Saturday, 1 October 2016

Government backs down on some retesting for sickness benefits

Government backdown won’t apply to all but is an opening

The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is highly damaging to those of us who have to go through it. Despite this, both main parties have consistently denied that there is any problem, and claimed that the WCA is necessary to weed out scroungers. That might be about to change.

Firstly, Labour announced at their conference that they would scrap the WCA altogether. This doesn't mean much right now since they are not in power, but it is a major turnaround for a party that introduced the WCA in the first place and has refused to even oppose most benefit cuts in the last few years. Jeremy Corbyn called the WCA degrading. Debbie Abrahams acknowledged that it makes people feel worthless and dehumanised.

It's not all good, since they still refuse to oppose benefit sanctions, and used the same old language about work being the goal for everyone, but it is a start.

Secondly, Damian Green, Tory Secretary of Work and Pensions, has told the media that the government will stop repeatedly retesting people who aren't going to improve.
“If someone has a disease which can only get worse then it doesn’t make sense to ask them to turn up for repeated appointments. If their condition is not going to improve, it is not right to ask them to be tested time after time. So we will stop it.”
This is a huge reversal of policy. Continuous retesting was always the point of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) although there have never been enough resources to apply that to everyone.

Many people are celebrating this. However, there are big questions as the government haven't specified any details. I'm not sure they even know yet. Reports imply that the exemption from retesting will apply to people with specific illnesses that are known to only deteriorate. If that is the case, then many people who have illnesses that are just as bad as those on the list but are not recognised as such, will miss out. So will people who have not yet been diagnosed, and that can mean people who are sick for years - or decades - before they find out the cause.

The more logical policy would be to apply this exemption to everyone who is in the Support Group, since this category is meant to contain people who have no prospect of improvement. In practice the Support Group doesn't work like that, and people who will never improve are frequently placed in the Work Related Activity Group instead, thanks to DWP efforts to deny them support in order to keep costs down. If the exemption were to apply to the Support Group only then it would still be unfair to all those improperly placed in the WRAG.

Whether the Government decides who qualifies based on diagnosis, or based on support group, it will still be unfair. However, I do see this announcement as a big win. A Tory government minister said "constant reassessment is pointless" and "does increase their stress and anxiety levels" "causes financial insecurity" to describe repeated work capability assessments. That is a huge admission for the Tories, or even for Labour.

We can use this. We can attack the inconsistencies in the government's argument. We can point out that the Work Capability Assessment is damaging to everyone. We can show that their descriptions apply to Personal Independence Payments too, even though they've spent six years attacking PIP's predecessor, DLA as "abandoning" people so as to justify welfare reform and repeated reassessments. This isn't an unqualified victory and won't necessarily improve things for that many people (perhaps including myself) but this is a major event in the struggle against welfare cuts of the last few years.

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