Frustrated campaigners have called on the government to release crucial statistics about its controversial new work capability test.
They spoke out after new research for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) revealed that both benefits staff and disabled people who have undergone the test had major concerns about the work capability assessment (WCA).
The WCA was introduced in October 2008 to test applicants for employment and support allowance (ESA), the government’s new out-of-work disability benefit.
But disability organisations and other campaigners have repeatedly raised concerns about the number of disabled people being found fit for work after taking the tough and “inflexible” WCA.
The researchers talked to staff working on the ESA, and ESA applicants, between May and July last year.
Staff expressed concerns at the “stringency” and “lack of flexibility” of the WCA and that many people who were told they were fit for “work-related activity” had “unexpectedly severe health problems”.
The research also reported concerns about a “large backlog” of appeals against WCA results.
Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, said the research backed up what campaigners had been telling the government.
He said the government was refusing to provide statistics showing how disabled people with different impairments were being treated under the new system.
He and other campaigners say the WCA is too inflexible to cope with fluctuating conditions such as mental ill-health, ME or MS.
Coyle said: “Disability organisations cannot assist the government in improving the WCA or ESA without more information about what the barriers are within the system. It is going to cost a fortune in appeals unless the WCA is improved.”
Coyle said some disabled people were being assessed as fit for work and not eligible for ESA – and told to apply instead for jobseeker’s allowance – but after winning appeals were placed in the ESA “support group” for those who are too disabled to undertake any work-related activity.
Jonathan Shaw, the minister for disabled people, said: “This research was carried out some time ago soon after the benefit was introduced and we have made considerable improvements since then.
“We continue to see where improvements and changes are needed to ensure that ESA is working as it should be.”
A DWP spokesman said they were “currently unable to provide the data” that Disability Alliance has called for as it was “not held centrally and we are not confident at this stage that it is robust enough to consider publication”.
He added: “We are working on collating and quality assuring the data and will consider publication in due course.”
Meanwhile, Shaw has announced new targets that aim to help more people with mental health conditions and learning difficulties to stay in work through the access to work (ATW) scheme.
>From next month, 2,000 people with learning difficulties and up to 1,500 people with mental health conditions will be guaranteed ATW funding.
Shaw said a “disappointingly low number of people with severe mental health conditions or learning disabilities” were receiving ATW funding, and the government recognised it needed to do more to help them find and stay in work.
Last year, more than 32,000 disabled people received ATW funding to provide support in the workplace, but the latest figures show that fewer than one per cent gave mental health as their main impairment.
The government has promised to double the ATW budget to £138 million by 2013/14.
Shaw announced the targets at a House of Commons exhibition to mark the 40th anniversary of the passing of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act.
4 March 2010