The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was yet again mired in confusion today (27 February) after the minister for disabled people failed to tell MPs that he had called a halt to most repeat “fitness for work” tests.
The decision was made in January, according to an “urgent” memo obtained by the Benefits and Work website through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The memo details how “routine” repeat work capability assessments (WCAs) were being deferred “until further notice” because of backlogs in the system.
But the memo makes it clear that – because this was an “operational” and not a “policy” decision – DWP had no plans to inform claimants, disability charities or MPs.
Mike Penning, the Conservative minister for disabled people, was even asked in parliament what measures he was taking to address the backlogs earlier this week – before the memo surfaced – but failed to take the opportunity to admit that he had halted routine repeat WCAs.
Today, during the Commons debate on the War On Welfare petition, Penning finally admitted the step he had taken, but tried to defend his failure to inform MPs earlier.
He said: “If we were to inform claimants and members of parliament about the minutiae of every single change in policy, we would be here a lot longer…”
Despite Penning admitting that the move was a policy decision, a DWP spokesman insisted later that it had been an “operational” matter.
The spokesman added: “We’re committed to ensuring that people have their claim assessed as quickly as possible and to a high standard.
“As we announced in the summer we will be bringing in additional provision to deliver work capability assessments with the aim of increasing delivery capacity and reducing waiting times.”
The decision to halt routine repeat WCAs should mean temporary relief from the assessment process for thousands of disabled people.
One of the key criticisms of the system has been that many disabled people find themselves fighting through the appeals system for the financial support they need, only to find that a successful appeal is followed almost immediately by a demand to attend another WCA.
The WCA memo was sent out by the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) head of health and disability assessments (operations), and dated 20 January 2014.
DWP has already announced that it is seeking a new company or companies to provide extra capacity to the WCA system – to work in parallel with the current provider, Atos Healthcare – but the memo says that it will “take some time for that to become fully operational”.
The memo says: “Controlling the volume of repeat Work Capability Assessments should help us to reduce delays for new claimants and those that have already been referred.”
But the memo adds that where there had been a “reported change in condition” – for example, someone who was likely to move into the ESA support group because their health condition had worsened – a repeat assessment would still take place.
Penning admitted during work and pensions questions in the Commons this week that the WCA process was now a “mess”.
He said: “The issues to do with the work capability assessment and the unacceptable backlog that Atos has built up over the years are due to capacity and quality.
“The quality, which was very poor earlier on, has been improved. That means that there is now a huge backlog, which is why we are currently in negotiations with Atos.”
Last week it was reported that ministers were working to ensure that other providers took over the contract from Atos in 2015, while Atos admitted that it had been negotiating with the government for an early release from its WCA contract.
27 February 2014