As the dust starts to settle on a starting election result, we can now start to see the contours of what might be happening to the WCA and incapacity benefits more broadly over the next Parliament. I have no ability to predict the future – my election predictions were as inaccurate as everyone else’s (‘less spectacularly wrong’ seems a pretty weak claim) – but here are my best guesses at the present time…
The Work Capability Assessment
Every party manifesto bar one explicitly talked about the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), the gateway to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – which must be the first time a disability assessment has had this level of political profile. The exception, though, was the Conservative Manifesto. Yet whether the Conservatives will simply keep the current system is unclear:
- The WCA is now much more generous than it was to begin with. In 2008-2010, more than half of new claimants were found fit-for-work and only 10-15 in the Support Group. By mid-2013 (the latest comparable figures, for various reasons), it had fallen to only a third, with more than half instead being placed in the Support Group. The Litchfield Review of the WCA implied that too many people were being placed in the Support Group, and it is clear the Government have spent more than they planned on ESA – which suggests that they will try and reduce this before long. (For more on Litchfield and the ESA figures, see Chapter 2 of our recent Demos report).
- MAXIMUS have only just been appointed to take over from Atos, and the first priority is clearing a large backlog of ESA applications. This therefore seems like a bad time to make changes – but reforms may be more viable when MAXIMUS’s contract comes up for renewal in early 2018.
- No-one seems particularly happy with the limited numbers of disabled people that find jobs in the Work Programme. Part of the issue here seems to be the way that the WCA links to employment support, and it therefore may be changed as a by-product of other policies.
- Universal Credit is now slowly being rolled-out, and already deals with small numbers of ESA claims (among people in the pilot areas who develop a disability during their claim). As the system around the WCA changes, there will be greater pressures to change the WCA to fit it.
In other words – something seems likely to happen around the WCA. But we don’t know what this will be, and it is probably yet to be decided.
Incapacity benefits more broadly
There’s a few things that were spelt out in the Conservative Manifesto that we know are going to happen:
- Real-terms cuts to benefits by a freeze at payment levels. While the Manifesto says this excludes ‘disability and pensioner benefits’, this actually only refers to the extra money that goes to those in the Support Group, and not other ESA claimants.
- A lower ‘benefits cap’ of the total amount of benefits that a household can receive – this excludes DLA/PIP claimants, but this still leaves over a million disabled people who might be affected. (My estimate of the figure is 1.2m, which is the number of ESA/SDA claimants who do not receive DLA/PIP; data from nomis for August 2014. This is an underestimate, as there are also the disabled people who are claiming neither ESA/SDA or DLA/PIP).
- Possible reductions in benefits for people with obesity or drug/alcohol addiction (or even mental health conditions) who refuse treatment. David Cameron announced just before the election that Dame Carol Black was looking into this, but they haven’t firmly committed to it, and in practice it may well be one of those policies that (irrespective of whether the Government wants to do it) will be near-impossible for them to deliver – as seemed to be accepted when Labour thought of doing something similar in 2009.
Again, though, the Conservatives are likely to be considering other changes to incapacity benefits. They have committed to £12bn of welfare cuts, but the actual cuts have not been decided (or at least, they have not been publicly discussed). There is plenty of speculation about what they would involve though, not least from leaks in Oct 2014 and Mar 2015, from internal civil service papers setting out the options to Conservative Ministers. Several of these affect disabled people, including taxing PIP/DLA, or abolishing contributory ESA (which would mean that more people would have their benefits means-tested after a year) .
One of the possibilities that was mentioned in these documents is abolishing the Work-Related Activity Group in ESA – in other words, forcing people to instead claim a broader unemployment benefit (JSA/Universal Credit), which is worth considerably less. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies (p218), perhaps the most trusted economic commentators in the UK, this may eventually save about £1bn, though it’s hard to know exactly and it might take a while to reach that figure even if it is correct. I strongly doubt that this will happen because the political consequences might be very high, but given the need to find £12bn of savings from somewhere, and the fact that all of the policies being considered are potentially unpopular, it’s not altogether out of the question.
And the new disability Minister is…
…Justin Tomlinson, the MP for Swindon North. (The previous Minister, Mark Harper, was promoted). So while there will be a certain continuity in policy with Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud staying in their more senior roles, there may be some changes depending on Tomlinson’s position, once he settles into his new brief.
I can tell you very little about Justin Tomlinson so far. The first reactions online (from the left-wing blog Left Foot Forward and the blog Benefits and Work) have been negative, based purely on his voting record on disability benefits – but apparently he’s “a pretty enthusiastic type” with a “cheery demeanour”. It will be very interesting to see what position Tomlinson takes on the many key issues that will be waiting for him on his desk this week.
It’s also worth noting that Tomlinson is only a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, rather than a Minister of State, which is a slightly lower rung of Minister. In this, he’s similar to Esther McVey and Maria Millar (the Ministers for Disabled People 2010-13), but less senior than Mike Penning and Mark Harper were (the Ministers 2013-15).
A final word
For other analysis of the Conservative Manifesto from a disability perspective, it’s worth looking at John Pring’s posts (here and here) over at the Disability News Service – which is not to say that I either agree or disagree with DNS’ position, just that it’s an essential source for keeping up-to-date. And just to stress: this is all just guesswork – and I’ll keep writing here to reflect the inevitable changes that will happen in response to events…