One and a half million claimants of Incapacity Benefit are currently being reassessed prior to transfer to the Employment and Support Allowance. On 27th April, a DWP press release explained that most claimants who were being reassessed were either being found fit for work, or failing to complete the assessment process. Neither finding should be taken to imply that claimants are malingering. Incapacity Benefit is a provision for long-term sickness; it is not confined to people with permanent conditions, and many do get better over time. The statistics can be viewed at http://research.dwp.gov.uk/asd/workingage/esa_wca/esa_wca_25012011.pdf. There are high rates of non-completion of the process, for example, for people with infective diseases, injuries, or pregnancy. That is exactly what we should expect. More worrying is that many people are being found fit for work when they have serious medical problems, such as cancer, incontinence or degenerative diseases. Part of the problem here is the process of reassessment, which has been criticised for being impersonal, mechanistic and insufficiently informed by medical evidence; but part is the nature of the work test, which looks not at whether a person’s ability to work has been impaired, but at whether that person is deemed to be able to do any sort of work, anywhere. People who contract serious disorders need protection – time, space and support. All the emphasis in the new system falls on pressing people to return to work.
It is disturbing, too, that the release of this information should have been managed deliberately to paint benefit recipients in a negative light. A government statement on 21st April criticised the 80,000 claimants whose main reason for incapacity was alcoholism, drug use or obesity. It seems that people who do these things sometimes become ill as a result; the only noteworthy thing about that finding is that the government should want to draw particular attention to it. The information released on 28th April had been previously released in a press release in January, when it was announced in similar terms. This is beginning to look like a propaganda campaign.