By Steve Griffiths

The case that there are over a million people receiving Incapacity Benefit who should not be, which has driven a major strand of welfare reform over fifteen years and which was a cornerstone of the New Labour project, was based from the beginning on selective use of evidence. This Thinkpiece presents an alternative narrative from a wide range of sources that have been overlooked by both major parties and by the media. Work is good for health, there is no doubt about it; nor is there doubt that many people who are unfit for work might be able to return to work with appropriate support. But the case has been fatally exaggerated.

The health needs of people who are the subject of huge investment by the Department of Health have been treated counterproductively as invisible, or worse, as malingering, by the DWP and successive Work and Pensions ministers driven by a compulsion to judge and to privatise. GPs have been marginalised. This paper catalogues a failure of compassion, unacknowledged incompetence and injustice on a massive scale: a social policy tragedy. It is a story of what happened, and didn’t happen, between two case studies. Here is the first, from a study in 1998, following the Tories’ replacement of Invalidity Benefit with Incapacity Benefit, applying an ‘All Work Test’ that is tougher than before:

‘Mrs. J has arthritis in her spine and knees, and asthma. She was found fit for work so incapacity benefit stopped. She appealed and signed on f or Jobseeker’s Allowance to avoid the 20% reduction in benefit. She found a job, worked two weeks, couldn’t cope physically, started a different job, worked three weeks, had to give up, couldn’t cope again, started third job, gives up. By now the linking period allowing a break of 8 weeks in entitlement to incapacity benefit without penalty was broken. So despite the fact that the appeal was successful and she was found again to be unfit for work she had to start again with a new claim for incapacity benefit at a lower rate’.1

This is the second, from the 2010 Citizens’ Advice report on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), introduced in 2009 with a more rigorous Work Capability Assessment (WCA). It had replaced the new and stringent Personal Capability Assessment, introduced five years earlier. The report is endorsed by eighteen disability, mental health, poverty and carers’ charities:

‘A Yorkshire bureau saw a woman in her forties who was working full-time and was enthusiastically looking forward to starting a new job, when she became ill. At first it was thought she had a viral illness, but she was subsequently diagnosed with lupus erythematosus and transverse myelitis. She was in a great deal of pain in her muscles and joints and had extreme fatigue. At times her balance was affected and she could not walk without someone to support her. Sometimes she lost sensation in her legs, and on her worst days she could not walk at all. Any exertion such as walking 40 or 50 metres led to days in bed. She had had a bad reaction to some of the treatment and an ECG showed her heart muscle had been damaged.

Her husband had to come home from work each lunchtime to help her. Her immune system was weakened, so she had to be careful when mixing with others. She claimed ESA but was given six points in the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and found capable of work. Her doctor supported her claim and she is currently appealing, but under Incapacity Benefit she would probably have been exempt and would have avoided this process’.2

There is a vision of Incapacity Benefit which has informed Labour’s Welfare to Work policies, carried forward by the new Coalition Government, driven by the former Labour Adviser Lord Freud, now Minister for Welfare Reform, who designed the second, privatising phase of the programme…….

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