Ben Geiger: Improving welfare tests should not be beyond the wit of ministers
The Work Capability Assessment is broken – here's how work and pensions secretary Esther McVey could fix it.
Ironically, sometimes it is a policy’s failures rather than successes that make it difficult to reform.
The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for out-of-work disability benefits has been a failure by almost any criteria – yet it is still with us, with little prospect of any change soon. One reason is that having seen the WCA unravel, people seem to have lost faith that it is even possible to have a disability assessment that is either popular or deliverable, making the risks of reform seem like a gamble that is not worth taking in the face of an inevitably losing battle.
This is why a vision for a better WCA is so important. In a new Demos report released today, I therefore describe a clear and realistic vision for a better WCA, based on a four-year research project that includes international comparisons, many focus groups with experts and the public, and a new survey. Central to this vision are two distinct areas for improvement.
Firstly, the WCA is charged with assessing if someone’s disability is ‘genuine’. The problem is not that it does this, but that it does it so badly. Politicians seem to be running increasing political risks in allowing this to happen – the public think it is more important to support genuine claimants than to root out fraud (45% vs. 22%), yet more people say they know a deserving claimant that has struggled to get benefits, compared to knowing a claimant who is not genuinely disabled (28% vs. 19%).
There are accusations that some assessors (at least for PIP) are simply lying; as last week’s Select Committee report similarly said (based on numerous testimonies), there is no reason that we should not record assessments and randomly check their quality. But more than this, WCA assessors too often over-rule what a claimant says based on unjustifiable evidence, such as the typical symptoms of their diagnosis (when many people are atypical), their treatment history (when many people are waiting for treatment), or their behaviour at the assessment (when many people alternate between good and bad days).
If assessors are going to decide that they knew better than claimants based on a single short assessment, then they need a higher standard of evidence. This will partly depend on a better supply of medical information, and to allow claimants to undergo further treatment to get this. But one change is very simple: where there is something puzzling about a claimant’s account, assessors should ask them directly why this is the case and listen to what they say – rather than rushing to judgements that are often grossly unfair.
Secondly, the WCA is meant to assess if someone is capable of work – but it does not. There is no transparent evidence that the WCA captures the demands of work in Britain today. Moreover, the WCA is inaccurate if claimants have two or more types of impairment, which probably includes at least half of all disabled people. From looking at other countries, the easiest approach for the UK would simply be to create some actual evidence on what jobs require, and transparently link this to a revised WCA.
I can understand why people have lost faith in the WCA. But the WCA is perhaps the greatest failure of an incapacity assessment that we have ever previously managed, and a greater failure than any other country currently achieves. None of the steps to a better WCA are beyond the wit of man. All we need is the confidence in our ability to do better, and the willingness to depart from the familiarity of our present, broken system.
Ben Geiger is a senior lecturer at the University of Kent.