The end of the WCA? Reaction to IDS’ speech

The Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith MP, seemed last week to say he will end the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) – which for this project dedicated to looking at the WCA and how to improve it (not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people going through the assessment each year), is obviously big news.  It came in a speech hosted by the think-tank Reform, and while it wasn’t open to journalists, it spurred widespread news coverage as well as reaction from disability charities and campaigners.  For reasons that I’ll explain later this month, I’m not going to give my own reaction here – though you can read about what I think needs to happen to the WCA here.  Instead, I’ve tried to distil both the speech itself and everyone else’s reaction to it.

What the Minister said

Before getting to the comments about the WCA, it’s important to understand how it fits into Duncan Smith’s wider, long-running narrative.  In this speech – mirroring similar comments made for many years – his concerns were about a culture of ‘dependency’ being passed down through generations.  His aim was therefore to get as many people as possible into work, not only because work ‘is about self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth’, but also because it is ‘good for your health’.  So while flagging that ‘a decent society should always recognise that some people are unable to work because of physical or mental ill health’, he restated the Conservative’s manifesto commitment to halving the disability employment gap, and said that sickness benefit would be his ‘focus in the coming months’.

His proposals to counter this come in several parts.  There’s a few things he mentioned in brief.  Firstly, he mentioned that ‘some employers are reluctant to employ people with disabilities’, hence the Government’s ‘Disability Confident’ campaign – but he only touched on this very lightly.  Secondly, he briefly described the importance of early treatment for those with mental health difficulties, and flagged the current policy of improving access to psychological treatments.  Third, he emphasised the importance of a ‘human interface’ to the benefits system to give them personalised support, and how this will be improved by Universal Credit.  At greater length, he talked about the importance of acting quickly when people have health- or disability-related problems at work, underpinned by early assessment and a supportive GP, all focused on ‘what work they can do and what support they need to do it’. The new-ish Fit for Work service was presented as a key way of tackling this, and was widely picked up by the media (see below).

Finally – and of most relevance for the Rethinking Incapacity project – he talked about the problems of the WCA.  Duncan Smith said that the problem is that claimants “receive an assessment of their condition that focuses on what they can’t do rather than on what they can do.  That assessment will force them into a binary category saying they can be expected to work or they can’t.” While “someone may be able to do some work for some hours, days or weeks, but not what they were doing previously”, the current system has the ‘perverse incentive’ that ‘a person has to be incapable of all work or available for all work.”   (Paul Goodman of Conservative Home summarises this to ‘ESA asks whether a person is available for all work or incapable of all work, and not whether he or she can do some work, perhaps part-time’).

Duncan Smith believes the assessment needs to change if it is to work with the more personalised system of Universal Credit, to get beyond this binary distinction, and to focus on ‘what a claimant can do and the support they’ll need – and not just on what they can’t do’.  But as the BBC noted, the speech does “not contain any policy announcements but aims instead to start a ‘conversation’ about the next phase of welfare reform, according to DWP officials.”

Approving responses

Some of the early reporting of the speech had relatively little by way of comment – although you could read the framing of the Daily Mail as implicitly approving, the Independent as implicitly negative, and the BBC and FT didn’t hint strongly at their views.  But in comment pieces, some media sources (particularly those on the political right) were strongly supportive of the speech, and in particular the efforts to get more people back to work.  A Telegraph editorial described them as ‘sensible and right’, the Express as ‘common sense’ for both the taxpayer and claimants, while Paul Goodman at the influential blog ConservativeHome described the ‘thrust of his argument’ as ‘incontestable’, and in keeping with public opinion to boot.  Another piece in the Express agreed that the binary fit-for-work vs. incapacitated distinction was ‘a nonsense’, and that ‘there are plenty of people who might not be able to do hard physical labour, but who are capable of more gentle, part-time work’.

(Interestingly, the Express’ initial headline was ‘Iain Duncan Smith aims fresh broadside at UK’s sick and disabled’, and while I’m pretty sure the headline was changed, I can’t quite tell if the content of the argument was later revised so that the Express’ coverage was more consistent).

Among disability campaigners, some people did react positively to some parts of the speech – after all, there’s not much love for the WCA, to put it mildly (see the coverage also last week on deaths on ESA).  The always-excellent Disability News Service said that “if Duncan Smith’s comments do mean an end to the WCA, it would mark a victory for disabled activists who have campaigned for five years for the assessment to be scrapped, despite repeated government insistence that it was fit for purpose”DNS quoted disabled campaigner (and Spartacus review author) Catherine Hale who said she was supportive of the general principle of an assessment ‘geared to what kind of work a person and could do and what support they would need to do it’. But this is only part of the response…

Fear, distrust, and the start of a conversation

Despite the desire to get rid of the WCA, the predominant response among disability campaigners and those on the political left (at least in the early responses I’ve found) was less supportive of Duncan Smith’s speech.  Overwhelmingly this was because of a lack of trust in Duncan Smith (‘trust’ or similar words featuring in numerous responses, such as Linda Burnip from Disabled People Against the Cuts, the co-founder of the New Approach campaign group Nick Dilworth, John McArdle of Black Triangle – all in DNS. It was also flagged by Labour MP Debbie Abrahams in the Mirror).  The campaigner Catherine Hale – who I quoted above more supportingly – sums this up when she says, “I’ll eat my hat if this government, after all its policies and rhetoric of blame and punishment towards disabled people, actually intends to perform a U-turn and empower us instead” (in DNS).

In this climate of a lack of trust from many disability campaigners and those on the political left, the main worry seemed to be that the Government would use any superficially positive announcement as cover for an ‘attack on disabled people’s vital benefits’ (as the Mirror put it, echoing concerns by the SNP, Andy Burnham on ITV, Black Triangle in DNS and Siobhan Fenton in the Independent), replacing the WCA with something ‘innocuous but deadly’ (in the words of Michelle Maher of the WOWpetition in DNS).  The SNP also called for another independent review, this one charged with overhauling the WCA.  One of the more detailed responses was by Caroline Richardson of Spartacus (in DNS), who was worried that “abolition of ESA reduces the ‘indicator flag’ that clearly differentiates people”, and that there could be an extension of conditionality as a result.  And the FT even hinted at specific cuts – “one solution would be to cut payments for those with less serious conditions or to set deadlines on how long benefits could be claimed, but officials would not go into detail about Mr Duncan Smith’s plans” – although they were the only newspaper to say this, and it’s unclear where it comes from.

[Similarly, see the comments underneath this post, as well as Jane Young’s always-knowledgeable response on her blog]

In a sense, this polarisation is unsurprising in a speech that seems to be deliberately vague in places – a DWP spokesman (in the Guardian and BBC) said “this isn’t a policy announcement; it’s the start of a conversation”, while another in the FT said they wanted to speak to Scope and other charities.  Various disability campaigners in response said that they did not yet know what would replace the WCA, hence they were simply going on fears (Nick Dilworth, co-founder of the New Approach campaign group, said he was ‘bewildered’, while Linda Burnip of Disabled People Against the Cuts said ‘the mind boggles’; DNS).  Matt Oakley (from the Social Market Foundation and the recent reviewer of sanctions for the Government) was similarly reported as saying it was light on detail, and that “the key question is how we do this in practice.”  But there were various things that people said they wanted – a test “based on the real world of employment, not the fantasy world of the current WCA” (Catherine Hale in DNS), and better employment support than we currently see in the Work Programme (Liz Sayce of Disability Rights UK; Mirror, and Mark Atkinson of Scope in the Guardian), as well as a wider change in employer attitudes (Richard Kramer of Sense in the Guardian).

Finally, a Telegraph sketch also suggested that the speech location – Barclays Wealth, in Canary Wharf – was perhaps ‘symbolically’ not the best place to be discussing sickness benefit reforms, something that wasn’t referred to elsewhere.

If you spot some coverage I missed, then please let me know in the comments below!