A rather garbled report in the Guardian suggests that Iain Duncan Smith is considering ‘disbanding’ the Work Related Activity Group on Employment and Support Allowance. I don’t think I know what this means. ESA begins with an assessment which determines that it is not reasonable to expect the claimant to work. Some of these people are placed in the ‘support’ group, where they are not required to undergo further tests. The rest are assumed to be liable to undertake ‘work related activity’. The last Labour government, which introduced the reform of incapacity benefits, had said that they were going to introduce regulations to define who should be in the Work Related Activity Group, but they never did, and the coalition government has not filled the gap.
Pushing most people on ESA into work-related activity makes little sense. It’s certainly true that many people with disabilities can work, but ESA is a benefit for incapacity, not a benefit for disability. The whole point of ESA is that it is for people who can’t work and can’t reasonably be expected to. People in the WRAG are not being kept from work by little obstacles; they are people who can’t be expected to work. Possibly some of them may be able to work in the future, but that’s open to argument; the most work-related activity can reasonably do in such situations is to maintain some sort of connection with the world of work. It’s not surprising, then, to read that the WRAG is pretty ineffective in encouraging people to get back to work; that’s not what it’s there for. Equally, it’s predictable that “hundreds of millions of pounds are being tied up in administration of the benefit, including the work capability assessment and appeals process”, without positive results. That’s what happens if you put hundreds of thousands of people indiscriminately through elaborate administrative rituals.
If the Guardian is right, and Iain Duncan Smith actually plans to move all ESA claimants on to JSA, the proposal is daft – flooding the job market and JSA administration with people who can barely function is not going to help anyone. If however reforming the WRAG was to mean that most ESA claimants weren’t in it, that would make perfectly good sense. The category should be reserved to people currently suffering from incapacity who stand to benefit from work-related support.
Update, 4th December: The Court of Appeal has upheld an appeal by claimants with psychiatric problems, that the process of assessment is inappropriate and that the DWP has the responsibility to obtain appropriate medical evidence about people’s condition. A statement by Rethink is here.
Further update, 23rd July 2014: The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee has reviewed the Work Capacity Assessment. They find – like everyone else – that the WRAG just doesn’t mean anything, and the divisions don’t work.