A new report has called for the “toxic” work capability assessment (WCA) to be scrapped and replaced with something that paints a more realistic picture of the barriers disabled people face in society.
The Rethinking the Work Capability Assessment report, by academics at the Universities of Kent and Durham, argues that the next government should abandon continuing efforts to make “minor tweaks” to the WCA and instead replace it with some kind of “real world assessment”.
A real world assessment would look at factors such as a person’s age, skills and work experience, and the availability of jobs locally, to build up a picture of which jobs they could realistically carry out.
The report, published by Demos and authored by Ben Baumberg, Jon Warren, Kayleigh Garthwaite and Clare Bambra, looked at Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, which have all introduced variations of real world assessments.
They say in the report that the WCA – which tests eligibility for the out-of-work disability benefit, employment and support allowance (ESA) – is “widely seen to be failing” and that it “simply does not assess claimants’ capability for work” because it “assigns points to functional impairments, but never considers whether there are any actual jobs that a claimant could do”.
They add: “Nor does it directly consider whether a person can undertake work-related activity, or the employment support that a person might need. It is a standardised test, but one that consistently measures the wrong thing.”
They conclude that a “real world” assessment is possible, although it is “almost impossible” to assess accurately the success of incapacity tests used in other countries.
Ellen Clifford, a member of the steering group of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “Evidence to show that an assessment that takes into consideration social factors and employability as opposed to functionality is much needed.
“This report supports the case that it is eminently possible to scrap the WCA and replace it with something more appropriate and fit for purpose, not to mention fairer for disabled people.”
But she warned that “forces that seek to redefine disability in the interest of profit” – through the “pernicious” biopsychosocial model, the bedrock of the WCA – were now trying to “export” functionality-based assessments to other countries mentioned in the report, like New Zealand and Canada.
She said the report was an “admirable attempt to halt the trend” of countries adopting functionality-based assessments, but that “given the power of the forces we are up against we also need to continue fighting it every way we can”.
Stef Benstead, lead researcher on the Beyond the Barriers report – which examined the failings of the ESA system and the Work Programme for disabled people, on behalf of the Spartacus campaign network, said: “I’m glad that this work has been carried out by such a good team of researchers.
“It’s clearly useful to have information on other approaches to incapacity assessment and this report shows that not only are there alternatives to the WCA approach, but that these alternatives are likely to be better.
“What we need now is more detailed analysis of a few countries, such as the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, from whom the UK can learn by good example.
“I hope that whatever government we have in May will take this forward as a matter of great importance and urgency.”
Kate Green, shadow minister for disabled people, said it was her party’s policy to reform but not scrap the WCA, which was introduced by the last Labour government in 2008.
But she said the report was “interesting”, and “echoes Labour’s own approach to reform of the WCA”.
She said: “Labour’s plan to ensure that everyone who undergoes a work capability assessment will receive a statement of how their condition or impairment impacts on their capacity for work, and the offer of support in a dedicated employment programme for disabled people to replace the failing Work Programme, will mean the system is better designed to identify incapacity in relation to employment and address wider support needs, including education and skills.”