Published by Ross Macmillan for 24dash.com
The Government’s work capability assessments (WCA) – which sees French firm Atos Healthcare reassess disability benefit claimants – came under intense scrutiny by MPs yesterday after it was revealed that people with motor neurone disease, serious heart disease and even somebody with a broken back had been passed fit for work.
The MPs gathered inside Westminster Hall to grill employment minister Chris Grayling over the programme of reassessing disability benefit claimants and the high level of ‘fit for work’ decisions overturned on appeal.
In what turned out to be Mr Grayling’s “valedictory performance” as the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) minister, Labour’s Tom Greatrex, who secured the debate, reminded him that he could well be haunted by Employment Support Allowance (ESA) cases as he will be responsible for the tribunals service in his new role as justice secretary.
The debate centered around contractual issues between Atos – the firm carrying out the medical assessments for ESA eligibility – and the DWP.
Greatrex – who was armed with findings from the National Audit Office – revealed that 41% of those found fit for work appeal the decision and 38% have their appeal upheld. He said the cost of the appeals relating to the WCA has more than doubled since 2009-10 to £60m.
The Rutherglen and Hamilton West MP said: “It is almost 50% of the total yearly value of the Government’s contract with Atos Healthcare to carry out the assessments in the first place. In effect, taxpayers are paying for the process not to work, and then to correct it. Given the unprecedented pressures on the public purse, it beggars belief that the Government are apparently content to sit back and do very little to rectify that situation.”
Chilling cases were presented by MPs where constituents suffering from severe heart disease, motor neurone disease and even a broken back had been assessed as fit for work.
Shadow housing minster and Erdington MP, Jack Dromey, revealed that a constituent who had contracted serious heart disease died weeks after being found fit for work.
“In the work capability assessment, his heart was not tested,” he said. “Does that not demonstrate how fundamentally flawed the assessment process and its conduct by Atos are?”
Another case highlighted by Labour/Co-op MP, Jonathan Reynolds, saw one of his constituents deemed fit for work despite having a broken back.
“The Government need to listen to the feedback that is coming in across the country about the very real problems in the operation of the WCA. Crucially, they must begin to hold to account private companies with important Government contracts when they do not deliver for the taxpayer.”
The other main concerns from MPs were the lengthy appeals process where some claimants had to fight for a year to get the correct benefit; too frequent assessments and that in only 10% of the cases in which financial penalties could have been imposed on Atos, did the Government do so.
Chris Grayling emphasised that Atos was not actually taking decisions on who receives benefit or not – that was the role of the DWP through Jobcentre plus.
He said the NAO report “highlights a number of what I regard as not particularly major areas of improvement”.
He said: “It is really important to emphasise that the reassessment of people on incapacity benefit is not a financial exercise and that there are no financial targets attached to it. It is about finding the right number of people who can make a return to work. It is not an exact science—it never was and never could be—but it is all about trying to help people back into the workplace if they can possibly return to it. That was the previous Government’s motivation when they established the work capability assessment. When we took office, we put in place the changes that they themselves had put in the pipeline through the internal review of the work capability assessment.”
He said when the current Government took office, he fully accepted that the whole process needed to be improved. He said: “That was why we brought in Malcolm Harrington and it is why I am absolutely clear that we have implemented his recommendations. I have regularly met and talked to Malcolm Harrington, and at no point has he said to me that the process is not fit for purpose. At no point has our independent adviser, who I believe has the confidence of most people in the charitable sector who are involved in this work, said to me that this is a system that has to stop or that is unfit for purpose.”
He added: “We have brought down the backlog in the number of appeals that we inherited two years ago, but it is a big task. We are dealing with a large number of people and this is a big challenge.”