The government accepts that its drive to retest sickness benefits claimants has been a “flawed” process, a critical report by MPs into welfare reform concludes on Tuesday.
The introduction of new medical assessments to decide whether claimants are eligible for sickness benefits has prompted “fear and anxiety among vulnerable people”, the committee of MPs concludes, partly because the tests have resulted in large numbers of seriously unwell claimants being refused support.
The report states: “It is widely accepted that the Work Capability Assessment [WCA], as introduced in 2008, was flawed. This has been borne out by the high number of appeals and the high success rate of appellants. It was also reflected in the amount of evidence from individuals which expressed grievances with the way they were treated during the process and the accuracy of the outcome.” The MPs estimate the cost to the taxpayer of these appeals at around £50m a year.
The employment minister, Chris Grayling, has accepted that the WCA was initially “flawed” but stressed that significant changes have been introduced. The government acknowledges that “further refinements to the test” are still needed, says the report.
Government officials have failed to highlight the positive goals of helping more people back into work, the report adds, allowing the retesting process to be cast by parts of the media as a mission to weed out the “workshy”, “scroungers” and “benefit cheats”.
The work and pensions select committee chair Anne Begg MP said: “The government’s aim of helping benefit claimants back into work is laudable, but the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated and nor should the level of anxiety which surrounds the process.”
There was also criticism of Atos Healthcare, the company that receives £100m a year to carry out the medical tests to determine whether claimants are fit for work.
Atos staff are currently testing around 11,000 incapacity benefit claimants a week, to help judge whether they are eligible for benefit payments. Charities and MPs say they have been contacted by large numbers of people who felt their test results were simply wrong.
Begg said: “There have been failings in the service Atos Healthcare has provided, which has often fallen short of what claimants can rightly expect. This has contributed significantly to the mistrust which many claimants feel about the whole process. “We accept that considerable efforts have been made on the part of both Atos Healthcare and DWP to improve the quality of assessments, but the department needs to do more to ensure that Atos treats claimants properly and that it produces accurate assessments.”
The widow of one man, Larry Newman, who attended an Atos assessment, told the Guardian that her husband who suffered from a degenerative lung condition had been told he was fit for work despite the assessor never touching her husband nor even taking his pulse. In response Atos said it could not comment on individual cases and all complaints were thoroughly investigated.
Sue Royston of Citizens Advice told the committee: “A lot of disabled people want to get back into work, and we welcomed the help and support it would give. We are not very happy about the way it is working. We feel the test is too crude a test, and there are also problems with the way the assessment is actually carried out in practice.”
The report highlighted concerns about the number of testing centres that were not accessible to people with disabilities. “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,” the report states.
The report concluded that the government needs to try harder to explain its aims and to spread the “positive messages about the benefits of work and the support which is available to find work”, but adds: “A suspicion persists that the only objective of the government is to save money.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “The assessment is about helping people who can work get back into employment and we have been clear that disabled people who need unconditional support will receive it.
“It is vital that we also support people who were written off to a lifetime on benefits into jobs and our new Work Programme will help them overcome the barriers they face to get back into work.”
John Harris, page 28
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