Too many people still find the process of undergoing eligibility assessments for sickness benefit “more challenging than it should be”, the government has acknowledged, responding to an independent review of the system that calls for improvements to be implemented more swiftly.
The independent review of the work capability assessment (WCA), carried out by Professor Malcolm Harrington, found some progress had been made towards improving a system that has been heavily criticised by charities and individuals, but noted that the pace of reform was too slow.
“Improvements to the WCA to make it more humane, sensitive, accurate and efficient have started to be seen,” the report states. “Nonetheless, as some of the major charities stated … progress has been slower that hoped for and the scope and depth of these changes is less than desirable.”
Reflecting concerns over the assessment process expressed by disabilitycharities, Harrington reported that “a number of the major charities … say that although they have seen some change for the better, it is disappointingly incomplete in coverage and depth. I agree with them.”
Recommended improvements to the service provided by Atos, the IT firm that holds the contract to carry out the assessments, had only been “patchy”.
“The variability in the quality of Atos performance was a frequent complaint” from jobcentre staff, the review states, urging the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to monitor Atos more closely “to ensure performance is as strong as possible”.
The review notes that although all recommendations from two previous annual reviews of the system have been accepted by the government, “not all have been fully acted upon yet”.
“Real progress has been made but the pace and scope of the improvements has been slower than the review would have hoped. The direction is the right one although the goals have not yet been reached,” the report states.
There were still “serious concerns” about the experiences of individuals going through the process. “Whilst the facts of each response are impossible to verify both the level and ferocity of ongoing criticisms remain worrying,” the report notes. “There are always likely to be some claims where the processes in place are not administered as they should be, but the frequency and consistency of these reports is worrying.”
Harrington did not recommend that the system be replaced with a new assessment process. “Whilst the WCA continues to garner considerable – and sometimes, but not always, justifiable – criticism, the independent reviewer has not seen or heard any compelling arguments or evidence that the whole system should be scrapped. Instead it needs to be made fairer and more effective,” he concluded.
Around 40% of people who go through the WCA appeal against the decision, and of those who go to tribunal around 38% have the decision overturned in their favour.
Gillian Guy, the chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “Disabled people and taxpayers are still paying far too high a price for mistakes made in benefit assessments of who is fit for work. Inaccurate medical assessments are creating huge difficulties for our clients, as well as potentially undermining the government’s welfare reform programme.”
Despite efforts to improve the system, the charity received more than 100,000 inquiries about employment and support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit, which is awarded to people judged eligible in their assessment, up 76% on the same period last year. “While many of Professor Harrington’s recommendations are welcome, they don’t go nearly far enough to ensure that in future decisions will be right first time,” Guy said.
Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Liam Byrne, said: “Professor Harrington’s review is devastating – progress is slow and incomplete, ministers are failing to grip the shambolic appeals system, and the whole process is utterly failing to get people back into work.
“This damning report completely vindicates Labour’s call for fast and fundamental reform of the work capability assessment. Ministers must now stop dragging their feet and take the urgent action we have been calling for.”
The minister for employment, Mark Hoban, said: “The system we inherited wasn’t working properly, but the changes we have made already to make the WCA more accurate and effective mean the proportion of people being placed in the support group for ESA has more than doubled in just two years.
“However, I also share his view that more needs to be done. It is in everyone’s interest to make sure the system is as fair and as accurate as possible.”