Employment and Support Allowance and Work Capability Assessments - Work and Pensions Committee Contents

1  Introduction

In this text of this report, our conclusions are set out in bold type and our recommendations, to which the Government is required to respond, are set out in bold italic type.

ESA implementation

1. Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) was introduced by the previous Government in October 2008 for working-age claimants making a new claim for financial support on the grounds of illness or incapacity. It replaced Incapacity Benefit, Income Support by virtue of a disability and Severe Disablement Allowance (collectively known as "incapacity benefits"). According to DWP, ESA was designed to enable claimants "to achieve their full potential through work and to help them to gain independence from benefits" and focuses on what claimants "can do, rather than what they cannot".[1]

2. ESA is a benefit which affects the lives of millions of people. The total caseload of new ESA claims received by the end of September 2013 was 3.5 million; the total caseload for IB reassessments was 1.4 million. The latest published statistics show that there were 2.46 million ESA/IB claimants in November 2013. The monthly caseload of ESA new claims ranged between 65,000 and 75,000 in the year to September 2013. [2]

3. ESA is paid to people who have "limited capability for work" (who are placed in the Work-related Activity Group (WRAG)), and people who have "limited capability for work-related activity" (who are placed in the Support Group). The Work Capability Assessment (WCA) was introduced to determine whether a claimant falls into one of these two groups or is fit for work. It is a face-to-face functional assessment carried out by Atos Healthcare ("Atos"), a private company with which DWP has a long-standing contract for medical assessments. The process for claiming ESA is described in more detail in Chapter 2.

4. There are two types of ESA:

·  Contribution-based ESA: regardless of their income, a person can claim contribution-based ESA if they have sufficient National Insurance contributions.

·  Income-related ESA: this can be paid to a claimant on its own or in addition to contribution-based ESA if their income is below a particular level.[3]

5. In April 2011, the Government began reassessing people entitled to Incapacity Benefits (IB) to determine their eligibility for ESA using the WCA. IB migration was expected to finish by spring 2014 but its completion has been delayed by the problems affecting ESA claims which are discussed in this report.

Independent reviews of the WCA

6. Section 10 of the Welfare Reform Act 2007, the underpinning legislation for ESA, requires the Secretary of State to lay an independent report before Parliament each year for the first five years of the WCA's operation. The current Government appointed an independent reviewer, Professor Malcolm Harrington CBE, to assess the effectiveness of the WCA. Professor Harrington, an occupational health specialist, published three annual independent reviews, in 2010, 2011 and 2012.[4] In his third review, Professor Harrington noted that "whilst progress has been made there remains more to do".[5] Dr Paul Litchfield OBE, an occupational physician and Chief Medical Officer and Director of Health, Safety and Wellbeing for BT, was appointed to carry out the 2013 review and has recently issued a call for evidence for the 2014 review, which will be the final one.[6]

Background to this inquiry

7. We published a report on the Incapacity Benefit reassessment in July 2011. This highlighted a number of concerns about ESA and the WCA, and particularly about the service which claimants received from Atos.[7] It became clear to us from constituency work and extensive media coverage in the two and a half years following our report that these concerns have not yet been adequately addressed.

8. In July 2013, DWP itself identified issues with the service Atos was providing. It stated that there had been "a reduction in the quality of written reports which are produced by Atos following assessments". The Department said that this was "contractually unacceptable" and that it would "apply all appropriate contractual remedies to ensure quality and value".[8] The action to address the quality of Atos reports meant that the speed of throughput of assessments reduced, leading to backlogs in processing ESA claims. DWP then announced in March 2014 that it had agreed an early exit from the WCA contract with Atos, and that a new provider will be appointed later this year.[9] We decided that it would be timely to conduct a new inquiry into ESA, to examine the reasons for the current problems and to assess progress since our 2011 report.

  1. We announced terms of reference and issued a call for evidence for the inquiry in February 2014. We received over 200 written submissions. More than half of these were from individuals, providing personal accounts of their experience of the WCA and ESA claims process. We held five oral evidence sessions with: organisations representing people with disabilities and health conditions; the two independent reviewers of the WCA; representatives from the Ministry of Justice and the Tribunals Service, which deal with benefit appeals; Atos; and Rt Hon Mike Penning MP, then Minister for Disabled People, and DWP officials. We also held an open public meeting in Newcastle in May, which provided a further opportunity to hear personal accounts of the ESA process. We are grateful to everyone who contributed to the inquiry, particularly the individuals who took the trouble to share their experiences with us.

1   Archived DWP content, April 2010, accessed 7 July 2014 Back

2   DWP, Employment and Support Allowance: outcomes of Work Capability Assessments, Great Britain - tables, June 2014, tables 1A and 10; and DWP Statistical Summary, June 2014, Table 1.1 Back

3   Gov.uk webpage, accessed 7 July 2014  Back

4   Professor Malcolm Harrington, An Independent Review of the Work Capability Assessment - year one, November 2010, and the Government's response to Professor Malcolm Harrington's Independent Review of the Work Capability Assessment, November 2010; Professor Malcolm Harrington, An Independent Review of the Work Capability Assessment - year two, November 2011, and the Government's Response to Professor Malcolm Harrington's Second Independent Review of the Work Capability Assessment, November 2011; and Professor Malcolm Harrington, An Independent Review of the Work Capability Assessment - year three, November 2012, and the Government's Response to Professor Malcolm Harrington's Third Independent Review of the Work Capability Assessment, November 2012 Back

5   Professor Harrington, An Independent Review of the Work Capability Assessment - year three, November 2012, Executive Summary, para 11 Back

6   Dr Paul Litchfield, An Independent Review of the Work Capability Assessment - year four, December 2013, and the Government's response to the year four independent review of the Work Capability Assessment, March 2014; Fifth Independent Review of the Work Capability Assessment: Call for evidence, June 2014  Back

7   Work and Pensions Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2010-12, The role of incapacity benefit reassessment in helping claimants into employment, HC 1015, Chapter 3 Back

8   HL Deb 22 July 2013, cols WS151-52. See also DWP press release, 22 July 2013, "Hoban - taking action to improve the Work Capability Assessment" Back

9   HC Deb, 27 March 2014, cols 56-57WS Back

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Prepared 23 July 2014