Disabled leaders have told MPs that there needs to be a fundamental overhaul of the “hostile”, “harmful” and “traumatic” system that assesses disabled people for their eligibility for benefits.
Members of the Commons work and pensions committee heard that the work capability assessment (WCA) and the assessment process for personal independence payment (PIP) fail to capture the barriers that disabled people face or their disability-related needs.
Tracey Lazard, chief executive of Inclusion London, told the committee that disabled people experience assessments as “a hostile, tick-box exercise that just crudely labels people” and causes harm to claimants.
Lazard said: “We definitely believe a fundamental overhaul is needed.
“Neither PIP or WCA actually accurately understand or capture the needs and the barriers that disabled people experience.”
She said the current process was “based on very medicalised descriptors”, and what was needed instead was a process “that understands the barriers that disabled people experience, the systematic barriers that discriminate and exclude us”.
Lazard said that disabled people’s organisations have reported that the medical evidence disabled people provide to DWP is ignored and their own evidence is not believed.
And she said that access to independent advice and advocacy at every stage of the assessment process was “absolutely vital”, but provision of those services was currently “really inadequate”.
She was also critical of the culture within DWP, where there was a lack of transparency about the reasonable adjustments the department was willing to make to ensure the assessment process was accessible to claimants.
She said: “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure that the DWP meets its duties under the Equality Act.”
Lazard said the current system was a “huge waste of money”, and she added: “We need to be open and transparent about the fact that we are not getting this right and we need to work with disabled people to get it right.”
Jane Hunt, chair of The Association of Disabled Professionals, said the healthcare professionals who carry out the assessments often fail to reflect what the disabled person has told them.
And she said that DWP needed to improve the accessibility of the assessment process, including allowing applications to be submitted online, although she warned that attention would need to be paid to the many disabled people who were digitally excluded.
She also warned that disabled people’s living costs were rising at a faster rate than benefits.
She told the committee: “I definitely think the WCA needs to be updated to reflect the modern era.”
She said: “I think all assessments should be recorded because some people have said that when they get the assessment report it’s totally different to [what they said] in the interview, and some parts of the report have been copied and pasted from another report.”
She said that recording all assessments* would be a “crucial” part of addressing this issue.
Catherine Hale, director of Chronic Illness Inclusion (CII), said people with energy-limiting conditions faced particular problems with how they were judged during face-to-face assessments.
Attending an assessment can often use up a claimant’s entire reserve of energy for a week “because of the physical effort of getting there, but also the mental effort of communicating”, she said.
She said the claimant’s behaviour or appearance during the assessment provided a “false impression of [their] capability because the assessor isn’t seeing the impact of the assessment and how incapacitated people are afterwards”.
Last December, CII published the results of a major survey of people with energy-limiting conditions, which revealed the “invalidation and disbelief” they faced from social security professionals and others.
Hale told the committee this week: “Virtually everyone we’ve spoken to through research has experienced a deterioration or a relapse in their health condition, in their physical health condition, as a result of the stress of the entire process, the worry and the fear leading up to it, the assessment itself and very often the appeals process they have to go through to get the benefits they need to live on.”
She spoke of the “trauma” caused in the assessment process by “being disbelieved and of your testimony being twisted and framed to imply that you’re lying”.
This was often happening at a time of “acute financial insecurity” in people’s lives, she said.
Hale said that the “constant financial insecurity, knowing that you’re going to be reassessed constantly – and it all depends on whether your assessor tells the truth or not, as to whether maybe you’ll be able to keep your home – all these factors combine to create huge, huge amounts of stress and anxiety.”
She added: “We invariably see people’s health deteriorating and actually they are moving further away from the labour market than they might have been otherwise if the process had been supportive rather than hostile.”
*Some assessments are already recorded
Picture: Jane Hunt (left), Tracey Lazard and Catherine Hale (right)
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