The Work Capability Assessment must be stopped

Tue, 13/11/2012 - 13:56 -- nick

We Are Spartacus, the disability organisation, has today published The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). It gathers together the views of 70 disabled people who have been through the WCA, shedding a more personal light on the problems with it after exposure by the likes of Panorama.

Reading these accounts is a wrenching experience; can there have been a government policy in living memory that has caused more suffering to a group of people that deserved it so little?

When the WCA was introduced in 2008, it aimed to differentiate between those disabled and long term sick people who were capable of work and those who weren’t, and support those who needed it to get back to work. This was a reasonable idea; too much potential had been left untapped and forgotten, to the cost of those individuals who were capable of more and the country.

But the way the WCA has been implemented by Atos Healthcare and the government makes it look like a tool for cost cutting at the expense of disabled and sick people’s welfare. Any test which has 38% of fit-for-work findings overturned on appeal (and this figure is much higher for those who get any kind of support, with the Citizens Advice Bureau reporting an 80% success rate) must have its aims and methods questioned; the suffering caused to those who go through it and have their disability benefits withdrawn can be huge.

And if the reason for implementing the WCA in this way was to save money, the incompetence of those involved has meant that savings are unlikely. MP Tom Greatrex took part in a debate on this on 4th September 2012 and said:

“The cost to the public purse from appeals relating to the WCA was £60 million in 2011-12. As I said, that figure has more than doubled since 2009-10. It is almost 50% of the total yearly value of the Government’s contract with Atos Healthcare to carry out the assessments in the first place. In effect, taxpayers are paying for the process not to work, and then to correct it.”

The incompetence of Atos in assessing disabled people should trigger a suspension of their contract, together with government action to reclaim the money they have claimed. The National Audit Office examined the WCA contract and found that less than 10% of the penalty payments that could be applied due to poor performance were applied by DWP, and that the DWP’s own poor forecasting and contracting were partly to blame. There is plenty of that to go round.

The suffering and incompetence reported by We Are Spartacus is widespread and includes cases such as:

-          A man found fit to work partly because his condition, a diaphragmatic hernia, was not listed on the Atos LIMA system and was therefore missing from his report

-          A man with a memory span of only 20 minutes found fit to work three times. As the report says ‘I don’t think any employer would want to explain to him every 20 minutes what he is meant to be doing.’

-          A man with Sudden Adult Death Syndrome was retired from the Royal Mail as simply walking his round could have killed him; found fit to work after the same adviser who had retired him from the Royal Mail now examined him and found him fit to work under WCA

-          A person with paranoid schizophrenia attended a WCA with his support worker at the appointed time but they found the office shut with no lights on; both witnessed this. Benefits were stopped for failing to attend the WCA

-          A man in a coma was asked to come for assessment; when his wife told DWP of the coma she was asked to provide a letter from the hospital which she did. He was still in a coma when his benefits were stopped for not responding to the original request

-          A terminally-ill person with a brain tumour was told that they should be capable of work within a specific timeframe that was the same as their life expectancy

The report suggests that dishonesty is prevalent; those who help appeals are “still getting cases where the assessor has said the client did something ie picked up a handbag, got onto the couch without difficulty, takes the dog for a walk every day - when they didn’t have a handbag, didn’t get onto the couch and don’t have a dog.”

One of the more ridiculous things about this sorry affair is that many of those found fit to work will never actually be able to find a job that fits their circumstances. This wastes resources through having disabled people access the Work Programme, but the government only makes big payments to providers if the client gets work so this may be a backdoor way of shifting costs from the public to (primarily) private sector.

But the real scandal is the hardship caused. The We Are Spartacus report details many individual accounts of the WCA causing physical pain to those who go through it, as well as emotional distress and worse. By July 2012 1,300 people had died after being put in the Work Related Activity Group. Between October 2008 and October 2011, 31 people died while waiting for their appeals to be heard. It is clear that the WCA cannot be accurate in its findings if those found fit to work die even before they get to their appeal date.

Statistics on suicides caused by the stress of a WCA are hard to come by, but a recent survey of doctors showed that 6% of them had seen a patient who had attempted or committed suicide as a result of a test or fear of it. 14% of doctors also had a patient who had self-harmed as a result, and 84% said they had seen an increase in mental health problems due to the WCA.

The power of the report is in bringing these personal experiences of hardship to a wider audience. We have become so used to negative reporting of disability benefit recipients in newspapers and on TV (it is one of the reasons why UnemployedNet runs a media campaign) that some might forget the reality of the effect of long term sickness and disability on a person’s life.

It is often painful, can reduce life expectancy, test relationships, and cause financial hardship, with around a third of all disabled people living in poverty. Despite this, 60% of disabled people work, and fraud only accounts for less than 0.5% of all disability benefit claims, giving the lie to the characterisation of disabled people as ‘cheats’ or ‘scroungers’ (a word that UnemployedNet is trying to have banned from the media when applied to benefit claimants). Implementing the WCA against this background is like shooting a bee with a blunderbuss.

Medical professionals should not be co-operating with a test that causes such proven hardship and suffering; the Royal College of Nursing refused to accredit the training of Atos nurse assessors because of concerns about the WCA, and individual assessors should ask themselves whether they should be part of this system. Atos should not be providing such tests, but says it is simply implementing the government’s requirements, while the government says merely that some refinements need to be made, Atos is responsible for implementation, but that the basics are right.

The government is at the top of this tree, and only the government can put a stop to the tests. The WCA must be suspended immediately before any further suffering is caused.