Jobcentre Plus staff feel many people who pass work capability assessments are not fit for work, according to a study by the Department of Work and Pensions published yesterday.
They believed this was especially damaging for clients with mental health problems and exacerbated their symptoms.
Work capability assessments decide whether people are eligible for one of the two levels of employment support allowance (ESA) or jobseeker’s allowance, which is worth £25 less than the lower level of ESA.
ESA replaced incapacity benefit in October 2008 for new claimants, with the work capability assessment introduced at the same time, and early evidence has shown that more people have been deemed fit to work under the new regime.
Neil Coyle, director of policy at the Disability Alliance, said he sympathised with jobcentre staff’s frustration. In his experience, many were unable to deliver support they felt clients needed because the assessment made them ineligible for ESA.
The study also confirmed a large backlog of appeals against work capability assessment decisions.
Coyle said the backlog was likely to get worse because the government intends to push all remaining incapacity benefit claimants through work capability assessments. “It’s worrying, not least for those of us who foot the bill because appeals are very expensive,” Coyle said.
The study, based on in-depth interviews with more than 70 staff and customers, found considerable delays in having a work capability assessment and this limited the scope of work-focused interviews. These take place between nine and 13 weeks after a client has made an ESA claim and are aimed at supporting claimants into work.
Some people had received no assessment by the time of their third interview.
Benefit delivery centre staff, who process claims, reported that there was an incentive in the system for appeals because it allowed claimants to continue claiming ESA, as opposed to jobseeker’s allowance, until the appeal was heard. Several staff were acutely concerned about the extra costs this entailed.
Minister for disabled people Jonathan Shaw said: “This research was carried out some time ago soon after the benefit was introduced and we have made considerable improvements since then. We continue to see where improvements and changes are needed to ensure that ESA is working as it should be.”
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said the work capability assessment was currently being reviewed to ensure that it was accurately identifying people for the most appropriate benefit and work was underway to streamline the appeals process.