23/07/2013 06:45 BST | Updated 21/09/2013 06:12 BST

What Happened to ESA?

What happened to ESA?

The government has happily been telling us that more people are being assigned to the Support Group - this has gone up from 6% to 30% - and that this shows that ESA is working better.

On the other hand, appeal success rate has moved up from 38% to 42%.

And on Monday - when the country was largely distracted by the birth of a future king - the DWP quietly slipped out the news that Atos assessments were failing to reach the required standard in 41% of their reports.

This is quite a major change. In July 2011, when the DWP submitted written evidence on this to the Work and Pensions Committee, Atos had consistently had less than 5% of their reports failing to meet the quality requirements over the previous year.

The drop in quality of Atos reports is very concerning. Given that previously we have been told that Atos was exceeding its target of over 95% meeting the quality required, what has happened to cause this severe drop in quality? Perhaps it is that the government has started to transfer current Incapacity Benefit claimants on to ESA. Since June 2011, around 40-45 000 IB recipients have been referred for an ESA assessment each month. This almost doubled the number of assessments Atos were carrying out. Perhaps the time pressure this created meant that Atos assessors were too rushed and under too much pressure to be able to carry out decent assessments.

What it means is that, as Professor Harrington recommended and disabled people and their organisations have repeatedly said, the ESA assessment process should not have been rolled out to Incapacity Benefit claimants until the assessment was working and there was capacity for the extra claimants.

The DWP says that "Claimants whose report following their assessment has not met the DWP's quality standard have been no more likely to be found fit for work, or to appeal against their decision than other claimants." They interpret this as meaning that a low-quality report "does not meant the assessment was wrong."

But what if it points to the opposite? Rather than meaning that low-quality reports are often right, perhaps it means that high-quality reports are often wrong?

The concerning issue here is that other evidence suggests it is the latter conclusion that is correct. It is often cited that successful appeals run at 42%, with some representatives achieving 70% or even 100% success rates. 60% of appeals that win originally had been awarded 0 points, so clearly the assessor and/or decision maker was missing something important. With most appeals over-turned on the basis of extra information provided verbally by the claimant, the ability of the original assessor to elicit the required information is again put to question.

What happened to ESA is that a system that didn't work was rolled-out nationwide by a government that didn't understand its own data. What happened next is that a system that still didn't work was extended to reassess all the people claiming Incapacity Benefit.

There have been improvements to ESA, and these have meant that more people have been correctly placed in the Support Group, where they need and deserve to be. But sadly there are still major issues which mean that many people who are not capable of work are being told that they are capable of work. These people are then put in the invidious position of either having no money to live on, or having to pretend that they are healthy enough to count as 'immediately available for work' as is required to claim Jobseeker's Allowance.

To retrain and re-evaluate all Atos assessors, as the DWP has required Atos to do, is a big task. To train new assessors in a different company, as the DWP has also said will occur as the DWP is procuring additional providers, is also a big task.

In the meantime sick, disabled, poor and vulnerable people are being subject to an assessment that doesn't work even when the reports are deemed of sufficient quality. These people are being put through stressful and traumatic assessments that then incorrectly deny the financial security and space to manage their health conditions that these people need. When it is added in that the reports are such low quality, would it not be worth considering that at the very least the reassessment of IB claimants is halted?