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The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) was introduced in 2008 to determine entitlement to benefits that help cover the day-to-day living costs for people whose capability for work is limited by a disability or health condition. It currently assesses entitlement to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), and whether Universal Credit (UC) claimants are eligible for an additional amount for ill health or disability, and what if any work-related requirements apply to them.

The WCA does not determine entitlement to Personal Independence Payment (PIP), which is a different kind of benefit from either ESA or UC.  PIP is intended to help with the extra costs arising from ill health or disability and has a separate assessment process.

The WCA has been controversial since it was introduced. a Work and Pensions Committee report in 2018 said that failings in the assessment and decision-making processes for both ESA and PIP had resulted in the “pervasive lack of trust” that risked undermining the operation of both benefits. This report made a series of recommendations covering, amongst other things, recording assessments, the supply and use of evidence, clarity of communications, guidance in relation to home assessments, and the role of companions at assessments.

In its subsequent report, Health assessments for benefits published in April 2023, the current Work and Pensions Committee found that, despite some improvements made since 2018, many of the problems highlighted by its predecessor Committee remained, and that important changes to improve trust and transparency had not been made.

What is the Government proposing?

In section 4 of Transforming Support: The Health and Disability White Paper published in March 2023, the Government proposed that the WCA be abolished.

As part of this proposal, the additional element in UC – currently worth £390.06 a month – would be replaced by a new “health element”. This would be set at the same level, but instead of depending on a decision following a WCA, it would be available to UC claimants who also get Personal Independence Payment (PIP). People undergoing cancer treatment, or with a terminal illness or pregnancy risk, would continue to have automatic access to additional support, even if they are not receiving PIP.

Work-related requirements would no longer be assigned automatically. The White Paper proposed a new “personalised health conditionality approach” which would allow individual DWP Work Coaches to determine what, if any, work-related requirements should apply to claimants.

The Government says this would reduce the anxiety claimants currently have that they might lose their benefits if they enter work, allow Jobcentre Plus Work Coaches to build relationships with individuals, and reduce the number of assessments people need to go through to access benefits.

How many people might lose and gain?

Various think tanks and campaigning organisations have expressed concerns about the proposal. One of their main concerns relates to people who have met the threshold for an additional amount of UC or ESA for ill health or disability following a WCA, but who do not currently receive any PIP. There are also people who get PIP and UC, but do not currently get additional support following a WCA.

This sets up potential winners and losers. Specific numbers, however, will depend on a number of factors, including the proportion of UC claimants not getting PIP who do ultimately qualify for it, any changes to PIP accompanying the reforms, and whether further groups will be given access to the UC health element as the proposals are developed. 

The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that 1 million people are in the “UC health” group (ie getting UC with a health condition, or ESA in either group), but not also getting PIP/DLA. Of these:

  • Around 600,000 are getting extra amounts through the LCWRA element of UC or because they are in the ESA Support Group – so may not qualify for additional amounts under the reforms.
  • Around 400,000 have LCW only in UC or are in the ESA work-related activity group – so have an uncertain position in relation to work allowances and conditionality under the reforms.

The IFS also estimates that 1.6 million people are in the UC health group and receive PIP/DLA, so would qualify for the new UC health element. In addition, it estimates 0.2 million people are on both PIP/DLA and UC, but are not in the UC health group, and so would gain from the proposals.

The White Paper commits to “transitional protection” so that at the point of transfer to the reformed system, those whose circumstances haven’t changed do not lose out in cash terms. Some people would also be protected through provisions for pregnancy risk and cancer.

When might changes be introduced?

The White Paper states that primary legislation would be introduced in a new Parliament “when parliamentary time allows” – after the next general election. 

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 rollout would take at least three years. From 2029 at the earliest, existing UC LCWRA claimants would then move on to the new system.

Questions unanswered or under consideration

The White Paper left a number of questions unanswered or under consideration as the policy is developed, including:

  • Whether the Government expects to make savings from the reforms.
  • How eligibility for work allowances would be determined. Work allowances allow UC claimants to earn a certain amount each month before their award is affected and are currently available to households with children and those assessed as having limited capability for work following a WCA.
  • How contributory “New Style” ESA, eligibility for which depends on the WCA, would be incorporated within the reforms.
  • How the reforms would work in Scotland, where PIP is being replaced by the Adult Disability Payment.

Further reading

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