The government’s controversial system for assessing whether hundreds of thousands of benefit claimants with a disability or long term illness are “fit for work” is so flawed that it should be scrapped and completely redesigned, a committee of MPs has said.
The employment and support allowance (ESA) system is crude, simplistic and failing to fulfil its intended purpose of helping claimants back into work, the commons work and pensions select committee said on Wednesday.
It describes the test used to determine ESA eligibility – the work capability assessment (WCA) – as frequently inaccurate, and notes that many claimants who undergo it report it as a “stressful and anxiety-provoking experience.”
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) this year negotiated an early exit from the existing WCA contract with the private firm, Atos, after raising concerns about the quality of its work. But the committee says that simply changing the provider will not in itself lead to improvements in the system.
Its report says: “The flaws in the existing ESA system are so grave that simply ‘rebranding’ the WCA by taking on a new provider will not solve the problems: a fundamental redesign of the ESA end-to-end process is required.”
The committee acknowledges the scale and complexity of determining eligibility for an incapacity benefit claimed by millions of people but urges ministers to put a redesigned system in place by 2018, when a completely new delivery contract is introduced.
The current system is too simplistic, and too often fails to recognise the complex health barriers to work faced by claimants, the report says. There have been hundreds of thousands of appeals against WCA decisions in recent years, clogging up tribunals at a cost of £60m a year. At least four out of 10 appeals succeed.
It adds: “This redesign needs to focus on what the purpose of ESA is – helping people back to work”.
The disability minister Mark Harper said that the government was currently undertaking the fifth review of the WCA since it was introduced in 2008, during which time “numerous improvements” to the test had been made.
He added: “We are bringing in a new provider and a new contract for work capability assessments to deliver the best possible service for claimants, increase the number of assessments and reduce waiting times.”
The ESA system has become increasingly controversial in recent years, generating a groundswell of public concern about its accuracy and effectiveness that ministers largely ignored until this year when tensions between the DWP and Atos – which had come to see the £100m a year contract as a poisoned chalice – came to a head.
The committee took evidence from a large number of ESA claimants about their experiences. “Many reported feeling dehumanised, ignored or questioned inappropriately. Some felt that the progress they were making towards recovery, and then moving back into work, was hampered rather than aided by the anxiety caused in facing the WCA.”
Rosanna Singler, co-chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium, said the committee was “absolutely right” to call for a fundamental overhaul of WCA, which she described as “unfit for purpose”.
Mark Winstanley, the chief executive of charity Rethink Mental Illness, said ministers had to stop “dragging their heels” over reforming the system. “This report represents yet another blow to the failing assessment process. It comes after repeated independent reviews have exposed huge flaws in the system and a court ruling last year found that the current assessment is unfair for people with mental health problems.””