THE BLOG

The Telegraph, ESA and Welfare Reform

28/05/2013 12:46 BST | Updated 27/07/2013 10:12 BST

I wrote this post for Hardest Hit, and have simply cross-posted here.

Hardest Hit was pleased to see Isabel Hardman's piece in the Telegraph on ESA. Ms Hardman wrote to explain that, "Disability testing isn't working as it should - and Conservatives must have the courage to admit it." This is an encouraging stance from a right-leaning newspaper and could become the start of increased accuracy in the debate around welfare.

When one knows most of the facts around an issue, it is easy to pick out the misleading from the less misleading newspaper articles. Newspapers don't routinely cite the sources of their data, which can make fact-checking difficult. If one already knows the facts, this stage is automatically much easier. Knowing ESA as I do, it is refreshing to read an article that is not misleading in either direction.

The Work Capability Assessment for ESA has come under a lot of criticism. As we know, and Ms Hardman points out, 42% of appeals against ESA are successful. Other information exists supporting the claim that the ESA assessment process is inaccurate. The Citizen's Advice Bureau has reported high levels of inaccuracy in reports made by Atos assessors. Tribunals report that most appeals are overturned due to new oral evidence presented to the tribunal - that is, evidence that would have been available to the Atos assessor had he or she asked the right question(s). The independent Review, headed by Professor Harrington, has said that Decision Makers' decisions vary in quality and consistency.

The National Audit Office said that there are "serious questions about the quality of the overall decision-making process." A court judgement on Wednesday ruled that the current system is unreasonable to people with mental health conditions.

There are many reasons to believe that the ESA assessment process does not work; these are just some of the outcome data that suggest flaws in the decision-making process. As Ms Hardman says, the method of assessment is also unreliable. "It fails to assess, beyond someone's ability to move a cardboard box in the test room, whether they are capable of doing a real job. The activities in the test are removed from workplace realities. ... There are some simple changes that could improve the test, although they are unlikely to remedy the inherent flaw: the fact that it doesn't realistically assess a person's ability to do a day-to-day job." Unfortunately, a real-world test - realistically assessing a person's ability to do a day-to-day job - was the one thing that then Minister for Employment Chris Grayling was "absolutely unreservedly and implacably opposed to." Incorporating a real-world test has since been rejected on the grounds that there is a lack of "clear, evidence based advice" for what such a test might look like. This "inherent flaw," which most disabled organisations agree to be a flaw, appears set to remain.

Despite this, there are possibilities for improvement to the ESA assessment process. There could be more time for both the claimant and Atos to request and receive medical evidence; the questions asked of the claimant could be more relevant to the ability to work; the claimant could be provided with more space and time to fully explain the impact their condition(s) has. Other small, or less small, improvements could be made without first radically over-hauling ESA to include a real-world test.

There doesn't have to be a public collapse of faith in these tests. Although Hardest Hit amongst others may feel that the collapse of faith should already have occurred, the fact that it hasn't means there is still time for the Coalition government to get ESA right. It is vitally important: it is not just that this "distresses people who deserve better," but that it drives into poverty and worsened health people who deserve full support. A catastrophe in the welfare reform may well "be enough to prevent any government looking at welfare reform for another generation," so the Coalition must get this right.

There is potential for great harm, but there is also potential for great good. It is for us to ensure that everyone knows both what is wrong and what can be done right, to ensure justice for all the sick and disabled of this country.

Find out more on Hardest Hit and on my website, www.aidaaleksia.co.uk, where you can also get extracts from my book Why We're Not Benefit Scroungers

References:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/tribunals-statistics-quarterly-earlier-editions

Right First Time, 2012, Citizen's Advice Bureau

Social Security and Child Support Tribunal hearings: Early analysis of appeals allowed from pilot data, Nov 2012, DWP

Professor Harrington, An Independent Review of the Work Capability Assessment - year two, Nov 2011

23rd Report; Contract management of contract services, Feb 2013, National Audit Office

Work and Pensions Committee hears from Chris Grayling on migration to employment and support allowance, June 2011

Professor Harrington, An Independent Review of the Work Capability Assessment - year two, Nov 2011