Changes to sickness benefit assessments, announced yesterday, will not make the system fit for purpose and cannot be delivered before the government starts reassessing 1.5m existing claimants, experts have warned.
The government said it would accept the recommendations of an independent review of the work capability assessment, which determines whether people are eligible for employment and support allowance, which replaced incapacity benefit for new claimants in 2008.
The review recommended that the government introduce more personalised assessments, in addition to tick-box scoring of people’s capabilities, and move away from an over-reliance on the medical assessment conducted as part of the WCA.
The WCA has been roundly criticised for wrongly finding many people fit for work, leading to them being placed on jobseeker’s allowance, which is worth about £25 per week less than ESA and involves less support.
Employment minister Chris Grayling said the reforms would make the assessment fit for purpose by summer 2011, when the government is due to start reassessing 10,000 claimants of incapacity benefit on their eligibility for ESA, the first tranche of the 1.5m reassessments.
However, welfare rights trainer and consultant Neil Bateman said he did not think the Department for Work and Pensions had the capacity to make the changes in time. “They have already reduced their temporary staff and it takes ages to get decisions looked at; it is pretty clear that they don’t have a lot of capacity,” he said.
He added: “It’s going to take a major sea change in staff attitudes and practices and it’s going to require them to do quite a lot more work on individual cases.”
Jane Alltimes, senior policy officer at Mencap, said she was also not confident that the reforms would be enacted in time.
The review recommended that assessment centres recruit champions with specialist knowledge of mental, cognitive or intellectual impairments to improve the quality of assessments, which Alltimes said she felt could be achieved swiftly. However she was less confident that changes to the culture of the system to make it more empathetic and personalised would be achieved in time.
Even if the department does implement reform by next summer some campaigners are sceptical that it will make the assessment effective in distinguishing between people who can work and those who need the further support that ESA brings.
“The outcome of the review is that we are going to be using the same test with greater support,” said Neil Coyle, director of policy at Disability Alliance (DA). “It won’t mean people are routinely put on the right benefit with the right support.”
Coyle said disabled people would still be wrongly found fit for work because a rise in the eligibility criteria for ESA instituted by the government this summer, which is due to come into force next March. These will mean that assessors will be able to take adaptations into account, meaning people will not automatically be eligible for ESA if they cannot walk and can successfully use a manual wheelchair.
The government estimates that under the new rules the proportion of ESA claimants found fit for work will rise from 39% to 44%. However, Coyle said that when those whose claims do not reach the assessment stage are excluded from consideration, the proportion found fit for work will rise from 66% to 75%.
What do you think?Join the debate on CareSpace
Keep up to date with the latest developments in social care. Sign up to our daily and weekly emails