New research sets out how a better WCA is possible

  • New research from academic Ben Baumberg Geiger, in collaboration with Demos think tank, argues that the WCA – the disability assessment for benefits – is a failure, but sets out how a better WCA is possible.
  • The research shows the public are concerned about ‘undeserving’ people claiming incapacity benefits – but even more are concerned that ‘genuinely’ disabled people are being denied benefits. Geiger and Demos recommend making assessors’ judgements of ‘genuineness’ more accurate and transparent.
  • The research shows that a million sanctions have been applied to disabled people since 2010, but that the fairness of these sanctions is questionable: disabled JSA claimants are 26-53% more likely to be sanctioned than non-disabled JSA claimants, and Geiger’s survey shows that the public does not support the government’s current sanction regime.
  • Geiger and Demos recommend that the government reduce the extent of benefit conditionality that disabled people face, and that claimants’ views of their own capacities should only be challenged on the basis of an expert assessment.
  • The research shows that there is no evidence that the WCA captures the demands of work in modern Britain, and completely fails to assess the effect of multiple impairments on claimants.
  • Geiger and Demos set out how an assessment can be based on a fair and transparent measure of the demands of work.


Disabled people, doctors and experts agree that the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) – the assessment for out-of-work disability benefits – is broken. A new report from academic Ben Baumberg Geiger and Demos think tank sets out a clear vision for how a better WCA is possible.

The research project is by Ben Baumberg Geiger, (Senior Lecturer at the University of Kent and Demos Associate), with Demos think tank, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. The four-year project included polling of 2,000 members of the British public, focus groups with the public and key actors such as frontline assessors, as well as desk research and interviews with experts across nine countries. The report focuses on the three key roles of the WCA: establishing ‘genuineness’, assessing work capability, and setting conditionality/sanctions.

On ‘genuineness’, the research shows that many members of the British public are concerned about ‘undeserving’ people claiming incapacity benefits – but many are also concerned that ‘genuinely’ disabled people are being unfairly denied them. However, respondents are more concerned about the unfair treatment of genuine claimants than the unfair claims of undeserving claimants. More people Geiger and Demos spoke to said they knew a deserving claimant who has struggled to get benefits than a claimant who is not genuinely disabled (28 per cent vs 19 per cent). And even more of the public thought it was important to support genuine claimants than to root out fraud (45 per cent vs 22 per cent).

WCA assessors try to assess the ‘genuineness’ of claimants, but there are substantial concerns the strategies they use (such as deciding if impairments are ‘likely’, or using informal observations). As a first step to better legitimacy, Geiger and Demos recommend that the government should ensure that assessors’ reports of what claimants said can unquestionably be trusted (e.g. by audio recording all assessments and reviewing a sample annually). More broadly, they recommend that assessors be required to ask claimants if they have an explanation for any evidence which seemingly contradicts their description of their impairments, rather than jumping to the decision that they are wrong.

On work capability, many of the disability charity staff and disability activists that Ben Baumberg Geiger and Demos spoke to during the research, felt that the WCA ‘descriptors’ failed to capture the requirements of the British workplace. To make matters worse, since April 2017 the WCA simply ignores the combined effect of multiple impairments, which is probably the case for at least half of all disabled people. The report shows how other countries manage to avoid these problems, including the Dutch system of collecting transparent evidence on the demands of actually existing jobs.

Geiger and Demos therefore recommend that the government should overhaul the WCA descriptors, so that they transparently reflect the British labour market. This is relatively straightforward: the government could collect data on the functional requirements of British jobs – i.e. the specific capabilities that people need to be able to do each job. This could look at the combined impact of multiple impairments on work capability, by measuring the functional profiles required in different jobs – i.e. all the capacities in combination that someone needs to be able to do that job. The resulting assessment would be more accurate, more transparent and more legitimate.

On conditionality & sanctions, the research shows that a million sanctions have been applied to disabled people since 2010, mainly on unemployment benefit (JSA). One possible justification for this is that it will have a positive impact on disabled people. However, the overwhelming majority of key actors consulted during research conclude that conditionality has little to no effect on improving employment for disabled people. There is also widespread anecdotal evidence that conditionality and sanctions can lead to anxiety and broader ill health.

The other major argument for conditionality centres on fairness, but fairness in practice has been questionable: disabled JSA claimants are 26-53% more likely to be sanctioned than non-disabled JSA claimants, with multiple anecdotal reports suggesting this is because too little account is taken of their disabilities.

In the Geiger/Demos research polling, while the public often supported the imposition of sanctions for disabled people, this was not in the form that the government applies them at present. A majority thought that disabled people’s benefits should be cut if they do not take a job they can do, but they were less supportive of sanctioning for minor non-compliance, such as sometimes turning up late for meetings. What is more, even those who do support sanctions prefer much weaker sanctions than those the government presently uses.

The research recommends that the Government reduce the extent of benefit conditionality disabled people face and strengthen safeguards to ensure disabled people are not unfairly sanctioned for failing to meet impossible conditions.

Personal reflections from participants in this research:

“A blind person, for example, can be asked if they run a bath. A blind person could be observed for whether they can adjust a belt on a pair of trousers, or find a hat stand. So there is actually really very detailed guidance about these observations, and they don’t make sense. They don’t stand up. There’s almost no job in the world where a blind person’s working because they can run a bath”. A disability activist

“It doesn’t really assess your functionality in the workplace.  It just basically assesses your ability to potter about at home.” A WCA claimant

 “I think you do get a lot of conditions where as a whole they present to you and using your medical knowledge in the background, you think “you probably couldn’t reasonably work for whatever reason”, yet they don’t score on any descriptors.” A WCA Assessor

“I know my neighbour, he suffers from blackouts. He put in a claim for the Incapacity Benefit and he’s currently under [the local hospital]… But when he applied for the Incapacity Benefit, they basically said “no… he’s not having sufficient blackouts.”… It’s a farce.” An unemployed person

Commenting on the research, Ben Baumberg Geiger, Senior Lecturer and Demos Associate said:

“The WCA has been such a failure that some people have lost faith that it is even possible to have a disability assessment that is either popular or deliverable. But a better WCA is possible. Indeed, the UK is the only country where benefits disability assessment is in such a severe crisis, and if other countries can do better, then so can we.

“The WCA needs to be both fair, and widely seen to be fair. The public do not necessarily understand everything about disability or the complexities of the benefits system. But it is still crucial for the WCA to be trusted, which means basing it on easily-understood and defensible principles, and making it as transparent as possible.

“This report sets out a series of clear steps to make the WCA be better trusted by the public, to seem fairer by those claiming benefits, and to be more accurate in practice. But most of all, I hope it makes people realise that we are not destined to be permanently stuck with a failing assessment. The evidence is there; I hope that the political will to make the WCA better is not far behind.

Commenting on the research, Simone Vibert, Researcher at Demos said:

“It has been known for many years now that the WCA is broken. But while it is simple to lay out its failings, and the devastating impact they have on disabled people and their families, what’s been missing is a compelling vision of what a better system could look like.

“Ben’s research provides just this, outlining a range of measures – many of which are very straightforward – which will transform the WCA’s ability to assess claimants’ genuineness, their work capability, and the requirements that can fairly be placed upon them.

“In providing a blueprint to a better system, the onus is now on policymakers to make it a reality. Simply tinkering around the edges is no longer acceptable. Disabled people deserve a better system and, as this research shows, the general public are demanding one too.”

Commenting on the research, Phil Reynolds, Senior Policy and Campaigns Adviser at Parkinson’s UK and Chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium, said:

“For too long the Work Capability Assessment has failed disabled people – leaving them unsure as to whether they’ll get the support they need and causing unnecessary stress.

“It’s absolutely right that the assessment must better reflect the realities of work, that strict requirements on disabled people to seek work should be reduced and that disabled people must be meaningfully involved in the design of the next assessment. All of these elements are crucial in restoring trust to the system.”

For more information about this research project, please contact:

Caitlin Lambert – Communications Officer, Demos| 020 7367 4200 – [email protected]



  • A comparative study examining how other countries conduct social security disability assessment, based on 150 documents and 40 expert interviews across nine countries
  • A new YouGov survey of the public, asking 2,000 people detailed questions about both disabled people in general and using vignettes of specific types of disabled people
  • Six focus groups with the public (with employed, unemployed and disabled people, in London and the North of England)
  • Six focus groups with key actors: Maximus WCA assessors, welfare-to-work providers, disability charity workers and disability activists

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

Ben Baumberg Geiger is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. His research looks at disability, the benefits system, and public attitudes, and he has worked with groups ranging from disabled people’s organisations to the Department of Work and Pensions. Further details and open-access publications can be found at

About Demos

Demos is Britain’s leading cross-party think-tank: an independent, educational charity, which produces original and innovative research.

 About the Economic and Social Research Council

The ESRC is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and civil society.  It is a non-departmental public body (NDPB) established by Royal Charter in 1965 and receive most of its funding through the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Their research is rigorous and authoritative, as we support independent, high-quality, relevant social science.

About the University of Kent

Established in 1965, the University of Kent – the UK’s European university – now has almost 20,000 students across campuses or study centres at Canterbury, Medway, Tonbridge, Brussels, Paris, Athens and Rome. It has been ranked 22nd in the Guardian University Guide 2018 and 25th in the Complete University Guide 2018, and in June 2017 was awarded a gold rating, the highest, in the UK Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). In the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2015-16, it is in the top 10% of the world’s leading universities for international outlook and 66th in its table of the most international universities in the world. The THE also ranked the University as 20th in its ‘Table of Tables’ 2016.