The government has announced the name of the man who will continue the crucial task of reviewing its “fitness for work” test.
Dr Paul Litchfield will replace Professor Malcolm Harrington, who published his third and final annual review of the work capability assessment (WCA) in November.
Litchfield is chief medical officer and director of health, safety and wellbeing for BT, and his areas of expertise include the impact that mental ill-health can have on job prospects.
But Litchfield will be reviewing an assessment he played a part in creating.
He was a member of the mental health technical working group that was set up in 2006 by the Labour government as part of its plans to “transform” the personal capability assessment (PCA), which tested eligibility for incapacity benefit (IB).
He was also a member of a working group set up by Labour to help replace the PCA with the WCA, as part of the move from IB to employment and support allowance, the new out-of-work disability benefit.
He is also the joint author of a report for the Labour government on mental health and employment. His co-authors were Rachel Perkins, now chair of Equality 2025, the government’s advisory network of disabled people, and Paul Farmer, chief executive of the mental health charity Mind.
Litchfield said he was “pleased and honoured” to be asked to continue Harrington’s work, and added: “Most of my career has been devoted to trying to help people with physical and mental health problems in the context of employment.
“Any assessment not only has to be fair but must be perceived as being fair and I hope that I can continue the process of improving the work capability assessment.”
Farmer welcomed Litchfield’s appointment, and said his former colleague had “a wealth of knowledge and experience in the fields of occupational and mental health”.
But he said: “Although the previous reviews by Professor Harrington have made a number of recommendations which have been implemented to improve the WCA, there are still some key problems with the assessment for people with mental health problems that have been highlighted but have yet to be addressed.
“We look forward to working with Dr Litchfield in his new role to drive forward the implementation of existing recommendations as well as collaborating on identifying and correcting outstanding issues with the WCA.”
Neil Coyle, director of policy and campaigns for Disability Rights UK, said he was concerned with the areas Litchfield would look at in the fourth review.
He said: “The review has to be focused on improving the ‘user’ experience, cutting avoidable appeals and helping disabled people into work.”
Harrington concluded in December that progress in improving the WCA had been “slower than hoped for”, but insisted that he had not heard or seen any “compelling arguments or evidence” that the whole system should be scrapped.
Many disabled activists were critical of his failure to be more hard-hitting in his three reviews, particularly over the performance of Atos Healthcare, which carries out the assessments.
In the same month that Harrington published his final report, two evidence-based reports by disabled activists were far more critical about the WCA system.
The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment found disabled people were still experiencing humiliating and inappropriate treatment because of failings embedded within the WCA.
And a survey of more than 700 people by Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) revealed the “tricks, barriers and bullying tactics” being used to prevent disabled people having their WCAs recorded by Atos.
The DPAC report said there was “a clear theme” of individual claimants who viewed the WCA as a “war-like situation for their survival”.
Mark Hoban, the Conservative employment minister, said in a statement: “Dr Litchfield brings with him a huge amount of expertise and experience, so I am very pleased that he will be carrying out this review.
“We have already made considerable improvements to the work capability assessment, so this is a great opportunity to build on the progress made so far.”
28 February 2013