The government will press on with its timetable to reassess 1.5m incapacity benefit claimants on their fitness to work despite a review published today that exposes serious flaws in the assessment process.
The process for reassessing people on their eligibility for employment and support allowance, which replaces incapacity benefit, begins next April under the work capability assessment (WCA). The first medical tests will be undertaken in the summer.
But today’s independent review of the assessment uncovered a lack of expertise, empathy and accuracy in the process.
“At each stage that the individual goes through, there is something that could be done better,” said Professor Malcolm Harrington, author of the review. “The process is mechanistic and unclear and people are not sure what is happening to them.”
The government has accepted Harrington’s recommendations for reform. However, Mind chief executive Paul Farmer said reassessments of IB claimants ought to be delayed until the reforms were fully implemented.
“Some of Harrington’s recommendations are quick-fixes, which should be easy enough to action,” Farmer said. “But many more will require cultural shifts in the delivery of the WCA, which will take time to fully implement and evaluate.”
However, when asked today whether he would consider delaying the reassessments, employment minister Chris Grayling said: “I do not think there are grounds for stopping.”
Harrington 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 report criticised the assessment for failing to take account of people with mental health issues or fluctuating conditions. Harrington said mental health experts should be available in all assessment centres to handle these claimants and advise fellow assessors.
Atos Healthcare, which conducts the medical assessments on behalf of the government, will institute more mental health training for its staff.
Decisions about eligibility are made by Jobcentre Plus staff, based on evidence from the Atos assessors, the client and health and social care professionals.
However, Harrington found that Jobcentre Plus staff relied too heavily on the medical assessments. In only 2% of cases did they depart from Atos’s recommendations.
He said the staff were not confident in making decisions and recommended more training to place them at the centre of the assessment process. This would avoid the cost of appeals and save claimants the stress of appearing before a tribunal.
Grayling said he was confident that the introduction of mental health specialists and additional training for Jobcentre Plus staff could all be in place by next summer.
The descriptors, used in the assessment as benchmarks against which to test a person’s capabilities, were also said to be inadequate in accounting for people’s mental health problems.
Harrington is due to report back to the government on proposed changes before the end of the month, and Grayling said the recommendations would be implemented as soon as possible.
The government will also adopt recommendations to make the process more personalised and include more detailed qualitative assessments from medical assessment staff; the ability for claimants to submit their own written comments; more personal contact via telephone conversations at all points of the process and more support from Jobcentre Plus staff.
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