The Government have a massive programme to reassess more than 1.5 million people on incapacity benefit by 2013 to see whether they qualify for employment and support allowance. However, the assessment process is deeply flawed. Forty per cent of appeals are successful, and there is widespread dissatisfaction with Atos Healthcare, the company carrying out the assessments. There are also serious concerns with the way that the process is being handled. The descriptors in the work capability assessment have been repeatedly revised over recent years so as to raise the bar for claimants. Further changes are now being rushed through before Professor Harrington has concluded the all-important second stage of his review, against the advice of the Social Security Advisory Committee. In particular, the committee felt that the work capability assessment measured theoretical work capability and took insufficient account of the realities of the work environment and the labour market, which has not enabled significant numbers to move into employment, even in relatively favourable pre-recession conditions. Some 92 per cent of employers say that they would find it difficult or impossible to employ someone who is blind or partially sighted, for instance. Now we learn that increasing numbers of disabled people are experiencing rigorous reassessments of their access-to-work support packages, which is hardly going to ameliorate the situation.
Even if you qualify for ESA—employment and support allowance—you may be no better off, because anyone receiving contributory ESA from next April who is in the work-related activity group will have payment of their benefit means tested after 12 months. This change is to be made retrospective. People will still be able to apply for income-related ESA after their contributory ESA ends, but if their partner is earning as little as £150 or working 24 hours or more a week, they will no longer be eligible for ESA. These are particularly savage policies going far beyond anything contemplated in the Thatcher era. They will cause great hardship and have a devastating effect on the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people. It is estimated that by 2015-16, 700,000 people will be affected by limiting contributory ESA to one year: 203,000 will lose on average £11 a week; 217,000 will lose £22 a week; and 280,000, a good 40 per cent, will lose as much as £89 a week. To people forced to live on benefit, these figures are mind-boggling.