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Reform Watch

30 January 2007
Good news on new incapacity test.

The government has made an important change in the face of criticism of the new personal capability assessment, currently being piloted for use with the Employment and Support allowance.

At the opening of the second reading of the Welfare Reform Bill on 29 January, Lord McKenzie of Luton announced that a much criticised move to end the adding together of physical and mental health points is to be dropped.

Under the present PCA a claimant must score either 10 points under the mental health test or 15 points under the physical health test. If a claimant scores points under both the mental and physical health tests, but not enough to pass either test on its own, then they have to reach a combined total of 15 points and:

less than 6 points under the mental health test counts as nil points;
between 6 and 9 points under the mental health test counts as 9 points.

In other words, as long as a claimant scores at least 6 points under the mental health test, they need only score 6 points under the physical health test to reach a combined score of 15 points. (The DWP claims to remain committed to simplifying the benefits system.)

The new PCA requires a claimant to score either 15 points under the mental health test or 15 points under the physical health test. Details of how combined scores will be calculated will be in the Welfare Reform Bill - draft Regulations and Supporting Material, due to be published later this week.

Baroness Hollis misleads House over appeals success
Baroness Hollis of Heigham, a former DWP minister dropped in the 2005 reshuffle, has misled the House of Lords about why so many claimants are successful at social security appeals.

Speaking in the second reading debate of the Welfare Reform Bill, Baroness Hollis dismissed worries about 'the quality of staff and their decision-making' particularly in relation to wrongly sanctioning claimants benefits. The Baroness explained that:

"As evidence that staff do not understand, it has often been said, and it has been repeated tonight, that half of all IB refusals were overturned on appeal. That fear was expressed tonight by the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott. I believe this to be a misunderstanding."

Baroness Hollis claimed that it was not a lack of understanding of the rules that led to such a high success rate at appeals:

"As the president of the appeals tribunal has indicated, appeals are usually overturned on the basis of incomplete evidence, the problems of a fluctuating condition-very difficult for any decision-making-and, sadly, a deteriorating condition."

It is true that appeals are often overturned because the DWP had incomplete evidence at the time the decision was made. However, as it's the DWP's job to collect sufficient evidence before it makes a decision, that hardly makes the lack of evidence a matter outside their control. More importantly however, 'a deteriorating condition' is utterly irrelevant to a tribunal's decision making and cannot be a cause of the high level of success at appeals.

This is because the last Conservative administration changed the rules relating to appeals to prevent tribunals looking at any changes beyond the date of the decision. In other words, if your condition gets worse between the date when you were refused a benefit and the date you appear before a tribunal, no account can be taken of that fact. All the tribunal can do is tell you that as your condition has worsened since the decision, you should put in a fresh claim.

The law was altered in the belief that it would reduce the number of successful appeals. In fact, it increased the number of appeals and had no effect on the success rate. The noble Baroness' claim that it is a factor in the high success rate at appeal is, therefore, entirely untrue.

According to the excellent theyworkforyou.com, Baroness Hollis has used three-word alliterative phrases (e.g. "she sells seashells") 960 times in debates - well above the average amongst Lords. No details are available of whether the Baroness is also well above average in the number of times she has misled her fellow peers.

80% of private sector benefits sanction overturned
Ms Lesley Strathie, Chief Executive of Jobcentre Plus, has made the astonishing admission that private sector organisations sanctioning claimants benefits in Australia and New Zealand get it wrong eight out of ten times.

In evidence given to the Work and Pensions Committee on 15th January about how schemes similar to Pathways to Work operate in the antipodes, Ms Strathie stated that:

"In Australia and New Zealand the right of appeal then goes back to the state, and the last time I looked at this, about six months ago - I cannot quote it as evidence today - the state overturned about 80 per cent of the disallowance decisions made by the private sector providers."

Given that ministers are adamant that the power to allow private sector contractors to sanction claimant's benefits should remain in the Welfare Reform Bill, in spite of widespread objections, we hope that Ms Strathie's unquotable evidence will be quoted as widely as possible.