This week, some of the Coalition’s nastier benefit reforms become live, and because of this, we were subject to the spectacle of both Iain Duncan Smith and Tory Party Chairman Grant Shapps taking to the airwaves to give their spin on the reforms. On Monday, IDS came under fire for stating that if he had to, he could live on £53 a week. This gave rise to the inevitable petition, which, at the time of writing has garnered almost 150,000 signatures.
Shapps’ ‘contribution’ to the debate involved pointing to DWP figures showing that 878,000 claimants of Employment and Support Allowance had ceased their claim before undergoing the Work Capability Assessment. Shapps heavily implied (and this slant was run with in many of the media stories, e.g. here) that these claims had stopped because people were not actually sick and knew they would fail the assessment. As with much of what Shapps say though, to get to the truth, you have to go to the source.
Figures about assessments for Employment and Support Allowance are released quarterly here. So what does it say about the reason why 878,000 have ceased their claims?
“Current data does not allow anything conclusive to be said about the destinations of closed and in progress cases, nor to infer what would have been or would be the outcome of assessment.”
So at best there seems to be no evidence about why they have ceased their claim, so Shapps inference seems baseless. But it gets even worse for Shapps because the same publication does refer to some qualitative work also published by the DWP that did look at the reasons why people ceased their claims. It said this:
“Most of the interviewees in this research whose claim had been closed or withdrawn before it was fully assessed said they had ended their ESA claim as their health condition had improved. Examples of the types of conditions that had improved included diabetes, mental health problems, including stress and depression, and conditions alleviated by routine operations. These people tended to be working or looking for work, often in the same type of work as they had done before, though not commonly with the same employer.
Some had proactively withdrawn their claim, informing Jobcentre Plus of this, while others simply stopped submitting medical certificates or did not return their ESA50, in the knowledge this would prompt Jobcentre Plus to close their claim. Nobody interviewed consciously ignored an invite to a WCA as a means of closing their claim.
A smaller number of customers had their claim closed by Jobcentre Plus because they had difficulty completing and returning the ESA50, submitting medical certificates, or attending a WCA, even though they did not really want to end their claim. In some cases, this was because the customer’s condition made co-operating with the assessment process difficult, while in others, other life events, such as bereavement, made it difficult for them to progress their claim.”
So the evidence (allbeit based on interviews with a relatively small number of claimants) suggests people do not stop their claims for ESA because they are not genuine, but because their conditions improved (not surprisingly as the period between initial claim and assessment can take months) or worse, because the process of claiming was too arduous for them given their medical condition. Shapps’ interpretation of the data was just another lazy attempt to smear some of the least fortunate in society and to provide some cover for his Government’s shameful welfare policies.