The role of incapacity benefit reassessment in helping claimants into employment - Work and Pensions Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Lynn Wyatt-Buchan (West Oxfordshire Citizens Advice Bureau)

Firstly, please let me say that in the main I support the welfare reform and the theory behind the proposed changes. I do recognise the need for Government to save money but feel that short-term spends to ensure this process is smooth will inevitably shorten the process, thus saving more money long term (arguably - it is not an exact science).

—  The Department's communications to customers going through the assessment and whether the information, guidance and advice provided by the Department and Jobcentre Plus is effective in supporting customers through the process.

Clients who have been in receipt of benefit for a number of years AND who have limited understanding through mental capability will with disregard the letters sent OR worry endlessly. Key groups in receipt of Incapacity Benefit who have recognised mental health issues such as anxiety/depression/learning difficulties etc could, arguably be assisted with personalised (one-to-one or suitable group presentation communication). An expensive option, but maybe one that could be achieved through volunteer organisations set-up for this sole purpose. It maybe that the same individual mentors the client through the whole process (though arguably training and therefore further expense) may be required.

—  The Work Capability Assessment including: the assessment criteria; the service provided by Atos staff; the suitability of assessment centres; and customers' overall experience of the process.

It has been proven (and backed up by the independent review - Outcomes date Nov 2010) that the present Work Capability Assessment procedure is inadequate; non reflective of clients true issues; and often found to be completely untrue when evaluated for the purpose of appeal. A key weakness being that of Atos staff and as a result the overall experience by a client who has been through the assessment. Atos professionals are felt to be removed, ill-educated and have a pre-disposed objective; to fail clients irrelevant of what issues present themselves or the evidence in hand. For physically disabled clients the process is a huge challenge on so many levels. The main one being is the lack of consideration to the variable nature of pain and the impact of repetition etc. For clients with mental health issues and learning disabilities the procedure is overwhelming and for many extremely distressing—profounded by the zero score at the end of it.

—  The decision-making process and how it could be improved to ensure that customers are confident that the outcome of their assessment is a fair and transparent reflection of their capacity for work.

There needs to be open lines of communication at every step of this process. Atos/Decision Makers/The Tribunal do not communicate adequately if at all. There is no transparent reflection because the questionnaire scoring does not reflect the true picture (always) of the issues presented by a client. Improvements may include better training and communication between the Government Assessor and the client's GP and a more involved recognition of the views of medical/professionals that have a history of involved with the client. At the moment, any evidence is disregarded and a client can be found fit for work after full support from medical consultants superior to that of the Atos assessor. There is a need for mentors for those who have recognised mental health issues. A mentor to not only ensure that the clients welfare is preserved but also that a fair picture is taken by Atos and communicated effectively to the decision maker and so forth.

—  The appeals process, including the time taken for the appeals process to be completed; and whether customers who decide to appeal the outcome of their assessment have all the necessary guidance, information and advice to support them through the process.

The appeals process is timely costly and avoidable in main cases if a full picture is taken and medical evidence taken in confidence from professionals who know the client well. The appeal process is overwhelming for clients who genuinely do have the issues that mean that they are eligible for the benefits. I do realise that the appeal successfully works to disencourage disingenuous clients - but there needs to be a balance. There is a real worry that with a present 6,000 per week caseload that the appeals services will not manage the influx of cases that are bound to ensue through the migration from IB to ESA. I do see many positives in the new WCA but with the weakness at Atos level there will inevitably be many clients that must unnecessarily go through the appeals process. The information put forward to clients needs, in many cases, to be followed up by independent professional people so that the content is fully understood. The telephone calls that have been taking place have muddled clients and actually, in some cases, been seen to encourage them to apply for JSA while on the line after misguidance by the telephone adviser - whether intentional or not - this is a serious concern with many possible negative connotations. Funding for CAB's to engage with clients throughout the migration process could help.

—  The outcome of the migration process and the different paths taken by the various client groups: those moved to Jobseeker's Allowance, including the support provided to find work and the impact of the labour market on employment prospects; those found fit for work who may be entitled to no further benefits; those placed in the Work Related Activity Group of the ESA, including the likely impact of the Department's decision to time-limit contribution-based ESA to a year; and those placed in the Support Group.

There are many positives to this proposal. I do see that the welfare state is for families/individuals who are facing hardship and there must be some methods of limiting funds going where it is not needed for life's necessities. This will take time for people to adjust to and with early Financial Capability intervention to minimise damage to household budgets could be manageable. But it needs, especially in the early stages, needs to be managed with support networks in place. £420 les per calendar month, per household can impact hugely of standard of living, especially in the current economic climate. While the principle behind this part of the reform is sound, care will need to be taken.

—  The time-scale for the national roll-out for the migration process, including the Department's capacity to introduce changes identified as necessary in the Aberdeen and Burnley trials.

With present appeals taking up to a year from lodging to outcome, it is very optimistic to assume that the migration is achievable within four years. It will be managed by date of reviews and therefore numbers involved in the process staggered, there are still adequate numbers to create huge operational issues. If the WCA is better, this would assume that Atos is completely sorted out AND ALL of the recommendations promised by the DWP to be implemented following the review (outcomes Nov 2010), and realistic numbers of appeals (in number of clients) are lodged it is still difficult to realistically envisage that the migration will be completed when there is already a massive backlog of unresolved cases awaiting outcomes. Improve the system - improve the training and all levels of the process - provided funding to quality organisations with well trained individuals to support clients (who need it) through the process and the time-scale will be reduced, but four-years?

April 2011

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Prepared 26 July 2011