Concerns over criteria for ‘fitness for work’ reassessment exemptions

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Disabled campaigners have criticised new Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) rules that explain which benefit claimants will no longer have to be repeatedly put through the much-criticised “fitness for work” test.

DWP announced last month, on the eve of the Conservative party conference in Manchester, that some claimants in the support group of employment and support allowance (ESA) – and the equivalent universal credit group – would no longer need to attend “routine reassessments”.

Only those with “the most severe and lifelong health conditions or disabilities” will be exempt from reassessments, and they will be told of their exemption when they receive the results of their next work capability assessment (WCA), the test which assesses ESA eligibility.

Although DWP declined to release the eligibility criteria for exemptions, the guidelines have now been published by Disability Rights UK, one of the disability organisations that took part in discussions with the government as it developed the policy.

Among the new criteria, it states that a condition must be “lifelong” and “unambiguous” and that the claimant must have “no realistic prospect of recovery”, while their “level of function” must always meet the criteria for being placed in the support group.

The ruling on whether a claimant should be exempted from further reassessment will be made by DWP decision-makers, following advice from the healthcare professionals who carry out the WCA and work for the discredited US outsourcing company Maximus.

But DWP has made it clear that, although a claimant can ask the department to reconsider a decision not to provide an exemption if they believe their case has not been dealt with correctly, there is no formal right of appeal.

Ken Butler, DR UK’s welfare rights officer, said the refusal to introduce a right of appeal was not fair on disabled people, while the criteria failed to address the “fundamental problems” of the WCA.

He said: “The WCA causes stress, fear and anxiety to many disabled people and any effective reform to reduce this must be welcome.

“The previous longest gap between WCAs [for]those who will be included in the new policy was just three years.

“But it is an indictment of the DWP that it has taken a year for the new policy to be finalised and after nine years of the WCA being in operation.

“It’s still unclear how well the new policy will operate and how many disabled people will be exempted from further reassessment by the criteria.”

He added: “Disabled people would have more confidence in the WCA if assessments were carried out by doctors or specialists who had experience of their disability or health condition.”

Linda Burnip, a co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “It’s a typical government fudge which is basically meaningless and at best will only help a very few people avoid reassessments.

“The other really damning feature of this is it appears that a medically unqualified decision-maker will be able to overrule both GP and specialist advice and opinion.

“In short, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”

Tom Hendrie, head of policy and communications at Cheshire Centre for Independent Living, also raised concerns about the lack of a formal appeal structure, and said he hoped the exemption would eventually also be applied to those claiming personal independence payment.

John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said it was “absurd” that “unqualified bureaucrats” who were not medically-trained would be deciding whether someone should be exempt from reassessments.

He said: “It’s ridiculous. How on earth can they be trusted to make such important decisions?”

Meanwhile, DWP has released the names of the organisations which have been awarded contracts to provide employment support services under the government’s new Health and Work Programme.

The aim of the programme is to support disabled people, those who are long-term unemployed, and other groups such as ex-carers, ex-offenders, homeless people and those with drug or alcohol dependencies.

Although there were no contracts awarded to G4S or People Plus (formerly known as A4E) – two much-criticised companies that had been in the running – the contract to provide services across Wales was awarded to Remploy, the formerly government-owned business now mostly owned by the US company Maximus.

Maximus has a disturbing track record of discrimination, incompetence and fraud in the US, while Remploy slashed the pay of service-users who were taking part in inspections of health and care facilities, after taking on three Care Quality Commission contracts.

DNS revealed in May that disabled people helping to deliver a vital part of the CQC inspection programme were refused support workers by Remploy, while one was bullied into resigning.

CQC was forced to write “formally” to Remploy three times over its concerns, while a CQC report in May 2016 found there had been “multiple issues with Remploy’s performance”, although CQC said its performance later improved.

Remploy had been hit almost immediately by accusations of incompetence when it took on the CQC contracts in February last year, with claims of resignations and confusion.

DWP declined to release further details of the contracts, including the names of the smaller organisations that will be working as sub-contractors on the six contracts, which are expected to include a number of disability charities.

A DWP spokeswoman said: “The Work and Health Programme will use the expertise of private, public and voluntary and community sector providers to deliver sustained employment for disabled people, disadvantaged groups and the long-term unemployed.

“It brings a different and refreshed energy and approach by offering: more intensive, tailored support than can be provided by Jobcentre Plus; contacts so that providers can offer unique support to claimants; [and]strong links to national and local employers to identify employment needs, identify roles and provide more individual training to better match people’s skills to jobs.”

The other organisations to win contracts are the charity Shaw Trust in central England; Reed In Partnership in north-east England; Ingeus in the north-west; Pluss in the south of England; and Shaw Trust in the home counties.