Fit-for-work interviews criticised

Controversial interviews to assess whether people with disabilities are fit for work should be improved to ensure that they are treated with "dignity and respect", an independent review of the programme has recommended.

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Mike Penning, minister for disabled people, has welcomed a report into the fit-for-work assessment programme

Controversial interviews to assess whether people with disabilities are fit for work should be improved to ensure that they are treated with "dignity and respect", an independent review of the programme has recommended.

The review conducted by Dr Paul Litchfield five years after the 2008 introduction of work capability assessments registered "considerable dissatisfaction" with the process, but found that it appeared to be a "reasonable and pragmatic tool" for determining eligibility for the disability benefit ESA (employment and support allowance).

Dr Litchfield criticised the "impenetrable" jargon used in assessments and delays in the decision-making process, which he said was "not working as well as intended". He made a set of 37 recommendations to simplify the process, provide better assessments for people with mental health problems and improve claimants' perceptions of how they are treated by health-care professionals and assessors from private company Atos.

But disability charity Scope said he should have gone further, warning that disabled people have "lost all faith in this test".

Scope chief executive Richard Hawkes said: " Disabled people face huge challenges when it comes to work, such as a lack of skills and experience, confidence and even negative attitudes from some employers. The work capability assessment ignores all of this. It's a tick-box test of someone's medical condition.

"Disabled people have lost all faith in this test.

"The cost of appeals has skyrocketed, assessors have resigned in disgust, and the test has received criticism from the Public Accounts Committee and National Audit Office. We have witnessed shocking undercover footage of how Atos assessors are trained and heard horror stories of disabled people inappropriately found fit to work.

"The fitness-for-work test is broken. If the Government is serious about getting more disabled people into work, they need a test that is the start of the process that gives disabled people the specialist, tailored and flexible support they need."

Minister for disabled people Mike Penning welcomed the report, adding: " The system we inherited wasn't working properly, and as Dr Litchfield has suggested we will carefully consider his recommendations before responding to make sure we get this right for claimants - and right for taxpayers.

"We spend more than £13 billion on sickness and incapacity benefits for almost 2.5 million people of working age and we need to make sure that support goes to those who need it most."

Dr Litchfield said: " Good work is good for the health of most people and a benefits system that helps people back into employment when they have been incapacitated must be the aim of a compassionate society. An effective WCA which is fair - and perceived to be so - is important in achieving that."

Labour noted figures in Dr Litchfield's review showing that the number of claims taking more than 91 days to be processed had risen from 63% between 2008 and early 2011 to 77% by the second half of 2011 and 82% in 2012.

The party's spokeswoman for disabled people, Kate Green, said: "These new figures, which show delays in assessing whether people are capable to work increasing by 20%in the past two years, are further evidence of the increasing chaos under Iain Duncan Smith.

"We need a system that is efficient, fair, high-quality, timely and a system that gets people into work and provides the necessary support to those who cannot. Yet under this Government, with families facing a cost-of-living crisis, people are spending longer waiting to be assessed, rather than being given the support they need.

"It's time for Iain Duncan Smith to get a grip of these spiralling delays in his department and deliver a system that is fair and efficient."

Mark Lever, chief executive of the National Autistic Society, said: "This unfair system fails some of the most vulnerable people in our society - the very people it is meant to be supporting.

"Just last week the Court of Appeal recognised that the ESA assessment disadvantages people with autism, mental health problems and learning disabilities. But rather than take immediate action to remedy this, DWP has dragged its heels about improving the process.

"The assessment is fundamentally flawed. DWP must halt the mass reassessment of people receiving incapacity benefit immediately, until the process is fixed."