Work and pensions ministers have been accused of another attempt to avoid improving the safety of its “fitness for work” test for benefit claimants with mental health conditions.
A year after ministers told a tribunal – following a lengthy judicial review – that it would test ways to make the work capability assessment (WCA) safer by collecting medical evidence about each claimant from their doctor and psychiatrist, the promised pilot project has still not been launched.
DWP’s efforts to avoid taking steps to improve the safety of the WCA – by ensuring that all the necessary evidence is gathered before a decision on a claim for out-of-work disability benefits is taken – stretch back all the way to April 2010.
Six years ago, coroner Tom Osborne wrote to DWP to express concerns that it did not automatically seek further medical evidence from a claimant’s GP or psychiatrist if they had a mental health condition, following an inquest into the death of Stephen Carré in January 2010.
DWP finally unearthed a draft response to Osborne’s letter last month, but it has all but admitted that it was never sent to the coroner.
Four years later, in 2014, another letter was sent to DWP by a coroner, raising the same concerns and making almost identical recommendations, this time following the death of Michael O’Sullivan, from north London.
And almost exactly one year ago today, after the upper tribunal administrative appeals chamber ruled that the WCA discriminated against some people with mental health conditions, DWP promised to work with Maximus – the discredited US outsourcing giant that had just taken over the WCA contract from Atos – to develop a pilot programme to test new ways of collecting further medical evidence.
But that pilot project has still not begun.
In January, DWP told lawyers from The Public Law Project, who represented the two claimants who took the judicial review case, that it had been working with Maximus on a “feasibility study”, which had to be completed before the work could begin.
A spokeswoman for the Mental Health Resistance Network, which was behind the judicial review which tribunal case, said the aim of the pilot project would be to find a “reasonable” way to remedy the discrimination faced by claimants with mental health conditions.
But she said: “All we are getting back is ‘they are in discussion, they are in discussion.’”
The network is planning a campaign to demand that if and when DWP eventually launches the pilot project, the government is completely transparent in how it is carried out.
But the MHRN spokeswoman said she feared the government would conduct the pilot in such a way that would make it look as if gathering further medical evidence was an “unreasonable” adjustment to make under the Equality Act.
She also said she was “shocked and disgusted” that DWP had never informed their lawyers about the existence of the Stephen Carré coroner’s letter, or – later on in the case – the Michael O’Sullivan letter.
She said: “They withheld very significant evidence from that court case.”
DWP repeatedly refused this week to confirm that the pilot project has yet to start.
A DWP spokesman said the government began work with Maximus in December to “develop new and better processes for people with mental health conditions”.
When DNS asked for further clarity, he then added: “We started testing new processes with [Maximus] in December.
“We will analyse the findings once we’ve completed this work and then make a decision concerning the next steps.”
When DNS asked again whether this meant the pilot project had not begun, he said: “The testing is a key part of this process, which is currently on-going.”
DNS asked yet again whether this meant that the pilot had not yet started, he said: “As previously stated, work has already begun on this with initial testing starting in December.”
But DNS has since seen a letter from a DWP lawyer to The Public Law Project, which states that the work that began in December related to “a small-scale feasibility test” and not the “larger-scale pilot”.
This letter states that the test is “likely to take three to four months, following which the result will be evaluated and the learning and improvements suggested by the feasibility test will be incorporated into the proposed process to be tested in a larger-scale pilot”.