The third annual review of the government’s “fitness for work” assessment process has received a cool response from disabled activists.
The report was the third carried out by Professor Malcolm Harrington – and his last before being replaced – and concluded that there had been “real progress” towards making the work capability assessment (WCA) more “humane, sensitive, accurate and efficient”.
Harrington accepted that “progress has been slower that hoped for”, but said he had “not seen or heard any compelling arguments or evidence that the whole system should be scrapped”.
He said there needed to be a period of “consolidation and monitoring”, although he called for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to monitor “more closely” the performance of the much-criticised Atos Healthcare, which carries out the assessments, which test eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits.
Harrington said that implementation of his previous recommendations for improving the face-to-face assessments – the part of the WCA that has caused most anger among disabled campaigners – appeared to be “patchy”, while DWP staff frequently complained of “the variability in the quality of Atos performance”.
He noted that there had been frequent claims of “rude and unwelcoming healthcare professionals”, and reports showing “incorrect details” with “important points omitted”, and assumptions made about a claimant’s impairment.
Recent evidence-based reports by disabled activists have continued to find even more serious concerns about the WCA system.
Only last week, The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment found disabled people still experiencing humiliating and inappropriate treatment because of the failings embedded within the WCA.
And this week, a survey of more than 700 people by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) reveals the “tricks, barriers and bullying tactics” being used to prevent disabled people having their WCAs recorded by Atos.
The DPAC report says that “a clear theme throughout was the tenacity of individuals who viewed the WCA assessments as a war-like situation for their survival”, with Atos scoring an average 1.99 out of 15 for its performance.
The disabled activist Sam Barnett-Cormack, who tweets at [email protected]_sam, said that although Harrington had “declined to criticise the functioning of the WCA as much as it deserved, he still reported that people are suffering, and he still asked for important changes”.
He highlighted Harrington’s call for the DWP’s “decision-makers” to “actively consider the need to seek further documentary [medical] evidence in every claimant’s case”, and be forced to justify their decision if they choose not to do so.
Barnett-Cormack said that because the government had accepted this recommendation “provisionally”, if it could be done in a “cost effective fashion”, it was “vital” that they “don’t find some way to wriggle out of it”.
Another disabled activist, David Gillon, who tweets at @WTBDavidG, said he believed there had been a “noticeable change in tone” in how Harrington referred to criticisms of the assessment by disabled claimants, from “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they” in year one, to now saying the experiences of claimants were disturbing.
RNIB said it was “disappointed” with Harrington’s recommendations, which were “not specific enough to deal with the crux of the problems the assessment creates, not just for the people going through it but even for those who operate it”.
The charity also raised concerns about medical evidence and said there had been “no commitment by the government to cover the cost experienced by a claimant in obtaining a medical opinion from their GP or specialist consultant on their suitability for work”.
Stephen Timms MP, Labour’s shadow employment minister, accused the government of “dragging its feet” in implementing Harrington’s previous recommendations.
He said: “There clearly are very serious problems, particularly around [assessing people with] fluctuating conditions and mental health problems.
“Recommendations have been made by the charities about what should be done and there is just no real movement.”
The government welcomed Harrington’s report and said there was “no evidence to suggest that the system is fundamentally unsound”.
It added: “Equally we acknowledge that the WCA still attracts criticism, and although the system as a whole is on the right lines, too many individuals are finding the process more challenging than it should be, and that there is more hard work to be done to consolidate and strengthen the improvements that are emerging.”
22 November 2012