Social workers may be asked to submit client information for benefit test

Tribunal rules that requirement for sickness benefit claimants to collect their own medical evidence disadvantages those with mental health problems learning disabilities or autism.

Social workers could be asked to provide reports for the Department for Work and Pensions about clients after judges ruled that existing procedures for claiming sickness benefit disadvantaged clients with mental health problems, learning disabilities or autism.

Following a judicial review, a three-judge tribunal ruled against existing procedures under which claimants for employment and support allowance, the successor to incapacity benefit, are expected to collect their own evidence from professionals such as social workers on their needs and fitness to work. Other than in exceptional circumstances, there is no obligation on the DWP to collect this evidence itself for claimants undergoing the work capability assessment, the assessment for ESA, despite the challenges for some in obtaining the information themselves.

The tribunal panel ruled this was unfair to clients with mental health problems, learning disabilities or autism. Under the terms of the judgement, the DWP will have to come back to court in July explaining how it will increase the amount of medical evidence it proactively collects from social workers, GPs, psychiatrists or other professionals, when assessing claims for ESA.

“We would hope that social workers, when identified as the most relevant professional by an applicant, will end up being asked more often for their view of how a client’s condition impacts on their functional ability,” said Tom Pollard, senior policy and campaigns officer at the charity Mind, which gave evidence in the case.

“Often the most relevant professionals will be psychiatrists or psychologists, but for some people it will be social workers,” Pollard added.

At present, when claimants complete the ESA form explaining how their condition affects them, they can give the contact details for the professional they feel knows them best. But the DWP only contacts these professionals in rare cases – where claimants are obviously very disabled or there is a risk of suicide. Evidence is not currently collected simply for the sake of informing the ensuing face-to-face work capability assessment.

Both Mind and the charity Rethink Mental Illness, which also gave evidence in the case, believe that proactively collected information from GPs and social workers could prevent many people with mental health problems from having to go through the face-to-face WCA, as a result of which many are wrongly found “fit for work”, the charities believe.

The DWP said in a statement that it disagreed with the High Court ruling and would appeal.

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