Fit for Purpose


The key focus of Iain Duncan Smith’s speech yesterday addressed sickness benefits, and how Government judges if people are fit for work. There is scope for real reform here.

IDS diagnosed the problem as people receiving ‘an assessment of their condition that focuses on what they can’t do rather than on what they can do’. This is precisely the criticism levelled by academic Ben Baumberg in his Demos Quarterly essay last year. In his essay Ben explains:

‘The WCA consists of a list of different impairments, with a person scoring a certain number of incapacity points for each impairment they have. So for example: if you cannot pick up a one litre carton of liquid,  then you get nine points. If you have an involuntary episode of lost/altered consciousness at least once a month (but less than weekly), then you get six points. If you have both of these impairments then you get fifteen points, which is the cut-off for being entitled to ESA’.

As he points out, this is not a test of whether you can work. You may have a number of impairments but also skills you are able to deploy in the right job. But the UK is stuck with a deficit model, which focuses almost exclusively on impairments, rather than an asset-based model, which considers what people are capable of.

Ben’s ongoing project at Demos looks at how we could do things better. The first report from the project looks at how assessments are done in other countries, including Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. His conclusion is that a much more positive, empowering form is assessment is not just possible but commonplace when you take an international perspective. For example, both the Netherlands and the US match people’s skills and capabilities against lists of occupations that individuals could realistically work in.

This continuing project includes study trips to see some of these other systems in action and discussion groups in the UK explore public attitudes towards alternative approaches. The work is a chance to find practical answers to a long-standing problem rightly identified in the speech yesterday.