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Scrapping Work Capability Assessments could lead to even more broken benefits system

Thursday, 16 March 2023 Mind

Please be aware these changes will not affect anyone immediately. The earliest they can be implemented will be 2026. Mind will look to work with the UK government to influence these changes to be better for people with mental health problems.

The UK government has published the Health & Disability White Paper, which lays out planned reforms to the benefits system. As part of this, they have announced plans to scrap the Work Capability Assessment. This seems to form part of the UK government’s efforts to change the social security system to encourage people who need to claim benefits back into work.

Work Capability Assessments currently provide decisions on whether a person is fit for work for the purpose of their Employment Support Allowance (ESA) or Universal Credit (UC) allowance. Disability campaigners have long called for reform to, or the scrapping of, the work capability assessment, on the basis that the assessments process is harmful, discriminatory and ineffective.

Under the new proposals, instead of undergoing a WCA, the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment would be used to decide whether a person will receive the new UC health element. Mind’s research, Reassessing Assessments, highlighted that PIP assessments share many of the same issues as WCAs do, and are often more problematic. 69% of people with mental health problems who experienced PIP assessments were left feeling their mental health had declined, compared to 62% for the WCA, and 46% of people felt their PIP assessor did not understand mental health problems, compared to 36% assessed under a WCA.

Mind is also concerned about the effect of these changes on people who are unable to work but would not currently be eligible for PIP. PIP is for people with long term disabilities, but many people who are currently on higher ESA or UC and too unwell to work would not meet the PIP definition. While transitional protection will be reassuring for some, this does not solve the problem that many people could lose out as a result of these changes. These reforms should not further weaken the financial safety net for people with mental health problems.

The White Paper also details changes to the sanctions system, stating that ‘a new approach will provide more personalised levels of conditionality’. This comes in addition to an announcement during the Spring Budget that a more rigorous sanctions regime would be implemented and that some parts of this process could become automated. The effectiveness of sanctions has no evidence base, and they have been disproportionately used on people with mental health problems, leaving some in destitution.

Commenting on the White Paper, Vicki Nash, Head of Policy, Campaigns and Public Affairs at Mind, said:

“Scrapping the problematic Work Capability Assessment is a welcome step towards rectifying the DWP’s broken assessments system, but the UK government’s approach lacks the rounded, fully formed thinking that’s going to be needed to solve the many issues plaguing the benefits system.

“We know from our Reassessing Assessments report that the WCA is deeply problematic. It frequently causes people’s mental health to decline, and all too often leaves people claiming benefits feeling that their mental health problems were not understood by the assessor. It is at least positive the UK government has finally recognised the benefits system needs to change in this regard.

“With that said, the news that the UK government will be once again changing the benefits system will still be deeply worrying for many people who need to claim benefits. The UK government needs to understand that there is little, if any, trust left among people with experience of our benefits system that efforts to change it will lead to better outcomes for them. The changes detailed in the White Paper will do nothing to rebuild that trust.

“In particular, we are appalled that the paper makes reference to a new approach to the sanctioning of benefit claimants, alongside suggestions in the budget that the UK Government will move towards a more rigorous sanctions regime, with sanctioning potentially through automated systems. Sanctions don’t work and are deeply harmful. They can push people into extreme poverty and hardship, and can even be fatal. The removal of any influence of human empathy left in the system is unthinkable. Instead, the UK government should be ending sanctions for disabled people.

“It is also very concerning that the White Paper suggests benefit awards will be based on the assessments currently used for PIP, once the WCA is phased out. We know from our research that PIP assessments are far short of where they need to be, and in many ways are worse than the WCA. Replacing one broken system of assessments with another system that is performing even more poorly would lead to worse results for people with mental health problems. It is particularly worrying that people who do not qualify for PIP, but do qualify for higher awards under the current WCA, are set to lose out.

“If the UK government is to achieve a benefits system that allows people to recover and potentially return to work when it is best for them, we need fresh ideas alongside sorely needed investment in mental health services and support. The DWP must work to rebuild trust with disabled people and establish a commission of those with lived experience of disability benefits to help them redesign the system. We need a benefits system that truly supports people, rather than sanctioning them, and that disabled people can trust.”

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