Fitness-to-work tests hitting vulnerable in Sheffield

Louise Haigh MP outside Parliament
Louise Haigh MP outside Parliament
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SICK and disabled people are are having their benefits unfairly docked by a private company brought in to clean up the welfare system, an MP has claimed.

Sheffield Heeley MP said the Government’s Work Capability Assessments (WCA), which determine whether a person can claim the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), is at times a ‘brutal system’ affecting many vulnerable people’s standard of living.

She said: “One man with learning difficulties whose case was highlighted to me attended his work capability assessment, but during the assessment his support worker was shocked at the lack of care and attention given to him.

“When the assessment came through, there were some glaring factual errors, but none the less his ESA was docked.”

The Government brought in American company Maximus to run their WCA programme in March 2015 after years of failings at the hands of previous provider Atos, and the company runs the tests through subsidiary organisation Centre for Health and Disability Assessment.

However a report released by the National Audit Office found that Maximus was falling behind on reaching its targets for assessing people, and the cost of the entire disability assessment service to the tax payer had soared to £579m.

They also found that nearly one in 10 of the reports on disability benefit claimants have been rejected as below standard by the Government.

While the Department for Work and Pensions assess appeals, people are losing out on the money they’re entitled to, Ms Haigh claims.

During a Westminster Hall debate in the House of Commons the Labour politician explained how she is convinced there is an alarming trend of Maximus rejecting people’s claims for the full Employment Support Allowance due to assessments which conclude a person is fitter than they are.

Reffering to her constituent in Sheffield once again, she said: “On making his request for mandatory reconsideration, he was appalled to find out that he would be ineligible for ESA, which was his lifeline, until the reconsideration decision was made, and he was unable to meet the conditions placed on him for jobseeker’s allowance.

“He now faces months of waiting until his tribunal, and potentially an annual battle if assessors continue to lack understanding of his learning difficulty.

“If it were one or two cases it could be dismissed as an honest mistake but it appears to me to reveal a disconcerting pattern of behaviour. A pattern of behaviour which indicates that the trade-off between cost-cutting and profit-maximisation is being felt by very vulnerable people.”

She was joined in her criticism by Neil Coyle MP for Bermondsey in London, who said the current system is a ‘significant waste of tax payers money’ and the Department for Work and Pensions is propping up a company ‘failing’ to deal with assessments properly the first time.

However Minister for Employment Priti Patel, said that Work Capability Assessment model was established by the Labour Government in 2008, and the system had endured ‘quite a journey’ and had undergone many reviews in that time.

She said that a number of improvements had been made since March 2015 when Maximus/Centre for Health Disability Assessment took on the contract, including the opening up of 100 regional offices for people to be assessed and the backlog of medical appraisals had dropped by 62%.

She denied that the company is inventivised by the Government for hitting targets of returning people to work and that the company does not falsify data, as Ms Haigh had claimed.

She said: “Looking at the debate holistically, we know that the Work Capability Assessment has caused many previous challenges. Yes, reforms are coming and yes, changes are afoot, but I think honorable members will agree that we cannot write off the people who, for various reasons, have not been supported into work.

“If they can work, we want to support and encourage them.”

Later this year the Government will publish a White Paper that will set out reforms to improve support for people with health conditions and disabilities.

Chancellor George Osborne has said this will look at the the roles of employers, to further reduce the disability employment gap, and Ms Patel said she is open to ‘thoughts and comments’ while the consultation period for the White Paper is underway.