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:
This leaves us with a couple of things to look out for, beyond the actual level of ESA claims. First, what this means for the number of people claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance. It could well rise, as
more and more people are shunted off sickness benefits and classed as jobseekers. And, second, any controversy over how the new medical assessements are administered. A report into them last year was less than approving, and there are concerns that the system has still not
smoothed out its flaws. Expect appeals, legal cases and friction aplenty.
All this talk of IB and ESA, of assessments and allowances, may seem horribly technocratic. But this is a more important issue than the Whitehall-speak can convey. One of the failings of the
Thatcher government – both economic and moral – was encouraging people onto IB as a means of shortening the official unemployment rolls. This persisted through the New Labour years. But
now, by continuing the Purnell reforms, the coalition is slowly rectifying that. It may not be poltically easy to move people back towards JSA and implement tougher medical tests. Yet, for the sake
of our economy and the lives of those trapped on benefits, it is, one feels, necessary.