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Tom Greatrix and Stephen Timms: Thousands of sick and disabled people face months of worry over this sorry test

People suffering from cancer and Parkinson’s have found themselves trapped in a never-ending cycle of assessments and appeals

The work capability assessment (WCA) tests for the DWP aren't cheap - they cost more than £100m of public money each year. However, after several years with the test in place, it is clear that the experience of some of those tested is an encounter with muddle and needless fear.

Most people agree that we need to focus not on what disabled people can't do but what they can do. That's why the idea of a WCA is one most people support, and it’s why Labour introduced it in Government. It’s important that sickness benefit claimants be assessed to demonstrate whether or not they can work. And the benefits of work are clear too, not just to the individual’s health, social and family life, but for wider society as well. During the Thatcher years, a large number of people were left to languish on incapacity benefit, which conveniently masked unemployment levels. An entire generation were left without support and abandoned to worklessness.

Atos Healthcare undertake the work capability assessment (WCA) tests for the DWP in return for more than £100m of public money each year. Although they receive most of the blame, the basic fault lies with the government and especially with the minister in charge, Chris Grayling, who is tipped for elevation in the reshuffle anticipated as early as today.

After all, the responsibility for managing the contract with Atos, and the failure to keep reforming the test so it works for disabled people, and for people who want to work but need support to help them to do so, rests with the Tory-Liberal government.

The DWP uses the Atos-conducted assessments to help determine whether an individual is fit for work, and whether they should receive Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which replaced the old Incapacity Benefit.

Like many other MPs, we have heard from constituents suffering from cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and many other conditions who have found themselves trapped in a seemingly never-ending cycle of assessment, followed by appeal (often successfully overturning the original decision) and further reassessment.

These concerns, the high percentage of appeals, and Professor Malcolm Harrington’s expert reviews into the effectiveness of the test have shown that the test must be improved. The Government needs to listen to Professor Harrington’s advice, especially when his third review for 2012 comes out, as well as the suggestions made by charities on how to improve the test.

The assessment needs considered and continuous reform to adequately take into account the complex circumstances of those with fluctuating conditions, mental health problems or recovering from cancer treatment.

Chris Grayling has failed to make the further changes to the assessment that charities have suggested, and has delayed even piloting them, resulting in poor assessments leading to more appeals.

And because so many appeals are upheld by the Tribunal Service, the taxpayer is effectively forking out twice. In the last year alone, the public purse was hit for a further £60m to cover that cost, and a wait of six to eight months for an appeal to be heard. When the appeals process alone is so overwhelmed that it is costing half the value of the original contract, then there are questions to be asked about value for money. Quite apart from the anxiety and distress to many individuals, it is hardly a picture of efficiency in Government contract management.

We have repeatedly asked the DWP for full disclosure of performance indicators that Atos are measured against, financial and other penalties in the contract, what they have been applied for and when. Each time, the Parliamentary Questions have been rebuffed with the catch-all non-disclosure defence of “commercial confidentiality.” Quite how, and why, it is commercially confidential when there is one contractor being paid by the DWP for an entirely public sector function, remains unanswered.

Perhaps the Government does not want to draw further attention to their failure to manage the Work Capability Assessment. Targets have been missed and thousands of sick and disabled people face months of worry as they wait to undergo the test. When someone is already receiving treatment for a life-threatening condition such as cancer, the last thing they need is more stress caused by the uncertainty these lengthy delays can bring.

As of July this year, there were over 20,000 people waiting for more than 3 months to undergo the work capability assessment. Between August 2010 and May 2012 waiting times for an assessment increased by an incredible 85%. One of the reasons given by the Government for this is Atos facing “recruitment challenges”, a stark admission of the impact of a process that has been overloaded by the government.

In order to build confidence in the system, it must work for those who need support at a time in their lives when they are vulnerable, as well as those whose taxes are paying for it. On both counts, the Government is failing.

Despite the welcome principle, the practice of the WCA by this Government has so far proved to be unsound. Any assessment must be carried out in the best interests of the individual and the taxpayer. It should be helping those who can make the transition into work by supporting them, and the disabled must not suffer as a result of Government incompetence.

In a debate in Parliament today, we hope to press Chris Grayling on some of the many unanswered questions about the Government’s poor performance. He may be anticipating a place in the Cabinet by the end of the week, but he has a responsibility to answer for the mess he may be hoping to leave behind.

Tom Greatrex is the Member of Parliament for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, and has secured a debate today in Parliament on the work capability assessment; Stephen Timms in the Member of Parliament for East Ham and Shadow Minister for Employment