“The evidence clearly shows that there are people out there who, with the right support, will be able to gain employment and say goodbye to a life on benefits.”

Chris Grayling, Employment Minister, 4 April, 2011

The background

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has launched a long-awaited shake up of disability benefits.

The headline figure is that half a million people currently living on Government handouts could in fact be ready to start work immediately.

That’s a pretty damning figure, and Chris Grayling says the Coalition is going to put a stop to a problem that spiralled out of control under Labour – huge numbers of people living “on the sick” without being regularly tested to see if they’re really unfit for work.

Half a million people is certainly an attention-grabbing total. But is the Government telling the whole story?

The analysis

From this week, about 1.6 million people claiming Incapacity Benefit will have to go through an assessment process to prove they still deserve the money.

The Government trialled the process in Burnley and Aberdeen, and Ministers said they were shocked by the results.

Of the 1,626 people assessed in the two trial areas, 32 per cent were found to be fit for work straight away and thus deserving of the much lower Jobseeker’s Allowance payment.

Some 38 per cent were assessed as able to work with the right support, and only 30 per cent were placed in the group for Employment and Support Allowance, which means they really are seriously incapacitated and will not be expected to look for work.

In an article for the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Grayling said: “The trial results show that, if replicated nationally, we could expect around half a million people to be found fit for work over the next three years as the reassessment exercise is completed.”

What he’s doing is extrapolating from data gathered in two areas and assuming that the same pattern will apply across the country.

So obviously the headline figure of half a million is a hypothetical projection, but that’s the kind of leap that governments (and indeed journalists) make all the time.

There is, however, a problem with that number, and it’s a problem that threatens to undermine the credibility of the Government’s entire policy on this issue.

A claimant’s fitness to work is judged after he or she completes something called a Work Capability Assessment.

That involves answering a series of questions, some about mental health, many of them about your immediate ability to perform physical tasks. Can you turn a tap on? Can you pick up a pen and put it in your pocket?

Some of the people who took part in the pilot scheme didn’t like the way the assessment was carried out.

One of them was quoted as saying: “I felt it was assumed that I was lying. It was more like a police officer cross-questioning a suspected offender than someone looking at my health and welfare and mental condition.”

Other critics say the Work Capability Assessment doesn’t take into account the fluctuating symptoms experienced by sufferers of diseases like multiple sclerosis – who often suffer periods of good health interrupted by relapses.

Scope is one of a number of disability charities who say the assessment isn’t fit for purpose, and they say they can prove it by pointing to the number of people initially judged to be well enough to work who appeal against the assessment and win.

The latest available data from the Department of Work and Pensions covers appeals in England, Scotland and Wales, from October 2008 to November 2009.

The figures show that one-third of people judged unfit for work have already taken an appeal to the Tribunals Service.

But the figures are incomplete, as lots of tribunals were still in progress after they were collated, and we still don’t know how they ended.

The DWP thinks it more likely that around 42 per cent of people actually challenge their first decision.

And of those people, a whopping 40 per cent of people judged to be fit for work have that assessment overturned on appeal. (In a fine example of positive spin, the Department puts it like this: “The original decision made by DWP has been confirmed for 60 per cent of these appeals heard.”)

So if we do what the Government does, and extrapolate from the figures, we can say that 42 per cent of Mr Grayling’s half a million people are likely to appeal – that’s 210,000 people. And 40 per cent of them – or 84,000 cases – are likely to be overturned on appeal.

So that figure of 500,00 is suddenly looking an awful lot more like 400,000.

The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) goes further. It carried out a study of the assessment process in Scotland and concluded: “The work capability assessment of ESA is making unsuitable decisions on claimants’ fitness for work and 70 per cent of CAB appeals against these decisions are being upheld.”

So a clear majority of people who have access to expert advice are winning their appeals, according to the advice service.

Even if we take these appeals into account, that still leaves hundreds of thousands of previously exempt people who can now expect to be judged fit for work.

But what about Mr Grayling’s claim that those people “will be able to gain employment and say goodbye to a life on benefits”?

What happens to disabled people who are taken off Incapacity Benefit and put on Jobseekers’ Allowance or deemed to need extra support?

As of this month, something called the Work Programme replaces the previous system, Pathways to Work, designed to help ill and disabled people get back into employment.

It’s been billed as an example of  the voluntary and private sector working together. It’s also a potentially-lucrative deal that will see providers earn up to £14,000 for each person they help off benefits and get back to work.

That could be a win-win situation. Except it’s largely how the last system was supposed to work and it was judged to be a resounding failure.

Under Pathways to Work, two private companies – Reed in Partnership and A4E – were given contracts worth hundreds of millions to get disabled people back to work.  Some 70 per cent of payments were linked to performance.

The Public Accounts Committee reported to the Government on how things went.

Their report said: “All the contractors employed to deliver Pathways have performed well below their contractual targets despite the Department paying service fees earlier than planned in order to improve performance.

“The target job rate agreed with contractors was to move, on average, more than one in three of the claimants required to participate in the programme (37 per cent) into work over the life of contracts.

“To date, on average, providers have found work for 12 per cent of mandatory participants.

“Reed in Partnership Limited and A4E told us that while performance has improved over time, for mandatory participants they have achieved on average less than half what they promised in the contracts they signed with the Department.

“Against an average target of 36 per cent of participants into work, A4E has to date found work for 15 per cent of mandatory participants. Reed in Partnership has so far found only 9 per cent of mandatory participants work against its target of 32 per cent.”

As far as value for money was concerned, the committee found that £94 million “was spent on employment support that did not deliver additional jobs” in 2008/09.

The Government says things will be different under the new system.

But 38 out of the 40 contracts on offer have gone to private companies rather than charities, and the  DWP’s given contracts to both Reed in Partnership and A4E again, despite their previous failings.

Of the 18 areas covered by the Work Programme, A4E will operate in five – South Yorkshire, the North West, East London, the East Midlands and the South East – while Reed in Partnership will work in West London alone.

All of this begs the question: if the companies hired to get Incapacity Benefit claimants back to work couldn’t achieve their targets in a more benign economic climate, how will the same companies be able to turn things round today?

The latest unemployment figures suggest just over 2.5 million people are chasing around 500,000 job vacancies.

Marc Bush, Scope’s head of research and public policy, said: “In economic boom times previous Governments found it difficult to get disabled people and those with long-term impairments into meaningful and sustainable employment.

“It remains to be seen how this Government will meet this challenge in a time of economic uncertainty, and within a fiercely competitive employment market.”

And of course, disabled people face special difficulties finding jobs – one reason why the Government launched Work Choice, a voluntary programme to provide intensive support to people facing the biggest barriers to getting back to work.

Unfortunately, the initial plan to provide support to 23,000 severely disabled people every year proved to be a little optimistic.

In a written answer to a Parliamentary question, Maria Miller, the Minister for Disabled People, said the government now expects “around 79,000 people” to access Work Choice by 2015.

A Department of Work and Pensions spokesman told Channel 4 News the new Work Programme is “fundamentally different” to Pathways to Work.

She said: “The programme will be delivered by a mix of private and voluntary sector providers. They will be given the freedom to innovate and build bespoke solutions around the individual rather than following a prescriptive ‘Whitehall knows best’ approach as has been the case in the past.

In return for this freedom these providers will be paid entirely by results. Payment will be based not just on getting someone into work, but on keeping them there.”

On the subject of appeals against the Work Capability Assessment, she added: “It is misleading to suggest that a large percentage of people assessed as fit for work by the Work Capability Assessment have appeals against the DWP’s decision upheld – 13 per cent of all claims found fit for work go on to successfully appeal a WCA outcome.

“If the Department’s decision is not upheld at an Appeal Tribunal this does not necessarily mean the original decision was incorrect at the time it was made.

“Appeals against decisions regarding Employment and Support Allowance claims are heard by the Tribunals Service. The Tribunals Service is an independent body separate from the Department for Work and Pensions.

“In many cases, new evidence is provided at the Tribunal hearing that was not available to the original decision maker, or the Tribunal weighs the original evidence differently.

“We are confident that the Work Capability Assessment is generally finding the right people fit for work, but  is also committed to continuously improving the assessment to ensure that it is as fair and accurate as possible.

“In March 2010, we published a department-led review of the Work Capability Assessment which found that the assessment is identifying the right individuals for the benefit, and made some recommendations for improving the assessment. We introduced these changes in March 2011.

“In November 2010, Professor Malcolm Harrington published his Independent Review of the Work Capability Assessment, the first of five annual Independent Reviews.

“He found that the Work Capability Assessment is the right assessment but is not working as well as it should. As a result, he made a series of practical recommendations for improving the assessment, all of which we have accepted.

“The majority of these changes are already in place, and we will implement the remainder by the summer.”

The verdict

We can’t say whether the Government’s efforts to reduce the number of Incapacity Benefit claimants are fact or fiction until we start to see the results.

But we can safely predict that they will have a very, very tough time in finding jobs for large numbers of disabled people in the middle of an economic downturn.

By Patrick Worrall