Government advisers deliver fierce attack on work test


The government is set to ignore recommendations from its own benefits advice body, after it delivered a scathing assessment of the controversial work capability test.

The social security advisory committee (SSAC) had been examining proposed changes to the work capability assessment (WCA), a test introduced by the Labour government to assess eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits and now at the heart of the coalition’s welfare reforms.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) insisted it would still introduce the changes – set to come into force in March – even though the committee said many of them should be postponed.

Government figures show the changes will lead to an increase in the proportion of new claimants found fit for work from 66 per cent of completed assessments to about 73 per cent, or an extra 75,000 people over three years, as well as a 13 per cent rise in appeals.

Campaigners have argued repeatedly that the WCA is not fit for purpose, and have called for major improvements before the government rolls out the test to an estimated 1.5 million people still receiving old-style incapacity benefit (IB), at a rate of 10,000 tests a week. The national rollout will start this spring.

In a report published today, the SSAC describes the WCA as lacking in “credibility” and says it fails to take into account whether disabled people found fit for work are “actually employable”, because of the discrimination they face.

And it says it is “unreasonable and perverse” to force disabled people found fit for work onto the mainstream jobseeker’s allowance when they cannot be expected to comply with its strict regime.

The report also delivers a brutal assessment of the WCA’s points-based scoring system, which it says cannot guarantee objectivity or consistency.

The committee says several controversial changes to the WCA – recommended by an internal review carried out under Labour – should be postponed until the government has evaluated the results of pilot projects in Aberdeen and Burnley that have used the test to reassess people on long-term IB.

The DWP said it would ignore this recommendation, although it agreed with the need for “more empathy, improved communications with claimants and better decision making”.

A DWP spokeswoman said the government was continuing to carry out reviews of the test and implement their findings, including those from Professor Malcolm Harrington’s independent review, which would address some of the committee’s concerns.

But she said: “We don’t have to accept recommendations from the committee. We don’t have to implement everything they say.”

The report was released as the government published new regulations it said would improve the WCA.

Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, said: “The SSAC and Disability Alliance are in complete agreement that the WCA needs significant improvement before 10,000 people are forced to undergo the test every week.”

Meanwhile, the first figures from the Aberdeen and Burnley pilots show that of 1,347 decisions made using the WCA, about 30 per cent of people already on IB were found fit for work, with 31 per cent placed in the ESA support group, and 39 per cent in the ESA work-related activity group.

The figures are likely to increase concerns over the WCA, as the DWP had estimated that only 23 per cent of IB claimants would be found fit for work, although it also predicted only about 19 per cent would be placed in the support group.

10 February 2011