#dpac #atos #workfare #commentisfree #dwp #werspartacus
First Delegated Legislation Committee
Employment and Support Allowance (Limited Capability for Work and Limited Capability for Work-Related Activity) (Amendment) Regulations 2011
Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab):
I will begin, though, by asking the Minister why it has taken so long for the Committee to sit. The regulations were made on 8 February and debated in the other place in the middle of March, and they came into force at the end of March, so they have now been in force for two and a half months. I would be genuinely interested to know why we are debating them only now.
The first of the mandated independent reviews, conducted by Professor Harrington, produced its report last November. I am pleased that the Government have accepted all its recommendations. However, this is where things start to get a little difficult. There have been two reviews, not one: the internal review and the independent review. Their conclusions are different. Professor Harrington, who conducted the independent review, has commented on the conclusions of the internal review. Speaking last month to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, he said:
“I have heard nothing but criticism of the changes to the descriptors, admittedly from the groups who represent those particular people with those particular disabilities. I was not part of the internal review”.
Professor Harrington’s report of the views of the groups that represent disabled people is undoubtedly accurate. It is clearly the perception of the majority of the disability organisations that the changes to the descriptors that are before us ought not to have gone forward, or at least not at this time.
why did the Government press ahead with making the changes now, against the clearly expressed wishes of Professor Harrington, whom the Government had charged with carrying out the independent review? The remit of the Harrington review was broader than that of the Department’s internal review, and he identified a number of changes needed in how the work capability assessment worked, rather than solely in the descriptors. His review recommended that Mind, Mencap and, I believe, the National Autistic Society should look at the descriptors affecting people with mental health conditions and report back to the review. It also recommended that the second year of the review should address the wider question of the suitability of the descriptors.
I note that the Social Security Advisory Committee, in its 23rd report, questioned whether
“the WCA in its present form could be said to be working satisfactorily.”
Why have the Government pressed ahead with the changes now, contrary to the wishes of Professor Harrington?
Jenny Willott (Cardiff Central) (LD):
Given the rhetoric about some of the Government’s proposals, the Government seem to be painted as mean, nasty people who are trying to take benefits away from poor, disabled people, but proposals are in place that clearly show that that is just not true.
[Just goes to show that even when disabled people are committing suicide there is no integrity from the Liberal Democrats although, to be fair, she voted against Tuition Fee rises. She is now in the Whips Office]
Complaints have also been received about assessment centres not being wheelchair accessible. Carrying out assessments in such buildings on people with a range of physical and mental disabilities is, frankly, ridiculous, and claimants who are entering into the assessment process feel that that is not fair and that they are not being valued as individuals.
I am sure that what the Minister has said about Professor Harrington’s recommendations is correct, but the professor says that the Department knew that he would have preferred a delay until his recommendations could be implemented. Is that incorrect? Did the Department not know?
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Chris Grayling): [A proven liar]
All I can say is that I have had a number of meetings with Professor Harrington and at no stage did he make any such recommendation.
The other element was what we do about people who have a disability but have adapted to that disability. The internal review commissioned by the previous Administration made a proposal on that. The previous Secretary of State said:
“The revised assessment will for example take better account of an individual’s ability to adapt to their condition and introduce improved assessment of fluctuating conditions.”—[Official Report, 29 March 2010; Vol. 508, c. 88WS.]
The adaptation point is crucial. Let me deal with that straight away to respond to a couple of the questions raised by the right hon. Member for East Ham. Essentially, under the work capability assessment before these changes, a Paralympic athlete with a university degree and previous work experience would, if they had lost their job and were on benefits and applied to go on to ESA, have no obligation to look for work, because they would automatically be put into the work-related activity group.
If someone is in the work-related activity group, they have an obligation to take part in work preparation activities; they have no obligation to look for a job. That is an important difference. I could spend the rest of my life doing work preparation activities, but I would have no obligation to put in a job application.
[Is this really as farcical as it sounds? Theoretically spending 20 years writing CV’s and being patronised?]
Every Atos centre is accessible by wheelchair, but there are rules relating to the ability to escape in the case of fire—for instance, people who go to the top floor in the lift have to be able to get out of the building. Atos has taken steps to ensure that suitable arrangements are in place at its centres, but it is going further than that, by looking to relocate centres to the ground floor, so the impact will be reduced still further. However, I share the hon. Lady’s view.
I have had a couple of meetings with Atos, at which views were firmly expressed, and I am confident that there will be rapid improvement. I am surprised that such conditions were not written into the original contract when it was set up three years ago, but we are moving to rectify the situation.
The Minister has been extremely generous and helpful in his remarks. I wish to press him a little about mental health descriptors. He has explained that the matter is rather difficult and that the tuning has turned it into something different, but roughly what timescale does he envisage before the changes that will result from the process can be made?
The honest truth is that I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman a clear answer this afternoon. Such changes will take place as soon as is practical. I genuinely do not know when because we are still working on how best to respond. I shall be happy to write to him and let him know as soon as I have a definitive answer. It is of no interest to us to delay matters, so we shall move on as quickly as we can. However, I do not want to give the right hon. Gentleman a definitive answer now without being absolutely clear about the time line, but that it will be as soon as possible is an absolute commitment.
FAIR AND ACCURATE ASSESSMENT
Work and Pensions Committee – Sixth Report
The role of incapacity benefit reassessment in helping claimants into employment The published report was ordered by the House of Commons to be printed 13 July 2011.
18. We support the Government’s objectives of helping people with disabilities and long-term health conditions to move back into work, whilst continuing to provide adequate support for people who have limited capability for work or are unable to work. However, the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated and nor should the level of anxiety which currently surrounds the process. A suspicion persists that the only objective of the Government is to save money. The Government must be proactive in explaining its aims and spreading the positive messages about the benefits of work and the support which is available to find work, and in engaging employers. It is vital that the Government’s objectives are firmly supported by the reassessment process, and by the WCA in particular, but at the moment we are not completely convinced that it does this. Our report focuses on the changes we would like to see to help ensure that this happens in practice.
34. The message which the Government sends to claimants involved in the reassessment process should be clear and simple: if the assessment process correctly finds someone fit for work, that is a successful and desirable outcome. However, we believe that the Government also needs to take greater steps to reassure claimants. It needs to explain that being found “fit for work” does not equate to denial or disbelief about the existence of an illness or health condition: rather the condition is acknowledged but its impact has been assessed as not being so serious as to prevent the person from returning to work at some point in the future.
35. We believe that the language currently used to describe the outcome of the WCA is a barrier to the Government’s objectives for the reassessment being properly communicated. The idea that a claimant has “failed” the assessment if they are found fully capable of work risks negating the positive messages which the Government is trying to convey. It needs to be addressed across the board and to include all communications between claimants and DWP staff, especially Jobcentre Plus staff who tell claimants the outcome of the process, and Atos Healthcare employees who may explain the process to claimants. We also believe that the communications need to explain clearly and at every stage of the process that, where someone is found not fit for work, they will be eligible to receive ESA at the support rate.
120. We welcome the improvements to the WCA which have resulted from the Harrington Review and the lessons learned from the reassessment trials. However, we believe that the Government needs to do more to clarify whether the purpose of the WCA is to be an eligibility test for benefits or whether it is a diagnostic test to assess a person’s ability to work. It is not yet clear whether it is quite achieving either of these effectively.
122. Any new employability test must effectively link into the employment support available under the Work Programme. We recommend that Professor Harrington also includes Work Programme providers and sub-contractors in the work he is undertaking to try to design an assessment that identifies a claimant’s workplace capabilities and needs.
129. We welcome Professor Harrington’s central recommendation on the need to strengthen the role of Jobcentre Plus decision-makers in the reassessment process. There are signs that decision-making is already improving and this needs to be reinforced by ensuring that all the supporting information from the claimant is available to the decision-maker at the time the decision is made. To facilitate this, it is important to ensure that claimants are able to submit medical reports, but GP charges for this service put it beyond the reach of some claimants. We recommend that the Government considers how to address the problem of charges acting as a barrier to the full range of medical information being available to decision-makers.
146. The high number of appeals for new ESA claims is a cause of concern. The estimated cost to the public purse is £50 million per annum. The pressure on the Tribunals Service has also resulted in a significant delay for claimants before appeals are heard, causing stress and anxiety for claimants and their families.
151. It is not acceptable that some claimants have to go through the entire assessment process again shortly after their appeal without any of the information from the appeal being passed on to JCP and Atos Healthcare. This is a waste of resources and causes unnecessary stress and anxiety for claimants and their families.
201. In almost all of the discussion of the Government’s plans, the emphasis is on getting the claimant ready to go back to work. However, the Government will only achieve this laudable aim if employers are willing to employ someone who might have been on incapacity benefit and out of work for some time and who might still have substantial health issues. This will require a great deal of co-operation and change of attitude from many employers. Providers of employment support have a crucial role to play in building relationships with employers so that they can gain trust and an understanding of the challenges and benefits of employing former benefit claimants. However, it is also the Government’s responsibility to engage in changing attitudes and spreading good practice amongst employers. The Government must pay as much attention to this side of the “back to work” equation as it does to getting the claimant “work ready”
Treat with Respect
5. Sections of the media routinely use pejorative language, such as “work-shy” or “scrounger”, when referring to incapacity benefit claimants. We strongly deprecate this and believe that it is irresponsible and inaccurate. The duty on the state to provide adequate support through the benefits system for people who are unable to work because of a serious health condition or illness is a fundamental principle of British society. Portraying the reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants as some sort of scheme to “weed out benefit cheats” shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the Government’s objectives. (Paragraph 40)
6. Whilst fully accepting that the Government, and this Committee, have no role in determining the nature and content of media coverage, we believe that more care is needed in the way the Government engages with the media and in particular the way in which it releases and provides its commentary on official statistics on the IB reassessment. In the end, the media will choose its own angle, but the Government should take great care with the language it itself uses and take all possible steps to ensure that context is provided when information about IB claimants found fit for work is released, so that unhelpful and inaccurate stories can be shown to have no basis. (Paragraph 41)
The Work Capability Assessment—claimants’ experience and Atos Healthcare
55. Atos acknowledged that its call-centres had experienced significant problems in the past. We welcome the assurance that this has been addressed to ensure that waiting times are significantly reduced and most calls are picked up first time. We expect call statistics to be maintained and published to demonstrate that progress is being made and sustained. However, claimants are still unable to contact the assessment centre they are due to attend directly, and we believe they should be able to do so, even if calls are routed through the call-centre.
58. Atos routinely overbooks WCA appointments by 20% on the basis of the non-attendance rate for new ESA claims, which was 30%. However, the non-attendance rate in the IB reassessment trials was much lower, at around 9%, although it is too soon to say whether this low rate seen in the trials will continue in the national roll-out. We recommend that Atos reviews its overbooking policy as a matter of urgency, to take account of this much higher attendance rate by IB claimants, to ensure that people are not turned away from assessment centres without being seen. Atos should also continue to monitor and adjust its overbooking policy as necessary.
63. Instances have occurred where vulnerable claimants have had their benefit stopped as a sanction for non-attendance at a WCA appointment when the non-attendance arose because of administrative errors on the part of Atos or JCP, or because the claimant was too ill to attend but was unable to get in touch with Atos to inform them of this. We agree with the Minister that this is unacceptable. We recommend that DWP and Atos Healthcare jointly review the processes for recording non-attendance and change them where necessary to ensure that claimants are not sanctioned for “failure to attend” when the failure is on the part of Atos Healthcare and/or Jobcentre Plus.
66. We believe that Jobcentre Plus should be more proactive in establishing the reasons for non-attendance at WCAs, including by following up with a phone call as soon as is practical after an appointment has been missed.
71. It is unacceptable that disabled people should be called to attend an assessment at a centre which is inappropriately located, inaccessible to them or where reasonable adjustments cannot be made to accommodate special requirements arising from their health condition. We note DWP’s assurance that Atos Healthcare is “moving rapidly toward” a situation where this is no longer the case. We request that, in response to this Report, the Government sets out progress towards this aim. This should include options for the relocation of assessment centres where necessary, increasing disabled access, and improvements to the mechanisms for ensuring a claimant’s needs are known to Atos Healthcare in advance of the WCA.
92. We recognise that Atos Healthcare, as the sole provider of the Work Capability Assessment, takes the brunt of public criticism about the WCA. Some of this arises from the understandable anxiety which claimants feel about the process. We accept that considerable efforts have been made on the part of both Atos Healthcare and DWP to improve the quality of assessments. However, it is also clear that many claimants have not received the level of service from Atos which they can reasonably expect.
93. We remain concerned about whether there are sufficient levers within the DWP contract with Atos to ensure that Atos consistently gets the assessment right first time. We therefore recommend that, when the contract is re-let in 2015 and in future contracts for other medical assessments, DWP reviews the performance indicators, with significant financial penalties built in if standards are not met.
94. We agree with the Minister that it would not have been practical to introduce a second provider for the IB reassessment but we believe that the Government should consider contracting a second provider to deliver the ongoing Work Capability Assessments for new ESA claims when the reassessment of existing claimants has been completed, in order to drive up performance through competition. We recommend that the Government publishes proposals, before the end of 2012, for how such a system of competition could work in practice.
Why the WCA isn’t working
Posted: Monday 2 April 2012
At Mind, we follow a simple model of how we work – we listen to what people with mental health problems are telling us, and then we seek to influence change so that people’s lives can be improved.
For the last couple of years, the issue of welfare reform has consistently been an important issue for people with mental health problems. And one aspect in particular has dominated: the Work Capability Assessment (WCA).
It’s worth remembering that the WCA was initially conceived before the recession, when this country was estimated to be within a year of achieving full employment. Even in those early days, we urged caution as we had real concerns about how a new system would apply.
It’s in everybody’s interests to get this right. When around 40 per cent of people on Incapacity Benefit have a mental health problem, it makes sense to design the new system so it can properly assess the needs of people with mental health problems.
In July 2010, I joined a the Harrington Scrutiny Panel, which was set up to oversee the work of the WCA Independent Review team. My role was to give advice and criticism regarding the areas the reviewer was looking at and the changes they are recommending.
The DWP has committed to making some changes arising from the Independent Review, but these will take time, and some fundamental changes required haven’t even started to be addressed.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people are being reassessed using a test which is still not fit for purpose. Around 50 per cent of people are appealing against the decision, and a remarkable half of those appeals are being upheld, meaning that as many as one in four tests are wrong. The cost to the taxpayer of the tribunal system alone is £50m, around a half of the £100m a year being spent on reassessment.
I spent some time last week at Mind’s Infoline. Call after call was coming in from individuals with a mental health problem, or a member of their family, anxious about the reassessment letter, concerned about having to appeal and the potential impact on their lives. We’ve heard about Job Centres who are shocked when someone who is clearly unwell turns up having been told that they are fit for work.
The callers to our line were not benefit scroungers – they were ordinary people whose health had put them in a very vulnerable state. Ordinary people desperate to recover and be able to work, but who just weren’t yet well enough. And instead of offering support and help to recover and then find and stay in work, the WCA process is making their health worse and so, ironically, the prospect of a job even less likely.
The time has come to call a halt in the reassessment process until real changes are made. It’s damaging people’s lives. It’s costing the taxpayer a fortune. And it certainly isn’t fulfilling its purpose of supporting people with mental health problems on their journey back to work.
This Government has some good aspirations on mental health set out in an excellent Mental Health Strategy – it’s seen the importance of good mental health to the country and it’s acknowledged the high cost of poor mental health. But when it comes to benefits and supporting people out of work to get back into work, the DWP is letting people down.
I have taken the decision to leave the Harrington Scrutiny Group. Our concerns about the reality of the WCA have grown, but we see insufficient recognition of the need to change the approach, and the need to do so quickly, before more and more people are subjected to a process which isn’t working.
Mind will continue to campaign on improving the WCA until people with mental health problems get the support and respect they deserve. I hope the Department will hear these concerns and act upon them.