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The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) was introduced in 2008 to determine entitlement to benefits that help cover day-to-day living costs for people whose capability for work is limited by a disability or health condition. It assesses whether a claimant is fit for work, has limited capability for work (LCW), or limited capability for work-related activity (LCWRA). These outcomes determine:

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, rather than replacing the income of those with limited capability for work, and has a separate assessment process.

On 5 September 2023, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) launched a consultation on proposed changes to the WCA as it applies to people with conditions that affect mobilising, continence, social engagement, and getting about. The DWP is also proposing changes to the rule under which a person can be treated as having LCWRA where otherwise they or another person would face a ‘substantial risk’. If taken forward, changes would be implemented in advance of the Government’s longer-term ambition to abolish the WCA entirely (see below).

Criticism of the WCA

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 Work and Pensions Committee found that, despite some improvements, many of the problems highlighted in its 2018 report remained. It found 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 abolishing the WCA.

As part of this proposal, the additional LCWRA element in UC, which is 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), a benefit for people with extra costs of care or mobility resulting from disabilities and long-term health conditions. People undergoing cancer treatment, or with a terminal illness or pregnancy-related 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 following a WCA outcome. The white paper proposed a new “personalised health conditionality approach” which would allow individual Jobcentre Plus 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 claimants, and reduce the number of assessments people need to go through to access benefits.

How might this affect how much claimants receive?

Various think tanks and campaigning organisations have expressed concerns about the proposal. One of their main concerns is that people who currently meet the threshold for an additional amount for ill health or disability following a WCA, but who do not currently receive any PIP, may be entitled to less financial support after the change.

There are also people who get PIP, but do not currently get an additional amount following a WCA, who would receive more support after the change.

On 20 July 2023, the DWP provided an ad hoc data publication, Health and Disability benefits based on data from 2019 to 2022, exploring the overlap between disability benefit claimant cohorts in England and Wales. This found that in November 2022, 1,289,600 of the 1,805,700 claimants (71%) on Universal Credit with LCWRA, or in the income-related ESA support group, were also in receipt of either PIP or DLA. 516,100 (29%) were not also in receipt of PIP or DLA, so might risk losing a UC health entitlement under the reform proposals.

In addition, of the 350,600 with limited capability for work in November 2022, 213,500 (61%) were not receiving PIP or DLA, so would potentially face changes to their work-related conditionality.

379,300 claimants on Universal Credit or income-related ESA were in receipt of PIP or DLA but did not have LCWRA in November 2022. Of these, 183,000 were not on the Universal Credit ‘health journey’, and 137,100 had LCW, so may gain from a new health element dependent on receipt of PIP. The remaining 59,200 were awaiting a WCA. 

The numbers of people who ultimately will receive more or less support will, however, depend on a number of factors. These includes 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 get access to the UC health element as the proposals are developed. 

The Transforming Support white paper commits to ‘transitional protection’, so that at the point of transfer to the reformed system, those whose circumstances have not 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 Transforming Support white paper states that primary legislation would be introduced in a new Parliament (after the next general election) “when parliamentary time allows”. 

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 roll-out 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 several 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 enable 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.

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