Fit to work benefits tests flawed, finds TV investigation ~ People Management

Government advisor says assessment quality ‘patchy’

Work Capability Assessments (WCA) are passing people as ‘fit to work’ who will have difficulty completing even light duties, a TV investigation has found.

Individual cases highlighted on the BBC Panorama programme showed people barely able to walk, or with severe breathing difficulties, being passed as fit despite needing the support of a carer to help with daily life. 

The programme, shown on BBC2 last night, suggested that the criteria for being ‘fit to work’ were too rigid and needed revision. This will raise concerns for employers who are being encouraged to give candidates coming off incapacity benefits a chance of employment.

Under the WCA, which first came into use in October 2008, benefits claimants are being reassessed to decide whether they are fit to work or not. 

After their assessment with a medical professional – usually from a private provider – the claimant will be placed in one of three categories: people who can start work immediately, people who will be capable of starting working with some support (also called the ‘work-related activity group’) and people deemed unable to work. 

The idea is to support those who can work back into jobs rather than leaving them languishing on disability benefits.

However, Professor Malcolm Harrington, employed by the government to review the system, warned that it still needed improvement as WCA assessments were leaving people in “limbo” for months causing “anxiety”.

In one case, former deliveryman Stephen Hill, who gave up his job because of ill health, was declared fit for work despite the assessor advising him to have urgent tests on his heart. Tests confirmed he had heart failure and he was booked in for surgery. Hill appealed the WCA decision and won but was called for another assessment and was told he was still fit for work. He died of a heart attack five weeks later. 

Professor Harrington said: “There are certainly areas where it is not working and I am sorry there are people going through a system which I think still needs improvement.” 

“I would like to think it was dramatically better and my recommendations have done a fantastic job. I am not sure that is true. I think it is better, it is improving but it is still patchy.”

WCA doctors interviewed by Panorama said they felt pressured to limit the number of people they deemed unable to work. One doctor said that assessors who passed “an above the average number of people as unfit for work” would be required to attend a meeting with their mentor to find out why, implying that targets were in use. 

However, Employment Minister Chris Grayling strongly denied that there were any financial targets to reduce people on sickness benefits.

“The reason why we reassess people who are on sickness benefits is that all the evidence is that a substantial proportion can return to some form of work. We have no financial targets for this. We simply believe that people who can work are better off being helped to do so, even if it can be a difficult and stressful process, rather than simply being abandoned on benefits for the rest of their lives.”

Professor Harrington, who has now resigned from his advisory role, launched a call for evidence on the 12th of July to run until the 7th of September as part of his third independent review of the WCA.

People Management

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