13/09/2013 06:36 BST | Updated 12/11/2013 05:12 GMT

MPs Undergo Work Capability Assessments

Mental health charity Rethink challenged MPs to undergo mock Work Capability Assessments (WCA) on Wednesday, dubbed MP Capability Assessments (MPCA). The charity claims the real-life assessments, which determine whether or not someone continues to receive Employment and Support Allowance, are unfair to people with mental health problems.

The event, held at Portcullis House, gave 34 MPs - including Caroline Lucas (pictured), Andy Slaughter, Kevan Jones and Kate Green - a first-hand experience of the controversial assessments provided by Atos.

'I agree with Dick'

The MPCAs were held as part of Rethink's wider mental health campaign 'I agree with Dick', named after campaigner and carer Dick Acworth, who initiated a petition calling for re-assessments for people with mental health issues to stop until the system is overhauled. The petition currently has 13,000 signatures, towards a target of 15,000.

The assessments were designed to be as close as possible to the real thing, so MPs could get a tangible appreciation of what many of their constituents experience. MP Kate Green, who underwent the assessment, said:

"The MPs' WCA was an eye-opener - I felt powerless, rushed and confused. It brought home to me how it must feel to those going through it for real. Of course it's right we should do all we can to enable those with mental health problems to contribute fully in the workplace and to have a proper test in place to assess if they're able to. But this test is fundamentally broken and DWP should go back to the drawing board."

After undergoing their MPCA, MPs spoke directly with Acworth about why the WCA is unfair, and were asked to join the pledge to ask government to stop using WCA for mental health assessments until the system is fixed.

A backlog of blunders

The Work Capability Assessment has been plagued by controversy since its introduction in 2008 and is a continual headache for the DWP. 465,000 complaints were received about the Work Capability Assessment in 2012/2013, and new judges and tribunal staff have had to be hired to tackle the overwhelming stack of outstanding cases.

Critics say the test is especially unfair on those with mental health issues. According to Rethink, the main issues are: how medical evidence is collected, focus on self-representation, a lack of experience and training amongst WCA assessors and the frequency of reassessment. They claim those with mental health issues may find it difficult to collect the relevant documents and to articulate their problems. Assessors aren't necessarily trained in or sufficiently aware of the nature of mental health issues, and reassessments as often as every six months can cause stress and anxiety that may worsen a condition.

Mental health issues also fluctuate, meaning someone may be assessed on a day where they seem fit for work, but would fail the test a week later.

Growing awareness

The MPCA comes at a time when awareness of mental health has been growing, particularly in Westminster. A recent ONS survey revealed 20% of the UK population suffer from anxiety or depression, and MPs are no different. According to estimated data from mental health specialists Clinical Partners, out of 650 MPs in parliament, twelve are likely to be suffering from burnout and sixty-four from depression.

Last year saw a seminal Commons debate on mental health where four MPs revealed their own struggles with conditions such as depression and OCD, including Charles Walker, who was instrumental in passing the subsequent Mental Health (Discrimination) (No 2) Act.

Walker, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on mental health, has since thrown down the gauntlet to all parties to make a "demonstrable commitment" to mental health in the run-up to the 2015 general election. The group will conduct a year-long enquiry into achieving a "parity of esteem" between mental and physical healthcare from October - during which the WCA will surely come under the microscope.