Saturday, 31 August 2013

ESA and 'fit for work'

It is very common to see a statement that some whose ESA has stopped has been found 'fit for work'. This is not really correct and is worth examining in some detail.

I think the problem is that the people at the top, who should know what they're doing with it,  have become very confused about what role ESA is supposed to have.

When it was introduced, the stated aim was that it was supposed to be a system to support those with barriers into work, rather than 'writing them off' -  as, it was claimed, the old system did. This was the whole point of having the work-related activity group, into which most people on ESA would go. People in it would be encouraged to eventually find work but with their barriers recognised. In other words, people on ESA would *not* be seen as 'written off'.

Section 8 of the Welfare Reform Act 2007 bears this out: the test for eligibility is not whether a person is incapable of any work, but whether their capability for work is limited, such that it is not reasonable to *require* them to work. It is easy to imagine a situation where a person could work but due to disability it is not reasonable to require them to: it might causes pain or psychological distress, or could risk a relapse. The test in the primary legislation is therefore, on paper, less strict than being a need to be 'incapable' of work.

But when the first ESA criteria were published in 2008, it was obvious to everybody that the level of disability needed to get even into the WRAG was more severe than under IB. This has led to the bizarre and cruel situations where people are having their ESA stopped after medical assessments even when it's obvious that it would not be reasonable to require them to work. (Problems with wild speculation about people's abilities made at ATOS assessments do compound this further, but the criteria that ATOS have to apply must share the blame.)

Purnell, and now IDS and Grayling, have justified this by claiming that it is actually better for people to have their ESA stopped, and that being on ESA is to be 'written off'. This is where the confusion really starts. If you recall, this ignores, and in fact reverses, the very purpose that ESA was stated to have: that people on it were not supposed to be being 'written off' as the benefit was supposed to be more like a lighter form of JSA, and not just a clone of IB. But they've always talked about it as though it were just a clone of IB: hence the misleading headlines that people have been found 'fit fork work' when their ESA is stopped. Even welfare campaigners have bowed to the inevitable and have started to adopt the 'fit for work' terminology as a shorthand, driving the vicious cycle of misunderstanding.

The situation has got even more confused with some of the latest amendments, where the actual stated reasoning behind them has been to exclude people from ESA if they could work at all, even in some highly theoretical scenarios. Hence now being unable to walk but able to push a wheelchair 50m, but not 100m, precludes entitlement to ESA at all, unless combined with another problem. Of course there are jobs that could be done, but how (for example) is the person supposed to get to work in the first place and to get home again, every day, and on time?

Similarly, a person who can get only to familiar places and only with a support worker scores only 9 points and is precluded from ESA, unless there is another problem in combination with it to get them up to 15. But the number of available mental health descriptors has been cut down to avoid so-called 'double counting'. 9 points gets the person nothing and they are 'fit for work' with full JSA conditionality. Although again, there would be jobs the person could do, how would they avoid falling foul of the (it seems) universally accepted system of job selection by interview, when turning up frightened and with a support worker? Yet ESA potentially does not even recognise this as a limitation at all any more.

I would very much like to see the 'fit for work' terminology challenged as well, but due to the very great confusion at the top over what ESA is, it is somewhat realistic under the current criteria of very severe incapacity. But to acknowledge this is also to acknowledge that ESA has failed its most basic stated aim of reform, as almost by definition anyone able to receive it at all has been 'written off'.

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