The former government adviser who carried out three independent reviews of the controversial work capability assessment (WCA) has told MPs that the test is “not working” and must be made more “humane”.
Professor Malcolm Harrington also made a string of damaging accusations about the way the system for assessing disabled people’s “fitness for work” had been managed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
His evidence will add to pressure on the next government to replace the WCA with a more sensitive, humane and rights-friendly system.
Harrington, who was giving evidence to MPs on the Commons work and pensions select committee, chaired by the disabled Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, said: “It’s not working. It has to be more humane, and it has to be more individual-focused.”
Harrington, who conducted his reviews between 2010 and 2012, was giving evidence as part of the committee’s inquiry into the WCA and the out-of-work disability benefit, employment and support allowance (ESA).
At one point in the evidence session, Harrington accused DWP of being “infantile” and delivering a “ludicrous” response to an improvement suggested by his successor, Dr Paul Litchfield.
And he claimed that during his time as the independent WCA reviewer, he repeatedly – and unsuccessfully – asked DWP to force improvements from the private contractor that conducts the tests, Atos Healthcare.
He said: “My brief was not to tell Atos what to do. My brief was to tell the department that they ought to get Atos to do it better, and I kept saying that, and they didn’t, and when they did lean on them, they walked away.
“There was a reluctance to push them too hard, for whatever reason.”
He also accused DWP of losing enthusiasm for implementing his recommendations, during the second of his three years in post.
After an initial surge of enthusiasm, “inertia” set in, he said, while the dedicated team in Leeds that were driving through his recommendations was “disbanded or downgraded”.
Harrington said his “guess” was that many of his recommendations were “slowed up” by DWP for financial reasons.
And he said that the frequency with which many claimants were being repeatedly reassessed – a major criticism of campaigners, who have described the system as a “revolving-door” for many disabled people – was “illogical” and was failing to take people’s individual conditions into account.
He also accused DWP of ignoring the need to improve how people with fluctuating conditions were dealt with by the system.
Harrington also made a number of suggestions for how the WCA could be improved, or replaced.
He told the MPs that the government should restrict face-to-face assessments to a much smaller group of claimants, a suggestion that is likely to infuriate Conservative ministers such as work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who have repeatedly demanded stricter and more frequent face-to-face assessments for disability benefits.
Harrington suggested a new “triage” system, which would narrow claimants down to a small “middle” group who needed one-to-one assessments because their cases were more complex, probably from assessors with some specialism in particular impairments or health conditions.
He also agreed with Dame Anne that there was a case for introducing two tests: a cheaper and more basic test to decide benefit eligibility, and another to look at an individual’s actual employability.
He said ministers had never really decided what they wanted to do with the middle group of people who were not currently “fit for work” but might be in the future.
And he suggested that the assessments should be carried out by voluntary organisations, rather than the private sector.
He said: “You would still have a work capability assessment, you just wouldn’t use necessarily a standard, automated, IT-based system run by outside contractors.”
He added: “It doesn’t appear to me that the people who are doing it as a private contract are necessarily doing a good job.”
Harrington was also critical of the work carried out by Atos.
He said that the quality of the assessors employed by the company was “very patchy”.
And he said he knew a nurse who had been told by Atos that she should not work for the company as an assessor because she cared too much for people, and “we are not here to care for people, we are here to process people”.
Since the WCA was first introduced in 2008, hundreds of thousands of ESA applicants have been found unfairly fit for work, and while many have gone on to win appeals, many others have been unable to cope with the appeals process, or have experienced health relapses, with some resorting to self-harm and suicide attempts.
15 May 2014