14 July 2006
Hurried attempts to 'transform' the Personal Capability Assessment, the test of incapacity for work, by September are a shambles 'beyond satire' according to insiders.

No firm proposals have yet been developed by the specially appointed groups and many of those involved know little about incapacity benefit in general and the LiMA computer system in particular. The changes are needed to allow the PCA to be used with the government's proposed replacement for incapacity benefit, the Employment and Support Allowance.

Meanwhile, a senior source at the DWP described the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Jim Murphy, as being 'shocked' at what he saw on his first visit to a Medical Centre where claimants are assessed for incapacity benefit.

Two Technical Working Groups were set up in April of this year by the government to 'transform' the Personal Capability Assessment, with the DWP's timetable being that the final proposals should be made by September and passed into law in the spring of 2007. This would allow the transformed, and possibly harder to pass, test to be firmly bedded in prior to the introduction of the Employment and Support Allowance in 2008. The Technical Working Groups include representatives of various Royal Colleges (see list at the end of this article) but few people with detailed knowledge of the benefits system.

However, disability organisations immediately complained that they were not represented on the Technical Working Groups. Rather than allow them onto the technical groups, the government hastily set up a Mental health Consultative Group to include representatives of some of the major mental health charities. Even this was mismanaged, however, with no representatives of organisations for people with learning disabilities or with autistic spectrum disorders being included - they had to be drafted in later after their omission was pointed out to the DWP. Given that ministers have said that the new PCA will be subject to an evaluation which "will look at the impact of the revised PCA on people with mental illness, learning disabilities and autistic spectrum disorders" this was a very basic omission.

As well as a Mental health Consultative group, an Overarching Consultative Group was set up to look at both physical and mental health descriptors, with representatives of disability charities and organisations such as Disability Alliance and the Citizens Advice Bureau sitting on it.

Going nowhere
The role of the consultative groups is unclear, but they are unquestionably subordinate to the technical groups. Attendance at meetings is voluntary and those on the consultative groups probably have little time to devote to it on top of all their other responsibilities. In addition, many have expert knowledge of disability issues but little specialist benefits knowledge. What most expected was that they would be provided with copies of a fully developed proposal for a revised test which they could then comment on from the particular perspective of their disability group.

Astonishingly, however, neither the DWP nor the Technical Working Groups appear to have any firm ideas about how the test should be changed and the entire process is currently going nowhere. According to one insider:

"It is beyond satire the arrangements. So far nobody has produced any proposals that are thought through. There do not appear to be any DWP people working on the review behind the scenes, so there is no proposal or options or provision of research papers, no follow up. We have been given constantly changing briefs."

As a result of the lack of preparation the meetings, which began in April and happen only once a month, are almost entirely unproductive:

"People tend to shout out ideas and these are not discussed but we move on to new ideas."

Just as alarmingly, the majority of representatives on the groups and committees have little, if any, understanding of Lima, the software used by Medical Services to carry out assessments. A presentation explaining how Lima works has been arranged for the end of July, not much more than a month before the proposals for a transformed PCA are supposed to be finalised. The new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Jim Murphy, on the other hand, has already had his introduction to Lima during a visit to a Medical Examination Centre. He was, according to a senior source at the DWP, 'shocked' by what he witnessed.

No plan
It seems then, that the government's welfare reform plans are every bit as ill thought out as many commentators had suspected. There is no master plan for changing the PCA or for selecting who will receive the Support Component of the Employment and Support Allowance. There are just headline grabbing pronouncements with, as yet, virtually nothing of substance behind them. But if a half-baked new test is introduced it will be, as always, claimants who will pay the price for government's incompetence.


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