The government has made it easier – at least in the short term – for disabled benefit claimants to insist that their “fitness for work” test is recorded, but it appears to have taken weeks to admit the rule change.
Ministers introduced a new right for claimants to request that their work capability assessment (WCA) is recorded following a recommendation made in 2010 by their independent reviewer of the tests, Professor Malcolm Harrington.
The recommendation came after claimants repeatedly complained that “healthcare professionals” were failing to provide an accurate record of the evidence they were given during the assessments.
But the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) then introduced a rule that stated that if Atos Healthcare – which carries out the WCAs – could not offer a recorded test within four weeks, the assessment should go ahead without being recorded.
Now a Freedom of Information Act request has revealed that DWP has removed this four-week “safeguard”, which it says “will enable us to gather a fuller picture of demand and capacity in order to inform a full and robust evaluation” of how recording is working.
This “evaluation” is likely to be published this autumn.
Debbie Jolly, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), said: “Just last week we had an email from someone who had booked for a recording, only to be told when they arrived that there wasn’t anyone available that could use the machine.
“We need to find out what the DWP is trying to achieve with [the removal of this] new unpublicised ‘safeguard’. The claim that they want to assess demand doesn’t wash if they keep quiet about it.”
She added: “We know there is demand, we know that some think the assessment will go against them if they ask for a recording, some think they won’t get a recording so don’t ask, and that many don’t even know they can ask for a recording in the first place.
“That’s without the various tactics that seem to be employed in preventing a recording that is requested.”
A survey carried out by DPAC last year showed that 98.5 per cent of 733 respondents agreed that a recording would provide a better account of the WCA.
John Slater, from the Midlands, who was forced to covertly record his own WCA because of regulations that were in place at the time, said it was vital to pass the information about the removal of the four-week limit to claimants.
He said: “If they were genuine about wanting to make it more open and really test it, as a minimum they would have put the information on their website [before yesterday]. If you don’t know about it, it’s going to be of no use whatsoever.”
Slater said he found it easier to challenge what was said about him in his WCA – he was originally found fit for work – because of his covert recording, and that DWP had backed down without a tribunal being necessary because of the strength of his evidence.
He said: “Rightly or wrongly, society places a certain element of trust in doctors and nurses…. The only way you can say, ‘I didn’t say that,’ is to have an audio recording.”
Any evidence that suggests there is strong demand for the recording of assessments and that it improves the quality of those tests, could also help disabled people about to be assessed for the new personal independence payment (PIP).
If the evaluation of WCA recording provides evidence “in support of a more proactive approach”, DWP says it will review the arrangements for recording PIP assessments.
Even though Capita, one of the successful bidders for the PIP assessment contracts, had proposed offering a recording to any claimant who asked for one – something not offered by Atos, which won the other PIP contracts – DWP told Capita this would not be allowed, at least until it had seen further evidence from the WCA evaluation.
A DWP spokesman said the decision to remove the four-week safeguard was taken “in spring 2013”, but he refused to give the date.
He also refused to explain why DWP removed the four-week rule but then failed to publicise this decision.
Updated information about audio recording of WCAs – which includes the decision to remove the four-week limit – was added to the government’s website yesterday (6 June), a day after Disability News Service had questioned DWP about its failure to publicise the removal of the four-week “safeguard”.
The DWP information also reveals that requests to have an assessment recorded have increased.
According to the newly-updated policy: “Atos Healthcare will make every effort [to] accommodate requests for recorded assessments in good time.
“However, it may mean that claimants have to wait longer than normal for their assessment. This might slow down the benefit process but will not [affect] entitlement to benefit.”
6 June 2013