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.