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Work-related Activity Group

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 3rd February 2015.

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Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East 11:00 am, 3rd February 2015

My hon. Friend is correct. There is no sign whatever that any evaluation was made that showed that it was not working. Do we need something better than the WCA to measure the obstacles and propose support measures? The answer must be yes. Does that necessarily mean two tests? I do not know—perhaps, or perhaps not—but it should be looked into properly so that we can decide how to deal with the issue. Scope, a leading charity in this field, has suggested replacing the WCA as a whole with a distance-from-work assessment to assess support needs rather than medical capacity.

The third issue that I want to address is the fact that the Government have both reduced the value of ESA payments to those in the WRAG and placed restrictions on its receipt that have significantly changed the character of the benefit. Although the value of payments to people in the support group has been uprated by inflation in both 2014-15 and 2015-16, payments to those in the WRAG have been subject to uprating by only 1%. Those in the WRAG are subject to the overall household benefit cap, whereas those in the support group are not. The Government justifies those differences on the basis that people in the WRAG are better placed to move towards the labour market, but I do not think that that is how the original architects of ESA would have envisioned the WRAG working. Under incapacity benefit, most of these people would have been given unconditional support, so it is wrong that the fact that they now receive some level of support with a view to an eventual return to work is being used as a stick to push them to get a job sooner than they are able.

The sorts of changes I have described have fed into the media perception that people in the WRAG are in reality fit for work. For example, on 1 April 2013, the Daily Mail ran a story under the headline “Just one in eight on sickness benefit is truly too ill to work”. It reported that of nearly 1.5 million new claims assessed for ESA since 2008, 837,000 were found fit for work and 232,000 were

“deemed by doctors to be too unwell to do any sort of work”— that is, they were in the support group. It then said that

“a further 367,300 were judged able to do some level of work”,

which was clearly a reference to the WRAG and implied that such claimants were not truly too ill to work. Actually, the whole point of the test is to say that at this point in time they are deemed unfit for work.

A related change was the decision to time-limit the receipt of contributory ESA to one year for those in the WRAG, on the basis that they are likely to get better anyway and so will be in less need of the benefit than people in the support group. However, in contrast to incapacity benefit, ESA was designed with regular reassessments in mind, so were there to be any improvement and therefore lost of entitlement, that should be determined through the process of reassessment, rather than an arbitrary one-year time limit. Such a limit particularly affects people who have been in work for much of their life and therefore made their contributions, but who may, for example, have a working partner—possibly earning only part-time wages—and so reach a position in which they receive no payments whatever.

Another issue is that the letters that people receive to tell them about changes in their circumstances are very unclear. One former incapacity benefit claimant came to my surgery last year after he had received a cryptic letter from the DWP. He understood it as saying that he would continue to receive benefit, but became concerned several months later when he learned that his benefits were due to stop in a few months’ time. It turned out that he had been placed in the WRAG but was time-barred from appealing the decision. I hope that the Government’s proposed review of all ESA-related communications will address such issues. My experience is that people are still receiving letters that are hard to interpret. They tell them that there has been a change in circumstances and perhaps that there will be a slight change in the amount of money that they will receive, but they do not make it clear why, which of the ESA groups they are in, and the overall implications. It is important that people are given the information that they need in order to take the appropriate action.

In conclusion, it is worth quoting the Select Committee again, which concluded:

“The WRAG is by far the most problematic of the three ESA outcome groups.”

I know that it is likely that many of the policy changes that I have mentioned in my speech have been driven by financial considerations, and I do not necessarily expect the Government to change all their positions in the remaining few months of the Parliament. Nevertheless, I would like to think that these matters are under consideration and that there is a real attempt to overcome some of the problems and issues that I have mentioned. For example, good communication should not be beyond the bounds of possibility, even in the dying days of this Parliament. That could save money in the end, because if people understood what they were being told they would be much more likely to take the appropriate steps.

It is profoundly unfair that people in the WRAG seem to be shouldering a disproportionate burden in reducing the deficit, and I hope that whichever party or parties are in government after the election take a different approach. No claimants should be placed in the WRAG without a face-to-face assessment, and only those able to benefit should be referred to the Work programme, if it continues—I hope that it can be improved considerably, or devolved so that we can use the specialist providers with which we have all had contact and that do such a good job. Ministers must acknowledge that those in the WRAG are currently too ill or disabled to work.