A committee of MPs has criticised campaigning charities for not doing more to promote the “opportunities” offered by the government’s controversial reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants, and for “fuelling anxiety” among disabled people.
The report, from the work and pensions committee, analyses the government’s programme to re-assess about 1.5 million claimants of “old-style” incapacity benefit (IB) by 2014, following the introduction of its replacement, employment and support allowance (ESA).
The report’s “central conclusion” is that the assessment process is failing the vital task of accurately assessing the “employability and needs in the workplace” of disabled claimants and feeding that information to providers of employment support under the new Work Programme.
The report says this failure is the “cause of much of the confusion and anxiety” around the test used to assess disabled people’s “fitness for work”, the work capability assessment (WCA).
It says the WCA was clearly flawed when introduced but had been improved, although further changes were still needed.
But the MPs on the committee also turned on disability and other organisations that have publicised widespread concerns about the WCA and for campaigning for the test to be improved.
The committee said it suggested to employment minister Chris Grayling that “organisations which represent people on benefits shared some of the responsibility for the negative attitude to the IB reassessment and for fuelling anxiety amongst claimants about the process”.
And it said those organisations “could contribute enormously to allaying the concerns about reassessments by giving equal weight to publicising the opportunities an effective assessment process could offer” in addition to their “important role in raising legitimate concerns”.
Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance, said there was a “very worrying trend of criticising disability charities for highlighting legitimate concerns”, which was “a little bit objectionable”.
He said: “Disability organisations supported reform and wanted to see more disabled people getting into work and that is not happening and the WCA is a big part of the problem.
“The evidence is clear: there are still problems with the WCA. We do not have an effective assessment so it is very difficult for disability organisations to maintain enthusiasm for a process that is failing the people we represent.”
Anne Kane, policy manager for Inclusion London, said she welcomed the report’s clear criticism of the WCA, but added: “Our view is that disabled people’s organisations, charities and the TUC are reflecting rightful anxiety about a test that is designed to lower the number of people receiving ESA.
“It’s not about getting people into work, the outcome is to get people off a certain level of benefit. The test is designed for that purpose.”
Lizzie Iron, head of welfare for Citizens Advice, said the charity had “consistently supported the high level aims to help more people into work”.
But she added: “The reason for our current messages is that the evidence we’ve seen so far indicates that the new benefit isn’t achieving the high level aims. When we see the system working, we will be very happy to promote its success.”
Dame Anne Begg, the disabled Labour MP who chairs the committee, which has a majority of coalition MPs, told Disability News Service that the report had included “mild criticism” of the charities but it had not intended to “undermine the really important work the charities do”.
She said: “They have the right to advocate, but they also have a role to play in ensuring the processes are improved and also what happens to those who are found fit for work.”
The committee said that both the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Atos Healthcare, which carries out the tests, had made “considerable efforts” to improve assessments, but the DWP “needs to do more to ensure that Atos treats claimants properly and that it produces accurate assessments”.
The report says the government should pay just as much attention to changing the attitudes of employers as it does to ensuring disabled claimants are “work ready”.
It also criticises Atos for continuing to hold many assessments in inaccessible buildings, and suggests the government should introduce a second provider to carry out WCAs after the reassessment process has ended in 2014, in order to “drive up performance through competition”.
28 July 2011