THE latest figures on the UK Government's controversial fitness for work test raise more questions than they answer.
Nobody disputes the need for reform of sickness benefits or that a welfare system funded by taxpayers needs mechanisms to prevent fraud. Also a benefit – Incapacity Benefit – that effectively discouraged many thousands from returning to employment was perverse, even if successive governments found it a handy way to keep the unemployment figures down.
However, almost as soon as the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) began rolling out its Work Capability Assessment (WCA) using the French-based IT company Atos, stories began to emerge of arbitrary and unfair decisions: terminally ill people and those suffering the serious after-effects of strokes declared fit for work; dozens who died while awaiting the outcome of appeals; questions that almost seemed designed to reach the wrong conclusions. So we should treat with caution data from the DWP being used by the government to claim that the scheme is working well. They reveal that of 141,000 tested so far, roughly a third have been put in the work-related activity group and a third in the support group (not required to seek work). Both are eligible for the new benefit Employment and Support Allowance. A further third were declared "fit for work" and put on the lower rate Jobseeker's Allowance.
There is an important caveat. The figures do not include the many thousands who have lodged appeals against being declared ready for employment and, as the DWP admitted yesterday, "the final proportion who are deemed fit for work is likely to fall". In fact, nearly 40% of all appeals are successful.
There is also no explanation for the very wide variations in outcomes between different local authority areas. Why are more than half of claimants in Clackmannanshire declared fit for work and only 19% placed in the support group, while in neighbouring Perth and Kinross only 19% are deemed fit for the workplace, and 42% have been placed in the support group? Is the test being administered differently in different areas, creating a postcode lottery? These figures do little to allay suspicions that the WCA is less a system for testing fitness for work than a means of getting people off a higher rate of benefit on to a lower one.
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