Just how incompetent does one Government Department have to be before change happens?
The National Audit Office has just published yet another damning report of DWP incompetence. It demonstrates that the DWP is spending more on carrying out assessments for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) than it is saving in reducing expenditure on ESA and DLA/PIP.. Since changing the company carrying out the assessments (from the much criticised ATOS to Maximus) the cost per assessment has risen from £115 to £190. Maximus inherited a huge backlog of people awaiting assessment and has managed to reduce the backlog substantially, but clearly only by incurring additional staff costs. Addressing their initial problems of high staff turnover and poor training has led to higher pay and higher staff numbers.
However the DWP has only just re-started reassessment of ESA recipients which was put on hold because of the backlog with new applicants. Many individuals will have been relieved not to be called back in repeatedly (before the halt lots of recipents were being pulled in for reassessment every year even those with long term conditions unlikely to change). However in terms of the Government's aims reassessment is important because it was Ministers' contention that at the heart of the alleged failings of the 'old system' was too many people being 'dumped' onto incapacity benefit and cases never reviewed again. So it was an important part of the new contract that one million assessments should be carried out each year, and although the NAO states that the DWP has pulled back a little on this, numbers remain the driving imperative. Whether the new contractors can achieve this remains to be seen - and if they can only do so by incurring even higher costs does this represent value for money?.
In all these figures we should never forget that this is a system about people; people so worried about impending reassessments that it makes their health worse, people being told they are fit for work when they clearly are not. As many discover being declared 'fit for work' is a very far cry from being able to get an employer willing to take them on.
All of this distress and we end up with Government spending lots of money on tests to end up more or less where we started. Look at the facts:
CASELOAD figures (source DWP)
2014/15 Outturn - ESA + those still on IB (133,000 only ) = 2,375,000
2010/11 Outturn - Esa + IB = 2,406,000
2007/8 - Outturn - IB - 2,415,000
Only 40,000 fewer claimants than when this whole process began!
One possible explanation is that more people are becoming ill or disabled and so the number of successful new claims is rising. However this seems unlikely.
Instead I suspect that some of those declared Fit for Work, either as new claimants or having previously been on Incapacity Benefit, are simply reapplying for ESA and being awarded benefit the second time round because their condition far from improving has in fact got worse. The poor quality of support in terms of finding and holding down a job leaves people who might be able to work with that help with no option but to reapply for ESA.
Faced with a lack of projected savings, what is the Government's response ? Review the system to get it right? Not at all. Their answer is to try to achieve savings in another way , by cutting the amount people found unfit for work and in the Work Related Activity Group(WRAG) by £30 per week. ! Remember these are people the DWP's own assessment has decided are not currently fit for work, although they might be in the future as their health recovers. Even leaving aside that some people end up in this group with conditions that are not going to get better, at this time no one in the WRAG is actually thought able to return to work at this time. Ministers' justification for this change seems to be that getting £30 per week more than they would on Job Seeker's Allowance is discouraging people from seeking work.
So what should the Opposition be suggesting? First withdraw the proposed benefit cut. Second start a proper review of the system - previous 'reviews' have looked at only aspects of the process, on the ground that it had to be given time to bed in. But seven years on and still not working suggests it is time for change. Third in the meantime the DWP should be more realistic about the targets it is setting Maximus so as not to create any further backlogs. Fourth resource and effort should be targeted on people with illness and disability who are finding it difficult to obtain employment and using proven support mechanisms, for example expanding the Access to Work Scheme or providing additional resource to specialist training organisations which have a good track record.