The Commons Work and Pensions Committee has highlighted failures in the Government’s Work Capability Assessment, saying these have caused “fear and anxiety” for claimants whose benefits have been stopped.
This will come as no surprise to the many people for whom the process has been an ordeal.
This is a problem which has been building up for years, since the assessment was introduced by the last Labour Government in 2008 for new ESA claimants.
Now it seems that administrative errors have led to people being counted as having missed appointments which they may not even have been informed about. This actually happened to a friend of mine. Thankfully they were able to get it sorted reasonably quickly, but not without a whole load of unnecessary stress, but it should never have happened.
I found it a particular outrage that disabled claimants were sent appointments in venues that weren’t accessible to them:
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. (Paragraph 71)
In terms of the actual process itself, there are still people being found fit for work when they patently are not, despite the changes as a result of the Harrington Review. The difficulty is that it takes time to make improvements after the recognition of a flaw in the process -and when 30,000 people a week are going through this assessment, a lot of them are going to come through the wrong side of this assessment.
I think I’ve shared with you before that I know someone who was passed as too ill to continue in their job by ATOS and pensioned off early – and when they applied for ESA, ATOS, via the Work Capability Assessment, marked them fit for work. That, too, was sorted – but again, after a long time. The Committee highlighted the cost and stress of an overloaded appeals system.
There is some good stuff in there, though – the Government is praised for trying to do actually offer support to people to help those who can back to work and for implementing the Harrington Review. By the way, I feel a bit better that the review process is ongoing, with evidence being requested for the next stage now.
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.
Conservative ministers got a bit of a slap on the wrist from the Committee for contributing to an inaccurate portrayal of benefit claimants as “workshy” and “scroungers” in the media. You don’t find Liberal Democrats talking like that about people – but we do need to be more noisy about publicly challenging the Tories when they talk this sort of judgemental nonsense.
The idea of stopping contributory ESA after a year comes in for criticism too.
The other thing the Committee raised concerns about was how the people put back on the labour market would fare if employers were reluctant to take them on:
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”
I still feel uneasy about this aspect of the welfare reform. I saw the mistakes that were made with the WCA when it was first introduced when I was working for an MP. It was clear that the system was flawed and stacked against the claimant. I’m not against the idea in principle – but I want the emphasis to be on supporting the person, not on taking money from them unfairly. It needs to be made to work better.
My worry is that there is no will in either the Tory or Labour parties to really make this system work fairly and compassionately. The only people in that place who have a track record of speaking up for the people affected by these changes are the Liberal Democrats. Alistair Carmichael and Danny Alexander both had a good go at the Labour Government in opposition. We know that the Tories would have been a lot harder on welfare reform but were stopped because of us. It’s up to us to maintain the pressure within the Government to act on and even beyond the recommendations in this report.
So this post is really a Lib Dem call to arms – I reckon that if Mr Potter’s motion was passed with an overwhelming majority at our Conference, like the health reform one was, that would be a very powerful message to the Government.
Let’s get to it. Despite the awful procedures for registering for Conference, there’s now a really good reason to go.