Answers to parliamentary questions this month have reinforced the impression that disabled claimants will be entirely subject to the whims of work coaches in relation to their capability for work. Legal safeguards following the proposed abolition of the work capability assessment (WCA) look to be almost non-existent.
Under DWP plans, the WCA is to be abolished by 2026. Instead there will be just one assessment, the PIP assessment, which will decide if you are eligible for PIP and also if you are eligible for the new universal credit (UC) health element.
Instead of health professionals, it will be unqualified UC work coaches who will decide whether a claimant must undertake work-related activities.
Labour MP Karen Buck asked Tom Pursglove, the DWP minister for disabled people, a number of questions about how the proposed abolition of the work capability assessment (WCA) will work in practice.
Buck asked whether there would be a ‘substantial risk test’ comparable to the one in the WCA.
This rule states that you will not have to undertake work-related activity if, because of your condition or disability, there would be a substantial risk to the mental or physical health of any person if you did so.
Pursglove’s answer was clearly a ‘No’ without actually saying ‘No’.
His response was:
“As part of the new approach to support, work coaches will have personalised conversations with claimants to determine their individual circumstances and how their health condition impacts them. This will mean that people will have their requirements tailored to their needs, which can include having no work-related requirements at all while the claimant seeks mental health support.
“Work coaches will provide appropriate support to claimants with health conditions and ensure that operational processes such as the six-point plan are followed to support the claimant.”
Many, many appeals against a WCA decision have been won on the basis that there would be a substantial risk to the claimant or someone else.
Under the new system that legal safeguard will disappear and it will be up to work coaches, who may have very little knowledge of either physical or mental health issues that could put a claimant at risk, who will have the sole power to make the decision.
Buck also asked whether there were any plans to introduce a mandatory reconsideration and appeal route against decisions made about a claimant’s ability to undertake work-related activity.
Pursglove’s answer didn’t bode well. He claimed that work coaches would adopt a ‘tailored approach’ which “will allow work coaches to build a relationship with an individual and determine what, if any, work-related activities an individual can participate in.”
This sounds very much like decisions will be based on the particular attitudes and beliefs of any given work coach, without any legal safeguards to prevent dangerous or clearly prejudiced decisions.
He went on to say that “These activities could start from voluntary and dial up to mandatory where appropriate, with requirements added at a pace that is appropriate for the individual.”
Again, this sounds like it will be the work coach who decides the pace at which a claimant must increase their level of activity, with no protection in place for claimants who are struggling and with the threat of sanctions ever present.
On the subject of an appeal process, Pursglove would not be drawn, saying only that the DWP “will take time to carefully consider how best to implement these changes” and “ensure it provides the taxpayer with value for money and is accessible and effective in delivering for our service users.”
But if there are no legal tests to decide who is or isn’t capable of work, only the opinions of a work coach, then it is hard to see how any such decision could be challenged via a social security appeal tribunal.
Finally, Buck asked “whether a benefit sanction that reduced Universal Credit Standard Allowance to zero would remove a claimant's entitlement to the Health Element of Universal Credit.”
Pursglove’s initial response seemed positive:
“Entitlement to the new UC health element will only end when the functional impact of a person’s health condition improves and they are no longer eligible for PIP, or as people earn more money and their UC is tapered away, which ensures that they are financially better off in work.”
However, he then went on to say that: “As we develop our reform proposals, we will consider how some interactions with the UC system will be reflected in the reformed system.”
This strongly suggests that the DWP have not yet worked out many things about the new system, including whether the health element will be affected by sanctions.
As the charity Z2K tweeted: “It's beyond belief that the Minister for Disabled People can't confirm that, under his proposals, disabled people won't be hit harder by sanctions than non-disabled people.
“DWP must urgently confirm that a sanction won't put your Health Element at risk.”
In all these answers there is a distinct impression that the government wanted to announce a major change in the benefits system but, in reality, they have not yet thought through how it is supposed to work in practice.
Value for money for the taxpayer seems to be the sole guiding principle. This is to be achieved by getting rid of costly assessments and increasing the power of work coaches to push disabled claimants into work, under threat of sanction and with no legal safeguards in place to challenge clearly dangerous decisions.
As Z2K say, it really is beyond belief.