Picking up an empty cardboard box, walking 200 metres, holding a pen and pushing a button. These are some of the ‘tests’ deployed by the government to assess whether someone is fit for work. They form part of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA), which was originally introduced by the Labour government in 2008, and left mostly unchanged by the coalition. The WCA currently determines who is eligible for out of work benefits, who is eligible for specialist support to help find a job, and who is expected to get a job straight away.
Delivered by French computer giant, ATOS, the WCA is now being used by the government to reassess the 1.9 million people who used to claim incapacity benefit. But sick and disabled people, as well as the organisations that support them, believe that the test is fundamentally flawed and designed solely to take people off benefits. July’s Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ programme Britain on the Sick appeared to provide the proof many have long waited for. Undercover filming at an ATOS training centre showed doctors being taught to deliver a test that even the trainer claimed was “almost unachievable” and ”toxic.” Most shocking was the trainer’s admission that assessors should be finding “just 12-13 per cent of people [eligible] for the support group.” This evidence contradicts everything the government has said about the test being fair and not driven by targets.
Right now huge numbers of people are appealing against their WCA decision and nearly 40 per cent of those appeals are successful, according to the Guardian. It highlights the inaccuracy of WCA decision-making, and calls into question the government and media’s narrative of a welfare system filled with benefit cheats.
Labour should denounce the inhuman side of the WCA and counter the government’s narrative that its welfare reforms are only weeding out the scroungers. It should tell the stories of people like Stephen Hill, a sandwich delivery man who gave up work after being referred for medical tests which revealed he had heart failure. Despite this, an ATOS assessor declared Stephen fit for work. Just 39 days later Stephen was dead. Stephen is one of over a thousand benefit claimants who tragically died last year after being told they were fit enough to get a job.
But Labour must also admit it got the fundamental design of the test itself wrong. Very few employers would agree that being able to pick a coin up off the floor or raise your arms above your head are true indicators of someone’s actual ability to work. These flaws have also been highlighted by GPs who have called for the WCA to be replaced, describing it as “inadequate” and having “little regard to the nature or complexity of the needs of long-term sick and disabled persons.”
Labour should listen to GPs and challenge the government to scrap this simplistic tick-box assessment. It should set out how it would develop a more accurate test, endorsed by medical professionals. The new test should also identify the other multiple barriers people may face in finding work, from a lack of skills, confidence or experience to inaccessible workplaces, inflexible working hours, and negative attitudes from employers.
The information gathered by this more holistic test should enable assessors to suggest a personalised package of support, including signposting or passporting individuals onto other vital services, such as social care. And because finding a job is more complicated than just measuring the impact of a health condition or impairment, the assessment should not just be performed by medical professionals. It should be carried out by a combination of professionals who understand the real lives of sick and disabled people and the barriers they face, including social workers, employment experts, medical experts and care planners.
Replacing the flawed WCA would be fairer. But it would also provide a more solid foundation for future economic recovery. Once Labour is back in government and able to deliver a plan for growth, it will need a workforce capable of resuming a productive role to meet the subsequent surge in demand. A new ‘fitness to work’ approach that understands, and helps to tackle, the social and psychological barriers disabled people face in getting back to work would better ensure that they are ready to take new jobs when they appear and can contribute to building a thriving British economy once more.