Nearly 20,000 people* have signed a petition calling on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to act on its commitment to reform its fit for work assessment. Representatives of the charities Mind, the National Autistic Society (NAS) and Rethink Mental Illness delivered the petition today.
The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is used to determine whether someone applying for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is fit for work. Mind, the NAS and Rethink Mental Illness say flaws in the test are causing a great deal of stress and anxiety, in some cases leading to people being wrongly assessed fit for work, which can have devastating financial and personal consequences.
Six months ago, a tribunal stated that the WCA puts people with mental health problems, learning disabilities and autism at a 'substantial disadvantage' and encouraged the government to trial changes. The Government has now recognised the flaws in the system for claiming ESA, and committed to reform. But Mind, the NAS, Rethink Mental Illness and their supporters say they are frustrated by the Government’s lack of progress changing the assessment process, and want to see urgent action taken.
Over half of ESA decisions that are appealed are successfully overturned, so it’s also costing the public a significant amount of unnecessary money. The three charities have invited Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to meet them and their supporters so he can hear about their experiences of the systemand understand the impact it’s had on their lives.
One of the main issues is how evidence is gathered for the WCA. People are expected to collect and provide evidence themselves from professionals, such as GPs or social workers, which can be extremely challenging for people with mental health problems, learning disabilities or autism. There is no obligation for the DWP to collect evidence, even on behalf of the most vulnerable claimants, apart from in some very rare cases. This means that people who most need support are sometimes assessed without crucial evidence being taken into account.
In a joint statement Mind, the National Autistic Society, and Rethink Mental Illness said:
"Our supporters have sent the Government a clear message: the fit for work testis failing the very people it's supposed to help and needs a complete overhaul.
“We know many people with mental health problems, learning disabilities and autism want to work, but face huge barriers because of the impact of their condition and the stigma and discrimination they often face from employers. But for those who can’t work, the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) is causing acute anxiety and stress, and people are being wrongly found fit for work.
“This fundamentally flawed system is also costing the public huge amounts of money, because a high proportion of decisions are overturned at appeal. It’s in everyone’s interests to have a fair process, which recognises the needs of people with mental health problems, learning disabilities and autism, and gets it right first time.
“It’s been six months since a tribunal confirmed what we already know – that the WCA places people with mental health problems, learning disabilities and autism at a substantial disadvantage. The DWP has recognised the need for changes but we’re yet to see any firm action. We urge Iain Duncan Smith to meet with our organisations and supporters to discuss how to make the urgent reforms that are so desperately needed. Every day we wait for change, more and more people are being pushed to the brink, and more public money is wasted.”
Denise Martin, 48, from Bristol, has bipolar disorder. She has worked for most of her life as a nurse, but when she suffered a spinal injury and was unable to work, her mental health deteriorated. Denise found the process of going through the WCA extremely difficult.
“I live in a rural area and don’t have a car or my own transport to go and visit different health professionals, so it can be really difficult to gather evidence. It can also be extremely expensive to call the doctors or my psychiatrist to chase for written evidence. They all use expensive phone numbers and you are stuck on the line for a long time waiting.
“As I have bipolar disorder my mood fluctuates, and on that day of the assessment I was feeling relatively well, but on other days I really struggle and can’t even get out of bed. Afterwards I was found fit for work and I was beside myself with worry.
“I think the whole process is cruel. My security has been taken away. I also get some housing benefit but it isn’t enough and part of my ESA pays my rent. Without my ESA I could become homeless. Going through the WCA process is the biggest source of worry in my life and it’s in the lap of the gods as to what happens to me next. I feel powerless.”
*There were 18,190 signatories when the petition was closed
 Social Security Benefits: Appeals:Written question - 9593 (Sept 2015) http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2015-09-08/9593/