The WCA is bad – but will scrapping it be better? (part II)

In the first part of this post, I explained that hundreds of thousands of sick/disabled people with limited work capacity – particularly those with mental health conditions – may end up with less money. In this post I look at other risks and benefits of scrapping the WCA.

For the Government – and for many others, including policy wonks like Deven Ghelani and Torsten Bell – the strongest reason for scrapping the WCA is to improve work incentives. (The same is true for international experts like Christian Ståhl and the OECD, who don’t talk about the WCA, but have interesting views on disability assessments in general). For these people, it is self-defeating to ask people to prove that they can’t work before they receive enough money to live on – it’s a clear disincentive to working, and feels pretty awful to boot. Moreover, starting to work part-time then becomes very risky, because it will look like you are able to work; and if you start try and then lose a job, you might be counted as ‘unemployed’ and receive much lower benefits. It makes sense not to even try.

So how can I possibly think that scrapping the WCA will push people away from work? Well, there’s actually two reasons.

Counterproductive conditionality

The first concern is that the DWP have long been itching to apply conditionality to those exempt from conditionality because of a disability (now the vast majority of incapacity benefit claimants) – and scrapping the WCA enables them to do this, as the White Paper makes clear:

158-159: “we are proposing to remove the WCA. This includes the removal of the automatic assignment of people with limited capability for work to the work preparation-only group, and those with LCWRA to the no work-related requirements group... In place of the WCA, we propose to introduce a new personalised health conditionality approach that will provide more personalised levels of conditionality and employment support

The DWP sees that these people don’t engage with support and are very unlikely to work again, and believes that forcing these people to engage will help. The actual evidence, though, suggests that disabled people will not be helped by conditionality:

  • Even in countries that do conditionality much better than the UK, conditionality for disabled people is at best ineffective, and at worst actively counterproductive.
  • Indeed, the best evidence we have from the UK (from the National Audit Office, looking at random allocation of claimants to Work Programme providers) found that disabled people that were allocated to high-sanctioning providers were less likely to end up in work.
  • And in a more recent UK trial of extra support combined with conditionality, there was no effect on work outcomes for people with mental health conditions, but more of them were pushed out of the benefits system entirely.

There’s also real worries about how work coaches implement personalised conditionality for sick and disabled people. I’m still staggered by just how little we know about this – how best to make sure that people say everything relevant about their lives, and how to make sure that work coaches use this information properly. (More on this in a report later in the Spring).

What disabled people need is a space for safe experimentation – to try working even if they’re not quite sure how everything is going to turn out. Conditionality is often the opposite of this, particularly when applied badly – you think that people will force you to do things that you can’t do, so it’s best to ‘hunker down’ and not trying doing anything at all. If scrapping the WCA means an extension of conditionality to more disabled people, it’s likely to push them away from work.

Taking health & disability seriously

But there’s a second, broader concern here. The most important things that influence the employment rates of disabled people are really high-quality personalised employment support, and an inclusive labour market – that is, good jobs and good employers that make the best use of people’s skills. And strangely enough, it seems that this countries that take these seriously are countries that don’t worry as much about work incentives.

This is ongoing work that I hope to publish over the summer – measuring disability across countries is tricky, so I wouldn’t trust any very simple comparisons of the employment rate of disabled people in different countries (including ones by me). But you get a strong hint of this just from looking at employment rates of older people; as Jeremy Hunt observed,

We now have the 23rd highest inactivity rate for over 55s in the OECD. If we matched the rate of Sweden, we would add more than one million people to our national labour force.

Today’s announcement mostly said, “the problem is that disabled people weren’t incentivised to work or forced to work” – and inevitably lots of people were mentioning the much-abused survey figures about how many disabled people ‘wanting to work’ (which does not mean that people feel capable of work right now…). This is all the opposite of taking disability seriously. (Admittedly there was something in the budget on more employment support for disabled people and better occupational health support, which were positively received by people like Tony Wilson, both from a first reading, both of these seemed pretty tiny in the face of the problems they need to tackle).

In principle, scrapping the WCA could be positive – it could remove a stressful experience from people’s lives, and help create a safer space for people to experiment with work. But done in the wrong way, it may end up removing the conditionality-free safe space within the benefits system, push people away from work, and take us further away from a serious conversation about how to create an inclusive labour market.

Time will tell which of these ends up happening – but while it’s great that we’ll have a debate about radical reforms, I can’t escape the lingering worries about what this will mean for sick and disabled people in practice.

A final word

For me, the biggest reason that the WCA was so hated is that the decisions mattered. Benefits don’t pay enough to live on, so if you’re not likely to work in the next few years, you can only get by if you get the WCA top-up. And in a system where many claimants are threatened with sanctions, the WCA was a safe space where you didn’t have to worry that you’d be asked to do something you can’t do.

Scrapping the WCA doesn’t change the fact that these decisions matter – it shuffles them into different parts of the system. In a context where benefits look woefully inadequate to escape destitution, and where Jeremy Hunt has promised to intensify conditionality, these matter even more than ever. There is a real question about whether the PIP assessment and personalised conditionality can meet the pressures they are going to be placed under.

[Note that this article was amended 7th May 2023 to make clear that the international experts were commenting on this issue in general, rather than the UK WCA itself]

2 responses to “The WCA is bad – but will scrapping it be better? (part II)”

  1. Given that all previous overhauls/reforms to assessment for incapacity and disability benefits have tended to be an excuse to impose yet more conditionality and force more people off benefits and into work, I can’t see this being good – even if in principle I would love to see the WCA scrapped for all the harm it causes.

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