Information from a range of sources suggests that the system for assessing entitlement to Employment and Support Allowance has broken down. The most obvious immediate problem is the withdrawal of Atos from the system, leading directly to a backlog of 712,000 assessments. Quite apart from that, however, is the revelation that in addition to the extensive numbers of decisions overturned on appeal, there are also many more being overturned after reconsideration by the DWP. Ilegal has put together information from several sources – the Tribunals Service, a statement in the House of Commons about internal reconsideration in 2010 and 2011 and a further response to a Freedom of Information request covering 2012 and 2013. There are gaps in the data, which makes it difficult for me to verify their figures, and there needs to be more information about what is being appealed in what circumstances, but Ilegal claims that the tally comes to well over half a million incorrect decisions over the past five years. The Guardian reports that, with the introduction of ‘mandatory reconsideration’ before appeals are possible, ‘thousands’ of claims are being held in limbo – from the scale of the problems, that could be hundreds of thousands.
This shows the futility – and overweening presumption – of trying to run a benefits system for millions of people by trying to make difficult, personal assessments of their physical capacity. Much of this could have been done more simply, effectively and quickly if the government had been prepared to accept some pragmatic compromises. I’ve made, in the past, some modest proposals for simplifying the system, such as accepting medical evidence of certain conditions like cancer or congenital learning disabilities as sufficient for admission to the ‘support group’. The scale of the problem now means this needs to go much further. The benefits system should accept certification from hospital consultants and exempt certain large categories of disability such as stroke or degenerative diseases. Sickness benefit should be restored for relatively short-term issues like pregnancy. Independent assessment should be reserved for cases where there are reasons for doubt.