23 November 2010

The coalition government has today accepted every negative finding of Professor Malcolm Harrington’s review of the work capability assessment and agreed to take action on them.  At the same time, with infinite hypocrisy and cynicism it is pushing ahead with making the test very much harsher in time for the testing of incapacity benefits claimants beginning in April.   

Over 400 responses

Professor Harrington’s first annual review of the work capability assessment, the medical test to decide eligibility for employment and support allowance, was published today.  The requirement for a review was laid down in the legislation when the WCA was first created. 

Harrington received over 400 responses to his call for evidence and we know from emails we have received that many of these came form Benefits and Work  subscribers. 

The report, however, is supportive of the idea of the WCA, but it is critical of the way that it is implemented and makes a wide range of suggestions for changes.

Decision makers don’t
One of  the most damning findings of the review is that:  “Decision Makers do not in practice make decisions, but instead they typically ‘rubber stamp’ the advice provided through the Atos assessment.”

The report quotes one Jobcentre Plus decision maker as saying:

“It’s difficult. I mean, they’re a doctor. They’ve assessed the person, I don’t know enough about it to overrule what they’re saying.”

The DWP have set up a decision makers forum called “Every Decision Counts” and are to provide extra training and assessment for decision makers in an effort to address this issue.

Decision makers contacting claimants
Harrington refers with approval to trials in Wrexham in which decision makers phoned claimants who were appealing an ESA decision to explain the reasons for the decision. 

In 10% of cases, according to the DWP, ‘the original decision was changed or the individual withdrew their appeal.’  The fact that the DWP do not say what percentage withdrew and what percentage got a better decision is significant.  It seems highly likely that what happened is that the majority were persuaded to drop their appeal – possibly by being told that it had no prospect of success.

That the DWP have decided to roll this pilot out across the country strongly supports this suspicion. 

Given that 40% of appeals are successful it seems extraordinary that Harrington supports the idea of the very people whose decision making he so strongly criticises contacting claimants in this prejudicial way.

Benefits and Work will be producing guidance on how to deal with such calls.

Work is good for you
Extraordinarily, Harrington has also recommended that tribunal judges should be given training on the beneficial effects of work to an individual’s well-being. 

This seems to be a blatant attempt to prejudice judges in favour of finding claimants fit for work and calls into question Harrington’s understanding of how the law is supposed to work.  A judge’s sole responsibility is to consider whether appellants meet the legal requirements for being found incapable of work, not to decide whether or not seeking employment would be good for them.

Personalised summaries by health professionals
Harrington recommends  that Atos health professionals should write  a ‘personalised summary’ of their recommendations and send this to each claimant as a way of ‘improving the transparency of the process’.  The idea is that this summary should not be created just by clicking with a mouse on standard statements, as the rest of the medical report is. 

This may be a positive development if it obliges the health professional to actually give a moment’s though to the human being in front of them.  If this summary contradicts the report in any way, it may be useful evidence at an appeal.  If it turns out to be made up of standard statements that may also undermine the report.

Recording medicals

Harrington also recommends the piloting of audio recording of assessments.  This is undoubtedly due to the many submissions to the review by Benefits and Work subscribers who have been waging a war of attrition with Atos/DWP to get the right to record their medicals.

However, there is no certainty that any pilots will lead to a full scale right to have your medical recorded and Harrington himself raises concerns about the storage of such sensitive data and the possible effects on the Tribunal Service.

Mental champions

Harrington found that there were particular difficulties in assessing:
“subjective conditions such as mental health or other fluctuating conditions. As a result, some of the descriptors used in the assessment may not adequately measure or reflect the full impact of such conditions on the individual’s capability for work”

One recommendation Harrington has made as a result is:

 “ensuring Atos employ “mental, intellectual and cognitive champions” in each Medical Examination Centre to spread best practice and build understanding of these disabilities”.

This is a long way from actually employing health professionals who have expertise in these areas and seems like a cheap and  ineffective way of dealing with the failings of the WCA.

Review of mental health descriptors
Harrington has set up a group consisting of Mind, Mencap and the National Autistic Society to make recommendations for improvements to the mental, cognitive and intellectual functions descriptors.  However, these recommendations will not be passed to ministers until early 2011 and the government have not given an undertaking to implement them.

Even if they are accepted in full, it is highly improbable that they would be brought into force before the beginning of reassessment of incapacity benefit claimants in April 2011. Meanwhile, the much harsher mental health descriptors will already have been introduced.

The future
In the coming year, Harrington will look at many other aspects of the WCA, including the LiMA computer system and how well the descriptors deal with fluctuating conditions.

But the reality is that his review has done little but tinker at the edges of the problem. 

The government has accepted all Harrington’s recommendations, but also states clearly in their response that “In the Summer we announced a number of changes to the assessment, which will be put in place in March 2011”. 

Those changes include severely reducing the opportunity to score points for mental health conditions and drastically cutting the number of descriptors for physical health.  (See: Even harsher new ESA medical approved)

They will make the WCA even harsher and will result in an even higher proportion of sick and disabled people being forced onto JSA or off benefits altogether.

So, despite the hype around the Harrington report and the coalition’s apparent willingness to play fair, claimants are about to be pushed even further into misery and poverty by an increasingly unfair assessment created by ever more deceitful politicians.

You can download a copy of the Harrington report and the coalition’s response from this page.


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