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Do people leave sickness benefits ‘rather than’ face an assessment?

I received a request to write about the 878 300 people who drop their ESA claims early.  The government’s line – repeated several times – is that these claims were fraudulent or cheats.  This topic has been covered multiple times by now.  Declan Gaffney produced an excellent report on this, which can be found here: Steve Walker also wrote about the dropped claims on his blog here:

The analysis can be covered very simply.

To start with, the massive 878 300 people is people from October 2008 to the present – a period of four and a half years.  A lot of people have started claims for ESA in that time. 130 000 people come off ESA every quarter; one third of them because they ended their claim before reaching their face-to-face assessment. Bear in mind that there is a minimum of three months’ wait before a claimant gets to their assessment. This is built into the system, deliberately so that people with short-term illnesses who aren’t eligible for Statutory Sick Pay do not have to go through an onerous assessment process. The intention is that there will naturally be people who recover in that period and return to work (or JSA).

The phrase used by the Press Association – which is thought to have arisen from a Conservative briefing – is that many people closed their claims “rather than” face a medical assessment.  Grant Shapps says that this shows how people have been “trapped” in a “System of dependency” and shows that “the welfare system was broken.”  As Declan Gaffney points out, the phrase “rather than” is suggestive.  It suggests that these people were not genuinely too ill to work at the point of their claim, and therefore they considered it wasn’t worth going through the Work Capability Assessment.

This contradicts the DWP’s data.  The DWP found that the majority of people who closed their claims did so because their health improved – not because they were cheats who didn’t want to get caught out.  As they say, “This is consistent with the high rates of return to work and JSA claims which had been identified for the closed/withdrawn group in survey research with ESA customers.”[1] The DWP report suggests that most of these closures were made before a request to attend a Work Capability Assessment was received by the claimant.  A small number of claimants reported that receipt of the ESA questionnaire or receipt of the WCA appointment letter triggered the closure of their claim.  Thus, the majority were not closed because the claimant felt it was not worth going through the assessment process.

This is a point to be emphasised.  The government is implying that many people who knew they could work if they tried thought it was worth applying for ESA in case they would pass and therefore not have to bother working.  The government implies that these people then found out how much hassle the application process was – the difficulty and trauma associated with the assessment process – and decided that, given that they might be found fit for work after all, it wasn’t worth continuing with the assessment.

This is not what the data says.  The data says that for most people, their health improved.  It wasn’t that they weren’t eligible at the time of opening the claim, or that they were intending to attempt to cheat the system.  It was that they were genuinely too ill to work when they opened the claim, and subsequently recovered whilst waiting for the Work Capability Assessment.  Which is unsurprising, given the number of claims and the current level of backlog; to have no-one recover whilst waiting would be surprising.

As Declan Gaffney said, “It is not just that he [Shapps] has no evidence to back up his claim. There is evidence, and it shows he is wrong.”[2]

[1] Barnes, Oakley, Stevens and Sissions, 2011, Unsuccessful Employment and Support Allowance claims – qualitative research. DWP

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