ME Association: The Work Capability Assessment: proposed abolition and open consultation

The government has proposed the abolition of the Work Capability Assessment, and the Department of Work and Pensions is moving ahead with changes to the current assessment descriptors. In this blog, we provide background to these changes and to the stakeholder consultation which has a deadline 30 October. We have set out the charity’s position below, and we will provide guidance and recommendations on the consultation itself in a separate blog.

ME Association Statement

While we welcome any increase in opportunities for disabled people to return to and remain in the workforce, we are very concerned that the government is basing much of these changes on the belief that there are more remote or home-working jobs available and that they are suitable for people with disabilities including ME/CFS and Long Covid.

There has been no related research, and it seems very unfair to introduce the abolition of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) or make changes to the existing activities and descriptors ahead of the abolition without first establishing that these work opportunities are available or that the changes being suggested will not disadvantage people in desperate need of continued welfare support.

It is not clear how many remote working jobs exist or the proportion of them that are suited to people with disabilities. Working requires routine attendance and productivity, which can be very real challenges for people with fluctuating conditions, for example, who don’t know if their cognitive or physical health will remain stable. The decision when and how to return to work should be with the person who is disabled. It shouldn’t be something that is taken away from them.

Recent data from the Office for National Statistics (the only research available) reveals that far more people who are able to work from home are working hybrid positions – where they are at home for some of the time and office-based for the remainder (often the majority). A hybrid position may not be suitable for someone with a disability, whose mobility, for example, is a concern and who is unable to travel.

While some people may benefit from opportunities to work from home, this is not the case for all. The ONS found that 75% of people on the lowest income were not able to work from home, and that the rate of disabled people working from home is not significantly higher than the rate of non-disabled people working from home.

This suggests that opportunities to work from home are not open to everyone, in particular those on the lowest incomes who are more likely to be claiming Universal Credit. The risk here is that people are assessed as being fit for work, or as having limited capability for work, but are not put in the support group, under the assumption that they are able to find a job which allows them to work from home. 

It should also be noted that, although the intention of the White Paper appears to be to have fewer people in the support group, changing the goal posts of the WCA may also lead to more people being found to be fit for work, and facing higher levels of work conditionality than they would have previously. 

Furthermore, we are concerned about putting pressure on a community which is already very socially isolated to spend more time at home. Although ONS data suggests that home working can have a positive effect on wellbeing, this data is a snapshot of the whole population. For people who have fewer opportunities to socialise, pressure to work from home may have a negative impact on wellbeing.

It can mean, for example, that disabled people put all their effort into working and have little left for other equally important activities, or that they need to spend money to employ carers to do more so that they can work. The government should gather evidence about the impact of home working on disabled people in particular, and how they can be supported to make use of new opportunities in a way that promotes their health and wellbeing. 

We know that a lot of people with ME/CFS and Long Covid struggle to access disability benefits, and it is not uncommon to have a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) claim reduced or withdrawn following review. The most recent statistics on PIP show that 21% of PIP awards were stopped following a review. We also know that, when people challenge DWP benefit decisions, they are often successful. According to recent tribunal statistics, 63% of claims brought to the social security and child support tribunal were overturned in the claimant’s favour.

If the WCA were to be abolished, this would mean that, if an individual lost their PIP, they could also lose the new UC health element. We are concerned that this proposal may lead to people losing a large proportion of their income overnight after being wrongly assessed as not having entitlement to PIP. 

Although the White Paper does state that the government remains committed to a contribution-based health and disability benefit, which is currently the New Style Employment Support Allowance (NS-ESA), it does not make it clear what would happen to NS-ESA if the WCA were to be abolished. If NS-ESA entitlement is linked to PIP entitlement, this could mean that if an individual lost their PIP, they could also lose their NS-ESA, which would be an even larger proportion of a person's income. 

In conclusion, we do not believe that the increase in home-working – triggered by the pandemic – has been proven in terms of an increase in job opportunities for disabled people and we are concerned that the government’s decision to abolish the WCA in 2026 is based on an assumption rather than hard facts.

It seems that despite any good intention the main driver behind these reforms is to save money, when all the evidence indicates that there are more long-term sick or disabled people in need of support than ever before. While we can see the benefit of having one medical assessment, we are worried that changes to current WCA descriptors will mean more people on low incomes will lose financial support and will be unable to find suitable work despite the possibility of working from home.

Ellie Jones, Welfare Rights Adviser. The ME Association.

Staff photo of Ellie Jones

Dr Charles Shepherd,
Trustee and
Hon. Medical Adviser
to the ME Association.
Member of the 2018-2021 NICE Guideline Committee.
Member of the 2002 Independent Working Group on ME/CFS.

Dr Charles Shepherd

Russell Fleming
Head of Communications. The ME Association.

Background Information

The Health and Disability White Paper

In March 2023, the UK Government published Transforming Support: The Health and Disability White Paper.

Its stated aim was to propose changes to the welfare system to support more disabled people into work and then help them remain in work. It also aimed to respond to changes in how people work, such as an assumed increase in opportunities for home or remote working that might be more amenable to people with long-term health conditions and disabilities.

The central proposition was to remove the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) and replace it with the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment. This would remove the need to be found to have limited capability for work and limited capability to prepare for work in order to receive additional income-related support for a disability or health condition.

“We will replace the current Universal Credit (UC) Limited Capability for Work and Work Related Activity (LCWRA) financial top up with a new UC health element. This will be awarded to people who are receiving the UC standard allowance and any PIP element.”

“The award rate of the new UC health element will be set equal to the current award to those people that have LCWRA, ensuring there is a safety net in place for the most vulnerable.”

“The new UC health element will be awarded to people who are receiving the UC standard allowance and any PIP element. In effect PIP will therefore act as a passporting benefit for this new UC health element.”

“Any LCWRA recipients that move to the new system who do not receive PIP will receive transitional cash protection, so no one experiences financial loss at the point at which the reform is enacted.”

Source: Spring Budget 2023 Factsheet: Disability White Paper | 15 March 2023

When will the WCA abolition come into effect?

“The Transforming Support white paper states that primary legislation would be introduced in a new Parliament (after the next general election) “when parliamentary time allows”. 

“After that, the changes would be introduced for new claims only, on a staged, geographical basis. This would begin no earlier than 2026/27, and roll-out would take at least three years. From 2029 at the earliest, existing UC LCWRA claimants would then move on to the new system.”

Source: House of Commons Research Briefing: Proposals to abolish the WCA | 23 September 2023

DWP Consultation

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is now consulting on changes it would like to make to the Work Capability Assessment before it is abolished. These proposals were not discussed in the White Paper and seem designed to make claiming or receiving additional financial support for having long-term health conditions or disabilities more difficult. If the proposed changes take place, they will be introduced in 2025 assuming any new government accepts them.

“We want to change the benefits system to focus on what people can do, rather than what they cannot, and remove barriers to work. [These] reforms will ensure that people on benefits due to long-term sickness or disability are not excluded from employment support.

“They will give people the confidence to try work where they can. We have said we will remove the WCA, and that the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment will be the only health and disability functional assessment in the future.

“Ahead of this change, we need to take steps now so that the WCA delivers the right outcomes while it still exists. This includes targeting financial support and employment support fairly and effectively. There are also differences between the WCA and how we assess PIP. This includes different mobility requirements between the two assessments. We are considering these differences as we move towards PIP as the single assessment.”

Source: DWP Open Consultation: Work Capability Assessment: activities and descriptors | 23 September 2023

Activities and descriptors

The consultation is proposing changes to the following activities:

  • Mobilising.
  • Managing incontinence.
  • Coping with social engagements.
  • Getting about.

The reason these activities have been chosen is that home working might mean that people have to do these activities less frequently. For example, if you experience difficulty walking, driving or getting public transport, working from home may allow you to overcome these barriers. 

Under the new proposal, these activities would either be removed from the WCA, the points attached to them would be reduced, or the bar would be raised to make being awarded these points more difficult.

The outcome of changes to the WCA are likely to be that fewer people will receive the additional financial support for having limited capability for work or work related activity (or being in the support group). It could also mean that more people would be subject to some work-related conditionality, such as having to attend a work-focussed interview with a work coach.

Substantial risk

There is also a proposal to remove or change the substantial risk regulations. At the moment, if the points someone scores on the WCA mean that they would be put in the work related activity group but where work related activity would pose a substantial risk to their health and wellbeing, they can be placed in the support group. 

The DWP consultation seeks stakeholder views on making specific changes to the WCA. It is an online survey with a deadline of 30 October 2023. Responses can also be submitted by email. The ME Association will provide further guidance about the consultation and share its own response later today.

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