Four months ago, the Commons work and pensions select committee called for “fundamental redesign” of the much-criticised process used to determine eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.
Although campaigners were disappointed that the committee did not go further and demand the work capability assessment (WCA) be scrapped, many welcomed the call for a major redesign of the process that decides eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA).
But today, the Conservative minister for disabled people, Mark Harper, said the government did not agree with the committee that the WCA was “a flawed mechanism for assessing a person’s functional capacity”.
His response to the committee’s report was published just four weeks after the coalition announced that US outsourcing giant Maximus would take over delivery of the WCA next year, despite its lengthy record of discrimination, incompetence and alleged fraud in the US.
Harper said the government wanted to “ensure a smooth transition to the new WCA provider, continuing to improve the experience of claimants going through the WCA process and continuing to improve the employment support we offer”.
But he did reveal that Maximus was expected to carry out one million WCAs in 2015-16, and 1.2 million in both 2016-17 and 2017-18.
And he announced three new pilot schemes that would be launched early in 2015, two of which aim to offer ESA claimants better support, with the third testing a new “claimant commitment” which would “focus claimants on their work-related requirements including, where appropriate, proactive work search that treats looking for work as a full-time activity”.
Ian Jones, one of the founders of the WOWcampaign, was among the disabled activists who were furious with the government’s response to the report.
He said it “beggars belief” that the minister for disabled people was still talking about the need for a “more joined-up approach across government so that individuals get the support they need”, months from the end of a five-year parliament.
Jones criticised the minister’s pledge to learn more about the support needs of claimants through the pilots, “as if this is some kind of earth-shattering insight that came to Mark Harper in a vision”.
He added: “It is in my opinion an abuse of human rights to [use] a process such as the WCA which employs a big stick to herd disabled people into paid employment when this government by its own admission does not have a clear handle on their support needs.”
Linda Burnip, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said Harper’s response seemed to be “just another case of the government doing whatever they want regardless of any advice or evidence which shows what they’re doing isn’t working”.
She said: “They ignore select committees, the judiciary who find against them, and continue to railroad through anything without pausing to think of the real consequences.”
Rick Burgess, co-founder of the campaigning organisation New Approach, which is dedicated to scrapping the WCA and developing a replacement, said Harper’s response had been the “meaningless words of a going-through-the-motions bureaucracy, that is now so remote from democratic oversight and real people’s experiences as to be insultingly farcical”.
Disabled researcher and campaigner Mo Stewart said the government’s response was “of deep concern”.
She criticised the “relentless talk about claimant commitment [and] job searching… with little more than a token comment regarding those in the support group who will never, ever be fit for work regardless of how many times they are reassessed or how much intimidation is used by the DWP”.
She added: “The death toll will rise as genuine chronically sick and disabled people are still forced to search for work when too ill to try.”
Pat Onions, founder of Pat’s Petition, said she had started to listen to Harper’s response to the report but “it was so dreadful I stopped”.
She said: “Basically he says, ‘Everyone is better working and we have ways of making you work.’ Only he doesn’t have any ways. He just has ways of scaring you or timing you off benefits.”
Meanwhile, Dr Paul Litchfield has published the fifth and final independent review of the WCA.
In his report for the government, he makes 28 recommendations for improvements, plus five targeted just at Northern Ireland.
But he concludes that the WCA needs “a period of stability”, because although it is “by no means perfect… there is no better replacement that can be pulled off the shelf”.
Litchfield says there have been “some undoubted improvements” to the WCA since its introduction under the Labour government in 2008, but there remains “an overwhelming negative perception of the WCA’s effectiveness amongst people undergoing an assessment and individuals or organisations providing support to them”.
In a recommendation likely to alarm many disabled campaigners, he calls on the government to investigate “as a matter of urgency” why there has been a substantial increase in the proportion of claimants placed in the ESA support group, for those with the highest support needs.
New figures released by the Department for Work and Pensions today, alongside Litchfield’s report, show the proportion of new ESA claimants placed in the support group has risen from six per cent in 2009 to 28 per cent in 2013, while the proportion found “fit for work” and ineligible for ESA has fallen from 54 per cent in 2009 to 34 per cent in 2013.
The figures also show that the proportion of new claimants who are not asked to attend a face-to-face WCA has risen from six per cent in 2009 to 28 per cent in 2013.
And in comments likely to concern disabled activists who have campaigned for years to reduce the harm and deaths caused by the WCA, he suggests that one of the reasons for the sharp increase in claimants placed in the support group could be the increased use of ESA regulation 35.
Regulation 35 states that a claimant should be placed in the ESA support group, rather than the work-related activity group (WRAG), if placing them in the WRAG would pose “a substantial risk” to their “mental or physical health”.
The user-led campaign group Black Triangle (BT) has been campaigning to force the British Medical Association to tell every GP in the country about the regulation, which BT believes could save lives if used more often.
27 November 2014