How a better WCA is possible

Ironically, sometimes it is a policy’s failures rather than successes that make it difficult to reform.

The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for out-of-work disability benefits has been a failure by almost any criteria – yet it is still with us, with little prospect of any change soon. One reason is that having seen the WCA unravel, people seem to have lost faith that it is even possible to have a disability assessment that is either popular or deliverable, making the risks of reform seem like a gamble that is not worth taking in the face of an inevitably losing battle.

This is why a vision for a better WCA is so important. In a new Demos report, I therefore describe a clear and realistic vision for a better WCA, based on a four-year research project that includes international comparisons, many focus groups with experts and the public, and a new survey (see here). Central to this vision are two distinct areas for improvement.

Firstly, the WCA is charged with assessing if someone’s disability is ‘genuine’. The problem is not that it does this, but that it does it so badly. Politicians seem to be running increasing political risks in allowing this to happen – the public think it is more important to support genuine claimants than to root out fraud (45% vs. 22%), yet more people say they know a deserving claimant that has struggled to get benefits, compared to knowing a claimant who is not genuinely disabled (28% vs. 19%).

There are accusations that some assessors (at least for PIP) are simply lying; as last week’s Select Committee report similarly said (based on numerous testimonies), there is no reason that we should not record assessments and randomly check their quality. But more than this, WCA assessors too often over-rule what a claimant says based on unjustifiable evidence, such as the typical symptoms of their diagnosis (when many people are atypical), their treatment history (when many people are waiting for treatment), or their behaviour at the assessment (when many people alternate between good and bad days).

If assessors are going to decide that they knew better than claimants based on a single short assessment, then they need a higher standard of evidence. This will partly depend on a better supply of medical information, and to allow claimants to undergo further treatment to get this. But one change is very simple: where there is something puzzling about a claimant’s account, assessors should ask them directly why this is the case and listen to what they say – rather than rushing to judgements that are often grossly unfair.

Secondly, the WCA is meant to assess if someone is capable of work – but it does not. There is no transparent evidence that the WCA captures the demands of work in Britain today. Moreover, the WCA is inaccurate if claimants have two or more types of impairment, which probably includes at least half of all disabled people. From looking at other countries, the easiest approach for the UK would simply be to create some actual evidence on what jobs require, and transparently link this to a revised WCA.

I can understand why people have lost faith in the WCA. But the WCA is perhaps the greatest failure of an incapacity assessment that we have ever previously managed, and a greater failure than any other country currently achieves. None of the steps to a better WCA are beyond the wit of the man. All we need is the confidence in our ability to do better, and the willingness to depart from the familiarity of our present, broken system.

This blog first appeared on Total Politics under the headline, ‘Improving welfare tests should not be beyond the wit of ministers’. A longer version appeared in a report by the Learning & Work Institute and the Shaw Trust.

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where (after a long break) I am again blogging about inequality-related policy & research. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on the role of social science, disability, inequality, deservingness, and the future of the benefits system, and I co-lead the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project (on the benefits system during Covid-19). You can find out more about me at
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4 Responses to How a better WCA is possible

  1. Editor says:

    Basically you’re suggesting trying to tinker around the edges of an approach and underlying organisations (the DWP and Tories) that have lost all credibility in the eyes of the sick and disabled.

    • If you’re interested in a completely different way of assessing work capacity, look at chapter 2 of the Demos report, and my freely available academic paper here. In the long run, I think something closer to the Danish model would be best (noting that it’s possible to implement this in a good or a bad way – but a good implementation of this model would be a great long-term goal).

  2. gmwragauthor says:

    The article seems more concerned on making the WCA palatable to the public at large and thus assisting politicians stay in office than in actually reforming the WCA to make it do the thing it was intended to do. To pick it apart.

    1) Claimants more often than not present a very high standard of irrefutable evidence which is nevertheless disregarded by an assessor. The issue is that politicians have not devised a process to assess entitlement. They have set up a process to remove people from benefit and reduce expenditure. Adding better evidence in as some kind of aspiration is largely delusional when the purpose and training remains geared towards removal of entitlement.

    In this context, who cares what the public think about “genuine” disability? DWP accounts have been qualified for the best part of 2 decades and the gap between actual fraud and perceptions of fraud is gigantic. Education of both the public and politicians as to the fact that negligibly few people fake illness or disability is far more relevant than contorting a system to please the fickle views of the public.

    2) It is hard to think of anything more unworkable than linking to what actual jobs require. This once again falls into the trap of looking uncritically at what other countries have done and accepting it as “better” on face value. The author has the research skills to bring to bear on whether these other systems are better and yet none of that is presented here.

    • I’m not quite sure that the comments respond to what I actually say in the report – particularly your second point. But I might be misunderstanding this here, so just clarify and I’ll try to respond. What is unworkable in linking an assessment of work capacity to what actual jobs require?

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