The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is probably the single issue that Mind has received the most contact about over the last couple of years. In response to this, and other concerns about issues like DLA reform and the new Work Programme, welfare and benefits has become one of Mind’s key campaigning priorities.
The WCA was introduced in October 2008 as the gateway to the new
Employment and Support Allowance, which replaced other incapacity benefits. Since its introduction we have heard from huge numbers of people who have had a bad experience of the process. We have been raising these concerns with both the previous Government, who introduced the scheme, and the new Coalition, who have embraced it as if it were their own.
However, these concerns seemed to largely fall on deaf ears, or were simply brushed aside as isolated anecdotes of poor practice. But when Professor Harrington took up the role of independently reviewing the system we felt we had found someone who took our views seriously and was willing to try and address them. We submitted a response to his review (PDF) based on the comments of Mind supporters and were pleased to see that many of our key concerns we addressed in his first report (PDF).
Professor Harrington clearly recognised that there was a serious problem with how mental health and learning disabilities were assessed by the WCA and so he also asked Mind, Mencap and the National Autistic Society to come up with some proposals for improving the ‘descriptors’ used to assess people.
Although we welcomed many of the recommendations that the first Independent Review put forward, and the opportunity to improve the descriptors, we were concerned that the Government planned to press ahead with the start of the ‘migration’ of claimants of other incapacity benefits onto the new system just a few months later. We felt that it would take a significant period of time to fully implement Harrington’s recommendations and even longer to bring about the changes to the descriptors we wanted to see.
The Government did not heed our warnings and the migration began in early 2011. They also made changes to the descriptors recommended by a previous review, led by the Government, that we believed were a backwards step. Since then, we have been trying to monitor the implementation of Harrington’s recommendations and the experiences of those being transferred to the new system, as well as continuing to raise the problems with the WCA in the media.
Meanwhile, we waited to hear how the Government would respond to our descriptor proposals, taking note of ominous murmurings including Chris Grayling’s suggestion that we had ‘turned his car into a boat‘ as an analogy for our proposals being too radical.
As a damp and interrupted parliamentary recess draws to a close, things are about to come to another head with the WCA: Professor Harrington has released a call-for-evidence for his second review (which we encourage you to respond to); a survey of welfare rights advisers through the Disability Benefits Consortium suggests that the recommendations from the first review are yet to have a real impact; and we are due to meet with the Government to discuss our descriptor proposals.
Although the positive feeling we had after Professor Harrington released his first report may have subsided, we still believe that his recommendations will have a positive impact in time.
However, there remain fundamental issues with the WCA to address and we are concerned that the Government still doesn’t comprehend the extent of the problems with the current system. Too many people continue to experience distress, poor treatment and unfair verdicts as they are pushed through the WCA.
Tom Pollard, Mind Policy and Campaigns Officer