Incapacity Benefit: Reassessments
Private Members’ Business
Mickey Brady (Sinn Féin)
I beg to move
That this Assembly expresses concern that the reassessment process for people who are moving from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance is resulting in many people being unfairly deemed “fit for work” and losing their benefit; and calls on the Minister for Social Development to review urgently the reassessment process to avoid both the undue distress it is causing and the additional burden it is placing on the public purse by triggering so many appeals.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I think that the motion is one that Members can support because it affects and will continue to affect all constituencies. Under welfare reform, 76,000 people here will migrate from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance. The exercise will take approximately three years to complete, having started in February 2011 and running, if on time, to March 2014.
The North has a higher proportion of claimants on incapacity benefit than England or the other devolved Administrations: 8·6% of our working-age population receive incapacity benefit compared with 5·2% in Britain. Therefore, the migration of claimants to employment and support allowance, in particular, will have a greater impact.
The work capability assessment was introduced in October 2008 to assess entitlement to ESA, which has replaced incapacity benefit, and income support on incapacity grounds, for new claimants from 27 October 2008. The assessment is being used to determine limited capability for work and limited capability for work-related activity. In the transition from incapacity benefit to ESA, it is intended that the award of ESA will become the main route to disability-related support within universal credit, so access to employment and support allowance will be determined by the work capability assessment.
There is a high level of ill health and disability within disadvantaged communities. There is obviously an association between poverty and ill health and disability. Approximately one third of disabled people currently live in poverty. There is evidence to show that incapacity benefit and DLA have had a significant impact on reducing poverty. There is no doubt that impending changes will reverse that trend and increase poverty among the sick and disabled. Many people are currently entitled to incapacity benefit and DLA. The implementation of changes such as the work capability assessment currently deals with incapacity benefit, but a similar process will be introduced for DLA.
According to Advice NI, approximately 60% of incapacity benefit claimants are aged 50 or over. Some 9,000 live in Belfast and 4,000 in Derry, with the third largest concentration in Craigavon. Almost 50% suffer from mental and behavioural disorders such as drug and alcohol addiction. The Law Centre has also been concerned about the limited understanding of mental health problems in the assessment process and the limited weight given to supplementary evidence such as GPs’ and carers’ testimonies. It also states that 46∙6% of individuals in receipt of incapacity benefit here have mental or behavioural disorders. It states that mental health issues need to be more specifically focused on in addressing the migration process.
Figures from DSD indicate that, to date, 9,000 claimants have been reassessed, of which 24% were declared fit for work and lost their entitlement, 46% were deemed fit for work with support, and 30% were assessed as unfit to work and gained unconditional ESA entitlement. Advice NI estimates that more than 20,000 will have their entitlement downgraded to the support category, and that group will be subject to a loss of benefit sanctions in line with jobseeker’s allowance.
I will now deal with some of the specifics of the work capability assessment. It is carried out by Atos, which is a data processing company contracted here by the Minister’s predecessor to carry out reassessments in relation to incapacity benefit. Atos is paid by results, the result being the number of people processed rather than the accuracy of the reassessment. The work capability assessment is a tick-box exercise that relies on standard interrogation techniques to identify inconsistencies in a claimant’s account, which could result in no points being awarded — it is a points-based process. The claimant is not privy to the point-scoring during interview and has no opportunity to challenge any judgements by the Atos operative, which are often highly subjective judgements at the time.
I have spoken to some claimants who have had some ridiculous decisions given to them, and I will give some examples. Mental health was assessed by asking general knowledge questions, such as who is the British Prime Minister; and people have been asked to count backwards from 400 to 350. Someone not actively rocking in their chair is taken as an indication that they do not have a mental illness. That is one of the recommended criteria for Atos operatives to use as an evaluation. Declaring someone fit for work on the basis that they had been discharged from hospital, despite the fact that they had been discharged because they were too ill to undergo further treatment.
Medical evidence as well as the work capability assessment can be submitted to the decision-maker, a member of the Social Security Agency, but, currently, the work capability assessment has primacy in the decision-making process. The administrative downgrading of medical evidence in the primary process is why so many decisions are overturned on appeal. I know that an amendment has been tabled in relation to the provision of medical evidence. In my experience over many years of dealing with cases of incapacity, etc, and, indeed, appeals, good medical evidence is always a prerequisite and, if it is available, it will certainly help in the process. Indeed, in two of the examples I have given, where claimants received no points, they easily won their appeals and were awarded points well in excess of those required to win their appeal.
Recently, the chief executive of Mind, Paul Farmer, resigned from the British Government’s advisory group tasked with scrutinising the work capability assessment. He resigned in frustration at the Government’s refusal to listen to growing chorus of alarm over the reliability of the test.
Disability charity Scope backed MIND’s decision, saying that the huge number of successful appeals was a damning indictment of the test.
A CAB study into the accuracy of the test found that people with serious illnesses and disabilities who could not reasonably be expected to seek work have been found fit for work. It reported that 60% of successful appeals involved claimants who had originally been awarded no points by the work capability assessment (WCA). The work capability assessment has been fundamental, not marginal, yet despite evidence of the scale of WCA inaccuracies, the British Employment Minister, Chris Grayling, claimed the process required only tweaks.
I urge the Minister to take into account the following suggestions: the immediate review of the work capability assessment to ensure that the assessment process is fit for purpose; DSD could assume responsibility either for getting medical evidence on behalf of the claimant or for meeting the cost of medical reports to be assessed by the Social Security Agency’s decision-maker in relation to the awarding of employment and support allowance; GPs, consultants and other health professionals could consider waiving fees for providing medical evidence in support of ESA claims by their patients; the current Atos Healthcare payment-by-results regime should include a penalty for any inaccuracies or errors in its assessment if a case is overturned on appeal, or, where this may not be deliverable in relation to the current contract, it could be inserted into any subsequent or renewal contract.
In Britain, Atos Healthcare has netted over £1 billion to date and is running at a cost to the Department for Work and Pensions of £100 million a year. More and more appeals are being lodged because of the flaws in the work capability assessment. In 2011, an estimated £50 million of taxpayers’ money was poured into appeals against Atos Healthcare rulings. Four of every 10 appeals were successful. Professor Malcolm Harrington, who reviewed the work capability assessment, stated that he was “shocked” and “staggered” by the tremendous waste of public money tied up in the appeals process.
“My Department will continue to review WCA and to make changes where necessary to ensure that our high standards of support continue.”
He also said:
“We can however give an assurance that at the Department for Social Development we will continue to place the customer at the forefront of our priorities as we move forward”.