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Good riddance to the work capability assessment, the cruellest social policy of modern times

As the government announced plans to finally abolish the work capability assessment (WCA) last week, I thought about Stephen Smith’s ribs. The image of Smith’s emaciated body went viral in 2019 after the 64-year-old was declared “fit for work” by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2017.

Lung disease and osteoarthritis meant Smith weighed six stone at the time and he could barely walk. Regardless, he had his out-of-work sickness benefits stopped. Smith had to get a pass to leave hospital to attend a tribunal to win his case. He died just a few months later. In the end, Smith’s backdated benefits payments paid for his funeral.

Over the past decade, such horror stories have become synonymous with the WCA – the test to determine which disabled people are fit enough to work and the Kafkaesque linchpin of the Conservatives’ so-called welfare reform. I have reported some of them for this paper. The young woman with mental health problems asked by an assessor: “Why haven’t you killed yourself yet?” The wheelchair user who failed her WCA because the testing centre wasn’t wheelchair accessible. The grandfather with social anxiety who starved to death after missing his assessment and having his benefits stopped.

These are not one-off tragedies, but rather systemic cruelty. Against a backdrop of “scrounger” rhetoric from politicians and press so toxic that charities warned it was fuelling hate crime against disabled people, the WCA has morphed into one of the greatest social policy failures in modern times. Hundreds of millions of pounds of public money filled the coffers of private companies that ran the assessments, as disabled people incorrectly rejected for benefits were forced to turn to food banks. Like Smith, thousands of disabled and severely ill people have died after being found “fit for work”. Others have taken their own lives.

Only a few days after the government announced plans to end the WCA, the court of appeal was granting a new inquest into the death of Jodey Whiting, a young housebound mum who killed herself after her benefits were cut. Ministers can hardly claim to have been in the dark about any of this. In fact, they did their best at every turn to bury evidence of the harm the assessments cause.

The end of such a regime should be cause for celebration but few campaigners will be cheering. Nothing is set to change before 2026 if the Conservatives are still in power. If this is the death of the WCA, it is a long goodbye.

The details of its replacement are still somewhat vaguebut the gist is clear: ministers intend to use personal independence payments (Pip), as a way to distribute extra financial support for disabled people who can’t work.

Reducing the number of tests that sick claimants must endure is a good idea on paper but is outright dangerous if that test is unreliable: as it stands, 70% of those denied Pip have the decision overturned on appeal. Besides, many people who need out-of-work sickness benefits aren’t eligible for Pip (which only measures the extra costs of disability). The consequences of all this are already predictable. The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that up to 1 million disabled people could lose about £350 a month as a result of the changes.

Related: As a disabled person I need electricity to keep me alive. So why is it costing me so much? | Karis Williamson

There is another bleak development: more risk of benefit sanctions. Currently, the most severely disabled and sick claimants are protected from having to look for work and their benefits being docked. Under the new plan, this will be at the discretion of DWP “work coaches”. For a sign of how that “discretion” may work out, just look at research that shows disabled people are already disproportionately sanctioned compared to non-disabled claimants. A government that boasts it will more “rigorously” sanction the money healthy people need in order to live will soon enough have no qualms about doing it to cancer patients.

It is not as though ministers have tried to hide their true motivation for scrapping the WCA: they’re it’s not doing it to end the hardship the assessment causes, but because there are “too many” long-term sick people on benefits. “Work is a virtue,” Jeremy Hunt told the Commons last week – language that wouldn’t be out of place in a 19th-century workhouse. For all the promises of helping disabled people back into employment, the crux of this “welfare reform” is simple: those who contribute to the economy have value, and those who can’t are simply worth less.

As the WCA gets its postmortem, it may be time to consider how exactly we got here as a society, if only to help us figure out where to go next. After all, Stephen Smith did not spend the final months of his life begging the state for help because of some horrible error. It happened because that is exactly how the system is designed.

It is entirely possible for ministers to go down a different path; to create a safety net for times of ill health that is humane and fair, while addressing the structural barriers to fulfilling, well-paid jobs. The truth is, they simply choose not to. When being too sick to work is seen as moral failure, any amount of suffering can be justified.