The government must improve “every stage” of the much-criticised assessment that tests eligibility for out-of-work disability benefits to make it “fairer and more effective”, according to a long-awaited independent review.
The publication of the review of the work capability assessment (WCA), led by Professor Malcolm Harrington, was broadly welcomed by disability organisations. They said his report substantiated the serious concerns about the test raised by disabled people since its introduction in 2008.
In his report, Harrington said the WCA – which tests eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit (IB) – was “mechanistic, impersonal and lacks empathy”, while officials were failing to communicate with claimants.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said it accepted all of Harrington’s recommendations, which should make the WCA “fairer and more effective” and reduce the number of appeals against unsuccessful ESA claims.
But a DWP spokesman said they could not estimate the impact of the changes on the number of people found fit for work after being tested.
In his report, Harrington said widespread complaints about how the assessments were carried out by healthcare professionals from the private company Atos Healthcare “must be taken seriously”.
He said poor communication played a part in “poor decision making and a high rate of appeals”, while written communication needed to be “clearer” and “less threatening”.
Among 25 recommendations for improvements, Harrington called for more “empathy” from Jobcentre Plus, and each claimant to receive a personalised summary of the recommendations made by their Atos assessor, with a pilot scheme to test audio recording of assessments.
He also said that “mental, intellectual and cognitive champions” should be introduced in each medical assessment centre to help with assessing people with mental health conditions, learning difficulties and cognitive impairments.
And he said there should be less weight placed on the recommendations by Atos assessors, while the Jobcentre Plus staff who make the final decisions on claims should be “empowered to make an independent and considered decision”.
The disability poverty charity Disability Alliance (DA) welcomed Harrington’s work, but said the test itself remained “unfit for work”.
DA said that new changes to the WCA tabled by the government in August would make the test even tougher, leading to more disabled people “routinely having their needs unmet” through being found fully fit for work.
Neil Coyle, DA’s director of policy, said the government’s reaction to Harrington’s review “falls short of reassuring disabled people that the ‘fitness for work’ test will be made fit for work”.
“Thousands of disabled people will remain inadequately served by the test and inappropriately directed to insufficient support.
“Costs to taxpayers will continue to rise through high numbers of avoidable appeals and DWP incurring avoidable costs.”
Harrington has already been asked to carry out the second of five annual reviews of the WCA next year, and plans to concentrate on areas such as how the test assesses people with fluctuating conditions.
He has already asked experts from Mind, Mencap and the National Autistic Society to examine the parts of the test used to assess claimants with mental health conditions or learning difficulties. They are due to report back later this month.
25 November 2010