Harrington accuses minister over ‘fitness for work’ test


newslatestThe government’s own independent reviewer warned ministers that the controversial “fitness for work” test was not ready to be rolled out to hundreds of thousands of people on long-term incapacity benefit (IB), Disability News Service (DNS) can reveal.

Professor Malcolm Harrington, who conducted three independent reviews of the work capability assessment (WCA) from 2010 to 2012, confirmed the warning in an email exchange with a leading disabled campaigner.

The emails should prove hugely embarrassing for the government, as the former employment minister Chris Grayling – now the justice secretary – always insisted that Harrington gave his blessing for the test to be rolled out to IB claimants from 2011.

Grayling told MPs last year that Harrington – after completing his first review – told him: “I believe the system is in sufficient shape for you to proceed with incapacity benefit reassessment.”

But in an email conversation with the leading disabled blogger and campaigner Sue Marsh – which he gave her permission to publish – Harrington vehemently denied ever giving his approval for the rollout.

He told her: “I NEVER – repeat – NEVER agreed to the IB migration. I would have preferred that it be delayed but by the time I said that, the political die had been cast. I then said that I would review progress of that during my reviews. The decision was political. I could not influence it. IS THAT CRYSTAL CLEAR?”

In the first review, published in late 2010, Harrington had concluded that the WCA was “mechanistic, impersonal and lacks empathy”, and that the government must improve “every stage” of it to make it “fairer and more effective”.

In the wake of that review, disability organisations called on the government to postpone the programme to reassess an estimated 1.6 million people who were still claiming old-style IB.

But Grayling ploughed ahead with the national “migration”, even starting it in February 2011, several weeks earlier than planned, insisting that Harrington had approved the rollout.

Marsh writes today in her blog: “Iain Duncan Smith and others took the decision to push nearly two million people through a failing test as quickly as possible.

“Presumably, in order that they could remove as many people as possible from the benefit whether they needed it or not.”

She adds: “To have taken the decision through incompetence is bad enough, but if it was taken deliberately and cynically, I can only hope the responsible ministers will be held to account.”

In the three years since the first Harrington review was published, she and other  campaigners and activists have raised increasing concerns about the WCA.

Hundreds of thousands of claimants have been found unfairly fit for work, and while many have gone on to win appeals against these decisions, some have been unable to cope with the appeals process, or have experienced health relapses, with some resorting to self-harm and suicide attempts.

The publication of the email exchange came as Harrington’s replacement, Dr Paul Litchfield, published his first review of the WCA, while an anonymous disabled activist published her own version.

The author of the second People’s Review of the WCA says the test continues to cause “stress, anxiety and far worse”, while the accounts of claimants’ experiences of the assessment included in the report show the “frightening and inhuman treatment” people are having to endure.

As well as accounts of some of the many deaths connected with the WCA or loss of benefits, her report also includes criticisms of the WCA by MPs, welfare advisers and doctors, as well as pages of accounts of disabled people who have experienced anxiety, despair and hardship through their experience of the assessment.

12 December 2013