Those of us who are concerned about the fairness of the welfare system often cite the Work Capability Assessment, which claimants of Employment and Support Allowance are required to take. It seems that every few days there's a story in the press reporting how someone has been marked fit for work when it is clearly inappropriate to do so. Yesterday the Daily Record carried the story of a woman who lived just a couple of miles away from me who was told she was fit for work weeks before she died of a brain tumour.
Concerns about the WCA appear to have been vindicated by a Government audit which found 41% of reports sampled to be of an unacceptable standard. As a result of this, the Independent reports, ATOS will lose its monopoly on conducting the tests.
The findings mean the company will be stripped of its monopoly on deciding whether people with disabilities are fit to work. The DWP said the poor quality of the company’s written reports were “contractually unacceptable” and announced on Monday it would be inviting other companies to bid for fresh regional contracts by summer 2014 to help reduce waiting times. Liam Byrne, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “This is a direct consequence of three years of appalling contract management by Iain Duncan Smith.”
A few points:
This needs sorting now, not in a year's time
I wonder if anyone in Whitehall actually realises how stressful the thought of an assessment is for the people who have to undergo it. And when the Government itself doesn't have confidence in almost half the reports, it can only make that process harder to endure.
Action is needed now to build confidence in the system.
Liam Byrne has a cheek
You won't find me defending the current WCA because I don't think it has any relevance to actually being able to do a job. I do see the need to have an assessment system, but it must be based on clinical evidence, not a requirement to save money. It should be based on the principle of helping people to work if they are able. You would not think from Liam Byrne's comments that Labour were the people who gave ATOS the contract and introduced the WCA in the first place. We are nowhere near having a fair WCA, but the Coalition, at the urging of Liberal Democrats, has at least improved it from the model they inherited. So, let's not listen to anything Labour has to say on the subject.
We need a WCA which reflects the reality of work
I am, however, prepared to listen to Richard Hawkes, the Chief Executive of Scope who said:
It’s about time the Government told Atos to smarten up its act.
But, it’s also strikingly clear to disabled people that whole £112 million per year system is broken.
The cost of appeals has skyrocketed, assessors have resigned in disgust, and the test has received criticism from the Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office. We have also witnessed shocking undercover footage of how ATOS assessors are trained and heard horror stories of disabled people inappropriately found fit to work.
The Government needs to deliver a test that is fit for purpose.
Most disabled people want to work but they face significant barriers, such as a lack of skills and experience, confidence and even negative attitudes from some employers. The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) ignores all this. It’s a tick-box test of someone’s medical condition.
If the Government is serious about getting more disabled people into work they need a test that is the start of the process that gives disabled people the specialist, tailored and flexible support they need.
Last year I took a look at the WCA and pointed out some of its intrinsic flaws.
When I was ill for a long time with Glandular Fever, there was no way, at its worst, I could have got from my bed to the bathroom, let alone to work for a whole day. Yet if I completed this form, I'd feel like a fraud because I could have done virtually everything within it. On some days, I could walk 50 metres, although I would have struggled with 200. I could pick up a pound coin, turn the pages of a book, walk up my stairs most of the time if I'd been able to get down them. When I had the energy I could communicate with people, and most of the time I didn't upset them.
I could set my alarm clock (although my husband still can't work the Sky Plus, and he's reasonably healthy so I'm not sure what that proves), I could put the washing machine on no bother, although it could take me half a day to get the energy together to sort the clothes into loads.
Fixing it will take more than just bringing in new companies to administer it. The whole process needs to be rebuilt to be realistic, sensitive and fair.