Saturday, 9 February 2013

They Don’t Give ATOS: Public Accounts Committee Criticises Work Capability Assessments

It was reported yesterday (8th February 2013) that the Parliamentary Public Affairs Committee has severely criticised the Department of Work & Pensions for their handling of assessments of the sick and disabled claimants for their capability to work. Responsibility for conducting these assessments has been delegated to ATOS, which was paid £112.4m to carry out 738,000 assessments in 2011/12.

In a report published yesterday, it was stated:

The Work Capability Assessment process is designed to support a fair and objective decision by the department about whether a claimant is fit for work, but in far too many cases the department is getting these decisions wrong at considerable cost to both the taxpayer and the claimant.

The department's decisions were overturned in 38% of appeals, casting doubt on the accuracy of its decision-making.

Poor decision-making causes claimants considerable distress, and the position appears to be getting worse, with Citizens Advice reporting an 83% increase in the number of people asking for support on appeals in the last year alone.

We found the department to be unduly complacent about the number of decisions upheld by the tribunal and believe that the department should ensure that its processes are delivering accurate decision-making and minimising distress to claimants,

The report also stated: "The one-size-fits-all approach fails to account adequately for mental health conditions or those which are rare or fluctuating."

This is something I have written about on more than one occasion (two actually, and now three) in relation to those with mental health disabilities.

Increasing amounts of my time as a worker in a community mental health team are spent attending work capability assessments with mentally ill service users at the local ATOS centre (“local” is a relative term, as the centre is actually 30 miles away from my CMHT). I feel it is incumbent on me to attend these assessments as I know from bitter experience that if I do not, service users will frequently be taken off Employment Support Allowance and placed on Jobseeker’s Allowance, even though they also been assessed, separately, and by the DWP, as being entitled to high levels of Disability Living Allowance.

I have never understood why a service user who has already been through an assessment of their disability, then has to go through a further assessment of their capability to work. Actually, I’m being disingenuous here: I think it is very likely that the reason for being put through these continuous assessment processes (they often seem to occur on an annual basis) is in order to remove them from ESA and hence to reduce their benefits.

The statement in the report that the assessments fail to account adequately for people with mental health conditions certainly chimes with my own experience of these assessments.

If you had a problem with your kidneys, for example, you might expect to see a specialist urologist. But when you go as someone with a mental illness to an ATOS assessment, it has been my experience that the assessors, who usually appear to be general nurses, have woefully little knowledge of the nature of the person’s psychiatric diagnosis, or how that disorder might affect their ability to work.

Their assessments are entirely geared up to assessing physical mobility, or the ability to bend or lift or stand for periods of time. They do not know how to assess the capacity for someone with chronic paranoid schizophrenia to hold down a job, or how to assess someone with agoraphobia, or depression, or even chronic fatigue syndrome.

Unless such people have a representative, who can describe in more detail how their condition affects them on a day to day basis, they inevitably find themselves on Jobseeker’s Allowance, having to attend work focused interviews – and also inevitably failing at these, and therefore risking being removed from benefits entirely.

It is therefore no surprise that the report finds that CAB’s have encountered an 83% increase in assisting with appeals, nor that over a third of those appeals are found in favour of the service user.

I am glad that that the committee have highlighted these scandalous issues. I hope that the Government will take heed.

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