Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is deeply flawed

By Simon Barrow
January 16, 2012

This week the Welfare Reform Bill returns to the House of Lords, following three damaging defeats for the government last week. Disability Living Allowance, the subject of the #spartacusreport, will come into the spotlight. But so will assessment - not least the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), which is being used in relation to Employment Support Allowance (ESA). It is the process by which people in receipt of the allowance are formally tested to see if they are "fit for work".

Citizens Advice, the respected umbrella organisation for CABs, has recently issued a damning verdict on WCA and its impact on vulnerable people. Its research indicates that up to 40 per cent of assessments may be innacurate, resulting in seriously disabled or ill claimants losing their benefit. There are huge appeal log-jams for a process which disabled people, charities and welfare experts say is deeply flawed. Moreover, 70 per cent of those decisions are being overturned.

People undergoing them have described the assessment processes as "humiliating and degrading" and "causing great anxiety to those genuinely in need." Meanwhile, just one per cent of claimants are being found unfit to work. Testimony from consultants and GPs is often ignored entirely. People are dying before lengthy appeals can be heard. And the descriptors used exclude many serious, long term conditions or disabilities.

Disabled and sick people themselves have been researching WCA over a period of seven months, drawing on accounts by users and advisers. The picture the dozens of case notes they have highlighted paints is very different to the overall endorsement of the system from the Harrington review and senior politicians.

Ekklesia has been asked to forward copies of this dossier to parliamentarians, and has happily done so. In our covering note to Crossbench peers and others, we explained yesterday:

Along with Citizens Advice in their recent report on the subject, we believe that [the WCA] assessment process and is leading to many thousands of sick, disabled and vulnerable people losing vital support.

The issues and policies involved in the Welfare Reform Bill and Professor Harrington’s review of the WCA are a matter of survival for people living with illness and disability in this country. Yet it appears that the voices and experiences of those most deeply impacted by government policies are not being heard with sufficient clarity and force by those in both Houses considering the present reforms.

To that end we are pleased to present [this] dossier, which has been prepared and submitted to us confidentially by disabled and sick people themselves. It highlights the extremely damaging impact of the WCA in practical terms – in contrast to the many positive public utterances and aspirations expressed by senior politicians and civil servants in relation to the Harrington review.

We hope that you will take time to read the enclosed comments from those involved with the WCA (as users and advisers) at the sharp end. As you will note, they present a very different view of matters to the government’s principal advisors.

Last week, Crossbench and other peers sent out a clear message to the government that a significant re-think is needed on key aspects of its welfare reform and benefits legislation. Disabled and sick people, backed by a huge range of charities, civic organisations, academics, medical professionals and research-based agencies such as ourselves, are calling for a legislative pause on plans for Personal Independence Payment - in order to reconsider the evidence to make sure that any assessment process which may be used is not a repeat of the flawed WCA.

Lord Freud has expressed scepticism about the CAB report. Our consideration of the evidence suggests that he is wrong. But where there is doubt, and where the lives of thousands of vulnerable people are concerned, the only responsible course of action is surely to take the time needed to assess the evidence-base properly.

Here are three responses to a summary of the Citizens Advice report on Work Capability Assessment in the Guardian newspaper, which illustrate painfully the ongoing problems.

* "I do not believe the system has improved. Two years ago Atos scored me at zero; nearly 11 months later the tribunal, after completing only half of the questions, had scored me at 24. My complaints about the blatant errors in the assessment report were ignored by DWP [Department of Work and Pensions] and Atos [their contractor]. A few months ago I started receiving requests for me to complete anther form, and attend another assessment. By this time I was retired from work, on a private pension, and had not been eligible for ESA for over a year but in spite of several calls to DWP, the letters kept coming. In the end I attended the appointment, because Atos were sending threatening letters. I have no idea what I scored this time, as that was the last I heard from them. DWP haven't replied to me complaints about this. (Although I assume that Atos were paid for pestering me and conducting an assessment on someone who wasn't claiming any benefits?)

* Cheryl Hunter: "I took a Dictaphone with me to a friend's assessment as I had heard of the injustices that were taking place. The interviewer would not allow me to use it and refused to carry on with the interview if I did not switch it off (what do they have to hide?). So I wrote notes instead and true to form the resulting report did not match up with the questions that were answered by the claimant. I.e. 'Do you enjoy watching films?' culminated in ' Mr ... watches TV throughout the day' !!! Am I correct in my understanding that ATOS assessors get paid a bonus for each claimant that they can move onto ESA or JSA? Ahem...".

* "I had a full blown panic attack in front of an Atos assessor and was so distressed that the receptionist refused to let me travel home alone and called me a cab. I got zero points for mental health and was passed 'fit for work'."

The government says WCA is "improving". But critics, ourselves included, believe that it is demonstrably not fit for purpose.

You can read the Citizens Advice ESA/WCA evidence to the government, entitled 'Not Working', in full here (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat file):


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He has been leading our collaboration with the authors of the the Spartacus Report. See:

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.