24 November 2002

The new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Andrew Smith, considers that three quarters of all new incapacity benefit (IB) claimants have 'manageable conditions' and should return to work. In pilots beginning next year, his department will turn up the pressure on new IB claimants with a series of five or more compulsory work-focused interviews plus voluntary psychological treatment. In addition, claimants who appeal against the decision that they are capable of work will lose the right to claim income support and will be forced to sign on and seek work instead.

More pilots than British Airways
A summary of the green paper setting out the new incapacity regime states that:

" . . around three-quarters of new claimants have more manageable medical conditions such as back pain, depression and mild circulatory disorders rather than a severe disability such as Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia or severe learning difficulties; best medical evidence suggests that for the main conditions reported by claimants, a return to normal activity including work is likely to enhance well being and improve long-term recovery."

No fewer than six pilots aimed at getting incapacity benefit claimants back into work will begin next year. New IB claimants will have their well being enhanced by being forced to attend five or more work-focused interviews in the first months of their claim. In addition, they will be offered treatment on the NHS to help them realise that work is the best cure for being too ill to work.

The 'health-focused rehabilitation' provided by the NHS will, to start with at least, be voluntary. It may include counselling, exercise sessions, pain management programmes and, rather alarmingly, 'behavioural intervention' by psychologists. The green paper does not comment on whether these programmes will increase waiting times for overstretched NHS services, such as pain clinics and physiotherapists.

Estranged from the truth
Andrew Smith claims that ". . . this is not, and never will be, about pressurising sick people back to work against their will" . That is, however, exactly what he will be doing to the 61% of 'sick' claimants who are found fit for work by DWP doctors, but who then go on to win their appeal against that decision.

At present, whilst they are waiting three months or more for their appeal to be heard, claimants have the option of receiving income support at a reduced rate rather than getting Jobseekers Allowance. This option is there to protect 'sick' appellants from being pressured into taking jobs whilst waiting for their hearing. The green paper, however, dismisses this safeguard as an 'anomaly' which prevents claimants 'getting proper (work-focused) support on full rate JSA whilst awaiting an appeal'. Thus the law will be changed in the six pilot areas to ensure that people waiting for appeals to be heard are forced to claim JSA, actively seek work and take part in New Deal Programmes.

Tribunals not very bright
Mr Smith appears to believe that the reason why so many claimants win their appeals has nothing to do with the poor quality of hasty DWP medical examinations. Instead, he appears to blame it on not very bright tribunals, all of which are chaired by solicitors with at least six years experience but which are not usually attended by DWP presenting officers.

The green paper explains that appeals relating to incapacity for work 'are often amongst the most complicated cases for tribunals to decide'. To help the tribunal in their intellectual struggle, the minister wants presenting officers from the DWP to appear at all incapacity hearings because they will 'ensure that the tribunal receive a more thorough justification of the original PCA (Personal Capability Assessment) decision than is currently the case and will ensure all relevant information is brought to the tribunal's attention.'

What the green paper doesn't mention is that less than 50% of all claimants attending incapacity appeals are able to find a representative of any sort. This number is set to fall as government squeezes the cash available to advice agencies through Community Legal Service funding. This will leave the majority of claimants in pilot areas trying to represent themselves at complex tribunals whilst the DWP has a highly experienced officer to put their case, introduce complicated legal points and grill the claimant.

Same old story
The government is 'consulting' on it's new ideas for incapacity benefit before it goes ahead and puts the necessary legislation before parliament. 


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