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Disability benefit tests criticised

MPs say tests used to see if people with disabilities are fit to work are inflexible, stressful and poor value for money
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Sheena Meredith

8th February 2013 - An all-party group of MPs has criticised the tests being used to see if a person with disabilities is able to work. Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, says in a press statement: "The Department for Work and Pensions is getting far too many decisions wrong on claimants’ ability to work. This is at considerable cost to the taxpayer and can create misery and hardship to the claimants themselves."

Hardest hit

The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is a medical assessment carried out by Atos Healthcare on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and is meant to help decide if a person with disabilities is entitled to claim certain benefits or is fit for work. However the Public Accounts Committee says decisions were overturned in 38% of appeals, casting doubt on the test’s accuracy, providing poor value for money and causing considerable stress to claimants.

In the last year alone Citizens Advice has reported an 83% increase in the number of people asking for support on appeals. Its Chief Executive, Gillian Guy, says in a press comment: "We are seeing a lot of very sick and seriously disabled people being wrongly denied ESA [Employment and Support Allowance] and suffering enormous additional stress and hardship at a time when they most need support."

The Public Accounts Committee says the process has a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable claimants and the standardised 'tick-box' approach fails to adequately account for rare, variable or mental health conditions.

Paul Farmer, chief executive of the mental health charity, Mind, says in a media release:"We welcome the report from the Public Accounts Committee which confirms many of the concerns Mind has been raising about the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). As the report states, far too many people are having to go through a lengthy appeals process in order to get the right decision and the whole process is having a very damaging impact on people’s health. We also welcome the recognition that the WCA is particularly unsuitable for people with mental health problems."

Simon Gillespie, Chief Executive of the MS Society, also welcomes the report and agrees "that the “one size fits all” approach is poor at assessing people with complex and fluctuating conditions, such as MS. The current assessment process makes it extremely difficult for people to demonstrate how their condition affects their ability to work and often leads to the wrong decisions being made."

DWP to blame

Although Atos Healthcare is contracted to carry out the medical assessments the committee criticised the DWP for being complacent and for being far too accepting of what Atos tells it.

Margaret Hodge MP says: "This poor decision-making is damaging public confidence and generating a lot of criticism of the Department’s contractor for medical assessments, Atos Healthcare - but most of the problems lie firmly within the DWP.

"The Department’s view that appeals against decisions are an inherent part of the process is unduly complacent. Nearly 40% of appeals are successful, with a third of those successful appeals involving no new evidence."

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