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Research questions improvements to ‘fitness for work’ tests

Research questions improvements to ‘fitness for work’ tests
22nd September 2011 developer

New research has raised doubts over whether changes to the government’s “fitness for work” tests have made the assessments any fairer for disabled people.

The survey of welfare advisers by the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) comes nearly 10 months after the publication of an independent review of the work capability assessment (WCA) called on the government to improve “every stage” of the much-criticised tests.

A report based on the DBC results has been sent to Professor Malcolm Harrington, who is now preparing his second annual review of the WCA, this time examining the need for further improvements and how the recommendations in his first review have been implemented.

Although the DBC said it welcomed Harrington’s recommendations, it said it was “clear that the reforms are taking time to translate into improvements for claimants”.

It says the key recommendation emerging from its members and the welfare advisers who took part in the survey was that greater efforts should be made to collect “additional medical evidence” about each benefit applicant, and that this should be “given more weight” by assessors and the civil servants who make the final decisions on the applications.

The consortium also calls for greater transparency in the assessment process, and improved training for assessors – employed by the private company Atos Healthcare – particularly on mental health and fluctuating conditions.

And it calls for changes to the “descriptors” – which describe the tasks or activities the claimant is asked if they can perform – to ensure they “more closely reflect someone’s ability to work”.

The consortium said it was “extremely disappointed” that applicants in only one part of the country – Wrexham, where a pilot scheme is taking place – are receiving a summary of their assessment that they can discuss afterwards with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

More than 90 per cent of the welfare advisers who took part in the survey said they “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed” that major changes to the “descriptors” – introduced by the government in March after an internal review – had made the test fairer and more accurate.

These changes were criticised by the government’s own benefits advice body, the social security advisory committee, as well as disability organisations, peers and MPs.

One respondent to the survey said: “I’ve been completely astonished at the severity of disability that some clients have and are still being scored ‘zero’ points.”

The DBC called for the descriptors to be revised, particularly to improve assessments of those with mental health and fluctuating conditions.

It also noted that there continued to be a “high degree of mistrust” of Atos, while more than 87 per cent of those surveyed said the accuracy of reports by Atos assessors had not improved since the start of 2011.

Meanwhile, new research for the DWP has shown how few successful ESA claimants are eventually finding jobs, even if placed in the “work-related activity group” for those disabled people found able to return to employment in the future.

The report says just nine per cent of those who were not in employment before their successful ESA application were in work a year to 18 months after their initial claim.

For those who had been in work before their claim, about a quarter had returned to work by the time of the follow-up survey.