think I have just
demonstrated exactly why it is so difficult".
34. The message which the Government
sends to claimants involved in the reassessment process should
be clear and simple: if the assessment process correctly finds
someone fit for work, that is a successful and desirable outcome.
However, we believe that the Government also needs to take greater
steps to reassure claimants. It needs to explain that being found
"fit for work" does not equate to denial or disbelief
about the existence of an illness or health condition: rather
the condition is acknowledged but its impact has been assessed
as not being so serious as to prevent the person from returning
to work at some point in the future.
35. We believe that the language
currently used to describe the outcome of the WCA is a barrier
to the Government's objectives for the reassessment being properly
communicated. The idea that a claimant has "failed"
the assessment if they are found fully capable of work risks negating
the positive messages which the Government is trying to convey.
It needs to be addressed across the board and to include all communications
between claimants and DWP staff, especially Jobcentre Plus staff
who tell claimants the outcome of the process, and Atos Healthcare
employees who may explain the process to claimants. We also believe
that the communications need to explain clearly and at every stage
of the process that, where someone is found not fit for work,
they will be eligible to receive ESA at the support rate.
36. Another cause of concern for claimants was
that media coverage of the IB reassessment had resulted in a
very negative public perception of them. Some believed that the
Government might be contributing to this negative portrayal. One
witness believed that "When a daily tabloid trumpets that
'75% of all claimants on disability benefit are scroungers' it
is surely only endorsing successive Governments' public spin.
Clearly Atos has deemed me a 'scrounger'."
Another told us: "We are not 'work-shy scroungers' as depicted
so unpleasantly these days in the mediaas a trustee of
a local organisation of disabled people I know my concerns are
felt by many others."
A mother of a claimant told us that:
Many of the articles that are being printed in the
papers are fairly negative and are painting people on benefits
as being scroungers and people who want something for nothing.
My son has become very distressed by the news articles which have
added to his extreme stress and anxiety.
37. Nor is it just the tabloid press which presents
a negative view of long-term incapacity benefit claimants. The
Times published an article in April with the headline "Too
fat, too drunk, or just too lazy to workbut not to claim
their benefit". The article said that official figures indicated
that "more than 80,000 people are too fat or too dependent
on alcohol or drugs to work" and that many of these people
had been on incapacity benefits "for more than ten years".
38. Part of the problem is the way in which releases
of official statistics about the reassessment process are covered
in the media. DWP released initial findings from the Aberdeen
and Burnley trials of the IB reassessment in February 2011. The
DWP press release set out that 29.6% had been found fit for work;
31.3% had been placed in the Support Group; and 39% had been placed
in the WRAG, explaining that "this means with the right help
and support they can start the journey back to work".
This was headlined on the BBC website as "Incapacity benefit
review suggests majority could work".
The Daily Express used the headline "70% of Britons on incapacity
benefits found to be fit for work". The article itself did
break this number down but said "Early results showed that
29.6% of claimants were found to be fit enough to get a job and
support themselves rather than sponge off the taxpayer."
 A number of
other newspapers were required by the Press Complaints Commission
to publish corrections for suggesting that 70% of claimants had
been found fit to work.
39. The Minister stressed that the Government
had played no part in feeding media stories which referred to
benefit claimants being "work-shy" or "scroungers".
There was a statutory requirement on the Department periodically
to release official statistics. When publishing these figures,
the Government had "one single consistent narrative, which
is that there are people there with the potential to get back
into work, and through the Work Programme there will be specialist
help for them to do so. That is a message I stand by four square."
The Government could not "control the editorial approach
of the tabloids" and he was often "bemused" by
the stories which ran, but he had had "a number of conversations
with people in the media about the need for care in this area".
40. Sections of the media routinely
use pejorative language, such as "work-shy" or "scrounger",
when referring to incapacity benefit claimants. We strongly deprecate
this and believe that it is irresponsible and inaccurate. The
duty on the state to provide adequate support through the benefits
system for people who are unable to work because of a serious
health condition or illness is a fundamental principle of British
society. Portraying the reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants
as some sort of scheme to "weed out benefit cheats"
shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the Government's objectives.
41. Whilst fully accepting that
the Government, and this Committee, have no role in determining
the nature and content of media coverage, we believe that more
care is needed in the way the Government engages with the media
and in particular the way in which it releases and provides its
commentary on official statistics on the IB reassessment. In the
end, the media will choose its own angle, but the Government should
take great care with the language it itself uses and take all
possible steps to ensure that context is provided when information
about IB claimants found fit for work is released, so that unhelpful
and inaccurate stories can be shown to have no basis.
Role of representative organisations
42. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which
represent benefit claimants and people with disabilities play
an important role in communicating Government policy to the public
and in voicing the concerns of people affected by proposed changes.
We welcome the contribution such organisations make, but some
of the messages they give are not always easily reconciled. A
number of NGOs made clear that they supported the principles behind
the IB reassessment. Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) told us: "It
is important to note that CASand many groups that support
people who live with disabilities across Scotlandsupport
the principle that those who have a capability for work should
be helped into suitable and sustainable employment."
A joint submission from organisations working with people with
mental health problems stated:
Our organisations understand the motivation for moving
claimants off existing incapacity benefits (IB), which is seen
as a "passive" benefit, onto Employment and Support
Allowance (ESA), which is seen as a more "active benefit"
[...] We welcome efforts to help people with mental health problems
back to work, where appropriate and if done in a supportive and
However, the overwhelming message from representative
organisations was that this was a flawed process. The joint submission
cited above went on to state "we are concerned that the process
will not be fair; will cause substantial distress; and will lead
to many people receiving inadequate support and being subject
to inappropriate and potentially harmful requirements".
43. We put this apparent contradiction to two
of the representative organisations, Citizens Advice and Rethink,
when we took oral evidence from them. Jane Harris of Rethink told
us that "in principle we support a lot of the ideas behind
the Employment and Support Allowance, and certainly we think there
are a lot of people with mental illness who may be able to work
with the right support, who probably are not able to work at the
moment". However, "there are some really fundamental
barriers to work that are not being addressed, the chief one being
the stigma and discrimination that thousands of people with mental
illness face when trying to find a job". She welcomed the
"very positive step forward" which the Equality Act
represented in this respect but believed that "it has not
solved that fundamental problem". She drew a distinction
between the short-term and long-term prospects of a claimant with
a mental health problem being found fit for work:
[....] long term, with the right support, we think
there are lots of people who could work. [...] The problem is
there is a difference in thinking that somebody might need a couple
of years in the Work-Related Activity Group, certain amounts of
support and then they might be able to go back to work [...] There
is a difference between that and concluding that, on the basis
of a test, that across the sector people do not really think is
particularly valid, somebody can therefore work tomorrow.
Sue Royston of Citizens Advice took a similar view:
We welcomed the Employment and Support Allowance.
A lot of disabled people want to get back into work, and we welcomed
the help and support it would give. We are not very happy about
the way it is working. We feel the test is too crude a test,
and there are also problems with the way the assessment is actually
carried out in practice.
44. We put it to the Minister that organisations
which represent people on benefits shared some of the responsibility
for the negative attitude to the IB reassessment and for fuelling
anxiety amongst claimants about the process. The Minister believed
that these organisations were "in a slightly difficult position".
Some had been involved in the development of the WCA and in the
various reviews, because it was important to have the benefit
of their expertise. But at the same time the Minister recognised
that "there is a lot of uncertainty out there, a lot of concern
out there, and to some extent they have to voice that".
However, he also pointed out that "one of the ironies"
was that some of the organisations which had been critical of
the reassessment were on the list of Work Programme sub-contractors
who would be responsible for helping people coming off benefits
to find jobs.
45. We agree with the Minister's
view that organisations which represent benefit claimants may
sometimes face a conflict in being both advocates for the people
they represent and key players in helping to design and implement
the reassessment process. We believe that these organisations
could contribute enormously to allaying the concerns about reassessment
by giving equal weight to publicising the opportunities an effective
assessment process could offer, and the back-to-work support available
from Government, as they do to fulfilling their important role
in raising legitimate concerns. We also consider that this would
help reassure potential employers and thereby reduce the risk
of stigma and discrimination.
14 Harrington Review, Chapter 2, para 19 Back
Harrington Review, Chapter 2, para 14 and 18 Back
Q 247 Back
Q 247 Back
Ev 67, paras 8-9 Back
Q 250 Back
Q 247 Back
DWP, Trial incapacity benefits reassessment: customer and staff
views and experiences, Research Report No. 741, June 2011,
pp10, 12 (DWP Research Report 741). Back
Ev w4 [Patricia Oakley] Back
Q 6 Back
Ev w47 [Elina Rigler] Back
Ev w115 [Elina Rigler] Back
DWP Research Report 741, p 15 Back
Ev w74 [Catherine Burns] Back
Ev w41 [Julia Cameron] Back
Q 143 Back
DWP Research Report 741, p 34 Back
Q 272 Back
Qq 3-4 Back
DWP Research Report 741, p 9 Back
DWP, Jobcentre Plus sample letter to claimants, IBM2591, January
DWP, Jobcentre Plus information leaflet, Reassessment of incapacity
Q 251 Back
Qq 313-316 Back
Ev w1 [John Heeps] Back
Ev w41 [Julia Cameron] Back
Ev w12 [Carole Rutherford] Back
The Times, 21 April 2011 Back
"Grayling: initial reassessments of those on IB in Aberdeen
and Burnley show large numbers of claimants with the potential
to return to work", DWP press release, 10 February 2011. Back
BBC News online, 14 February 2011 Back
Daily Express, 11 February 2011 Back
See Press Complaints Commission website at www.pcc.org.uk and
the Full Fact website at http://fullfact.org Back
Q 254 Back
Q 256 Back
Ev w28 Back
Ev 91, para 1.1 Back
Qq 2, 5 Back
Q 2 Back
Q 252 Back
Q 254 Back