Disability organisations have welcomed the second annual review of the government’s much-criticised “fitness for work” test, but have warned that progress on improving the assessment has been too slow.
Professor Malcolm Harrington, who has carried out both independent reviews for the government, said he believed “real progress” had been made in improving the work capability assessment (WCA), although he said he would “not for one minute claim that things are perfect”.
Harrington’s first review concluded that changes were needed to all stages of the assessment – which assesses eligibility for employment and support allowance (ESA) – to make it a “fairer, more effective and more humane process”.
But the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) said progress on improving the test had been “slow”, while there were still “fundamental problems” with the WCA.
Harrington’s new review proposes a number of new recommendations to improve how the WCA operates and the “transparency” of the face-to-face assessment, and to develop new guidance for the professionals from Atos Healthcare who carry out the assessments and the civil servants who make decisions on eligibility.
Harrington also warned that the programme to reassess about 1.5 million existing claimants of old-style incapacity benefit would “place considerable demands on every part of the WCA process”, and showed the need for “the right decision about a claimant’s eligibility for ESA to be made first time”.
Neil Coyle, director of policy for Disability Alliance and a member of the DBC steering group, called on the government to make a “more significant effort” to ensure further improvements to the WCA were made “as swiftly as possible” so as to “reduce avoidable expenditure on appeals”.
He also called for more government support for disabled people to get and keep work, including greater use of the Access to Work programme.
The consortium also warned that measures in the government’s welfare reform bill would impose a one-year time limit for most people on the contributory form of ESA, a move which it said would “undermine the effectiveness of the benefit and deny support to hundreds of thousands of disabled people”.
And it urged the government to learn lessons from the WCA to “avoid repeating the mistakes” in its planned reform of disability living allowance.
Chris Grayling, the Conservative employment minister, said the government would implement all of Harrington’s recommendations.
He said: “It is in everyone’s interest to get the system right. We want the assessment to be as fair and consistent as possible. This is the first step on a journey back to work for many people and we want it to be positive.
“The system is far better than it was two years ago but there are still improvements and refinements we can make.”