All too often the computer-based work capability assessment results in an incorrect decision being made which can have devastating financial and emotional consequences for those concerned. There have been more than 600,000 appeals since ESA was introduced which cost an additional £50 million each year on top of the £112 million paid to Atos to carry out the assessments. In fact 38% of these decisions are overturned in the claimants favour when they appeal, casting serious doubt on the accuracy of the assessments.
The Public Accounts Committee recently investigated the contract between the DWP and Atos, the company contracted to carry out 738,000 work capability assessments in 2011-12. The report stated,
"The Work Capability Assessment may unduly penalise people with specific health problems. The one size fits all approach is not appropriate for particular groups, for example, people with mental health, rare or variable conditions. The process is too inflexible and makes it extremely difficult for individuals with particular conditions to demonstrate the impact of their conditions on their ability to work. Too often the process is so stressful for applicants that it can impact on their health. The Department should assess whether the Work Capability Assessment process is unfair to these claimants."
Negotiating the legal points of the benefit system is a complicated process and Citizens Advice estimate the success rate at appeal when people have access to legal advice and representation rises to around 80%. Ministers have responded to the alarming numbers of incorrect decisions being overturned at independent tribunals not by holding Atos and the DWP to account for their failures as recommended by the Committee, but by scrapping legal aid which helps people to challenge bad decisions and making specialist benefit advisors redundant in the process.
There is a serious and alarming possibility that in the near future sick and disabled people will be made penniless during the period of mandatory reconsideration which has no time limit to complete. ESA will no longer be paid during this time. When I asked for a reconsideration last year, I had to wait four months for the DWP to sort things out. I was lucky, I do know of people who have have been effectively left in ESA limbo for many months longer than that. Currently people can still get ESA during the reconsideration process, at a rate which is the equivalent amount to Jobseekers Allowance, provided they can obtain regular 'fit-notes' from their doctors to prove they are not capable of seeking work. The changes will deter people from pursuing justice and fail to support some of the most vulnerable people to get the benefits they need and are entitled to, leaving them to turn to family, friends, or worse, foodbanks, whilst the DWP sort out their mistake. I wrote to my MP and asked him to contact the Minister for Welfare to find out what would happen to people who had sick notes from their doctors and would not be eligible for Jobseekers Allowance because they were too ill to meet the strict conditions of applying for work attached to the benefit. The answer is not forthcoming (see letter below this post). It would appear that the government is under no legal obligation to provide an income to sick people failed by the benefits system.
Anyone needing to appeal a decision after the mandatory reconsideration will have to apply directly to Her Majesty's Court and Tribunals Service which will add confusion to an already bewildering process for many people, especially those with mental health problems and learning disabilities. Transferring people to another benefit such as Jobseekers Allowance or Universal Credit and then placing them back on ESA once they are given leave to appeal or the DWP have accepted that they are not well enough to work is going to complicate matters and cause problems, rather than simplifying the system.
It is unlikely that a reconsideration will take less than a month, as Lord Freud, the Minister for Welfare points out in his response to Dave Watts MP,
"The length of time taken to complete mandatory reconsideration will vary from case to case. This will be dependent on whether additional medical evidence is required, and if so, how quickly it is provided by the claimant. Where the Department requests additional evidence, regulations state that the Department must allow one month for the claimants to supply it, so these cases could take in excess of one month to process."
I know how long medical records take to obtain because I've sent for my own. The very day I received my ESA50 I applied in writing for my medical history and had to pay my GP £50 for the privilege. Despite haranguing the practice manager on a regular basis, they still took six weeks to make photocopies and then I discovered that everything after 2005 was missing. Four weeks to return the ESA application and attach the relevant medical notes is farcical. Why don't they simply give people more time to gather evidence and continue to give them ESA (at the reduced rate) until the decision is sorted? I understand that some GPs and consultants are charging extortionate fees for letters relating to benefit claims. This coupled with a loss of legal aid which helped to pay for medical evidence is going to have dire consequences and be a disaster for some of the most vulnerable people the benefits system was supposed to be designed to help.
WOW Campaign is deeply concerned that the policy is being driven by the government's desire to cut the cost of appeals. The fitness-to-work tests are not fit for purpose and no justice will be served until they are scrapped and replaced with a fair assessment. We are alarmed that vulnerable claimants will be dissuaded from proceeding with their appeal because they may have no one to help them and the process is taking too long. People are waiting months from their inital application to the face-to-face assessment. Months more for a decision to be made by the DWP. Months more for their appeal to be heard and then the whole process starts again in an endless cycle of assessment and reassessment. When people are forced off ESA whilst they wait they may give up altogether. Those who turn to Jobseekers Allowance may face the possibility of being sanctioned because they are sick and not able to fulfil the conditions of seeking work, be placed on inappropriate work program placements because Jobcentre advisors are not equipped and trained to deal with incapacity and disability, and some will have to try and survive with no income at all.