Computer says “no”

By DeusExMacintosh

Work and pensions minister Chris Grayling is conducting an urgent review into a new medical test for incapacity benefit after fresh figures showed only 6% of those tested were deemed to be totally incapable of working.

The figures, covering all new claims from October 2008 to the end of November 2009, show 39% are being tested as fit for work and a further 37% are dropping their claim before the assessment is complete. The figures are widely out of line with estimates initially made by officials from the Department for Work and Pensions.

The figures suggest that either tens of thousands of incapacity benefit claimants are not as ill as they claimed, or that something is wrong with the way the tests are being applied. So far the tests have applied only to new claimants for the employment support allowance, the successor benefit to incapacity benefit, but ministers are planning to apply the test to nearly 1.6 million people already on incapacity benefit over the next three years or so.

Speaking to the Guardian, Grayling today did not seize on the figures to claim there was an army of scroungers, but said instead many people had been made anxious about the figures. He did not suggest there was an army of scroungers, but said: “We do not think and nor does anybody else think there is anything wrong in principle about these tests. Almost every major group working with people suffering long-term disability or sickness wants them to have the opportunity to get back into the workplace. But we have to look at how [the tests] are working in practice.”

Which is interesting because when speaking to The Telegraph (and virtually everyone else) his line has been considerably harsher.

“The vast majority of people who are applying for these benefits are being found fit for work or have stopped their claim.

“These are people who under the old system would have been abandoned on incapacity benefits. It’s a clear indication of why reform is so urgently needed.

“This is exactly why we are going to reassess everyone claiming incapacity benefits for their ability to work, from this October.

“They will now be given the support they need to get back to work and will be expected to look for work if they are able to do so.”

And if they’re not able to do so, they will be told they are anyway. A whole fortnight ago, on July 6th, Graylings response to parliamentary enquiries was that…

The Department undertook an internal review of the Work Capability Assessment which was published on 29 March 2010. The review found that generally the assessment accurately identifies individuals for benefit.

Perhaps he simply ignored the Work and Pensions Select Committee report from January that identified a major problem with the methodology being used by private company ATOS during the Work Capability Assessment.

70. CAB [Citizens Advice Bureau] argued that the computer generated answers narrowed the scope of the WCA because “stock phrases” did not accurately reflect some conditions. The LiMA system used by Atos Healthcare allows the doctor conducting the assessment to “cut and paste” these stock phrases into the report. RSI Action claimed that Atos Healthcare professionals have often misrepresented claimants’ responses on the assessment document.[48]

71. We also received evidence from a number of individual claimants, who reported poor experiences of the medical assessment process.

72. We received many complaints about the medical assessment process ranging from dissatisfaction from claimants who felt they were treated badly to criticisms of the computerised assessment process. We appreciate that DWP must strike a balance between providing a personalised service and ensuring a consistent approach to medical assessments but it is crucial that claimants’ responses are recorded accurately. We ask the Department to investigate the concerns raised to us with Atos Healthcare and inform the Committee of the outcome.

These latest results from the Department of Work and Pensions show that ESA success rates have actually DECLINED since August 2009 when 10% qualified for the Support group, 22% for the Employment group and 69% were either deemed fit for work and/or disappeared.

Not the first time, the Computer says “no”.


  1. Posted July 30, 2010 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if the questionnaire deals with the unpredictable course conditions, with good and bad days/weeks that most employers hate (what? You can’t guarantee you’ll turn up for a BS weekly meeting because I can’t manage it by email or an electronic whiteboard? You are unemployable). Similar problems also exist for carers of kids or the ill. Work availability cannot be scheduled.

    Employers often want employees to be perfectly fungible work unit, turned on and off on demand.

    OK, its easier for knowledge workers to telecommunate and timeshift than unskilled labor, but still, there’s a huge difference between capable of doing work, often quite sophisticated work, and the willingness of employers to actually use those skills.

    Perhaps the questionnaires were designed by the same mob that write push-poll questions for party machines.

    Besides… You might only be able to get to the doctor on good days… The bad days, missed appointments, probably get you struck off the list.

  2. Posted July 30, 2010 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    aaaah typos on phones! Grrr

  3. conrad
    Posted July 31, 2010 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    I tend to agree with Dave — whilst I think the system gets rorted a lot (at least in Aus — the figures are vastly higher than other places), it’s very hard to tell whether people that get serious problems in bouts (e.g., MS, schizophrenia) are really too sick to work at any given time, and I’m not sure how many employers are going to want people to turn up randomly 2 months out of 3 with the possibility the person won’t be there on any given day.

    Posted July 31, 2010 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    It is symptomatic of what’s going in the wake of the GFM, governments are turning to Thatcherite measures to rip back social spending for tax cuts to big busines that lost out during the casino game mid decade. It’s called paying for the bailout and it will come out the hides of those least able to afford it, and least guilty for the world’s problems, as ever.

  5. Peter Patton
    Posted July 31, 2010 at 4:28 pm | Permalink


    Though just reading your two posts together switched a light on. I wonder if there are economies in designing some work places that could accommodate such unpredictable attendance.

    I imagine that if a person’s disability does not excise any training/education/skills/abilities they might otherwise have gained, there might be ways of organizing work in an extremely flexible way where the employer (including government) pays lower rates/wages for the financial hit, but the [otherwise skilled] disabled person can still participate in the workforce and earn a good crust above the pension.

  6. Posted July 31, 2010 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    Peter/Conrad: Thanks

    I’ve written elsewhere on the inability of management generally to make use of resources, especially government that can use statistics to even out unpredictable unavailability.

    And with smarts, wages can be full market rates for highly skilled professions, using staff often considered unemployable.

    In I riffed on a harvard business school review of a boutique software testing firm (clients including Oracle and Microsoft), with 75% of testers on the autism spectrum, using a customized management style adapted to folk who are naturally built for nitpicky testing, but cannot cope with normal office environments, meetings, management pressure, etc.

    There is a glorious phrase: “asymmetrically talented”.

    I think this shows how senior people in most large organizations (including government) are actually the lazy and inflexible minds, with a huge loss in national output.

    Society as a whole is too dumb and uncaring, consigning people to the scrapheap and misery, rather than make a few square holes for the square pegs.

    What would happen today to Isaac Newton, prone to long periods of depression unable to work, living as a hermit? Could he get a productive job like head of the mint these days, or would he end up in a mess, given “do you want fries with that” jobs, and losing them.

  7. conrad
    Posted August 1, 2010 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    Thanks Dave, that was a really interesting idea. I don’t think all Asperger’s people are very hard to deal with incidentally, and I also think it’s one of those over diagnosed things, so I wonder if they were really selecting a lot of fairly odd people, versus people down the Autistic end of the spectrum. Funnily enough, I was just watching Malcolm last night, so there’s a good example of what the people they are employing might be like!

    That being said, I’m sure the problem is the opposite, so they really are good managers, as too many managers seem to want to have an army of grovelling versions of themselves as employees. I also don’t think the problem is just wages for many people that can’t work either. Of the long-term unemployed people I’ve known, almost all would have been happy to work for relatively low wages after being unemployed long enough (a few started off not willing, but reality usually trumps this idea, but perhaps that’s because the people I know have not been the people contemplating retirement who might see it differently).

  8. Peter Patton
    Posted August 9, 2010 at 12:24 am | Permalink


    I thought I should let you know that after your thought provoking posts on your experiences with the UK disability system, I am voting 1 in both the lower and upper houses the “Carers Alliance,” which is a new political party here devoted to representing people living with disabilities and their carers.

  9. Peter Patton
    Posted August 9, 2010 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    Mass political organization is the ONLY way to improve things.

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