Britain has reformed disability pensions and by golly it’s put them on the map

 ‘Australia has something to learn from Prime Minister David Cameron’s new medical assessments to determine whether recipients of the incapacity benefit in Britain were fit to work. About 870,000 people, a third of those on the payment, did not reapply.’ Editorial, The Australian, June 13 2014.’lyle lanley

‘An even more significant change has been the reassessment of all incapacity claims (the equivalent of Australia’s DSP). Like Australia, Britain has tightened its definition of incapacity, so many new claimants who might previously have qualified for the benefit are now expected to prepare for work or find a job. But, unlike Australia, all existing claims are being re-examined. Incredibly, more than three-quarters of incapacity benefit recipients have been found to be potentially or actually capable of working.’ Peter Saunders, ‘Simple Lessons on Offer In Plugging the Welfare Drain’  The Australian, June 7 2014.

Incredibly (adv., in a manner impossible to believe) is exactly the right word for it. For those of us who suspect that reforms to government welfare programs can be every bit as capricious and inefficient as the tumefied, government-run regimes they seek to replace, disability reform in Great Britain over the past five years has provided something of a macabre confirmation.

First, a brief overview, and a little bit of bureaucratic alphabet soup.

In Britain, the equivalent of the Australian Disability Support Pension (DSP) used to be called Incapacity Benefit (IB). The previous Labour government introduced a new payment called the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) that was designed to replace IB for new claimants.

People wishing to receive ESA have first to undergo a Work Capacity Assessment (WCA), the result of which determines into which of three groups the claimant is sorted. Support Group recipients receive an allowance without job-seeking requirements. If you are assessed as best belonging in the Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG) then you receive a payment and support to help find a job. If, on the other hand, you are deemed fit to work, then you cannot receive ESA and are instead placed on unemployment benefits, if you qualify. There is an appeals process.

Now, this regimen used only to apply to new applicants, but the Conservative-Lib Dem government decided that it would reassess all recipients of the incapacity benefit (except those who were likely to go onto an age pension soon anyway), starting in 2011. The WCAs are carried out by Atos, a private provider.

And if you’re looking for memorable disasters from the affair, then Atos seems to have set out deliberately to spoil you for choice. They have allowed a backlog of 700,000 outstanding applications to heap up. They’ve been accused of telling people with degenerative illnesses that they’ll get better. They’ve been forced to admit that people they assess as fit to work often end up destitute. They assessed this guy with emphysema and this guy recovering from open heart surgery and this guy who has brain damage and is an amputee as fit to work, some of a huge number of decisions that have since been reversed. Perhaps most tragicomically, they were forced to pay out £2000 and costs to a disabled man who was required to attend an assessment at an Atos office that didn’t have disability parking or drop-off point. Atos argued they were not bound by the disability provisions of the Equality Act when carrying out disability assessments. Perhaps we have ‘something to learn’ from the Cameron-Clegg government’s disability reforms, but I sincerely hope that the lesson is to be sceptical of any Lyle Lanley who tries to convince us to let our friendly local conglomerate take care of all this unpleasant assessment business, for a modest fee.

But what about these magic numbers? Haven’t ‘more than three-quarters’ of those erstwhile disability pensioners been tipped from their hammocks and sent straight to the asbestos mines to do an honest day’s work? Yeah, respectfully, nah.

First of all, by referring to ‘potentially or actually able to work’, Mr Saunders is blurring together two categories that we might like to keep distinct. Presumably, he intends ‘potentially’ to refer to recipients in the WRAG, with ‘actually’ designating the fit-to-workers; however, the people placed in the WRAG are, it should be stressed, not fit to work; they merely have been assessed as having some capacity to be so to some extent in the future (or at least some assessor thinks so). They receive benefits, and legitimately so, and, as Declan Gaffney pointed out to me on Twitter, most of them are not found to be fit for work when they are later reassessed.

But let us accept Mr Saunders’s implied definition of ‘potentially or actually able to work’ and see whether his numbers add up. From the start of the policy to September 2013, the last month for which the Department of Work and Pensions has released data, 38 per cent of all previous IB claimants had been assessed as belonging in the WRAG (that is, they had some work capacity, but continued to receive benefits while they found employment), while 20 per cent were classified as fit to work, meaning they lost disability benefits. This adds up to 58 per cent, which is somewhat south of the ‘more than three-quarters’ promised to us by Mr Saunders. So where did he get the figure?

One possibility is that he is looking at the outcomes for initial claims: that is, claims for ESA by people not previously on IB. From March 2011 to December 2013, 54 per cent of such claimants were initially assessed by Atos as fit to work, with 25 per cent placed in the WRAG, giving us a total of 79 per cent with some capacity to work. This is certainly ‘more than three-quarters’, but it isn’t what Mr Saunders was claiming: he was talking about recipients of disability support, not claimants. He seems to have mixed up his numbers.

Another salient point—presumably there wasn’t enough space in the newspaper for it—is that the rates at which both claimants and existing recipients are being assessed as fit to work or as a valid recipient belonging in the WRAG has declined substantially, a point the following two charts demonstrate:

IB migration new applications esa

Now, there are some reasons why this may legitimately be the case (see the DWP write-up here) but it seems likely that the unpleasant press attention on cases like the ones above has led to a decrease in overly sunny assessments.

What about the figure that the Australian leader writer tossed in at the end of the editorial? Is it true of IB recipients that ‘about 870,000 people, a third of those on the payment, did not reapply’ for the ESA? Yeah, to repeat myself, nah.

This is actually a zombie lie that has been debunked elsewhere. It seems to have originated with the Telegraph, whose journalist Patrick Hennessey declared that ‘nearly 900,000’ people had simply decided not to reapply under the stricter capacity guidelines that accompanied the introduction of the ESA, a sort of self-deportation of the disabled from the welfare rolls. But the cinematic vagueness with which he referred to nameless ‘statistics’ betrayed a rather unhappy fudge (or simple incompetence).

The way the number has been arrived at is to tot up a cumulative total of all the people who applied for ESA (that is, they were new claimants, not current recipients of the old IB payment) and who withdrew their applications before they were completely assessed. Firstly, this makes it unlikely that the new, more stringent capacity tests were the cause of the withdrawals, since applicants would have been aware of them before applying (unlike IB recipients, who were forced to undergo capacity tests to maintain payments). And secondly, the reasons for people withdrawing their applications may be much less insidious than implied above. People might, for example, apply for a payment, then recover from a temporary disability before the claim is processed. Both of these points were made by Sheila Gilmore, a Labour MP, and were confirmed by no less a figure than Andrew Dilnot, the Chair of the UK Statistical Authority.

Australia has a thriving domestic industry in bullshit stories about disability support, with output enough to keep me, at least, busy. Call me protectionist if you like, but I confess myself rather saddened to see our journalists and tank-thinkers so bored with their own innumeracy that they find the need to import nonsense from the Mother Country.