The Appeal Court’s decision last week to rule that the work capability assessment (WCA) for employment and support allowance (ESA) disadvantages people with mental ill health, learning disabilities and autism was met with a hearty ‘told you so’ by many in the sector. But that doesn’t mean the test is going to be reformed.
The judgement said that the current system is unfair to people with mental ill health, learning disabilities or autism because supporting evidence from a professional such as a GP or social worker is expected to be provided by the claimant themselves. For these people, seeking evidence can be very challenging because their health or condition can make it hard for them to understand or navigate the complex processes involved in being assessed.
This will have come as no surprise to anyone with mental ill health problems or learning disabilities, or who works with them, as the people directly affected have been making this point ever since the WCA was introduced, by the previous Labour Government, in 2008.
But this is not the only issue affecting the WCA, with many saying that it doesn’t take into account the complexities of mental illness and the fluctuating nature of a wide range of conditions.
For me, the sure sign that the WCA is flawed lies in the number of decisions that are overturned on appeal: 38%, according to the Public Accounts Committee. Although how many of those are people with mental health problems or learning disabilities is unclear. Nevertheless, 38% is far too high a number, and costs the taxpayer millions each year. Of course, the human cost of such decisions is incalculable – and much more important.
But despite these criticisms the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), headed by Iain Duncan Smith, has stood steadfastly by the WCA. It says that the changes made following the three reviews by Professor Malcolm Harrington from 2010-2012 have improved the assessment and the Department continually looks to improve the process.
So it was perhaps inevitable that the Secretary of State did not accept the judges’ decision and has gone to the Supreme Court to appeal. The hearing will take place on July 29.
As a result, it is by no means certain that any changes will be made to the WCA. If the DWP loses its appeal, then it will have to make reforms to ensure the test is lawful. However, that is a big ‘if’. In the meantime, the assessments carry on as normal.
But whatever the outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision, the Government must surely look again at the WCA. The weight of evidence against it is growing and comes from increasingly eminent sources: it cannot be ignored any longer.
Put simply, there are thousands of people being made to suffer unnecessarily, due to what many observers, including judges, believe to be a flawed process. While there have to be eligibility criteria for receiving ESA, the test has to be fair to all, and not put already vulnerable people at a disadvantage.
The imperative to cut the benefits bill must not be allowed to override the wellbeing of the people affected.