Today the government has announced the new provider for the ailing Work Capability Assessment (WCA). Maximus are replacing Atos, who quit the process after repeated concerns, raised by Labour and disabled people, about the operation of the test.
The government has spent months seeking an alternative provider.
While we’ve always said that simply changing the provider isn’t enough to deal with the underlying problems, Labour hope the new start under Maximus will lead to improved results.
Disabled people have every right to feel wary. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are agreeing a new contract that will last years. With a general election looming, and Labour already having outlined a series of reforms we’d make to the Work Capability Assessment, it is unclear how the new provider will be expected to deliver improvements – or what penalties they’ll face if they don’t.
That’s why I have written to the Minister for Disabled People to ensure that any change of policy direction under a future Labour government can be accommodated within the contract, and that action can be taken swiftly to address poor performance.
We have also said that the new provider should be made responsible for ensuring that the Work Capability Assessment is better connected to work support to increase the number of disabled people in work. It’s essential that the new provider gains credibility quickly by providing more accurate results about assessments.
And crucially, the new provider must ensure the huge backlog of Work Capability Assessments is tackled swiftly.
We also expect Maximus to make significant improvements in the day to day delivery of Work Capability Assessments. Labour will insist that:
- Every assessment centre must be accessible; that information about the Work Capability Assessment process must be available in accessible formats; and that disabled people who cannot reasonably be expected to attend a face to face interview should be assessed at home or another convenient and accessible location.
- Claimants are advised that they are able to bring a companion to the assessment, who can assist them as appropriate.
- Information sharing must be improved, including between Department for Work and Pensions, Maximus and Work Programme contractors.
- Recordings of assessments must be provided on request.
- Reports from assessors must include information on how an impairment or health condition affects someone’s ability to work.
But there is a broader need for reforming the Work Capability Assessment. Assessments must be part of the support to help disabled people back to work. Currently, the Work Capability Assessment is seen as entirely separate to the Work Programme – contributing to the appalling failure rate of the government’s flagship employment scheme.
Iain Duncan Smith’s DWP set a target of a 15 per cent employment rate for people on the Work Programme after two years. But after three years only 7 per cent of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claimants who have accessed the programme have found work.
Our new approach would provide information about the support that is available in the local area to help individuals. Improving this element of the assessment and decision-making process is a crucial step towards a more integrated system of support.
Disabled people should also have a central role in monitoring the tests. A Labour government would ensure that for the first time disabled people would get a real say in how the assessments are delivered.
The independent reviewer of the Work Capability Assessment would work alongside a scrutiny group of disabled people supported by the Office for Disability Issues. We would also require the DWP to respond to Work Capability Assessment reviews and end the practice of ‘accepting’ recommendations that are then kicked into the long grass.
Accuracy of Work Capability Assessments must be dramatically improved under Maximus. Thousands of disabled people appealing inaccurate decisions have had to wait months for decisions, wasting millions of pounds in appeals and tribunals.
The DWP must deliver a better service for disabled people and better value for money for taxpayers. The Public Accounts Committee has already reported that targets set for the quality of the assessment were not challenging enough.
Labour would ensure a new system would impose penalties for poor performance, measured both on the number of times decisions are overturned by the DWP or through appeals. Clear financial penalties will ensure assessors improve the quality of assessments.
This means collecting all the medical evidence needed to make a decision and ensuring they listen to what claimants tell them to ensure decisions are based on the full facts.
The new provider of Work Capability Assessments takes over at a difficult time. Maximus will be judged very quickly on whether its performance is an improvement on years of failure and chaos in the DWP.
Ministers and the new provider need to urgently get a grip of Work Capability Assessments.
Kate Green MP is shadow minister for disabled people
The Labour Party introduced a host of measures to strengthen the rights of disabled people. They passed the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, introduced the Equality Act 2010, and formed the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and, in 2009, the Labour government signed the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.
It’s worth noting that without the Equality Act in particular, it would have been difficult to win the cases that have been presented to court against the government, concerning the unprecedented level of discrimination embedded in their policies.
Kate Green and Anne McGuire have pointed out that the original intentions when Labour introduced the Employment Support Allowance pilot and an assessment of people’s capacity for work, have been distorted – that the original aim was to be a supportive and facilitative process, with Disability Living Allowance (DLA), and other supportive measures in place to help people with disability lead a dignified life, fulfilling their potential, but, as Anne McGuire has pointed out, the renegotiation of the Atos contract by the current Government, (along with the addition of targets to remove people’s benefits, and sanctions,) has rebalanced the system to be punitive, rather than facilitative.
Of course the Tories have been very quick to blame Labour for the current situation, however, following a review of their pilot, Labour warned the government of problems with the Work Capability Assessment, which Iain Duncan Smith duly ignored, passing the ESA system into law, making the WCA even more problematic, and as stated, re-contracting Atos “in line with the welfare reforms” in 2011, including targets to take people’s lifeline benefits away, despite the claims made by the Tories. The targets were exposed by Dr Steven Bicks, a GP that applied for job with Atos, assessing whether benefit applicants were fit for work, and secretly filmed his training, which was broadcast by channel 4 – on their Dispatches programme, on Monday 30 July, 2012.
I was very pleased to hear of Labour’s proposal to introduce a new Disability Hate Crime Prevention Law, particularly in light of what has happened this past four years regarding right wing and media portrayals of sick and disabled people, using fake statistics, vicious stigmatising and scapegoating rhetoric to justify the punitive cuts, which have been aimed disproportionately at disabled people.
Comparing policies indicates clearly the stark differences between the parties, and given the briefing from Labour from their ESA review that was blatantly disregarded, and the refusal of the Coalition to undertake a cumulative impact assessment of the “reforms”, it’s clear that the Tories do not regard the poorest and most vulnerable worthy of government diligence, accountability, support and fair treatment.
“By the general election in May 2010, it was becoming clear that the WCA was getting too many decisions wrong. Unfortunately, the new Conservative-led government was so unmoved by these failings that Iain Duncan Smith ordered that the number of assessments be increased. So while assessments had previously been restricted to new applications for ESA, in November 2010 Atos started to put all 2.2 million existing incapacity benefit claimants through the WCA.
Unsurprisingly things did not improve – many people who were genuinely unable to work were still being declared as fit to do so, and there is now a backlog of more than 700,000 claimants awaiting an assessment. These delays not only cause financial hardship – they also often exacerbate people’s existing physical and mental health conditions.”Sheila Gilmore.
With thanks to Robert Livingstone for his brilliant art work