Disabled activists have accused the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of “deplorable” behaviour, after it tried – and failed – to delay legal attempts to reduce the discriminatory impact of its controversial “fitness for work” test.
A tribunal decided this week that the long-running case taken by two people with mental health conditions – DM and MM – should conclude with a three-day hearing on 7, 8 and 9 July.
The hearing should finally settle the question of how DWP must address the discrimination experienced by people with mental health conditions, learning difficulties and autism, because of flaws in the work capability assessment (WCA) process.
The assessment tests eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA), but thousands of people with mental distress have been found unfairly fit for work, and have had relapses, episodes of self-harm or suicide attempts as they pass through the WCA system.
The court of appeal ruled in December that the WCA placed DM and MM – and other people with mental health conditions, learning difficulties and autism – at a “substantial disadvantage” and that DWP should make “reasonable adjustments” to put this right.
But the case then had to return to the upper tribunal, which delivered the original ruling in the case, so that it could decide how to address that discrimination.
The two claimants believe that if an ESA applicant has a mental health condition, DWP or its contractors should obtain medical evidence from their doctor or psychiatric team at every stage of the process, or justify why they had not done so.
Their case has been driven by the Mental Health Resistance Network (MHRN), which was formed in 2010 by incapacity benefit (IB) claimants worried about the programme to use the WCA to assess their eligibility for ESA, which has gradually been replacing IB since 2008.
The network believes that the WCA process is nothing more than a “scam”.
An MHRN spokeswoman said: “The whole point of the WCA is to avoid at all costs looking at medical evidence.
“They don’t want a genuine and fair assessment The whole thing is a scam and they are fighting to keep that scam going.”
DWP had wanted the final hearing in the court case to take place at a later date so that it could pilot improvements to the test.
But this would have delayed the widespread introduction of any improvements until 2015, and possibly even after the next general election.
The three upper tribunal judges turned down DWP’s request and ruled that the case would be completed at the July hearing.
They also made it clear that they could not understand why Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative work and pensions secretary, had apparently done nothing to address the discrimination in the months since the court of appeal decision.
The network will hold a vigil outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Tuesday 8 July, from noon to 2pm, with support from Disabled People Against Cuts, and want as many people to join them as possible.
The MHRN spokeswoman said: “DWP have got away with a lot so far. I think they need to know that people are going to be keeping an eye on everything that they are doing.
“Few people are aware of this important judgment that the WCA puts people at a disadvantage.
“After all, outrageous lies about disabled benefit claimants have been shouted from the rooftops in much of the national press. Yet where have the front page headlines about this victory been? Nowhere!
“We now want to rectify this by making as much noise as possible about the truth: that the WCA does not fairly assess people with mental health problems and there has been terrible suffering as a result.”
A spokeswoman for DWP said it was unable to comment “until the court case is finished”.
22 May 2014