Work Capability Assessment — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:07 pm on 5th November 2014.

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Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

As of 30 September 2014, there were around 580,000 cases awaiting work capability assessments at Atos Healthcare, down from 616,000 at the end of August. These figures do not include cases where the claimant has yet to return the claimant questionnaire.

Photo of Lord McAvoy Lord McAvoy Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland)

My Lords, will the Minister confirm the number of disabled people who are waiting for their first work capability assessment? The figures show that the suffering of hundreds of thousands of disabled people is being increased on a daily basis by a Government who are failing in their duty of care. The Minister is quite keen to say how he is clearing up this mess. Does he not also owe an apology to the people affected?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The service that we provided is not where we want it to be—we have been clear about that. We are pulling down the backlog; it is down by 20% since February. We announced in March that Atos would be leaving the contract, and we were able to announce last week that Maximus Health and Human Services is taking it up from that date.

Photo of Lord German Lord German Liberal Democrat

My Lords, we now have a new supplier of these work capability assessments. Most of the staff are being transferred using the transfer of undertakings. May I and the House be reassured that the transfer of undertakings will not include a transfer of working practices? In particular, perhaps my noble friend can tell us whether he agrees with the recommendation from the Government’s own assessor of this policy, Dr Litchfield, that less emphasis should be placed on the number of points attained in the test and that the calculation should be used,

“simply to determine whether the threshold for benefit has been reached”.

Surely that is a much fairer way of doing these assessments. Does the Minister agree?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

We are not changing the actual assessments, but we are improving the quality of those assessments; expanding the number of medical professionals, particularly in mental health; understanding how fluctuating conditions work, and so on.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, in his reply to the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, the Minister said that the new contract between Maximus and the DWP had now been signed. In view of the phenomenal sums of public money which are involved in this, can the Minister tell us when that contract will be placed in the public domain, whether it will be possible properly to scrutinise it and whether it will be possible for the public to see the operating systems and all the other issues involved, in contrast to way in which the Atos Healthcare contract was administered?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Details of the new contract will be published on Contracts Finder by the end of November.

Photo of Baroness Uddin Baroness Uddin Non-affiliated

My Lords, only recently, almost half of work capability assessment appeals were successful. New leaked papers tell us that even where eligibility is conceded and faulty work capability assessment decisions are reversed, employment and support allowance is providing less support to disabled people. Can the Minister rule out an announcement of new cuts to ESA in this Parliament?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

If the noble Baroness is referring to a newspaper story about 50p, I can assure her that that is not government policy.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, what progress is being made in getting more disabled people working, which is so important for their self-esteem?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

We have seen 116,000 disabled people return to the workforce this year. That is a 4% increase and is faster than the 2.6% rate of increase which is the average.

Photo of The Bishop of St Albans The Bishop of St Albans Bishop

My Lords, great concern has been expressed by some people about how work capability assessments are being carried out and whether those undertaking them have the right skills and expertise. Indeed, in one anecdotal case, the health professional who undertook a complex mental health assessment was a physiotherapist. If that is the case, surely it cannot be right. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that those undertaking the assessments have the right skills and experience to be able to do them properly?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The important thing about doing these assessments is that someone assesses correctly in terms of capability of performing functions and capability of working; that is, what people are able to do. As I said earlier, we have more specialist professional support going into the system to make sure that those assessments are done accurately.

Photo of The Countess of Mar The Countess of Mar Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, is there any foundation to the report in the Independent last week that some 6,000 people with diseases such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and severe CFS/ME have been put into the work-related activity group? If that is the case, how many of those people have been got into work? What is the point of putting them in the WRAG if they are not going to get better?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Clearly, I am not able to respond on specific people going into specific places. The whole point of the assessments is to focus on functional capability or needs at the point of assessment.

Photo of Baroness Hollis of Heigham Baroness Hollis of Heigham Labour

My Lords, 40% of people appeal against their assessment, some of them terminally ill. The DWP has added an extra stage to the appeals process, mandatory reconsideration by the department, but—and this is key—there is no time limit for staff to meet. Tiny numbers of appeals are being processed; the rest are being seriously delayed by six months or more. What is the Minister doing to speed up those appeals?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The noble Baroness is quite right that the rate of appeals has fallen very steeply, by 92% in the latest quarter compared with a year earlier. It is too early to tell the definitive reasons for that. It may well be due to many of the changes that have gone through—75 recommendations have gone through—or to mandatory reconsideration so that we look at it early. However, when you look at the backlog of mandatory reconsiderations, you see that the pure numbers do not seem to be a huge influencing factor in this fall in appeals.

Photo of Baroness Manzoor Baroness Manzoor Liberal Democrat

My Lords, looking at the number of people who will be moved across under TUPE, can the Minister say what percentage of new staff will be introduced to ensure that we have a faster and more effective service?

Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

All the providers within Atos were retested in 2013, so those will transfer. Maximus will bounce up the numbers—the precise numbers are not available yet—to do this particular contract.