In November 2010 just after the Coalition's white paper was published for what would become the Welfare Reform Act, the DWP started identifying by category what groupings ESA claimants were in. The stand-out figure was for the Assessment Phase; those who had started their claim and were receiving ESA payments(at a rate in parity to Jobseekers Allowance) and were having to regularly provide the DWP with medical certificates(or 'sick notes') from their doctor. ESA was introduced for new claims in 2008, yet two years on the Assessment Phase made up the majority of claims. Something smelled and the issue was one of the first things I wrote about when I started this blog.
As time went on the percentage of the share taken up by the Assessment Phase barely shrunk- it remained at more than half of the total claimant count for about three more years and it's still ridiculously high now. Other welfare warriors who were able to do what I could not and actually deal with people(whilst I was being bogged down with goose-chasing the BBC into accepting some responsibility over the content of that John Humphrys programme). Requests were made under the Freedom Of Information Act which revealed that the DWP has been inconsistently producing figures. The best I could do was read through the publicly available information the DWP publishes, looking for inconsistencies such as the Tabulation Tool data showing high Assessment Phase numbers yet an Ad Hoc Analysis report claiming much less people waiting months(and years) to be assessed. Nick over at MyLegalForum has highlighted FOI material revealing that far more people have been winning appeals than the government have acknowledged in what should be quality-certified national statistics.
This fits into a suspicion Spartacus, Black Triangle and friends have discussed but failed to get journalists interested in: that the ESA system is and always has been on the verge of collapse, that changes to the system serve only to delay the inevitable and politicians have no idea what to do about it. For all the platitudes they've given us about listening and 'working in consultation' with disabled people and groups; politics trump Reason and Evidence. What Britain's 'invalidity pension' needs is something so much against the political grain built up by an active campaign against social security that has been waged for two decades now that politicians can't consider it because it would be egg on their faces. They want a bigger market for private income insurance for when people fall ill or have an accident, but disabled people don't fit into it so it's constantly referred to as 'the main sickness benefit' whilst DLA is 'the main disability benefit' and they all seem puzzled whenever it is mentioned to them or their useful idiots in journalism that people claim both; they are not for entirely separate groups of people. They want to bring the overall claimant count down, but they don't want to consider that they will need to replace it with something, that in fact the benefit is meeting a real need that won't disappear just because the support is cut back. So they buy in to evidence-free stories about it being used to hide unemployment or it rising over thirty years rather than actually rising in a few short years in the early 90s because then they'd have to explain why then and why the sudden stop and stability that followed for almost two decades(Incapacity Benefit was introduced in 1995 and there has been almost no net rise since). They do not want to entertain the idea that benefits have plugged gaps as local residential and social care for people below retirement age has been cut back to save money, because then that would mean benefits like IB, ESA and DLA are all net cost savings to the public purse and if benefit expenditure can produce net savings, what other benefits will then be considered for full cost:benefit? We'd have to look at what is saved by spending, not just the superficial upfront cost.
Labour, Conservative, Green, Liberals, UKIP: if they even think these things, they don't much like them as policy considerations. There's nothing in it for them. They don't talk about it, journalists don't report it and then when everything goes wrong they can make up ridiculous stories to explain it after the fact and the Truth be damned. It happened with the 'sickness benefits used to hide unemployment' lie, the 'girls getting pregnant to claim benefits and avoid work' lie and many more. Call them what they are: lies. The fact that those spouting them happen to also believe them doesn't mean they are not liars; just that they started lying to themselves first. They don't like being told they are wrong, so don't expect the news outlets finally reporting the ESA catastrophe to suddenly start listening to us, especially not if we're pointing out that it was flagrantly obvious years ago that the system couldn't work, wasn't working and was imploding and ministers were just buying time.
They've been coasting for this whole session of Parliament, without any real plan and given Labour's performance this week, still trying to get votes from people who will never vote for them and appeasing newspapers which will never be nice to them- we can't expect them to be any different.