Peter Hoskin

Righting the wrong of sickness benefits

He may no longer be an MP, but the spirit of James Purnell lingers on. It was, after all, the former Work and Pensions Secretary who introduced the Employment Support Allowance as a replacement for Incapacity Benefit in 2008, with the idea of encouraging people – the right people – away from sickness benefits and into the labour market. And now we have one of the strongest indications yet of just how that process is working. According to figures released by the DWP today, 887,300 of the 1,175,700 claimants who applied for ESA between October 2008 and August 2010 failed to qualify for any assistance – with 458,500 of them declared fit for work straight away, and 428,800 not completing their medical assessment. That’s 75 per cent overall. An incredible proportion, were it not true.

To be clear, this is just the new claimants for ESA – not those who were already on, and are still on, IB. But as the government starts moving all of the remaining 1.7 million IB claimants on to ESA – as it did earlier this month – it will hope that the more stringent medical assessments similarly sift out those who can work from those who are making legitimate claims. The ratio may not be anything like three-quarters, but the government has suggested that around one quarter of IB claimants could be found fit for work. That’s almost half-a-million people.

Just to put a visual masque on all this, here’s a DWP graph that shows the early shift from IB towards ESA. The government’s plan is not only to reduce the lilac areas to naught, replacing them with yellow, but also to shorten the overall column size:

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