Accuracy of work capability tests put in doubt

Most of the new medical assessments carried out for people applying for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) are inaccurate, finds the Citizens Advice Bureau in a new report ,Right First Time? Employment and Support Allowance was introduced in October 2008 as a replacement for incapacity benefits. A new medical assessment, the work capability assessment (WCA), was introduced alongside the ESA. Up to May 2011, almost 350,000 enquiries had been made to the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) in England and Wales for help, the high level reflecting the anxiety the new tests were causing. CAB advisers found that:

People with serious illnesses and disabilities, who could not reasonably be expected to seek work, are found fit for work. Others, who, with considerable support, could undertake some work, are denied benefit and, with it, the support it offers to prepare for returning to work. Many of these people are too ill to sign on for jobseekers’ allowance (JSA) – they are left with no money to live on and are unable to seek work.

For this report, Citizens Advice examined in-depth the reports collected from clients applying for ESA across the country, identified before they attended their initial WCAs. ‘We asked each participant to request a copy of their WCA report from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), following their medical assessment. A total of 80 reports were provided by clients. This report describes analysis of 37 of these reports, all of which came from clients verified as having agreed to take part before they had had their assessment.’ The report found that 16 of the cases (43 per cent) revealed ‘serious levels of inaccuracy’, and a further 10 had a ‘medium level of inaccuracy’. Only 11 cases were entirely accurate or had a low level of inaccuracy.

The report confirms other evidence of widespread mis-assessment. The previous summer, the Commons’ Work and Pensions Select Committee had said that the very mention of Atos Healthcare (the company contracted to carry out the capability tests) triggered ‘fear and loathing among claimants’. Extreme examples include some terminally ill cancer patients being told they are fit for work while others have died from their conditions shortly after being assessed as fit.

Between October 2008 and February 2010, 36 per cent of those found fit to work in their initial assessment appealed against the decision. The most recent figures show that 39 per cent of these appeals against decisions not to award ESA have been overturned in the claimant’s favour.

The DWP claims that there have been changes to the system designed to iron out its flaws.

The full report, Right First Time?, is available from the Citizens Advice Bureau website.