While criticism of the work capability assessment (WCA) for employment and support allowance (ESA) is nothing new, the fact that an influential Parliamentary group has added its voice to the concerns certainly is. Surely the time has come for the Government to listen?
The Commons Public Accounts Committee’s report last week was pretty damning of the WCA, but hardly revelatory; its criticisms have been made by others, on many occasions, in the past few years.
For instance, the Committee said that, in far too many cases, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) gets WCA decisions wrong – 38% are overturned at appeal – at considerable cost to the taxpayer and claimant. Nothing new there, but it is still a shocking statistic.
But, more damningly, the Committee said the WCA process has a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable claimants. It said the standardised ‘tick-box’ approach fails to adequately account for rare, variable or mental health conditions and this can lead to greater inaccuracies in decision-making for these particular claimant groups.
This is the crucial bit. Mental health service users who receive incapacity benefit/ESA have been making these points for years. So have mental health charities, user-led organisations and others. But now a Parliamentary group – i.e. some of those in power – has publicly acknowledged the issue.
This goes beyond numbers, statistics and philosophical viewpoints. Behind all this are real people who are genuinely suffering unnecessarily because of a flawed system.
The impact of WCA assessments on people with mental health conditions can be devastating. The stress and anxiety it causes can exacerbate existing mental health conditions and, in some cases, put people who were recovering back into primary services. There is plenty of evidence – anecdotal and in the media – to confirm this kind of experience.
But the WCA could be even worse than the statistics show. While 38% of decisions are overturned on appeal, how many people are there out there who don’t challenge the decision, perhaps because they can’t face the stress of the process, or who give up part way through because of it?
The same applies to people who abandon the process of claiming ESA because of the stress of the assessment. The DWP has painted these people in the past as not being genuine claimants. Undoubtedly some won’t have been, but others will have and now aren’t receiving the support they are entitled to as a result.
I’ve said it before – as have many others more esteemed than myself – the WCA must be overhauled because it is harming people.
However, employment minister Mark Hoban dismissed the Committee’s report as “scaremongering”. Similar criticisms have also been discounted in the past.
But the criticism will not go away – it’s growing by the day – and now those in the corridors of power have added their voice. Those in the mental health sector and elsewhere have to keep on pushing until the critical voices become so loud that the Government has no option but to listen – and act.