Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Meeting with Jenny Willot: ESA and the WCA

As promised, here is what happened at my meeting with Jenny Willott MP. Because so much was discussed, I’m going to be splitting up my account of it into different blogposts each dealing with a particular topic as well as a summary blogpost at the end.

This blogpost covers the time limiting of contributory ESA and the Work Capability Assessments.

I met Jenny Willott in her office in Portcullis House. Also present was her young son (who spent the duration of the meeting fidgeting on Jenny’s lap) and Giles Derrington, Jenny’s Parliamentary Researcher, who knows the details of the Welfare Reform Bill inside and out.

The first thing I did at the meeting was to give Jenny a draft copy of the emergency motion which I intend to submit to Spring Conference (really need to sought out getting the signatories for it). After that I started asking various questions about the impact of the Welfare Reform Bill to make sure that there was no confusion and that I’d got all my facts right.

This was where I got the first bit of good-ish news. The DWP’s impact assessment of the impact of time limiting contributory ESA said that 280,000 sick and disabled people in the Work Related Activity Group would lose ESA entirely by 2015 as a result of the time limit. This is something that I’ve felt is probably one of the worst and least justifiable elements of the bill.

However, according to Jenny and Giles, this impact assessment was done without taking into effect the impact of the introduction of Universal Credit in October 2013. I (and I think a lot of other campaigners as well) was under the impression that Universal Credit wouldn’t be introduced until 2015 which would mean that, while Universal Credit will offset a lot of the impact of the time limit, there’d be a three year gap between it being introduced and the impact of the time limit – meaning that 280,000 vulnerable people would be left without support. But, if Universal Credit is introduced in October 2013 then that means that the gap shrinks to one year and seven months.

Taking the DWP impact assessment of 200,000 people being affected by the time limit by 2012/13, and 400,000 by 2013/14, of whom 30% will lose ESA entirely, and doing some rough calculations (assuming that the number effected will only be 300,000 with Universal Credit coming in halfway through 2013/14) then that means the number who will lose ESA entirely because of the time limit drops down to about 90,000 people. These 90,000 will be the ones who have household savings of £16,000+ or a household income above a minimum of £7,500. However, because the threshold is so low, some of those affected will be earning considerably more than £7,500 which means that the number whose lives will be genuinely damaged by the time limit will be at least a bit less than 90,000.

I’m still convinced it’s utterly immoral and wrong to penalise people just because their partner works, especially after they’ve been paying in National Insurance contributions all their lives, but less than 90,000 being hurt is at least a little bit less awful than 280,000 being hurt. Why the government couldn’t have let the public know about this, and possibly reduced the number of people being terrified that they might be one of those caught out, I don’t know. Not to mention that campaigners, like myself, would probably have welcomed finding out that the situation wasn’t quite as bad as we’d feared if only someone from government had bothered to tell us. And, for the record, vague assurances by Lord Freud that everything will be fine do not count.

Anyway, I pointed out to Jenny that the time limit would (and will) still mean that at least some people would be forced into poverty because of the time limit but she objected rather strongly to this by asserting that housing benefit and tax credits would prevent anyone affected from being forced into actual poverty. I’m sure that that’s the theory but, to be honest, I highly doubt that things will work out nice and cleanly like that in real life. And I still don’t see that as any kind of justification for what is, at the end of the day, financially penalising people for a) being too sick or disabled to work and b) having a partner working more than 24 hours a week at the minimum wage.

I did also ask whether the government would be doing a revised impact assessment to which the answer was no due to the government preferring to see the impact of the changes as they are implemented. I think this is utterly stupid as MPs and peers should know what the impact of legislation will be before they vote on it but this way of doing things is apparently standard government practice.

The next point I made was that a lot of these people affected by this shouldn’t be in the Work Related Activity Group in the first place but are in it because of the broken nature of the Work Capability Assessment which, in turn, is being fixed by the annual Harrington reports. But, because the Harrington Reports aren’t due to be completed until 2015, the WCA won’t be fixed until then at the earliest – despite the time limit coming in (as I already said) from April this year, meaning that people will be deprived of support on the basis of an assessment system that isn’t working.

Jenny’s response was that the DWP has now changed the nature of the Harrington reports so that any recommendations made by Professor Harrington are implemented as soon as physically possible after he proposes them. In fact, according to Jenny, he’s now actually got an office at the DWP so that he can hand recommendations to the DWP without any delay as soon as he’s written them. At the moment he’s meant to be looking at the descriptors which determine whether someone passes the Atos assessment or not and is looking at ways to make the whole Atos assessment much more flexible. And, believe it or not, apparently IDS and Grayling genuinely want to improve the WCA (probably because of the PR nightmare it is) so the recommendations should all be implemented.

Again, however, it seems that the public and campaigners have been left in the dark about the shift in the workings of the Harrington reports. God knows why as I imagine that most campaigners and disabled people would be very happy to engage more and sooner if they knew that recommendations they help contribute to will be implemented as soon as Harrington makes them.

Also, according to Jenny, some of the changes made to the WCA have already made a difference in the sense that the number of successful appeals against decisions is falling (which hopefully means that the decisions are more accurate.

Three changes that have been made so far are that the WCA as a whole doesn’t depend pretty much entirely on the Atos assessment, that people going for assessments have the right to demand a recording is made of the interview and to bring an advocate (who can be anyone they want) into an interview with them. On the other hand, quite a few Atos staff have been saying to people this isn’t allowed so, if you ask to bring an advocate in with you and they refuse you then you shouldn’t tolerate it as they’ve got no right to do so. Another change is that people whose condition has deteriorated by the time they’ve reached the end of the contributory ESA will be able to reapply for it. As I said to Jenny, that’s not much good to people whose condition has remained stable but still prevents them from work but, unfortunately, this isn’t something that the DWP is going to budge on.

And, of course, people using these new rights is heavily dependent on them knowing that they have the rights in the first place – something which I pointed out at the meeting. And, in fairness to Jenny, she did acknowledge this and does hope to do something about it – what precisely she intends to do is something I’ll cover in a separate update.

So that’s the good news, such as it is, in this update. Now for the bad news.

Basically, the time limit in its current form is here to stay. This is because the treasury worked out exactly how much each department should spend in the Comprehensive Spending Review and won’t budge any further. And, since the DWP has already had to accept some amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill which reduce the depth of cuts (though not by much) they’ve already forced the treasury to give them some more money. But, as a result, the Treasury now apparently won’t give a penny extra to the DWP. The only way it could do so is, in my opinion, if there was enough political will to force it to do so. But, unless a substantial chunk of tories decide to side with Lib Dems on this, then that’s not going to be possible.

Because of that, the only way to prevent the time limiting is to find the £1.6 billion it will save from elsewhere in the DWP. And that then leads us onto the political dimension of all this which is something I’ll cover in another update given how long this one has already become.


  1. I am sorry George but I for one don't think it is good news that you also seem to have given up on the ESA Time Limit. It is still not acceptable that the Lib Dems didn't and obviously have no intention to abide by your motion passed at the Lib Dem Conference. It seems that the only hope for disabled people now is Pat's Petition. Please sign Pat's Petition and get every one else to sign at

  2. So does this mean that you will not be submitting the emergency motion to conference with regard to the ESA Time Limit?

  3. Of course I'm still going to be submitting the emergency motion. But sadly and infuriatingly I don't think the government looks likely to give any ground on the time limit. As such the best we can do is to hold them account for what they've done.

    1. WHEN are the gvt going to deal with the UNPAID CORPORATE TAXES which could fund the DWP for several years????????

      THIS is madness when so much is owed and the poorest and most vulnerable people in the country are suffering and EVERYONE is missing THE point which clearly is that the so called budget isn't enough SO make the corporate tax dodgers pay up, INCREASE the DWP budget and STOP terrifying the chronically sick & disabled people of the UK.. IS THIS not yet another example of why the rulers of the country should NOT be millionaires???? Mo

  4. I'm sure we could find that £1.6bn by means testing income support and.pension credit. By dialling it to the richest 50% we'd save enough money to win compromises on disability benefits.

    1. Yeah, but as I found out at the meeting, pensions fall under the purview of the treasury and so runs into the same problem that I mentioned. According to Giles, he's been through the DWP with a fine tooth comb trying to find the £1.6 billion from somewhere else but hasn't been able to do so - which then begs the question of who the hell decided that the treasury should be able to have the final say on an issue as important as disability benefits? The answer to which, of course, is that it was Messrs Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and, to a lesser extent, Alexander.

      I still don't see why the money couldn't be raised from outside the department though - the way I see it, it would be perfectly feasible if their was the political will there to do it. But there isn't and that's what we must hold the government accountable for.

  5. Erm, did Jenny explain to you exactly HOW UC would affect the time limit? Only you'll either be put into the WRAG or you won't - UC will have no affect whatever on that. I will either be acknowledged as having an illness in the system or I won't - UC won't affect that. I will either lose ESA after 1 year or I won't - how on earth does UC won't affect that.

    Now why, I wonder, if things are so much better than they thought won't they be doing an impact assessment??? (Remember the IA actually says that 700,000 will be affected by the limit to some degree)It couldn't be because they're erm... not could it?

    As I understand, I will still have a WCA under UC. IU will still be found either fit for work or put into the support group or the WRAG. If it's the WRAG I will still only receive ESA "credits" for one year.

    Now under UC, my income might not be affected when the year is up - as yet I have no idea, but that doesn't mean fewer people are affected by the time limit in any way possible as far as I can see.

    Sorry George, but I think you've been sold a complete pup. To be convinced, I would need to see a new IA (after all, this from Jenny implies the original is utterly wrong) I will get the "welfare wonks" onto this - you know I never make a fuss until I have all the facts, but I thin perhaps someone wants to make very sure there is no repeat of last year's conference when Whoops! grassroots members dared to think for themselves and make life a bit tricky for the powers that be.

    1. I agree completely with Sue, need to see facts! Don't back down George! No money, bullshit take it from the top where the problem started. It makes no sense at all to take money from the bottom up when the money isn't there to begin with; it doesn't take a brain surgeon to know that lives will be irreparable damaged and lost. Sorry for the rant, but this has gone beyond ridiculous now.

    2. Don't worry Sue, I do agree with you - it can't be right to take money away from people arbitrarily after one year. But hopefully the UC will mean that the impact of the change won't be quite as devastating for some people as previously thought. That still doesn't justify it though.

      The problem I had at the meeting was that I went in with the 280,000 figure and, having that pulled out from under my feet in the first couple of minutes, while also being conscious of only having half an hour to raise all sorts of different issues, meant that, I'm rather ashamed to admit, I couldn't think of the arguments to use to challenge her on this.

      I mean, even if Jenny was completely right, and my guess of less than 90,000 is correct, then that's still tens of thousands of people being heavily pnealised for no good reason - but unfortunately I don't think I managed to articulate that properly at the meeting.

    3. Don't worry George, no-one understands it and Gov details also unclear.

      We have a wonk team on it and will clarify ASAP.

  6. The "there's no money" argument belies the nature of the 20% cut from DLA to PIP. Ministers have, at times, claimed this is an estimate, and expectation, not a limit or a target. If it turns out that 'appropriate' support will cost more than that, they will go with that. How does that square with the DWP being unable to have any more money? Where will they take money from if PIP needs to spend more than the forecast?

    1. To put it bluntly, any minister who says this isn't about saving money is lying through their teeth.

  7. Jenny is talking horse shit. I don't think even MPs understand this legislation, nevermind the media.

    She says people won't be in poverty because they "will still have Housing Benefit." But they won't tho will they? If you have ONE spare bedroom you will lose 14% of your Housing Benefit even if you are disabled AND need a spare room for an overnight carer or equipment.(that's me and one of my neighbours.) Two other neighbours in my tiny cul de sac will have to move, as with more than one spare room they will lose 25% of their housing benefit.That's 4 people in one tiny area expected to move. If it included the elderly, which it was going to, that would be 9 households in a matter of a few yards. On man in his 50's with mental illness will have to move out of the house he grew up in, just because his parents died. How is that going to help "stabilise" him? We are human beings. These are our HOMES. Those who have been lucky enough to buy their houses are not going to have their Pension Credit deducted are they?

    How are people supposed to make up the extra rent if found fit for work and put on Job seekers Allowance - "the minimum the law says you neeed to live on"? How are we supposed to pay the cost of removals?
    Where are all the one bedroom properties, nevermind disabled accessible? Not here. Even in the private rented sector the Local Housing allowance changes monthly and can be reviewed and changed up to 4 times a year. So even if a property is within the limit the month you take out the tenancy, it may not be the next month. Here,the current LHA has gone down in the last 6 months from being just able to rent a handful of really terrible 1 bed properties, that I've never seen advertised here before - one flat in a building the rest of which looks like a boarded up old warehouse. Now the LHA has gone down by £7 a week and will not get you anything at all at that price. Where is everyone supposed to go?

    This just means people getting into rent arrears and eventually facing eviction with all the legal costs of that. Then homeless people will have to be housed in B&B's. All this means is that Local Authorites will be deprived of income from central government and yet face even greater costs to clean up the mess.Disabled people under 35 will have to "house share". How the hell is that going to work? Who is going to want to share their house with a paranoid schizophrenic or someone with bowel problems?Or want someone in a wheelchair cluttering the place up with all their equipment?

    I live alone. So that means I have already lost the Severe Disability Premium - which has just been abolished.So how do I pay for extra care in emergencies?There is no guarantee that under PIP I will qualify for Care component, given the descriptors - so how do I pay for ANY care? Again, money that won't now be going to the Local Authority, as now with High Rate DLA. I am mostly housebound. How do I get shopping and prescriptions without a carer?

    Believe me, there are even worse things going on than people losing ESA if they have savings or a partner, bad enough tho that is.

    There are people living alone who will either have to pay extra rent or become homeless. Go without ANY help at all, as no partner, relative, even capable child in the house to help.

    This is a nightmare of gigantic proportions about to unfold and theose in government are too stupid to see it or too evil to care.

    The Lib Dems voted all this through. They will NEVER be forgiven.

    1. Crisis has just reported there has ALREADY been a 23% rise in rough sleeping - and that is before most of these housing cuts kick in. Councils are turning people away, so there is not even the protection of a B&B.

      With 4 new food banks opening every week, even those IN work cannot afford to feed their families.

      LIBDEMS must be so proud. Their first chance at power and we have people sleeping in the streets, children going hungry and the disabled openly talking about hoarding drugs to put themselves out of their misery.

      Yet the middle classes are bleating about losing child benefit on £43,000a year. Why wasn't this one of the FIRST measures taken, before beating up on the chronically sick and disabled?

      The taxpayer SUBSIDY for MPs bars and meals has gone up to £5.8 million. Many meals are available for under £3.00. For every £10 an MP spends on a meal the taxpayer has subsidised it by £7.60. So they pay £2.40 for their lunch on their salary?

      My meals on wheels went up by 33% in one go last year. They now cost £3.00 a day.
      But we don't get "artichoke salad with truffle dressing" or "seared breast of pidgeon". We get endless bacon or sausages or faggots with baked beans. When I was healthy and had the choice, it was the kind of food I would never EVER buy. Processed meats give you bowel cancer and heart disease, don't you know, and should not be eaten frequently - so says THE GOVERNMENT. Please ask Jenny why I have to pay more than MPs for my lunch?

  8. Sorry but that gives me no comfort at all. I have worked and paid more than my fair share of contributions and no when i'm either kicked off ESA, DLA I wont be able to live. My family and friends all help me and the nature of all my illnesses will mean I will need more support (to heat my house and eat). I will not put my familt through that so will and I mean will take my own life. Call me dramatic, call me anything you like I don't care. I have done everything right in my life and did not cause or even contribute to this mess and am really, really angry that this evil cons with the eager help of your party are throwing us to the wolves.
    I cant go on as I am and will not be able to cope when my lifeline is taken away. I'm sure you mean well and are as outraged as us but you give us false hope and as such makes things worse.
    The only way you can redeem yourself George is to distance yourself from the sell out's.

  9. This is indeed a tragic state of affairs.
    Homelessness is sure to rise.Landlords are saying no DSS more and more.
    Perhaps the Workhouse will comeback.Room provided if you work.

    Ebenezer Scrooges are a modern phenomenon,brought back to life from Dickensian London.So will Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchet be revived.I doubt Tiny Tim will live this time.Scrooge has got more meaner.

    Nick Clegg the Humble Uria Heap.Throwing our lives away to stay in government.

    Damn them all.Damn them all to Hell.

  10. I'm recovering from breast cancer and all it's treatments. I'm one of the 15% that has an adverse reaction to chemo, so my journey has been horrendous. I can't wait to get life back to normal and be working again, but my body has taken such a battering over the last year, it needs time to recover. To send people back to work before they are ready is barbaric. I'm not a scrounger, but because of benefit fraud, this government penalises the genuinely sick and ill.

    Shame on you and all your party for not standing up for us. It's not good enough to say the government won't budge. If I had the energy I'd be hammering at doors. But I'll tell you this - when I am fully recovered I will be campaigning with the Macmillan Trust because now I have had the experience of this disgusting, heartless, unsympathetic system. It is brutal!

    I have to go for an assessment next week knowing that non of the questions are relevant to what my body is still going through. Are you aware of the descriptors? How can you measure if someone is fit for work by asking them to raise their arms above their head or pick up a £1 coin. You lot in power must think the rest of us are stupid!!


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