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PAC finds flaws in fit-for-work assessments

By Richard Johnstone | 8 February 2013

 

‘Far too many’ fit-for-work assessments are wrong, causing misery to benefits claimants and costing taxpayers, the Public Accounts Committee said today.

The MPs were examining Work Capability Assessments, which are carried out on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions to determine an individual’s entitlement to some disability benefits. The committee concluded that the tests were ‘damaging public confidence’ through incorrect decisions.

The assessments have been outsourced since 1998. In 2011/12, the DWP paid contractor Atos Healthcare £112.4m to carry out 738,000 assessments for Employment and Support Allowance and Incapacity Benefit.

‘In far too many cases’, Atos and the department have been getting the decisions wrong, the MPs found. Judgements that claimants were fit for work, and therefore not entitled to incapacity support, had been overturned in 38% of appeal cases.

This poor decision-making caused claimants ‘considerable distress’, the PAC said, and the problem appeared to be getting worse ahead of the launch of a new assessment for the Personal Independence Payment in April.

The tests failed to account for rare, variable or mental health conditions, leading to greater inaccuracies for these particular claimant groups, according to the report, Department for Work and Pensions: contract management of medical services.

Ministers had also been unable to determine the full cost of the overall decision-making process for WCA assessments as a result of the high level of appeals, the committee added.

Overall, the department was ‘unduly complacent’ about the number of decisions upheld by the tribunal and was ‘just accepting what Atos tells it’, PAC chair Margaret Hodge said.

‘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. 

‘The Work Capability Assessment process hits the most vulnerable claimants hardest. The one-size-fits-all approach fails to account adequately for mental health conditions or those which are rare or fluctuating. While the department has started to improve, the process is still too inflexible and too often is so stressful for applicants that their health simply gets worse.’

Responding to the report, the DWP said it had made changes to the assessments following an independent review of the system by occupational physician Professor Malcolm Harrington in 2010. Employment minister Mark Hoban said the committee had ‘completely’ failed to recognise this.

‘Rather than scaremongering and driving down the reputation of the Work Capability Assessment, critics might like to acknowledge the fact that independent reviews have found no fundamental reforms are needed to the current process because of changes we're making,’ he added.



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