Work and Pensions Committee calls for redesign of ESA

The Work and Pensions Select Committee has this morning published the report of its inquiry into ESA and WCA, covering weaknesses of the current system, issues surrounding the WCA contract, the need for redesigning the process and not just “rebranding” it by introducing a new provider, as well as mandatory reconsiderations and appeals and suggestions for short-term, improvements. Interestingly and in line with the recommendations of the latest ESA review, the report suggests that the DWP take overall responsibility for the end-to-end ESA claims process, which would include sending to claimants the information-gathering forms and deciding whether they need a face-to-face assessment, as opposed to this being done by the provider.

The report highlights that the change in provider presents an opportunity to address some of the existing problems and suggests that the re-let contract “needs to set robust and transparent service standards for the new provider, covering issues such as accessibility of premises, appointment systems, quality of assessments, timely delivery of reports, and level of training for assessors on mental and cognitive conditions and those which are progressive and/or fluctuating”. It is also suggested that the new contract be monitored more rigorously by the DWP.

The report also recommends that the ESA undergoes an end-to-end fundamental redesign, which would cover outcomes and descriptors used in the WCA. The Committee calls for the new system to be in place by 2018, when the new contracts are expected to be tendered. An assessment of health-related employment barriers would have to be introduced now and later incorporated into the assessment of the new ESA.

Regarding operational issues, the report notes that the WCA is flawed in the sense that it frequently fails to provide an accurate assessment of the impact of the claimant’s condition on their fitness for work, while also providing “simplistic” outcomes, as it is highlighted that there exists a large number of claimants placed in the WRAG, although they are not fit for work and sometimes have a deteriorating condition. It is stressed that “the WRAG covers too wide a spectrum of claimants with very different prognoses and employment support needs”.

On reconsideration and appeals, the Committee calls for a “reasonable timescale” to be set for the Mandatory Reconsideration (MR) process, while abolishing the requirement for claimants to claim JSA instead of ESA while the process is ongoing. In addition, statistics on the impact of MR on the number of appeals need to be published as soon as possible. Finally, reasons for overturning decisions on appeal need to be communicated to the DWP and the provider to avoid repetition of similar errors.

Short-term suggestions

The report suggests a number of short-term steps to be taken to improve service and outcomes, including:

  • The DWP taking overall responsibility for the end-to-end ESA claims process, which would include sending to claimants the information-gathering forms and deciding whether they need a face-to-face assessment
  • The DWP would be deciding whether it needs further “supporting evidence” and seek this information proactively from the most appropriate health and other professionals.
  • Avoiding unnecessary reassessments and use paper-based assessments to place people in the Support Group
  • Acknowledge that the current descriptors are imperfect and communicate more clearly with claimants throughout the process, including on the effect of the decisions taken on the level and duration of support they will receive.

Commenting on the report, Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee Dame Anne Begg said: “Many people going through the ESA claims process are unhappy with the way they are treated and the decisions which are made about their fitness for work. The current provider of the WCA, Atos, has become a lightning rod for all the negativity around the ESA process and DWP and Atos have recently agreed to terminate the contract early. But it is DWP that makes the decision about a claimant’s eligibility for ESA – the face-to-face assessment is only one part of the process. Just putting a new private provider in place will not address the problems with ESA and the WCA on its own. We are therefore calling for a number of changes which can be made to improve ESA in the short-term, while also recommending a longer-term, fundamental redesign of the whole process. We hope that the new Minister for Disabled People, who was appointed last week, will respond positively to our constructive recommendations for improving the ESA process.”

In response, Minister for Disabled People Mark Harper stated: “We are bringing in a new provider and a new contract for Work Capability Assessments (WCA) to deliver the best possible service for claimants, increase the number of assessments and reduce waiting times. Since its introduction in 2008 by the previous Government, there have been four independent reviews of the WCA and a fifth is under way. We have accepted most of the recommendations and made numerous improvements. More than 700,000 people who were on Incapacity Benefit are now looking for, or making steps to return to work after a Work Capability Assessment – it is crucial that we continue this important process to ensure that people are not written off and we get a fair deal for the taxpayer.”