Employment and Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments

– in Westminster Hall at 2:57 pm on 5th February 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

[Relevant documents: Employment and Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments, First Report from the Work and Pensions Committee, HC 302, and the Government response, Cm 8967.]

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 3:00 pm, 5th February 2015

I am delighted to be given the opportunity to discuss one of the more recent reports of the Work and Pensions Committee, on the operation of employment and support allowance and the work capability assessment.

Many people going through the ESA claims process are unhappy with the way they are treated and the decisions made about their fitness for work. Atos, the current provider of the WCA, became a lightning rod for all the negativity about the ESA process and is exiting its contract at the end of the month. Our report concluded that the flaws in the ESA system are so grave that simply rebranding the assessment used to determine eligibility for ESA—the WCA—by appointing a new contractor would not solve the problems we identified.

We called on the Government to undertake a fundamental redesign of the whole ESA process from end to end to ensure that the benefit’s main purpose—helping claimants with health conditions and disabilities to move into employment where that is possible for them—is achieved. We acknowledged that a redesign could not happen overnight, but the current system needs to be improved now, because it is causing claimants considerable distress and anxiety.

During our inquiry, the Department for Work and Pensions announced that the contract with Atos to carry out the WCA would end and that a new private contractor would be found. We believed that that provided an ideal opportunity to make shorter-term improvements to the process. We recommended a number of changes to help claimants receive an improved service and to make the decision-making process and the outcomes for claimants more accurate and appropriate.

The DWP announced that the new private contractor—Maximus—will take over the WCA contract from 1 March. We hope that the DWP and Maximus will use this new start to address the problems our report identified. However, it is important to remember that the DWP makes the decision about a claimant’s eligibility for ESA—it is not Atos, and nor will it be Maximus. The face-to-face assessment is only one part of the process. On its own, putting a new private provider in place will not address the problems with ESA and the WCA.

In response to our report, the Government said they were already doing some of the things we said were necessary. They rejected some recommendations altogether, including our call for a fundamental redesign. However, since our report was published, Dr Litchfield has published his independent review of year 5 of the WCA, and he clearly shares many of our concerns, as Professor Harrington did in the first three reviews.

One key issue our report identified is that ESA is not achieving its purpose of helping people who could work in the short-to-medium term to move back into employment. Our recommendations for the ESA redesign therefore focused on ensuring that the process properly identifies claimants’ health barriers to employment and the particular support they need so that the conditionality they are subject to, and the employment support they receive, can be tailored more closely to their circumstances.

Linked to that is our finding that the outcomes of the ESA claims process are too simplistic. Claimants can be found fit for work, in which case they are not eligible to claim ESA. They might be able to claim jobseeker’s allowance, but many are reluctant to do that, because they know they will not be able to meet the job search commitments required as a result of being on JSA. The DWP has repeatedly said that jobcentre staff can tailor conditionality to the needs of individuals with a health condition or disability, but the extent to which that happens in practice is very patchy.

Claimants found to have such limited functionality that they cannot undertake work-related activity are placed in the support group, where they are subject to no work-related conditionality. The numbers placed in the support group have increased steadily since ESA was introduced, because the Department has now realised that, surprisingly enough, many people who were claiming incapacity benefit had serious long-term conditions that meant they were unable to look for work—that is why they were on incapacity benefit in the first place. Such people should be not only not expected, but not mandated, to look for work.

We therefore have two extremes: people are either fit for work or not fit for any work. In the middle, however, there is a huge group that has become known as the work-related activity group, and everyone else is placed in it. These people are not yet fit for work, and they may even have a deteriorating condition, but they are required none the less to undertake work-related activity. Our report concluded that the WRAG covers too wide a spectrum of claimants with very different prognoses. Their employment support needs are not being properly assessed in the WCA or by the employment support providers they are referred to, so they are not getting the help they need to return to work. Proper account needs to be taken of where a claimant in the WRAG is on the spectrum of readiness for work, given the wide range of conditions and disabilities this group of claimants encompasses and the different impacts the same condition or disability can have on an individual claimant’s functional capacity.

To improve the process of assessing health-related barriers to employment, we recommended that a separate assessment of those barriers be reintroduced. The original design of ESA included a work-focused health-related assessment, which the Government suspended in 2010, and such an assessment, or something similar, should be introduced.

We were also concerned about the descriptors used in the WCA process, because they are a very blunt instrument for assessing the functional impact a particular condition or disability has on an individual. That is particularly true of mental health problems, cognitive problems and fluctuating conditions. The descriptors, including their effectiveness and the way they are applied, should be re-evaluated as part of the redesign.

The Government turned down our request for a major redesign, but there are things we thought they could do in the short term, so let me list some of the changes we would like to see. The DWP acknowledged that the contract with Maximus will cost more money, but that is justified if the service to claimants is better. To ensure that it is, the DWP needs rigorously to monitor Maximus’s service. If the service to claimants falls short, the DWP must take immediate action, including imposing contractual penalties on Maximus. Such careful monitoring by the DWP of service standards did not always happen with the Atos contract.

We recommended that, where possible, paper-based assessments are used to place people in the support group, where a person’s health condition or disability clearly has a severe impact on their capability to work, and that people are not required to go through a WCA. Unnecessary and too frequent reassessments should also be avoided, especially for people with deteriorating conditions and for claimants who have just been successful in an appeal. That will be quite important in the new contract, because Atos has effectively given up on doing those reassessments as it exits the contract, and Maximus will have to address the issue. There is still a problem with too frequent and inappropriate reassessments for people with deteriorating conditions.

The DWP should improve the way it communicates with claimants. The letters sent to claimants are too technical and complex. They need to be in plain English and to avoid using jargon. We wanted to ban the terms “limited capability for work” and “limited capability for work-related activity”. Mr Walker, if you can tell which one puts somebody in the support group, the WRAG or the JSA fit-for-work group, you probably understand these letters better than most claimants, and certainly better than some members of the Committee. I think that having “limited capability for work” means someone is in the WRAG, and that “limited capability for work-related activity”, means that they are in the support group; but who knows? It is part of the confusion. We want the DWP to make changes to the language in the letters to claimants.

In response to our report, the Government said that they are reviewing all ESA communications and that they plan to introduce a new version of the ESA50 form that claimants complete to apply for the benefit. It would be helpful if the Minister would tell us whether the new form is now being used and what progress has been made in reviewing the ESA letters and other communications.

The aim of some of our recommendations was that the DWP should take greater responsibility for the end-to-end ESA claims process. Atos became the target for claimants’ anger at the way the process was carried out, as if somehow the Department for Work and Pensions was not involved. We believe that the DWP rather than Maximus should decide whether claimants need a face-to-face assessment. Again, the Government did not seem to be persuaded by our arguments for that change, and it would be helpful if the Minister would explain why.

We also recommended that the DWP should proactively seek “supporting evidence” for the impact of a claimant’s condition or disability on their functional capacity, rather than, as is the current arrangement, leaving it primarily to claimants, who often have to pay. We also believe that the DWP should stop relying so heavily on GPs for supporting evidence, because they are often not best placed to provide the most useful information. Other professionals, including social workers and occupational therapists, often have a better idea of the impact that a condition has on a person, as opposed to knowing about the medical condition.

Paul Gray made similar recommendations about seeking supporting evidence from professionals other than GPs in his review of the personal independence payment assessment. He also made the very sensible point that the DWP should take steps to share information from the different assessments that many disabled and sick people go through in rapid succession—particularly in the WCA and PIP processes, but also for social care assessments—rather than persisting with the current duplication and repetition. That happens again and again, and claimants feel angry when they have already given information once or twice. Sharing information is important. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us whether he envisages the DWP acting on Paul Gray’s proposal.

Our report also dealt with the issue of putting claimants in the WRAG when their prognosis is that they are unlikely to experience a change in their functional abilities in the longer term. Perhaps the problem is that the WRAG encompasses such a wide range of conditions. Some people’s prognosis is that they will get better, while others’ is that they will get worse. Yet they tend at the moment to be treated as a homogeneous group. The WRAG serves as a default group, and because there is no work-focused health-related assessment those in it are not properly assessed to see what would help them back to work.

We were particularly concerned about people with progressive conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. If they are not expected to be able to work within a reasonable time scale, because their condition is getting worse, they should be placed in the support group, so that work-related conditions that they cannot fulfil will not be imposed on them. The Minister said in oral evidence to the Committee last week that he would respond to that point more fully today, and I hope he is now in a position to do that.

We made recommendations about the mandatory reconsideration and appeals processes, but time is moving on and perhaps other hon. Members will raise those important matters.

Providing financial support to people who are too ill or disabled to work is a fundamental part of the benefits system. Of course it is right that people should be encouraged and supported to return to work when their condition allows them to, but the help that they need through that process must be properly assessed and tailored to their personal circumstances. The Committee does not believe, on the basis of the evidence from our inquiry, that the current ESA process has been shown to be effective in fulfilling those functions. We stand by our call for a fundamental redesign of the ESA and the WCA. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s views on why the Government do not agree with us.

Photo of Anne Marie Morris Anne Marie Morris Conservative, Newton Abbot 3:14 pm, 5th February 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.

I want first to give the Government credit for making great steps forward with the challenges and issues we are discussing, and in supporting individuals with getting into work. That is important, and it makes people feel worthwhile and fulfilled. Clearly, however, no system is perfect, and the job of a Select Committee is to consider not what works but what does not, and to get it put right. That inevitably sets the focus.

There has clearly been a fair amount of change in the Government’s approach to the work capability assessment. The Work and Pensions Committee was right to point out that when there is a significant amount of change, it must be managed. I am sure that I share with other hon. Members the experience of dealing with constituents who have found that in practice some of the changes have not worked as well as they might.

One of the main changes was the move from asking someone what illness they had to asking them what, functionally, they could do. That was significant, and moving to the new assessment would inevitably be a challenge. Clearly, however, it was a move in the right direction. Just having a particular condition does not mean ex post facto and for ever being unable to work. I understand why the Government moved in that direction, and I think they were right.

As always, the challenge is in the implementation. That implementation challenge is probably in two parts. One is the fact that the process is not quite right, which was largely what the Work and Pensions Committee, of which I am a member, discussed. The other is the people involved in the system and the way they apply it. That is partly to do with culture change and partly to do with training; it is about getting used to a new way of doing things. There were always going to be challenges, but as Dame Anne Begg, who is a wonderful Chair of the Select Committee, made clear, it is right that people with disabilities and health problems should receive all the help they need to get into the world of work.

Dr Litchfield made an interesting comment in his last report—that we need a system that is not only fair but seen to be fair, which is quite a challenge. It will be even more of a challenge for the Government given the unhappy experiences of many of our constituents with Atos. One of the fundamental challenges, to which the hon. Lady referred, is the new functional test. As has been said, it raises issues for two groups: people with mental health problems and people with fluctuating conditions.

The report raised another issue, which the hon. Lady also mentioned—the challenge of operational issues and the proper management of appointments, to prevent people from being notified of them after the time they are set for and then being criticised as a no-show, or not being told about cancellations in time. Some of my constituents who have a disability and use a wheelchair have been invited to appointments on the first floor of a place with no lift. There are challenges in improving the process, and, having seen some of what went wrong, we live in hope that the new provider will have more ability to put things right. There are some things that should be fairly straightforward.

The hon. Lady made interesting comments about categorisation, and I agree with many of them. The figures are interesting—they show that between 2009 and 2013, the number of people found fit for work fell. What does that tell us? In percentage terms, the fit-for-work group fell in numbers, the WRAG fell and the support group went up. Surely that means that more people are in the support group and are being helped, or that more people have been identified as requiring help and are being supported, which seems to me to be a good thing. If the fit-for-work group is falling in numbers, that implies that people who were wrongly being asked to do the impossible are no longer being asked to do the impossible. However, I share Chair of the Select Committee’s concerns about the WRAG. It is unfortunate that we pronounce the acronym like a piece of cloth; it is a mixed bag, and I entirely support the Committee’s recommendation that we look at unpicking it. Putting individuals with absolutely no prospect of improving into that group does not seem right.

As our Chair identified, the Work and Pensions Committee put forward a key recommendation of a fundamental redesign. The Government’s response was that they wanted to focus on the introduction of the new provider rather than get involved in a complete reconfiguration at this point. Given the timeline and the fact that Atos decided to stand aside before the end of its contract, I have some sympathy with that approach. A new provider cannot come in without being properly brought up to speed. If we start trying to change the process, we will have to go through all sorts of reports, protocols and so on, whereas if we work with a new provider and discuss what went wrong, we can effect change without having to change some of the rules fundamentally. It seems to me that that is the right thing to do.

Part of the challenge of a fundamental redesign, which I support in the longer term, is that when individuals are in the system, we are trying to assess two things: their health inabilities and constraints, and how to help them into work. Although the Government were right to try to combine all the many systems that we had in the past into one, there is clearly a challenge with regard to incapacity. I am not clear on whether the best way forward is, as the Select Committee recommended, to separate out the two and have a new system, front-ended to look specifically at the health incapacities, or whether it is to improve training to try to make the two pieces work better together. I am hopeful, however, that under the new contract we might consider changes that will enable us to answer that question.

As the report sets out, in addition to the proposal of a fundamental redesign, the Select Committee raised a number of issues relating to particular aspects of the scheme. The first was the standard of service on bookings, the operation of the system and the challenge of having enough people who understand mental health and have mental health experience. That is all crucial. The Government recognised those issues and have undertaken to increase the number of health care professionals who specialise in mental health. They recognise that it is crucial that those making decisions understand fluctuating conditions, and they will look at ensuring that the new provider’s training and induction takes that on board. The Government also took on board the need to be more aware of and better understand disability issues, so I think that things are going to get better.

The second short-term change that the Work and Pensions Committee recommended was on communication. The Chair of the Committee made the point very well, and the detail in the report was spot on. The problem was not only that the content of the language used on the telephone, and of the forms and letters, was unclear and misleading—the information that was really required was not there—it was also about the tone. The tone of a letter is important and makes a difference to how the information is taken in. To their credit, the Government have said that they are reviewing that.

The Select Committee recommended a number of short- term changes. Our Chair referred to some of them, and I will certainly not take Members on the same magical mystery tour again, because that would not be a helpful use of our time. Nevertheless, one short-term challenge does require attention: a more sensitive application of the descriptors “reliably”, “repeatedly” and “safely”. Those are quite difficult words. For me, the challenge is how we test them, because we clearly cannot just use a snapshot. We cannot just look at a GP’s letter; we need to find a way to unpick whether the functionality or performance that is required can be performed reliably, repeatedly and safely.

I also want to discuss the contribution of evidence to assessment decisions. The Chair of the Select Committee referred to the extent to which GPs are helpfully involved in the process and the evidence that they should provide. I am concerned that if information needs to be provided, it must be clear to individuals whether they need to take the initiative to get a letter from the GP or whether the decision makers will get it. There also seems to be a postcode lottery regarding the costs of GP reports. In some areas they are free, but in others they are not. That does not seem right or fair.

There is also the issue of trying to help doctors understand how they must write those letters, because they are not about somebody’s medical condition. Unless they can write a letter that links the medical condition to its effect on functionality, it is not particularly helpful. There will be those who say that that is not really a GP’s job, but I think that a GP is concerned to ensure that the best outcomes are available to his or her patients. That is an important point.

Government action is still needed, and in conclusion I want to indentify five points that require a specific review. First, one of the most important findings of the report was that the work-related activity group needs to be looked at carefully, because at the moment it seems to be a mixture of too many people with too many challenges. Secondly, we must ensure that the Government monitor the new provider very carefully. How does the Minister propose to do that, and what links has he made between his plans and the concerns raised by the Work and Pensions Committee?

Thirdly, it is important to consider how we deal with the particular needs of those with mental health problems and learning disabilities. I have not dwelt on this point so far, because the Chair of the Select Committee discussed it, but my fourth priority is mandatory reconsideration. It is quite challenging when people do not know when a final decision is going to be made, and that creates all sorts of distress. The Government’s response was to say, “No, we don’t need to do that, but we can give you some statistics,” which was not as helpful an answer as it might have been.

Finally, we must look at how we continue to review the interaction between the health challenge and the employment support challenge so that, ultimately, we can take a view on whether we need to re-engineer the system. We must separate out the two decisions. First, what is the health challenge and how do we meet it? Secondly, how do we deal with the specific employment support that is required?

Those are my thoughts. The Select Committee has done a good job of unpicking the issues that must be addressed. In the written response to the report, the Minister said that on a number of matters he would give us his reply in due course, potentially in a Westminster Hall debate, so we are looking forward to seeing whether we get replies to some of the questions that we asked.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Kilburn 3:29 pm, 5th February 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I thank the redoubtable Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, my hon. Friend Dame Anne Begg, for her contribution in kicking off the debate. I also thank my colleague on the Committee, Anne Marie Morris, for the points that she made.

When I first joined the Work and Pensions Committee, I think everyone on it and probably everyone in the House was most engaged by what seemed at the time to be the storming of the last barricade. It was anathema to me and, I am sure, to all members of the Committee—those with disabilities, be they mental or physical, were seen as being incapable of work. That was the golden nugget that we wanted to see being spread out into gold dust through the acknowledgement that those suffering from disabilities are capable, with the right kind of support and training, of making the contribution that they undoubtedly wish to make to our country and to our economy.

One of the most depressing things for me in the time I have served on the Committee has been seeing that optimism change. In my constituency, I see those we are most concerned about—those labelled with disabilities, be they mental or physical—having a sense of fear about being assessed and examined. In the period since I joined the Committee, terrible mistakes have been made on implementing certain definitions of people being fit for work, and a sense of fear has grown in that community. It has been presented to me more than once that when people go through the work capability assessment, or whatever it will be called in the future, they find themselves sitting opposite someone who fundamentally believes that a claimant has no desire to work and is hoping to pull the wool over the assessor’s eyes so that they can go on claiming benefits, but nothing could be further from the truth.

I have two fundamental points to make. The first is about the assessment process. There is more than sufficient evidence to show that however sweet the words may be from those who provide the services, or from Ministers of the Crown who assert their commitment to ensuring that people with disabilities can take their proper contributory place within our society, the process simply is not working. There is a marked failure by the assessors and decision makers to pass on vital information. There is a marked lack of understanding in the initial assessment —by those who we were told would be health professionals in the first instance—of the most basic aspects of the illnesses and misfortunes that the individual claimant may be undergoing. One of the most shocking examples I heard was of someone who was being assessed and who said that they suffered from bipolar disorder. The supposed GP undertaking the assessment had to look up on his computer what “bipolar” meant. That is not an isolated example of the great gap between what is being professed by the assessment provider and what is actually happening on the ground.

It is not simply a case of making the assessment better. We all know how the assessment could be made better. The hon. Member for Newton Abbot referred to the methods of informing a claimant. We all have constituents who suffer from visual impairment and all their communications come by letter. We all have constituents who are hard of hearing and their contact point is almost invariably the telephone. We have seen direct evidence of letters being sent to the wrong address when people are hoping for a face-to-face interview. The system in its many and varied forms requires a fundamental assessment that meets the needs of the claimant, not those of the assessor.

There is a glaring lack of evidence being taken on board in the assessment. The Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South, referred to evidence from Parkinson’s UK. Every group that works tirelessly on behalf of individual claimants who suffer from particular illnesses has said that the assessors never really assess the variations and fluctuating nature of each illness. The list of such variations could be endless, but there is no reason for the Minister not to have it at his fingertips, because he has been getting it from the Select Committee, from Members of Parliament and from the campaigning groups working on behalf of some of the most vulnerable in our society.

The assessment programme needs a fundamental reassessment, and here we come to one of those areas that reflect across the whole of British society. What is glowingly agreed and deemed to be fundamental in the boardroom is never passed down in sufficient detail to those at the sharp end. All members of the Work and Pensions Committee have read what the new contracted provider says will be its approach to the new contract. I tend to disagree with my colleague, the hon. Member for Newton Abbot, who referred to the pause before making changes. She felt that there needed to be time for the new contract to bed in, but the Government have told us that the provider got the contract because of its wide experience in this area. The provider has made claims, as did the previous contracted provider, about the quality of the people it will hire and the sensitivity and flexibility that those assessors will bring to bear in the job they will be invested in, but we know from experience that that has never, ever worked. It is about not just about fine words and the quality of the people employed, but their training, so that when they meet the claimant, they are truly sensitive and flexible and, most importantly, have the information they need.

The constant passing backwards and forwards of information that has been given by an individual claimant on more than one occasion is utterly absurd. I cannot believe that that is not costing the taxpayer money that would be infinitely better spent on speeding up the whole process, so that people do not have to wait, in many instances in genuine fear of what might come through the letter box, if they can read, or over the telephone, if their hearing is not impaired. That is even if they are still living at the address noted as the official means of communicating with them. In my constituency, for instance, those who are vulnerable may well have had to move from their previous address because, for example, they have been unable to pay the rent. Furnishing the new address to the relevant jobcentre is the last thing on their minds when they are trying to find somewhere permanent to live.

That, in essence, is my call on the Government. We must begin to eradicate the problem whereby some of the most vulnerable people, whom we all wish to help and see play their proper part in society, have a genuine fear—a fear that can have an impact on their illness and in many instances make it worse—that the assessment process is in effect a punishment for having a disability, which is invariably through no fault of their own. We need to guarantee that the process will become as sensitive, flexible and immediate as we have been promised. If there is a genuine wish on the part of everyone to assist people to take their proper place in our society or, in the kindest possible way, to say, “Unfortunately, we acknowledge that you will never be able to function in that way again”, that would be a major contribution. I do not believe that the Minister is opposed to bringing about that solution, and I trust that everyone else in his Department shares that aim.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Procedure Committee

Order. I hope to call the shadow Minister at six minutes past 4, to give the two Front Benchers 11 minutes each to speak and Dame Anne two minutes to wind up.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East 3:39 pm, 5th February 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I am grateful to all the members of the Work and Pensions Committee, who have done a great deal of work over the past months and years on this issue. I want to look first at a couple of slightly more detailed aspects of this matter that were not fully covered—no one can cover all of it—in the introductory remarks.

The first is mandatory reconsideration, whereby someone who has had a decision that they wish to dispute goes through a stage in which the decision will be reconsidered. People now have to go through that step before they can go to a formal appeal. The Committee recommended that claimants who had been deemed fit for work following the process, and who have requested a reconsideration, should continue to be paid ESA at the assessment rate until they receive the reconsideration decision.

That issue has been raised repeatedly, not just in the Committee’s report, but on a number of other occasions, but it has been repeatedly rejected by the Minister and his predecessors on the ground that it would be wrong to pay ESA when the claimant has been found fit for work. Ministers say that there is no legal basis for making such payments. However, if the claimant is still found fit for work after reconsideration and subsequently appeals, ESA is reinstated at that point while awaiting appeal, which could be some months, not just weeks, and it can be backdated.

In December 2014, the DWP published statistics on mandatory reconsideration, stating that of the 177,000 ESA mandatory reconsideration decisions made between

October 2013 and October 2014, 75% were cleared within 30 days, which still leaves a quarter—some 44,000 individuals—taking more than 30 days. I would argue that that increases the need for allowing ESA to run on, rather than decreases it. If reconsideration for 75% of the people involved is over inside a month, why go through a process of applying for a different benefit, with a different conditionality, and then have to go back to the previous benefit, for such a short period of time? The payment made is exactly the same—the ESA assessment rate is the same as JSA, so there is no difference in the amount of money people would be given.

However, there is a cost of administering a new application, and then presumably moving it back again. Citizens Advice has calculated that the cost of doing that is £160 per claimant and that if all claimants took up a JSA claim at that point, it could cost around £30 million in administration costs in a year. That just seems to be a pointless activity, which leaves some people who do not make the claim for JSA without income at all during that period. If they apply for JSA, they may find themselves subject to conditionality, stress and upset, all for a cost—not a saving—to the DWP; that does seem strange indeed. If there is a legal reason why this cannot be done, it is not beyond the bounds of imagination for Government lawyers to resolve the matter fairly quickly, presumably through regulation.

Another issue that remains missing from the published statistics on reconsideration is outcomes. What has been the outcome of the mandatory reconsideration process? How many of the requests for reconsideration result in a decision being overturned? How many mandatory reconsideration requests that are not overturned go on to an appeal being launched? At the moment, we still do not know.

I raised that issue with the previous Minister and the Office for National Statistics last year. Before reconsideration became mandatory, there were far fewer reconsiderations, but one way of judging the performance of the assessors and the decision makers, and the efficacy of the whole process of the WCA, is in part—and I accept that this is only in part—by the proportion of successful appeals. If any organisation receives a large number of appeals that are then successful, it will want to look at its processes and say, “Why has that happened? Perhaps we are doing something wrong and could do it better, so people would not have to go through that.” It is therefore important to know what is happening in the process.

At the moment, in the published statistics, when a decision is overturned at the reconsideration stage, it is counted in with the original decisions. Given the large number of mandatory reconsiderations, I would argue that it is very important to separate out the outcomes at each stage; there are the original decisions, the decisions after mandatory reconsideration, and the decisions after appeal. That is particularly pertinent given the advent of a new company carrying out assessments, because it will be one method—I appreciate that it will not be the only method—of judging the ongoing performance of the new provider. Will the Minister confirm when those statistics on reconsideration will start to be published, so that we can see what is happening in that respect?

I also want to raise the issue of reassessment. There has been a temporary stop on routine reassessments, not as a managed decision because of concern about reassessments, but because of the backlog. Therefore, in response to a backlog that has built up considerably over the last couple of years, the decision was taken to suspend most routine reassessments. That must be a great relief to a lot of people who were being called in at yearly intervals for reassessment, but it is not a considered approach to the question of reconsideration. The temporary halt, however, gives us an opportunity to look at the purpose and practice of reassessment and decide how we want to handle it better.

The Government frequently refer to the previous incapacity benefit as leaving people languishing on benefit. I have always argued that that was an exaggeration. The many IB claimants who went through reassessment prior to 2008 and the new system coming in would have been surprised to hear that there was no reassessment, because they certainly experienced it. Further, this is a time when we have to look at the outcomes of the migration process from incapacity benefit. Far higher numbers of people have been found unfit for work and been placed in the support group through the migration process than was originally predicted. We might therefore want to ask whether actually, people are genuinely far less fit than might have been assumed. On that basis, why does one have to go through very frequent reassessments that will not prove anything different from what has happened before?

Over-frequent reassessment is stressful for applicants. People describe being really worried when the brown envelope comes through the door with yet another form to fill in to go through the whole process again. It is also expensive, time-consuming, and, I would argue, partly why we got into having the backlog in the first place.

The last independent review from Litchfield recommended, specifically for people suffering a severe incapacity from degenerative brain disorder and who were in the support group, that the reassessment period should be extended to five years. The recommendation was accepted by the Government, but so far, there has been little sign of progress on when that will happen, who it will cover and how many people it is likely to have an impact on. The Committee report, however, asked for the matter to be dealt with without further delay—I would like to hear from the Minister whether that will happen or whether it will just drift on for a long time—and for ways of looking at wider aspects of the reassessment criteria to be considered. As we are moving to a new provider and a new contract, the Committee felt that this was an appropriate time to allow the new contractor to plan its ongoing work. Surely a provider that is trying to allocate its staff and its time wants to know how many reassessments it will be required to do. If the view is that we can push back a bit on that, we need to know at this stage.

One aspect of the system that the Government clearly do not want to get into now—perhaps it will have to be for another Parliament—is whether the test is doing what it should, or whether it is still trying to do two, in a sense, contradictory things. The Chair of the Select Committee went into that to a degree. It is a test for eligibility for benefit that is supposed to determine how close people are to employment and what help and support they might get. However, as it is, those two factors do not seem to get the fullest possible exploration. If people are to be able to make a journey towards employment, their circumstances need to be looked at.

The extent of the challenge people face was illustrated well by the expert panel who looked at WCA as part of a process on whether new descriptors and ways to test people would be appropriate. It looked at the outcomes of some such tests and said clearly that while there was agreement with a fit for work finding, many people who were found fit for work needed a great deal of support before they could find work and 25% would require a support worker to engage in work. If such people have been found fit for work, we must ask what the situation is for the people in the work-related activity group who are supposedly nearer to employment but likely to have greater need of support, adaptations and help to get into employment.

From all the work done on employment of people with disabilities and long-term conditions, we know that a great deal needs to be done with employers; that is a huge part of the process. Indeed, the Select Committee has looked at the whole spectrum. We also looked recently at access to work, because that is a means by which to help people to get into employment. We must look at the process as a whole.

I am concerned that the Government, in their response to the Select Committee’s report, said that they will not take up the recommendation of a fundamental review of WCA or even many of the specific recommendations. It is not only that: the whole of the introduction to the response seems to be more focused on reducing the numbers on benefits than on improving the process and outcomes. Many have been saying this for some considerable time, but it has obviously now dawned on the DWP that the number of people receiving benefit has not reduced as much as had been anticipated, given how many people have been found fit for work. According to the Minister’s own figures, which were given to the Select Committee, slightly under 100,000 fewer people are receiving ESA or IB than were receiving the comparator benefits in 2008. We have been through an expensive, stressful and upsetting process—worse than that for many people—and the outcome has been a reduction in claimants of less than 100,000 at a time when, compared with 2008, the labour market is picking up, so one might expect some people to be going back to employment in any event.

There are two ways to look at that. One is to say, “Maybe people are genuinely sicker or less able than we thought, so what do we do about that?” The other way is to say, “Oh, it has been made too easy for people to reapply, so we will try to make that harder.” I was struck that the introduction to the Government’s response to our report said that the DWP will make it harder for people who want to reapply for ESA for a second or subsequent time to receive that benefit—they should stay on JSA until their claim had been looked at.

There is also a suggestion about introducing the claimant commitment for ESA claimants. The words used here are interesting. It says claimants should be helped in

“their work related requirements including, where appropriate, proactive work search that treats looking for work as a full-time outcome”.

While modified slightly by “where appropriate”, that sounds similar to the claimant commitment that JSA claimants have to go through: for them, job search is a full-time job. Apparently, the DWP is now suggesting that that should be applied to people in the work-related activity group of ESA.

I accept that the words suggest that that should take place where appropriate, but why pick out full-time job search as the one example of what might be in a claimant commitment? If people need help with adaptations, being introduced to employers and sometimes with reskilling, depending on the nature of their previous work—for some, their health means that they cannot do the type of job they did previously—an appropriate claimant commitment, if there must be one, should cover that and not be about endless job search. All too often, when constituents describe what happens when, as ESA claimants, they go into the Work programme, they say that they feel what they are given in the way of help, if anything at all, is endless job searching, as if that will suddenly overcome their problems. I do not believe that it will.

There are people on ESA whose jobs are being held open for them, but they have to claim because they are still too sick to work and their statutory sick pay has run out. I met a constituent in that position last week and she could see little point in being put through lots of job searches when she was confident that she could return to her employment when she was fit. In the meantime, she was unclear why she should be expected to go to constant interviews with an underlying threat that she might lose her benefit. Are we really saying that people who, by definition, have been judged as unfit for work are to be treated in the same was as JSA claimants?

If the Department is keen to introduce some sort of commitment, that must be sensitive to the needs of that group. It must look at their distance from employment and obstacles that they may face. The Department should also look at the vast experience of specialist organisations in the field who have done excellent work with people with all sorts of health conditions and disabilities and helped them into work. That also needs to be done in a positive way, because the last thing we need is for people yet again to get the impression that the emphasis is, “You are not trying hard enough in some way, so we will make you try harder. If you are not trying hard enough, you aren’t really entitled to benefit.” That is the kind of message that is coming across.

If we really believe that the best thing we can do is help people back into employment in a positive manner, we need to put in all those support mechanisms sensitively. People will respond to that, as they do to many of the specialist providers. I hope that the Minister will tell us why the Government’s response focused so much on those aspects.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Procedure Committee

May I rely on Front-Bench Members to split the remaining time equally between them? Thank you.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 3:58 pm, 5th February 2015

Thank you, Mr Walker. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for this debate, which is based on a full and impressive report by the Work and Pensions Committee. It has been informed by other developments in this area, including the fifth report of the independent reviewer, which my hon. Friend Dame Anne Begg referred to, the evidence-based review carried out by a number of independent organisations into an alternative assessment model and the Minister’s recent appearance before the Select Committee.

These issues are of huge interest to disabled people and the taxpayer. We face an £8 billion overspend on employment and support allowance and incapacity benefit in this Parliament because the DWP has not been able to assess people, reassess people or get them into work and off benefits. In 2010, the Government said that incapacity benefit would end, but 173,000 were still on the benefit in May 2014, the latest date for which we have figures; 527,000 cases were stuck in the ESA queue as of December. The new assessment provider, Maximus, has been contracted to carry out 1 million assessments in the first year of that contract. The Office for Budget Responsibility says it will take two years to clear the backlog and, as has been pointed out this afternoon, reassessments have been suspended for a little over a year now.

Will the Minister tell us when he anticipates the reassessments might restart? That would be helpful for the peace of mind of people who are still anxious about when the process might come back to hit them and helpful also because, from the point of view of Maximus and of the Department, it is an important question for planning work flow.

The costs and backlogs sit alongside a range of policy and operational issues that have been raised by the Select Committee, starting right at the very beginning of the process, when someone submits a claim for ESA and the evidence is gathered to inform an assessment and determine whether a face-to-face assessment is required. We know that there are difficulties with getting the relevant evidence together. We have heard this afternoon, in particular, about some of the difficulties associated with reliance on evidence by GPs. It seems from reports from claimants that evidence that should have been considered by the assessor and informed the assessment is often not available.

The Select Committee has made a number of helpful comments and suggestions on that concern—in particular, the suggestion that the DWP should take ownership of the process of submitting the ESA50 form and bringing the evidence together. It should not be the claimant or the health care professional who carries out the assessment for the independent company; the DWP itself should own the process of getting together the information for an assessment.

The Committee recommended that the taking on of that responsibility by the DWP should have been considered before the appointment of the new contractor. The new contractor, Maximus, is now in place, but as far as I am aware there has been no change to the process or to the responsibility of the DWP in relation to it. Will the Minister say what consideration the Government gave to that recommendation by the Select Committee? If there has not been a change of procedure, will he say why not?

The Select Committee made a number of recommendations about what I would call good housekeeping in relation to the assessment and decision-making process. There have also been recommendations from the independent reviewer and the evidence-based review of experts that looked at an alternative assessment model. It is clear that there are a whole range of really very helpful—and, I guess, obvious—suggestions that the Government should consider, and I hope the Minister will comment on those. For example, it has been recommended that the assessment process should be constituted on a semi-structured interview model; that we should ensure that the claimant can see what is being written and recorded during the course of the assessment; that assessors should avoid making inferences from what claimants say; and, as Anne Marie Morris said, that the assessment process should properly consider whether a task or function can be performed reliably, repeatedly and safely. There is also a need for much better awareness and understanding of, and training on, fluctuating conditions.

I welcome the fact that the new contract with Maximus is going to introduce more rigorous performance standards on access to assessment centres. It is obviously quite ridiculous that we are still hearing reports of claimants being asked to go to centres that they cannot get into or in which they cannot move around. However, access goes beyond the physical ability to enter and move around buildings. In particular, a key element of the Select Committee’s report focuses on improving communications, including written communication and communication with the claimant during the assessment.

In a debate in this Chamber on Tuesday, secured by my hon. Friend Sheila Gilmore, the Minister talked about the priority he is giving to improving communications. Can he say more about that? For example, is he looking at ensuring that communications are presented in Easy Read and other accessible formats? What steps is he taking to ensure that communication during the assessment is appropriate to the circumstances of a claimant, in particular for those claimants with autism or learning difficulties?

I turn now to ESA itself. The Select Committee has made a number of comments. As has been noted by the hon. Member for Newton Abbot, since 2010 we have seen a significant difference in the proportion of people going into the support group or being found fit for work. In 2009, 10% of claimants were in the support group and 63% were found fit for work; now the position is 47% in the support group and 34% found fit for work. That has thrown up a number of issues.

First, as Dr Litchfield pointed out in his review, when assessors’ recommendations are overturned by decision makers, that almost always results in someone being moved into the support group. The previous independent reviewer, Professor Harrington, had suggested regular audits of decision-maker performance, and I wonder why that suggestion has not been followed. Dr Litchfield also pointed to the troubling rise in the number of young people at severe mental or physical risk being placed in the support group, with 34% being placed in that group without a face-to-face assessment. I would welcome the Minister’s observations on that. Does he intend to increase the number of face-to-face assessments? What steps is he taking to ensure that appropriate support is being given to that vulnerable group of people?

As has been mentioned this afternoon, the Select Committee also highlighted a number of issues about re-referrals. Thirty-six per cent. take place within three to six months and 63% of young people at severe mental or physical risk are reassessed within 12 months of being placed in the support group. Those relatively short re-referral periods make little sense. In some cases, they might suggest that people are being wrongly allocated to the support group; in others, the issue seems to lie with the so-called prognosis period—that language seems quite unhelpful, if not misleading.

In evidence given by charities, the Select Committee heard about a number of disturbing cases of people with degenerative conditions being assessed as improving, recovering or becoming fit for work. In the debate earlier this week that I referred to, the Minister said that he did not rule out the idea that some people in that group could become fit for work in the future or might want to work. He argued—I think I am right in saying this—that that explained why some people with degenerative conditions might be put in the work-related activity group.

The Minister told the Select Committee that even someone who had been deemed unlikely to return to work could still be doing some work-related activity. I have to ask him: what, and why? As the Chair of the Committee pointed out, given that there is a mechanism for reassessment of those in the support group and the opportunity for them voluntarily to work or prepare for work, there is no justification for placing in the work-related activity group people who are not fit for work now and for whom the prognosis is that they are unlikely to be fit for work in the future.

We have also heard that the suspension of the WFHRA has left a gap in the assessment process. The work capability assessment can take us only so far in identifying the level of benefit someone ought to be on or what group they ought to be in. Both the evidence-based review and the Select Committee have highlighted that those in the WRAG or found fit for work might need considerable adaptations or support to be able to work. There is nowhere in the process where that need can be appropriately reflected.

The Select Committee also raised concerns about former incapacity benefit claimants being placed in the WRAG via a paper assessment. I know that the Minister is keen to minimise the number of assessments where possible, but the Select Committee has pointed to some real problems arising from that situation. Many claimants do not understand the decision that has been taken or its implications; they do not understand the structure of conditionality that will apply, that they will receive lower benefits when in the support group or that, if they are on contributory employment and support allowance, they could lose the benefit altogether after 12 months—for example, if there is a partner working in the household that will mean that they might no longer be eligible for means-tested support. If the Minister is determined that people should be able to progress into the WRAG without a face-to-face assessment in some cases, will he say what steps he is taking to make sure that they fully understand the decision that has been taken about them and what it means for them?

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East made a number of useful comments reflecting the Committee’s recommendations about mandatory reconsideration. I will say, for the record, that I welcome the potential for mandatory reconsideration to speed up the process of getting a decision for claimants. However, although there has been progress in recent months on reducing the time taken for mandatory reconsiderations, the most recent figures, as my hon. Friend pointed out, still show some 44,000 people—25% of cases—waiting over 30 days for the outcome. I do not think we have a breakdown of how much longer than 30 days they may be waiting.

The time scale for mandatory reconsiderations is especially important, because ESA is not paid during the reconsideration process. Although claimants can claim JSA during that period, many are reluctant to do so either because of the stricter conditionality that pertains or because they fear that it will compromise their ESA claim and their mandatory reconsideration. As was said earlier, the conditionality can and should be varied according to the individual circumstances, but that does not seem to be happening routinely in Jobcentre Plus. What plans does the Minister have to provide reminder training to Jobcentre Plus staff on that issue?

There is also an issue of transparency in relation to the mandatory reconsideration process and to the figures that are available. The statistics that we have seen do not separate out decisions overturned from initial decisions, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East pointed out, we do not have any figures for the outcome of mandatory reconsiderations. Therefore, we do not know how many are successful, how many are unsuccessful, how many go to appeal and what the total cost is to the taxpayer. The Minister said that he would get back to the Select Committee on the outcome of mandatory reconsideration, and I hope he will be able to say something about it today. The Department has not made available its guidance on mandatory reconsideration, so will the Minister commit to making it public?

The Select Committee and the independent review made a number of points about the ESA and WCA processes, and their relationship to improving employment outcomes for disabled people. The Minister told the Select Committee about a host of measures, pilots and initiatives, some of which are referred to in the Government’s official response. We now know about personalisation pathfinders, employer and young people portals, Disability Confident, the gateway employment tool, psychological well-being and work pilots, the employment and well-being toolkit to support Jobcentre Plus staff, the Fit for Work programme for getting people back to work, extra support in ESA hotspots, the well-regarded Access to Work programme, the less well-regarded Work programme and the six months’ intensive work coach support for those who have spent two years on the Work programme.

Some of those measures might be worth while, but, given that so much is going on, it is difficult to disentangle and monitor the effectiveness of each of them. It also makes it very difficult for Jobcentre Plus staff and work coaches to make the best choice about the support an individual should receive. What training do Jobcentre Plus staff receive identifying what is appropriate for individual claimants? That question is motivated by the fact that the number of specialist disability employment advisers has fallen by 20% under the Government.

There is widespread support for better information sharing from the assessment process with Jobcentre Plus, Work programme providers and others, which could be used for assessments for other benefits, such as personal independence payments. Will the Minister say a little more about how he envisages information sharing proceeding?

In conclusion, it is clear that the work capably assessment and ESA are complex, and that they continue to be a source of anxiety for claimants. I very much welcome the Select Committee’s report and the independent review. They produced many useful recommendations, and I look forward to hearing how the Minister will take them forward.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions) (Disabled People) 4:13 pm, 5th February 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. My heart sank when you said that you would call the Front Benchers at six minutes past 4. I thought that we would have only 11 minutes each, but I have a few extra minutes. I doubt that I will be able to cover the Select Committee’s report, our response and all of the many sensible contributions that have been made this afternoon, but I will do my best.

I thank Dame Anne Begg, the Chairman of the Select Committee, for opening the debate, and the other members of the Select Committee who were here for at least part of the debate and who contributed. I welcome their interest in the WCA and ESA.

We carefully considered the Committee’s recommendations, and we published our response on 27 November. On the same day, as a number of Members have mentioned, Dr Paul Litchfield published the fifth and final review into the work capability assessment. We responded positively to the Select Committee’s recommendations in a number of areas, and where we did not agree with them we set out why. I will say a little more about the recommendations that have been referred to. The Government also took the opportunity to announce a package of short-term ESA measures and to set out our view of the challenges ahead for those who make policy in this area.

My hon. Friend Anne Marie Morris spoke about improving delivery. We will make a significant amount of progress once Maximus starts the work. I have been impressed by its performance so far in preparing to take over the contract, and I said a little about that to the Select Committee when I gave evidence recently. I want us to ensure that the assessment process is hugely improved.

My hon. Friend Glenda Jackson referred to the number of disabled people in work. I think it is fair to say that my hon. Friend looked at it from the glass-half-full end of the spectrum, while the hon. Lady looked at it from the glass-half-empty end. The good news, which leans more towards my hon. Friend’s side of the argument, is that this year there are a quarter of a million more disabled people in work in Britain, compared with last year. Although the disability employment rate is too low, and although it is lower than the rate enjoyed by those without a disability, it increased by 2.5%, which I believe is the largest year-on-year increase in a decade. I acknowledge that we have more to do, but we have made good progress.

As my hon. Friend and others know, our ambition is to ensure that the UK is at the top of the G7 employment league table, and that we effectively achieve full employment.

We can do that only if we are much better at keeping people who develop health conditions and disabilities in work, and getting those who have health conditions and disabilities back into work or into work for the first time.

Let me turn to the points in the Select Committee’s report that Members raised today. The first point that the Chairman of the Select Committee raised was about the work capability assessment itself. As she knows, and as the Committee said in its report, there was an evidence-based review, in which experts tested the WCA against a set of alternative descriptors. Therefore, a lot of bright people have thought about whether there is a better way of assessing people’s ability to work and the impact of their health condition or disability on their ability to work. The evidence that it published in its conclusion showed that there is not a strong case for replacing the WCA with the alternatives, because they are not better than the WCA at coming up with the information.

Dr Litchfield’s report specifically referred to the number of changes and improvements to the WCA in recent years, driven by the independent reports of Dr Litchfield and his predecessor, Professor Harrington. Dr Litchfield specifically called for a period of stability to let the assessment bed down. He recognised that although the WCA is by no means perfect, it is the best means available, and there is no ready replacement. He said:

“my counsel would be to let the current WCA have a period of stability—it is by no means perfect but there is no better replacement that can be pulled off the shelf.”

I agree. I also think, as my hon. Friend said, that the last thing that we should do, as we bring in a new provider, is to start changing the process and how the system works. In my experience of having to implement tough operational processes, I do not think that that is the way that we will improve the performance of the system for all those going though the process.

Sheila Gilmore and, I think, the shadow Minister referred to the other changes that we set out at the same time as we responded to the report. We are allowing JSA claimants with short-term health conditions to stay on JSA for up to 13 weeks, and, importantly—the hon. Member for Edinburgh East did not focus on this—we are tailoring conditionality to keep people closer to the labour market. We recognise that if a person has a health condition, the claimant commitment may have to be different. Work coaches in jobcentres have the ability to flex the claimant commitment. Although I heard a lot of general assertions that that does not happen, I did not hear any specific examples. If people have got specific examples, I want to know about them, because we can then address whether work coaches are using that flexibility. They have the power to flex the claimant commitment, and they should be using it.

Photo of Sheila Gilmore Sheila Gilmore Labour, Edinburgh East

Given what the Minister has just said, why were similar words not used in the Government response, rather than giving as the only example people making a full-time work search? That gives the impression to anybody who reads the response that that will be the main issue for a claimant commitment.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Minister of State (Department for Work and Pensions) (Disabled People)

The hon. Lady may be reading too much into the wording, and she is straying into conspiracy theory. I cleared the language in the Government response, and I have tried to give the same impression in what I have just said. It certainly was not our intention to give the impression in the Government response that the hon. Lady took from it. I think that I have set out clearly what we are trying to do.

We are introducing three new measures, the first of which is a voluntary early intervention pilot for new ESA claimants, in which we are trialling occupational health advice and support prior to the WCA. We are doing so for a sensible reason. My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East and the Chair of the Select Committee referred to the fact that the WCA was designed to be two things: a benefit eligibility test, and a test of the barriers that an individual faces to entering work, and the support that they require to do so. We ought to see whether we can intervene when somebody first applies for ESA, to see what support they need and get them that support early in the process.

That is important because—I know that this is an area in which you take a particular interest, Mr Walker—46% of people who claim ESA do so for the primary reason that they have a mental health condition, and 60% have a mental health condition as part of the issue. We know from the evidence, and from all the campaigning organisations that are expert in this area, that being out of work for a significant period of time makes a mental health condition worse, not better. If we can identify mental health problems earlier and deliver support earlier, we will either keep people in work or enable them to go back to work more quickly. There is a nugget of truth in what hon. Members have said about that, and that is why we are piloting some interventions to see what is effective. They are voluntary, so people do not have to take part in them, but we think that they will be useful and produce useful evidence. I will not set out anything about the other two measures that we are introducing, because I recognise that time is pressing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot and other hon. Members referred to the WCA’s ability to deal with mental health issues. When we designed the ESA 50 questionnaire and assessment criteria, we had input from mental health organisations and groups that focus on other hidden impairments such learning disability and autism. Several hon. Members, including the shadow Minister, referred to my remarks at the Select Committee about the redesigned ESA 50 form. That will be implemented this month, and we are also looking at all the communications that we use for claimants following Dr Litchfield’s recommendations in his fourth independent review. We expect those to come into force over a rolling period this year.

The letter that we issue to claimants when a decision is made, the ESA 260, was revised in the autumn of last year, and I referred to that in the debate initiated by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East earlier this week. That letter now makes it very clear—the shadow Minister made a point about this—which group somebody has been put into. It informs them in clear, plain English about the time limiting for someone who is in the work-related activity group and on contributory ESA. It makes clear the consequences and implications of the decisions that have been taken, enabling the individual to act accordingly.

Let me say a word about information sharing, to which several hon. Members, including the Chair of the Select Committee, referred. As I believe I said at the

Select Committee, we share information from the WCA with the personal independence payment assessment process if someone is going through both of those, and we have done so in a significant number of cases. We will look at the evidence, but the initial indication is that that has enabled PIP decision makers to make decisions on paper without having to call somebody in for an unnecessary face-to-face assessment. That is our goal, because it is sensible to make such decisions on paper, without having to pull somebody in, where it is possible to do so.

The Chair of the Select Committee spoke about looking at other organisations, and her suggestion of using information from, for example, social care assessments is a sensible one. We ask those who apply for the benefit to produce the relevant information. I have asked officials to engage with colleagues in the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government to think about such ideas. In the new social care environment, more assessments will take place as a result of the new, consistent assessment criteria introduced by the Care Act 2014. I want us to think carefully about how we can do that sensibly, because we must not place an extra burden on local government or those who deliver social care. The general point is a good one, however. We do not want people to go through multiple assessments if we can share the necessary information.

I will hurry through one or two other points, because I am conscious of the fact that I need to give the Chair of the Select Committee a couple of minutes at the end of the debate to sum up. I have mentioned conditionality for JSA, which is relevant to the point that several hon. Members have made about what happens when people are found fit for work. When people are found fit for work, they are not entitled to ESA any more and they should claim jobseeker’s allowance. As I have said, however, work coaches have the ability to flex the claimant commitment so that it fully reflects somebody’s health condition or disability. If hon. Members have specific examples of where that is not happening, I want to know about them, so that we can investigate whether they were isolated incidents in Jobcentre Plus or whether there is a wider problem with training, information or communication. Several hon. Members asserted that there have been such problems, but I did not hear any specific examples. If hon. Members have such examples, I would like them to share those examples with me.

I am conscious, as ever, of the fact that time in the Chamber is short. I welcome the Select Committee’s work on ESA and the WCA. We agreed with several of the Committee’s recommendations, a number of which were very sensible. Some of them were things that we were working on, and some were things that we had not thought of. We made it clear where we did not agree. At the end of this month, Maximus will take over the delivery of the WCA from Atos. Maximus has experience in this area, and I know that it is keen to improve the experience of our constituents who go through the WCA. There may be some hiccups at the beginning, because that is inevitable when a big change occurs, but I am confident that we will deliver an improved level of customer service, which is important to everyone who has taken part in the debate.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 4:27 pm, 5th February 2015

I thank the Minister for his reply, and he has been thoughtful in his interpretation of some of our recommendations. It goes without saying that we would always like him to go further, but there has been some movement since the publication of our report.

The new contract, as the Minister has just said, kicks in on 1 March, when will see whether Maximus makes a difference. We are saying that the whole system is flawed, however, particularly the WRAG. Even if the WCA is improved, there is still a problem if the majority of people—a wide range—end up in that group by default. It is impossible to reconcile the preparation required by people who are moving towards work with the needs of those alongside them who are moving away from work. There is a wider context, because we live in a society that treats disabled people in a particular way, so the fact that someone is ready and able to work does not necessarily mean that they can get a job. That depends on a whole range of other things, from access to prejudice or discrimination by employers.

I pay tribute to the members of my Committee; I think I must have the hardest working Committee of any in the House. We have quite a wide range of political views and personalities, but when we are dealing with an important issue and we want to get it right for our constituents, we often bring very specific knowledge from our own constituency casework, which informs the work that we do in the Committee. We think that the subject is very important, and we are always grateful when the Government listen, but sometimes they need to listen a wee bit more.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.